Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The sound of magic

Snow Day Shickshinny, PA by Jamie Grace-Duff 2003

      When I call a play a magical play, it feels like this picture to me. Plays that I have loved, like truly and deeply loved down to the bone squeezed every particle out of them and they still take my breath away plays, they are like this. There is a quietness to them. Perhaps it is literally because there is space between all the words, moments of magic in between the talk talk talk, there are pauses where amazing incredible things without words happen. I felt it in 36 Views by Naomi Iizuka - that there were these huge momentous things happening, but happening minutely and silently - like the first green things pushing out of the mud and snow in Spring, like buds on trees so tightly bound and slowly, so achingly slowly bursting forth with green leaves. At the Vanishing Point also by Naomi Iizuka remains one of the most magical plays I have ever experienced and so much of it was silent - just bodies in space and lights and shadows and us choosing to see it. It is there when I read Babel Project by Greg Romero, these long pauses between words where music and motion happen. And I want to read more, more things that are like these things. I thought I had discovered a trick. If I flip through the pages of a script and see no breaks between names and words, then I know there isn't any room for magic. That is not to say that it is not an incredible story, that it is not another Proof or Rabbit Hole, but it is not a play like seeing seeing nature's calligraphy drawn out on snow.
    And then a voice whispers to me that this is how I write plays. Of which there are only two, but both plays contain this feeling of quietness and these large moments of story in between the words. I think this is significant and important, although I cannot think what it is I would want to write. But like I recently discovered in my theatrical work, if I am not being offered the work I want to do, then I must provide it myself. Perhaps I need to write these plays so others can have a space to play and expand. Another theatrical role that I never thought I would play. If it scares me, then I have to do it! Impossible, you don't scare me.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Reading Plays Part 2

Here is the follow up to my previous post about plays I've been reading.

Next up on the list: Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill. During my last year at Temple University, we produced Top Girls, also by Churchill. I thought Top Girls was an odd play, it starts so completely differently from the rest of the story and ends rather abruptly. There was much talk about the way Churchill writes language and her portrayals of women. This made me curious about other plays by her. There is the obvious choice of Cloud 9, but I wanted something different, and Vinegar Tom seemed to fit the bill. It is a story about witches, and an eventual witch hunt, but Churchill seemed to go out of her way to show how many acts of women can be seen as "witchcraft." In between each scene (of which there were many) was a song whose lyrics were much more modern in language than the seeming time period of the story. Overall, I was just confused about the relationship of all these elements - the many characters and story lines, the songs with modern lyrics and then the extremely odd final scene that, once again, abruptly ends the play. While there could be an argument that this is a design play, just because something takes place in a period does not make it an inherently design oriented play. I just didn't feel like I was given much to play with.

Then I read Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. His name is one I have heard bandied about, although I couldn't tell you exactly what it was connected with, other than I knew he was a writer of plays. This play was sharply written. Within 2 pages I was sucked in, even though I knew I was on a slippery slope that was going to end in tragedy. Yes, it is not a "design" play, but damn, every single moment, every single WORD was important and related back to something else or lead to things to come. Not one thing spared, not one excess. I know there are many who will argue, but Proof by David Auburn is such a play - a perfect play where every word is important and there is no fat to be trimmed. Rabbit Hole was like that. And it is a play that haunts me a little bit each day when I am having a tantrum off with my 3 year old. This play made me laugh, smile, cry, tense, shocked me, and etc. And then I was mad at the play because it was so perfect and it didn't need me, a designer of any stripe, to exist at all. But there it is, I have admitted out loud to liking multiple plays that are just talk talk talk.

For a change, I thought I'd read Venus by Susan Lori Parks.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Topdog/Underdog and was curious to see other work by her. I read several scenes in Venus and I admit to just being confused. I have no idea what I was reading or how it was to work as a play etc. I gave up rather quickly and have not had the desire to go back. Not good news for a play. Other suggestions for Susan Lori Parks plays?

