Sunday, October 24, 2010

October in New Play Development

I participated in two different workshop/development processes for different theatres in October. Some thoughts:

The Buzz Festival at Theatre Passe Muraille

I ushered the Thursday performance of this festival, which is run three times a year, and presents two to four short pieces of work a night, accompanied by musical interludes. The pieces can be from 15 to 45 minutes, from work finished that afternoon as an idea of a play to a portion of a nearly polished longer play. The audience is given questionnaires, developed by the playwright, to gauge their response to relevant questions about the piece. Later, at the reception at the theatre bar, the audience is invited to mingle with the artists and talk.

There are many positive aspects to this kind of playwright-audience interaction. The traditional talkback, while generally useful, and almost always better than no feedback at all during development, is tricky. Unlike the safely anonymous question pad, it has the interesting quality of putting both artist and audience on the spot simultaneously. The audience feels pressured to ask questions and give verbal feedback, and the artist is required to listen and justify in a way that can often feel like a defense against an onslaught. To give an example, I attended a talkback approximately four years ago where the first question to the playwright (whose play had recently been shortlisted for the Pulitzer) was, "So tell me why your play is so good." There was no good reply to this pointlessly combative question, but it came dangerously close to setting the evening's tone. My favourite talkbacks always involve the dramaturg or moderator soliciting questions or comments on paper, vetting them, and asking the most interesting ones. However, this has the danger of shielding the playwright from difficult questions. Having the playwright ask questions, which are then responded to honestly but with a sense of polite remove because they are on paper, seems to solve all problems nicely. The reception chat is the best way to add the missing social interaction on top of these questions, because it lets people with strong responses or interests talk to the artists in a relaxed setting, where there is little pressure on either end and interaction is more comprised of mingling than awkwardness.

Other things I liked about the evening: it was nice to have a musician to provide both interludes for commenting as a palate-cleanser and to add a different art to the evening. The pianist included his own questionnaire, which was interesting to think about, even if the questions weren't particularly specific. This begs the question of whether an audience of diehard theatregoers is as effective at commenting on music as theatre. On the other hand, the idea behind audience commentary is to hope that audience members have a different range of experience with the subject, because a homogeneous sample doesn't lend itself well to determine results in any kind of survey. Theatre audiences are, admittedly, a bit of a self-selecting group, particularly audiences that go to readings and developmental presentations. However, ideally, the only thing all audience members have in common is that they enjoy theatre. There are all sorts of personal, experiential and cultural differences people bring to the table; otherwise, theatre reviews wouldn't diverge so drastically. So the audience experience with the music, or theatre, parts of the evening is all valid regardless of background.

However, there is one problem with this aspect of the festival. In my mind, the ideal talkback has two facets; audience response and dramaturgical analysis. A dramaturg will talk to the playwright and help determine germane questions, often ones the playwright might not think of, because the dramaturg is an outside reader of the script and can view it with some distance, according to their own reaction. After questions are answered, a dramaturg helps deal with the answers, figuring out how to interpret the response into constructive advice. It's nice to combine an audience reaction, which is often immediate and visceral, with the more measured response of a dramaturg. This is not to say that any individual audience member can't be as insightful as a production dramaturg (many are probably dramaturgs themselves), only that a dramaturg is closer to the process and is usually a useful extra critical eye. The Buzz Festival is missing this dramaturgical aspect, and I felt that some of the questions that were asked could have been refined, and there were others that needed to be asked that weren't. It's crucial that the playwright get to ask the questions that she or he wants answered; I just felt that a dramaturg-driven part of the process was missing. (I may be biased.)

I loved that the three pieces we saw that evening were clearly at different stages in development. It added interest to the evening and resulted in different kinds of questions being asked by each writer, from "where do you see this unfinished scene going?" for a very new scene that was the only written piece of the play so far, to "are you able to discern separate characters in this one-person show based on writing and staging clues?" and more deeply interpretive thematic questions based on a more finished piece.

Native Voices at the Autry

This past week, I acted as a reader for Native Voices at the Autry, an arts complex in Los Angeles. This play development program is a nurturing environment for Native American writers, which since 1999 has produced at least 80 workshops, play readings and fully produced plays starring Native American actors. I really enjoyed reading and commenting on the plays I received, and was thrilled to be issues a standing invitation to continue to read for them in future submission cycles. I can't talk about any of the plays specifically, but what a host of exciting voices, with all sorts of influences, from specific cultural references to what is more traditionally referred to as "the canon." It's an unfortunate thing that there aren't more Native American stories, both traditional and modern, enshrined in the American canon (most of the plays I read offered some degree of traditional/modern fusion). It's too bad that, within an art form that so often gives voice to the marginalized, we have groups that are still so underrepresented. I always wonder, when faced with a culturally-specific mandate, if writers feel pressured to focus on certain themes. (The group of plays I read were certainly nothing alike in topic or style.) In any case, I admire The Autry's commitment to Native writers, and I admire the thought-provoking and entertaining work that the writers produce. I can't wait to see what they choose to develop this year.

