Jeremy's Ramblings, Babblings, and Other Pretentious Bullshit.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
So, in February, I will be directing a production of Sarah Kane's "4.48 Psychosis". It is the final play of Sarah Kane, one of England's most important playwrights. She wrote five brutal, uncompromising plays and then hung herself at the age of 28. "4.48 Psychosis" was her final play, written one week before her suicide. It is basically her suicide note, expressed in theatrical form.
Upon reading the script over a year ago, I had a revelation that I had not yet experienced. I said to myself, "I want to direct this, and I know exactly how I want to do it." I had never thought of myself as a director until then. But as I swam through the beautiful, haunting text, I said to myself, "All I'd need is one actress, one table and two chairs, and I could make this work. I just want to focus on the words and not show off by doing a bunch of unnecessary shit."
Shortly thereafter, however, I started hearing about other productions of the show popping up around the country, doing exactly what I was going against. The first was a touring version of the premiere production seen at the Royal Court Theatre in 2001. Despite being directed by someone who knew Kane personally, the production (which came complete with three actors, a video-projected streetscape and a gigantic mirror on the back of the stage) seemed counterproductive and disconnected from the text.
Still, I thought to myself, "It's not bad. Just different from how I'd do it." I started bugging the Hunger Artists Theatre about the project, mentioning it to them on an average of every other week. Soon, it was on the list of projects being considered for the 2006 season.
Then, I heard about a second touring production of "4.48 Psychosis" that was coming around. This time, it was a widely acclaimed production that came out of France. It contained only two actors this time, the first being French film star Isabelle Huppert (the second actor stayed behind a scrim, playing her psychiatrist in certain scenes). The production was notable for keeping its lead actress standing at attention, showing little emotion and making even less movement, for a long hour and forty-five minutes (the piece generally runs an hour, maybe a little longer). While the intentions were good, the lack of anything coming from Ms. Huppert (along with the only intermittent supertitles translating the French) seemed to disconnect the audience from the text yet again.
Still, I said to myself, "Okay, while that just seems silly, the director had noble intentions, and was simply doing something different from what I want to." In the meantime, we read the work in the reading series I host, the theatre secured rights to the piece and it was slotted for February 2006.
Then, just today, I read about another overstylized production of "4.48 Psychosis" in Chicago that just upsets me. The casting of no less than six actors in the piece was just the beginning of my frustration. Here are some samples from today's glowing review in The Chicago Sun-Times...
"...a production in which the audience literally encircles you at every turn, standing so close, in fact, that the pores of your skin are fully visible."
"...the audience first gathers outside the playing area that is enclosed by plastic tarps. Once inside, the play unfolds on three elevated platforms."
"There she is surrounded by a chorus of three 'Macbeth'-like witches...in hoop skirts and headdresses topped by naked baby dolls impaled on stakes."
"Allison Siple's disturbed clown costumes are inspired."
"All the while, the audience mills around these staging areas, watching as [lead actress Stacy] Stoltz rants on about swallowing pills, opening a vein or hanging from a noose."
"At two crucial moments [director Sean] Graney even has this trio call a 'time out,' during which the actors and audience are able take a much-needed break from the intensity, even sharing some tangerines."
Witches? Clowns? Tangerines? What show is this? This can't be "4.48 Psychosis", can it? This show with naked baby dolls impaled on stakes? I understand that this kind of imagery would not out of place in, say, "Phaedra's Love" or "Cleansed", but "4.48"? Really? Really?
The worst part is that the critics like it. The Chicago Sun-Times called it "startling and audacious", saying that "in director-designer Sean Graney...it has found an ideal interpreter." The Chicago Tribune called it "compelling", saying that it is "a series of bold strokes" (although they did point out "It's a bit much. There are times when Graney's production takes a theatrically jazzy way out of an exceedingly dark corner").
I am still sticking to my idea of keeping it minimal, limiting it to one woman, focusing on the text. But my mind keeps going to an observation made by Ms. Kane herself: "what is much more important than the content of a play is its form."
So what would she think of these productions? How would she feel knowing that the destructive parts of her former brain are being represented by a trio of what the Tribune described as "specters of doom dressed as punk Marie Antoinettes"? What if the content IS all the form you really need?
