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.