Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Walking Into It . . .
Ever since we started this journey, I have always been on the outside. Far on the outside. Like 1,500 miles on the outside. Sure, I helped to develop the plan, the mission and the philosophy for the Artists Laboratory Theatre. But I did it from the comfort of my studio in Oregon. But the implementation of the mission was being carried out on a nightly basis in Fayetteville Arkansas. Despite the briefings and the videos and the reports, there was no way I could truly understand what was really happening in the lab without actually being there and seeing it for myself. I had heard dialogue and keywords like “viewpoints,” “experimentation,” “gestalt,” “discovery,” “kinesthetic response” etc. But I didn't know exactly how it all fit. In fact, there was a really short time when I didn't understand how the entire Lab really fit. “How is this going to get us to the final production of Bombs, Babes & Bingo?” Well, yesterday I finally got my first glimpse of the Lab in action . . . and all my questions were answered.
I stepped off the plane and received a delightfully warm greeting from my cohort, Erika: co-artistic director of the Artist's Laboratory Theatre. After getting settled in her home, we headed to the theatre for the Lab. Its a blissfully intimate space but certainly equipped to handle performance. Think about every real estate office you've ever walked into, remove all the furniture and paint the walls black. That's the theatre. But on those black walls are layers and layers of writing and scrawling and graphs and diagrams of the brain and chalk phrases etc. It is a record of the last month of Lab Work. Every time the company meets they leave a visual record of what they did, what “experiments” they performed and what the results were. Its absolutely fascinating to see how the company has really dissected the issues and problems addressed by the playwright of “Bombs, Babes & Bingo”. Memory, perception of memory, does the story change if we randomly change the order of the scenes? What is Dennis' acceptable amount of loss? What happens when we engage the characters in scenarios outside of this story?
As people begin walking in, I meet and greet them individually. They don't know me from Adam and yet I have the audacity to introduce myself as co-artistic director of this theatre . . . even though I haven't been here for any of it. There turns out to be 8 of us altogether and the Lab Artists have gathered around in a circle to do their “warm-up”. Its a fascinating amalgam of movement and sound. I don't truly understand any of it. As a scenic designer, this isn't my strength. In fact, it feels slightly invasive and awkward to watch. But they don't seem to mind, so I try not to as well. And within 15 minutes we have moved on to a composition exercise called “montage”. The idea is this: take a character and explore the visual composition of 5 moments within this character's life. This could be an emotional moment or experience, or imply a happening of circumstance. Just enough info to take us from point A to point B. Alter the audience's view any way you like. Put them anywhere in the room in any configuration you want that strengthens how they perceive the visual image that you will present to them. Each performer has their own particular wants and needs for their story. Sometimes we cram into corners and sometimes they surround us. But every time the experience is unique and each story more fascinating than the first. One story was as simple as the discovery of an umbrella. Another dealt with the eccentricities of someone's fascination with a ring. Another a balloon and another a chicken. Its difficult (and somewhat ridiculous) to describe but powerful to watch.
And then we take this experiment to the next level and apply it to the story at hand. How could the performers break down each character in “Bombs, Babes & Bingo” into 3 concise and exact moments? This is the challenge put forward to the Lab Team. Break up into groups of 3 and with less than a half hour, meet this challenge. I sat back thinking it would be impossible and chaotic. But I was wrong. What resulted for me was the radical shift in my traditional approach to the text of the play. We know the text, we know the story. But how are those characters truly defined by the story? What happens when you strip the excess? Each team addressed the characters in a unique way and in so doing brought a new perspective to the story that had previously not been realized. Some humorous, some serious. But the exercise added new dimensions to work and renewed my excitement for the piece.
At the conclusion of the evening, we played a bingo game with the scenes. The Lab Team sat around together and randomly chose the order of the scenes. After reading the scene out loud, we all rated the variables. What was the level of the perceived dramatic tension of this past scene? What is the dramatic tension for each character? And on the wall, as they had done so many times before, they graphed the results next to the previous experiment. And for the first time I could see the difference, the necessity in what was going on here. There was a difference in how we perceived the order of the scenes. The story did change. Perhaps not as dramatically as one might have guessed, but it changed for me. It was at that moment that I realized we were doing something different. Something unfounded. Something wonderful. I am very much looking forward to the next evening's lab!