One of my good friends explained that the different between those productions and what I intend to do is that their theatrical gimmicks serve as a way of releasing the audience from the piece's raw, brutal power. I, however, do not want to let the audience go until the final blackout. I want them to feel the pain and tragedy of the piece, to let the words cling to them after they've left the theatre. I can't possibly be the only person who wants to do the show that way.
I think about the reading that we had of the piece. Jessica Topliff, wearing standard clothing and sitting in a chair under our fluorescent work lights, read the script, and after five months of hosting readings, I have not seen the company respond as strongly as they did to Kane's work.
So, I forge ahead, original plan intact, unfazed by the productions of others. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times said that there may never be a definitive production of "4.48 Psychosis" on stage. I hope to prove him wrong.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Hey, Broadway. C'mere. No, come here, I want to show you something. I promise it'll be cool. Yeah, come here. A little closer. A liiiiitle clooooser...
Yeah, that was me slapping you in the face. And here's why. Read these two paragraphs that I just read on playbill.com:
"The acclaimed TV series 'Designing Women,' which concerned four women who run an Atlanta design firm, may be turned into a Broadway play.
FOX News reports that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who created the situation comedy, is at work writing a play based on the Emmy-nominated series. Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Annie Potts and Jean Smart, who were the show's original co-stars, are all said to be interested in reprising their roles on The Great White Way."
Now, Broadway, I've put up with a lot from you lately. I put up with your revivals of tired over-produced shows ("Steel Magnolias", "Twelve Angry Men", "On Golden Pond", "The Odd Couple", "A Streetcar Named Desire", "Barefoot in the Park", "Sweet Charity", "The Pajama Game" and "The Glass Menagerie"...and that's just in the last two years!), I put up with your jukebox musicals featuring flimsy plots strung along by poorly arranged renditions of aritsts's canons (John Lennon, Frankie Valli, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and The Beach Boys...and that's just in the last two years!), and I put up with your laughable adaptations of film or literature ("Dracula", "Little Women", "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels", "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", "The Woman in White", "The Color Purple", "A Tale of Two Cities", "The Wedding Singer" and "Tarzan"...and that's just in the last two years!).
In recent years, you have provided the stage debuts of P. Diddy and Alicia Silverstone. You made God an Elvis impersonator and John Lennon a collage of minorities and genders. You rewrote the lyrics to "Total Eclipse of the Heart" to fit a story about vampires. You musicalized John Travolta, Kevin Bacon and Adam Sandler films. You turned Luke Skywalker into a gay dance teacher. You let Harvey Fierstein and Rosie O'Donnell play a married couple. You made such great actors as Al Pacino, Denzel Washington, John C. Reilly and Alfred Molina look undignified. For fuck's sake, you gave Suzanne Somers a one-woman show!
I always endured the torture of hearing about millions upon millions of dollars being poured into these productions because of the great work that you did in presenting original works like John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt", Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman", Michael Frayn's "Democracy" and William Finn's "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", as well as inventive revivals of "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Sweeney Todd" (which, sadly, is all I could come up with in the last two years).
But now you have gone too far. You are adapting a Delta Burke television sitcom for Broadway? Why? Tell me one good reason why. Tell me what this show could possibly do that the syndicated reruns could not. Tell me why thousands of theatregoers, when given over thirty shows to choose from (and that's not counting the shows that are playing off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway) would want to pay $75 to see a two-hour sitcom episode. Tell me why you think the one-liners and flimsy plotlines will make a successful leap from small screen to big stage. Tell me why!
And hey, since you're adapting anything and everything for the stage now, might I suggest the following ideas:
"Fear Factor! The Musical"
"Rock the Casbahs! The Clash Musical"
"Super Mario Brothers! The Musical"
"Space Mountain! The Musical"
"Entertainment Weekly! The Musical"
"Pop Tarts! The Musical"
"NyQuil! The Musical"
Go on, Broadway, adapt cold medicine into a feel-good family-friendly laugh riot! After all, you are supposed to be the theatrical mecca in all of North and South America, and instead you're now a joke. There are musical adaptations of "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Star Wars" on the Internet that are making fun of you. And the funny part is that they are as good, if not better, than most of the crap that you produce for real.
For Pete's sake, Broadway, people are watching! Get your shit together!
Thursday, November 10, 2005
I could soon be on my way to making more money from my playwriting. In my seven years of writing plays, I have received a whopping $450 for my troubles (jealous?). But I have come to realize that I have a few plays that are simply taking up space on my hard drive.