I hope to eventually post my thoughts on Nuit Blanche and The Clockmaker at Tarragon. The combination of my new job, and my first choir and handbell performances of the season coming up, are certainly keeping me busy!


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Theatre Passe Muraille review: Hard Times

Adapting a Charles Dickens novel to the stage is often a Herculean task, even if one isn't attempting to musicalize it. The last Dickens adaptation I was able to see in Toronto was the Chichester Festival Theatre's 2008 production of David Edgar's adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which was more than six hours long, having been cut down significantly from its original nine-hour incarnation. Even then, there were gaps and nuances that could not be covered, because Dickens' novels are so full of character and incident. So to fit all of Dickens' Hard Times into a two-hour production is no mean feat; especially to do it with puppets.

Dickens and puppets seem to be a match made in heaven, and here is why: Dickens' stories are rich and full of life, but so many of his characters are archetypes, caricatures - in a good way, for thematic emphasis and stakes-raising conflict between good and evil. It's made obvious in Dickens' gleeful names; surnames like Gradgrind, McChoakumchild, Cheeryble, Skimpole, and Dedlock abound in his work, leaving no doubt as to the essence of the named character's being. Puppets and masks are fantastic ways of emphasizing and playing with particular character traits, as features can be exaggerated and frozen effectively. Theatre Passe Muraille's production, adapted and directed by Chris Earle, a collaboration between night kitchen and Puppetmongers (brother and sister David and Anne Powell, in this production joined by Anand Rajaram), features some wonderfully inventive ways of storytelling.

Dickens' novel tells the tale of the harsh life in industrial Coketown, where children are taught to learn and lead an emotionless life based solely on facts by professor Gradgrind, and a utilitarian model reigns that results in letting people starve to death as long as it isn't too high a percentage of the population. Gradgrind's daughter Louisa is ruined by the former "ideal," sacrificing love and happiness for a marriage that is essentially a business transaction, while mill worker Stephen Blackpool is ruined by the latter when the workers begin to speak of unionizing. Central to the ruining of all things is mill owner Josiah Bounderby, a boorish, self-proclaimed "self-made" man "devoid of all sentiment."

In the midst of all this misery, the puppet design is lovely, both the small puppets and the half-masks. The faces are extremely expressive in a way that is half arts-and-crafts and half Terry Gilliam, and many puppets hide small surprises. The transfer of many characters from puppet to mask and back again is handled gracefully and in a way that generally makes sense. Even the construction of the masks sometimes provide character commentary. Mr. Harthouse, a rakish character who claims to have no convictions and whose languid manner suggests little inner life, holds his face on like a monocle where other characters wear them fluidly. This suggests, appropriately, that Mr. Harthouse is a mask wearing a mask, essentially empty.

The set, which fits neatly into the tiny Backspace, is beautifully grim, with a highlight being the small models of houses and factories that sits above the middle of the playing space. Thin fabric smoke rises from the houses so that the entire model sky becomes covered with the merging trails. This set piece is effective both in visual appeal and in social commentary. Much like the Nicholas Nickleby production, the most exciting theatrical moments here occur when the atmosphere of a large-ranging novel is suggested by simple effects. In this vein, shadow puppetry is a major plus, showing all kinds of swirling backgrounds and character treats, including sudden changes of size and facial expression. It is also a fine way to capture the faceless Coketown mob. The inventiveness in staging is quite nice, with actors appearing from all quadrants, a circus tent suddenly created out of a sheet, and a scene being shown with a curtain half-drawn, so that the players are hidden from the shoulders up and the audience can only guess at the hinted-at audacious facial expressions and gluttony.

The only props that distract are stacks of books the children "study" which are obviously non-period, like an organic chemistry textbook and a book on psychology (and another on Sigmund Freud himself). Hard Times was published in 1854, and Freud wasn't even born until 1856. The stacks are a cute idea, but the modernity is jarring in a way that is never repeated.

The thematic denseness evoked by the visual landscape is the production's greatest gift. It hints at more beneath the surface of the adaptation; with the time constraints, what we can get is only a taste of the novel's scope. There is so much to be said that certain character arcs get a bit lost in the shuffle, despite the punishing number and speed of words the puppetmongers pack into the adaptation. Punishing, that is, not to the audience, but to the actors.

Though I viewed the production in only its second preview, there was clearly some more practice required. The three actors face a punishingly dense, quickly-spoken text, and slip-ups, tongue-tripping and short pauses to remember lines were myriad, particularly by the Powells; Rajaram handled himself admirably and proved amusing as blustering Mr. Bounderby, heartrending as tempest-tost worker Stephen Blackpool, and intriguing as the effete Harthouse. This kind of thing happens in live theatre and is usually not a problem, but in scenes bordering on eight characters where timing and picked up cues are of the essence, (the final scene of the first act, the climactic courtroom scene), gaps and pauses completely undermine the tension that the production is attempting to build, and the dramatic effect is lost. Sometimes tech is also an issue. If the Powells can bring the level of their words up to the fluidity of their visuals, the production would really blossom and become more than an old curiosity shop of visual delight.

Hard Times is at Theatre Passe Muraille until October 16th.