Ruined by Lynn Nottage was my next choice. Intimate Apparel is a costume designer favorite because you get to make lots of corsets and other fun things, but I didn't want to read the play everyone knows. When I mentioned to several people I was going to read Ruined they made odd faces and hedged a bit, saying only, tell me your thoughts after reading it. So I went into the reading a little hesitant, but quickly found myself unable to put the book down. I would read a few pages and then go off to do other work and then find myself wondering what the different women might be doing, what might happen next, until I couldn't stand it and just had to stop everything and gobble the story up whole. I found it real, and raw and honest and heartbreaking. The copy I read had director's notes in it from a recent production and I found myself once again in that awkward spot, feeling like this is an important story to be told, but so incredibly foreign to me, how could I ever produce it or design it, it would never be "right". Ahh, there were some lovely symbolic moments throughout the story while all around violence threatened and you could always sense that tension. I can't imagine what that would be like on stage. I encourage you to read this play. 

As a reprieve, I read Dead Man's Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl. If you are unfamiliar with the story, you might wonder why it was a reprieve, but Dead Man's Cell Phone is actually quite a comic play with moments of mystery and magic sprinkled throughout, not at all as morbid as the title suggests.  I will admit to cheating with this play as well. I had seen a production of the play a few years ago and was curious to see how these Sarah Ruhl magical moments are written on the page. Naomi Iizuka's plays can have paragraphs poetically describing the moment in between words in her plays. Some of Greg Romero's plays are almost entirely written in stage direction, or at least not in verbal dialogue. The book of the play was small, which should have been my first clue. And then suddenly, there was magic on the page. "Embossed stationery moves through the air slowly, like a snow parade. Lanterns made of embossed paper, houses made of embossed paper, light falling on paper..." So simply written, so incredibly vivid and magical and amazing. Like haiku poetry. A designer's dream text. "And then there is a cell phone ballet". Amazing. So much in so little. I began to notice something while I was reading this play. It felt...quiet. I stashed that thought away for later.

The last play I have read was Dutchman by LeRoi Jones. The mention of this play also got lots of reactions from folks, and the blurb on the back says that this play is" shocking - in language, ideas and anger." I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. And then I was pleasantly surprised by the time and care Jones took in setting up the stage. While perhaps the play could be done with 2 chairs placed anywhere, he felt it was important to clearly show a subway car moving and stopping on a line. We are introduced to a man, and then a rather forward woman. My own experiences and prejudices suggested that this man was going to act outrageously, and I was quite surprised when it was the woman who acted so violently. Perhaps the story was shocking in 1964, but now I feel like similar stories happen all the time. And maybe we should be shocked by them. My take away was surprise that even with such important subject matter, the playwright took the time to set the scene for us and even elaborated on how it evolved with the story, the train car getting larger and larger as the scope of the story grew. I very much enjoyed it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

About some plays I've Read

Way back at the beginning of the semester, when I thought I couldn't design costumes without a script, I sent myself on a play reading adventure. Reading plays is hard work for me. I have to consciously read them - I have to hold lots of information in my head in a three dimensional space (that I also created in my head) and I have to keep track of characters who may not be talking but might still be in the scene or significant props that have been brought on or off. Lots of things to think about. I can blow through a book in no time flat, but reading a play takes me FOREVER. So, it is not pleasure reading, but more like work. But that is ok. I need more work to do. I wanted newer plays that might offer me some design challenges. Jackie Goldfinger had posted a possible reading list for a class she was teaching that had lots of contemporary playwrights/plays so I thought that was a good place to start and I branched out from there.

Penn State Altoona's Library is significantly lacking in the new play department. Perhaps this is not shocking news to others, but I was disappointed. I did the best I could. I managed to find The Mountaintop by Katori Hall and 26 Miles by Quiara Alegria Hudes.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Mountaintop. After I got the play home, I realized why it seemed so familiar to me. It was the play everyone was talking about in Philly because PTC was still running it while their stage crew was on strike. The story was much more shocking that I would have expected from a "biopic" sort of story. Especially one about Martin Luther King, such an icon of proper behavior and peace. The language felt modern, but not out of place. While it is mostly a talky play, there were a few moments of magic between the words for designers to play with. Overall, I enjoyed it, even though I didn't think I would. So I would say that is a win for the play.