So yesterday, I sent three of my scripts to a publisher in Texas that specializes in plays for high schools. And considering how I discovered the company, I don't see why they should not accept them.
A couple of days ago, I was sitting at the Hunger Artists theater, getting ready for a rehearsal of "Little Women" (opening November 18th...shameless plug), when one of my co-stars walks up to me and drops a script in my lap. I take a look at the cover and am immediately filled with excitement.
The script is from a local playwright who specializes in comedies that are the theatrical equivalent of a Pixi Stik. His scripts are lack any sort of theatrical weight, his characters are devoid of any human qualities and his plot devices are unoriginal.
Now, don't get me wrong. I appreciate a good stage comedy. When done expertly, "Arsenic and Old Lace", "Noises Off" and "Play It Again, Sam" can come across wonderfully on stage (although I'm still convinced that, no matter who is involved in the staging, "The Odd Couple" was, is and always will be a puddle of foamy emu poop). However, this particular playwright (who considers himself a trained professional) still has a lot to learn about how to construct a tight comedy.
My excitement over receiving this gift derives from my guilty pleasure toward so-bad-they're-good entertainment. Plays and movies filled with lame jokes, miscasting, awkward direction and cheesy effects are my bread and butter. There's something almost endearing about "Troll 2", "The Wasp Woman" and "Girl in the Gold Boots" in the way that they fail so miserably in attempting to be a substantial work of horror/comedy/drama.
This particular script involves one of the most tired plot devices of the last century or so: The "Freaky Friday"-style switcheroo. This reincarnation of that old chestnut involves two faculty members of a high school faculty (one a psychologist and one a music "specialist") switching places for one school year (the name of the school is Benedict Arnold High School. Oh, the wit!). And when this happens, to quote the back of the script, "Chaos reigns!"
Now, I would like to personally issue a proposal that, in the world of theater, chaos stops reigning, wacky fun stops ensuing and zaniness stops happening. At least in the plot synopses. I think it's pretty evident that if two teachers switch places, a troupe of actors try putting a show together without their leading actress or a man with a funny accent moves into your house, that things will not be normal. In fact, if you're watching a play at all, things should not be normal.
I would now like to present you with a few choice dialogue samples from the piece. *AHEM*...
RUFUS: If you two gentlemen change places and pull it off for one school year, I'll give you $500,000.
THORPE: You usually have one or two fabulous tales to tell. What is it this year? Did you kidnap the Princess Hanakalua from a remote Pacific island?
BENTLEY: Boy, you've got violinist's hands!
PETER: Is it contagious?
BENTLEY: She's pouring something into a gourd.
ALVIN: You're out of your gourd!
COUNSELOR: Say, Mr. Cooper, my son will be graduating from high school next year and is interested in psychology. I want him to study where you did. Where did you get your training?
BENTLEY: Juilliard School of Music!
HEPHZIBBAH: Everyone in the rest room I was in was a man. How did they all go into the wrong rest room?
There are the two men, one nervous and jumpy, the other care-free and outspoken (an odd couple, indeed). There are the trophy wives, who serve the play only to discuss their husband's problems (and whose big scene takes place outside, that's right, a hair salon). There's the principal's wife (the absurdly-named Hephzibbah), who is so near-sighted that she has to literally walk right behind her husband to see him. There's the waiter at the posh Martinique's Restaurant, who has nothing better to do than stroke his moustache and eavesdrop on our character's conversations. There's the rich, eccentric uncle who travels around the world and undoubtedly wears a monocle.
Then there are the number of faculty and students (who are so unbelievable that, in real life, other students would accuse them of being narcs) who haven't seemed to notice that two of their teachers have dressed up like each other and switched places. Why is it that minor characters in chaos-reigning comedies have to be so stultifyingly stupid to the point where you expect them to start drooling?
And just when I thought I was home free from the pool of banality that I was swimming in, the last sentence of the last page kicked the crap up a notch: "All four of the characters look at each other, then to the audience--wink." It ends with a wink! A fucking wink!!! The only way to make it worse would be if they all did a Toyota jump and froze in mid-air!
I set the script down on my lap and realized that I had not read a script this horrible since my sophomore year of high school when I was in Craig Sodaro's audience participation mystery spoof "Touchtone M For Murder". It's that bad, ladies and gentlemen!
However, when I decided to research the publisher that would actually print a play this horrible, I found that they specialized in high-school-appropriate plays. I thought back to my high school drama department in northern Idaho, which was simply laughable. Our resources and budget were miniscule, our talent limited and our productions innocuous and lacking in any sort of ambition. Not exactly the kind of nurturing environment for someone who wants to spend a life in theatre (we did do a just-this-side-of-legal production of "Cats" my junior year, but even then, my choir teacher and I had to sidestep past the drama department to get that show done).
I thought about how my school would struggle just to find a quality piece of entertainment that would meet with the ultra-conservative standards in that reddest of all red states. I remembered how we would get stuck doing pieces like the one I had just read.
And I thought about some of the lesser play scripts that I had written. There were plenty of harmless, humorous one-acts that I wrote as a teenager. I also recently wrote a low-budget adaptation of "Taming of the Shrew" for Brey's high school (which they ended up not using). Slight, but amusing, entertainment. I didn't have any plans to shop those scripts out to local theaters. So why not put them on the market so that a high school drama department like the one I had could perform them?
After all, wouldn't it be nicer for them to do a show that's funny and family-friendly, but from a writer who is closer to their age than the other playwrights? And whose plays don't suck as bad as the one that I read?
So, yeah, I could soon be headed to a high school play catalog near you!
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
What makes a celebrity? I was thinking about this recently when reflecting on the time three months ago when Ellen Degeneres visited my work. Production completely halted (except for one certain title analyst who wanted to seem indifferent) and everyone was clamoring to get noticed by America's favorite lesbian.
One of the people that Ellen ended up latching onto was a woman who I have lunch with every day (who we'll call Edith, mainly because I'm listening to Edith Piaf right now). Edith was shown on Ellen's show and was interviewed for the company magazine. And now Edith is approached constantly by people in our office who saw her on television. She is now one of the most recognizable faces at my workplace.
Edith has, in her own small way, become a celebrity.
What constitutes a celebrity, anyway? Is it people who don't know you recognizing you? Is it being seen by millions of people nationwide? If that is the case, then a big celebrity (Ellen) hath begat a small celebrity (Edith). True, Edith's fifteen minutes have passed (and talking to her about it, that's as long as she wanted it around), but she is no longer Edith. She is Edith, The Woman Who Was On "Ellen".
I used to think that celebrities were those who had made it in the entertainment industry. But fame is much more wide-spread. Tom Brady is a celebrity. Karl Rove is a celebrity. Charles Manson is a celebrity. To me (and others who follow Orange County theater) Mark Coyan and Jay Fraley are celebrities. To the people at work, Edith is a celebrity.
With all of these people, plus reality show contestants, game show hosts and informercial stars, the term "celebrity" really doesn't have the luster that it used to.
In an unrelated topic (remember the days when I used to transition between two unrelated topics with a very thin thread? Those were the days), my roommate Allan, who knows a little bit about nearly everything, introduced me to the work of a Czechoslovakian stop-motion animator named Jan Svankmajer. Mr. Svankmajer is like a Luis Bunuel or Salvador Dali with clay, commenting on the oppressed and the poverty-stricken through his surreal, humorous satire.
My favorite of the works I witnessed was simply called "Food". In three vignettes (appropriately titled "Breakfast", "Lunch" and "Dinner"), a man eats breakfast only to be turned into the same dumb-waiter he took food from, two men eat everything at the table except for food, and a crowd of people eat their own body parts after beautifully decorating them. It is very funny, remarkably inventive and (considering the way he combined real people with clay duplicates) amazing to watch. To watch the heads and mouths of real people be stretched and squished to impossible sizes, only to return to normal, takes on almost a grotesque sort of humor.
Watching the films of Jan Svankmajer and Buster Keaton (who I became re-obsessed with after seeing "all wear bowlers") have made me realize that I want the theatre and films that I make to exist in an alternate reality. It doesn't have to be as weird as people eating tables or doing pratfalls. Just something that exists in a parallel dimension.
It seems that the best entertainments as of late occupy this world. "Sin City" is a recent example, as is the play "Princess Marjorie". Hell, even "Batman Begins" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" exist in an alternate reality where men can fight crime in rubber bat suits and friends can randomly burst into a Twyla Tharp-style sing-along of "Aquarius".
Basically, I think my writing is no longer concerned with the real world how we know it. Like Constantine says in Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull", "Life must be represented not as it is, but as it ought to be; as it appears in dreams."
And who knows? Maybe this kind of writing will finally make me a celebrity.