26 Miles was harder to get into. I had to really push myself to stick with it. Lots of people standing around talking, and arguing, and arguing in Spanish. Sigh. But I pushed through and suddenly I was on an epic road trip to find a young woman's significant moment. My favorite moment was when the mother and daughter would write something in a notebook, tear out the page and then throw it out the car window, letting the page twirl around and disappear behind them. Now THAT gets my designer/director brain revving. Because I want to SEE that happen. I don't want to skip over it in production as "too hard". Readers will remember that I like the impossible. So that was a pleasant surprise in the play.

I got a little more brutal after that. I had the anthology New Playwrights The Best Plays of 2001. Perhaps the title set itself up for disappointment, but hey I was hopeful. The anthology opened with 36 Views by Naomi Azuka. I will admit to some cheating here. I chose 2001 because I recognized Auka's name and I am already familiar with her work both on the stage and on the page. 36 Views was magnificent. A wonderful blend of technical elements coming together to tell the story. They were perfectly integrated. The story could not be told without them. Ahh, so beautiful and lyrical. I very much enjoyed it.
Then Chagrin Falls by Mia McCullough. The premise seemed good - perspectives on people in a town where the main industries are Death Row and the Meat Packing Plant - killing and killing. Page after page after page of people just talking. No one doing anything, no real conflict. I chucked it, onto the next.
Music From a Sparkling Planet by Douglas Carter Beane. Perhaps this play had an unfair advantage as it was set in the Greater Philadelphia area, and it also seemed to speak to Generation X or so. Or maybe I am just making excuses because the play sucked me in and I don't want to admit it. And suck me in it did. At first it is 2 stories - one set in the past and another in the now. And then slowly, the stories start to blend in and out of the other. These "loser" Gen Xers decide to go on a quest to rediscover this icon of their past and I was right there cheering them on the whole way as they drove to Wildwood and then returned to Philadelphia to attack the broadcasting company. I cried tears while reading this play. I can't tell you the last time that happened (or even it has EVER happened!). And this play was mostly a people sitting around talky play. But yet I cried.
Following that heartwarming tale was Diva by Howard Michael Gould. I read a few scenes from this before bodily resisting the urge to throw the book across the room. The scenes that I read were dominated by a nasty diva woman who just manipulated and trashed everyone around her moment after moment after moment. I spent more time trying to figure out the motivation of the play than actually reading the words. We have all experienced this personality in person, why would we need to sit through 2 hours of a play to see it reenacted before us? Ok, I react very viscerally to this woman, is that the playwright's intent? That he got a reaction out of me? Great. So I hate a woman who is despicable, what have I learned? And sure, maybe there was a significant turn around for her character later. That she was so much more noble because she was soooo rotten earlier. I don't know because I never got that far. I didn't feel like I needed such toxic language and behavior in my life.
I started another play, Be Aggressive by Annie Weisman. I think it was about cheerleaders. Someone's mother had died recently. Page after page and the story wasn't going anywhere and once again, just lots of people standing around talking. Don't really need a designer here. I skimmed the last play, yep, just more talk talk talk.

And then I just got angry. You see I know lots of playwrights and really, THESE were the BEST plays of 2001!? Really!? Because I, I want to hedge here, but I will say it, I hate them. I really really hate them. What is NEW about these plays? What is different, special, unique, the BEST!? Argh! As a designer, I want to be important to a story, integral, a cog that makes the wheel turn. These plays did not really offer me that opportunity.

On a recent visit to a friends house, I discovered his treasure trove of plays and just grabbed a bunch of things that spoke to me. I will post separately about them. Meanwhile, if you have suggestions of plays that won't work without design, please share them with me! I'd love to read and learn more.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Playing from Space


I don't remember how I encountered Chris Hadfield's images of Earth from the Space Station, but I saw a few posted and clicked through to his Twitter feed where hundreds more of his images are posted. They are incredible images for many reasons - the colors, the perspectives, the detail as well as the massive scale...I could go on and on. I saved a few that I liked knowing they would help me in some way in the future. Today I once again had the itch to just draw, to make something out of nothing, to scribble, and so I stared at these images, rotating them around and around, vaguely crossing my eyes like trying to view a Magic Eye and I just played. I think I might do it again, but this time with water color. I might play with watercolor. I apologize if the world just stuttered for a moment there, see, watercolor and I, we don't get along, but I think that it is the correct medium for this experiment. And it is taking a lot for me to admit that, and to also WANT to do it. Grrr watercolor, I will best ye yet!

The Chris Hadfield images and the...things that they inspired:



Monday, February 25, 2013

A Willow Tree

Early in my residency in Altoona, I reached out to a fellow theater artist and educator, looking for a dialogue with a colleague. Greg Romero is an artist, writer, creator, human who challenges me all the time, and I greatly appreciate his honesty and his questions. Greg shared one of his scripts with me, The Babel Project, curious to see what it might spark. This play, this piece of theater, is huge and spectacular and curious and challenging. Developed with Mike Vernusky, it is "electro-theater" and reading it on the page it is amazing how much of the story is sonically transmitted. Now, as a maker of things in fabric, this is interesting, if not a little frustrating.

First the interesting part - What can I learn about this play's structure that I could use to create a new work that focuses on another sense, such as touch? I will admit that only upon writing this blog post has this idea floated to the surface, so it is going to take some more exploring. But I think it is a good and important lesson to take from this script.

Second, finding the visual within the text. And it was there, sprinkled throughout, these beautiful visual moments that I could just sense - in scale, in texture - in the lovely colored amorphous blobs that are my imagination (meaning non specific undefined things that I understand, the way you understand dreams, but there are not words or drawings that can express them, they either are or are not). One specific moment begged to be real. I think that perhaps it could be overlooked in a production, or glossed over because of "technical difficulties" which of course means that I had to figure out a way to make it real. You know, that solving the impossible thing.

The words, from Greg Romero (shared with his permission):

           What are you smiling at?

                                                            WORKER 3

                                                            WORKER 4

                                                            WORKER 3

                                                            They stare at each other for a long moment.

                                                            WORKER 3
           Weeping willow.

                                                            WORKER 4

                                                            WORKER 3

Worker 3 unbuttons his shirt, and turns his back to her, revealing a giant, colorful, weeping willow carved into his back.

She hesitates, then gently traces her finger across the image.

             Who did this?

                                                            WORKER 3
             You did.

A giant weeping willow scar, carved onto someone's back. My mind raced, how old was this scar? How was it carved? What would the scars look like? Or is it still fresh? How would you create it? At first I was hung up on the technical details, I have to go buy liquid latex, and what release should I use? What make-up kit should I order? Should I wear it myself or get someone else to model it? And then I realized I was going too far. This residency has been about play, about doing, about making stuff just to see. And the clay was already in my house. And that was the first step, latex or not. 

My clay is over three years old and I underestimated the amount of elbow grease it was going to take to reanimate it. I am still sore almost a week later. I don't like sculpting. It makes me feel like my hands are made of thumbs and that all my great visions get translated through a preschooler before getting to my hands. Yes I know, practice makes perfect. Yes I also know that I need to remember this humbling bumbling feeling because this is what I am asking my students to do each time I ask them to draw something. Regardless, I pushed myself through, rolled out the clay, built up the spinal cord, smoothed out the surfaces...and then I slashed at it with a steak knife, HARD. That was a moment. Someone did this to another person, deliberately cut open their skin to make these marks. It is easy. It is very very hard. Swallow. Breathe. Ok. Just clay. Not real. What would it feel like with muscles resisting underneath? The bones in the spine? The image was carved and I could release my mind from asking the questions. The "carving" wasn't perfect. I wasn't really going to get a "second chance" on that so I decided to let it go. And then I started playing with the scars. I tried not to get too hung up on details (no excessive visual research online) I just went with my own research, the accidental scars of my youth that I carry and tried to extrapolate onto a larger scale. 
The images are below:

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A little bit of context

So, I did some drawings today and yesterday. This in and of itself is a victory, as I never choose to draw. But this time I chose to draw, and you know, it wasn't so bad! However, the drawings are for a show and I haven't really shown them to the director yet, so I feel like I shouldn't share them here first. In lieu of art, I thought I would back up here on the blog a little bit and give some more context to what I have been thinking, dreaming, reading, scheming etc.

I moved to Altoona, PA to work as the Emerging Artist in Theatrical Design at Penn State Altoona. However, I am not designing their Spring show. So...I was sort of left on my own to "do my work" whatever that might be. With little inspiration and no map, I spent a lot of my time reading. Heavy artsy reading. I started with The Dramatic Imagination from Robert Edmund Jones. This man was a theater artist - a designer of all things, not just sets or lights or costumes. And the things he designed, they speak to me with such clarity of intent and style. He was also working at a time when theater was embroiled in Naturalism and struggling to make a change. Some quotes I collected in my journal:

The Seven Princesses. Design by Robert Edmond Jones


The artist should omit the details...and give us only the spirit and the splendor.

That man is playing the part of a beggar. We know he is not a real beggar. When we look at him we recall all beggars we have ever seen or read about. And all our ideas of misery and helplessness and loneliness rush up in our imaginations to touch us and hurt us. The man is in rags. If he wore ordinary rags we wouldn't look at him twice. As he stands there or moves about we are reminded of great paintings - like those of Manet. We are looking at something theatrical; these rags have been arranged - "composed" the painters call it - by the hand of an artist. We feel, rather than see, an indescribable difference. These rags have some how ceased to be rags. They have been transformed into moving sculpture.

Many of the costumes I design are intentionally somewhat indefinite an abstract. A color, a shimmer, a richness, a sweep.

The first entrance of the heroine. It does not say "she wore a taffety petticoat or a point lace ruff"; it says, "she came in like starlight hidden in jewels"
(I cannot tell you the last play I read where things were described as thus! Oh how I miss it! Please share with me if you know of plays/wrights that are so magical - I take that back. Inspired by such words, I asked Philadelphia Playwright Greg Romero if he would share any of his work with me, because my past experiences of his work have been of magic, music and the impossible. He did share some work with me, and I am currently wrestling with it. More to come)

To ask why did that artist do that thing in that particular way instead of some other way? Is to take the first step toward true creation.
(This quote inspired me to take stock of the things that inspire me and to try to discover why those artists do those things in that particular way. This lead me to reading more about how/why Issey Miyake works as he does, why Schaparelli was not content fitting in, why Cappucci created such dynamic shapes)

We must take the little gift we have into the hall of the gods.

I have many many more notes in my journal, but these are the key ones that stuck, that floated about and challenged me into action. Into reading more, asking more, risking more. I will share quotes from the other designers in another post. For now, I leave you with REJ and his words.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Floating Poems

Thumbprint portrait by Cheryl Sorg
Months ago, someone shared this link on Pinterest, and it caught my eye.
 I really liked the colors and the thought that, given enough time, I could recreate something similar.

The Odyssey by Cheryl Sorg

 I followed the link to Cheryl's etsy store, and came across this interesting piece. It is the entire Odyssey swirling across tape. Something started brewing in the back of mind - something about words and stories and fabric and strings.

By Jamie Poole

Today on the Colossal Blog (which is really awesome in its entirety, you should follow it!) they posted Shredded Poetry Portraits by Jamie Poole, and I thought to myself, this is the Universe sending me a message. So, there is something out there, something about strings of words together. Something about fabric and stories. I don't know what it is yet, but I'm work on it!