24 November 2008

The Rest is Finally Silence



(dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, duh...)

That's the Also Sprach Zarathustra, made popular of course by the Kubrick film, 2001. I could have gone on with my rendition, but I figured it was so obvious that your mind would naturally fill in the crescendo progression. I know mine is; over, and over, and over.

Blueprints is done! Whoopsie Daisy is done! Let there be much rejoicing! Also: I'm sad to have it be over so quickly! Aww. Some days you just can't win for losing. Are we relieved that we pulled it off? Certainly. It also felt surprisingly good, this show. We found a synchronicity, a unity, to our varied performances that we didn't necessarily deserve, given how little time we actually worked in the same room together. It felt good. It felt right. Patrick, Melissa and I discussed how natural it was to work together (especially in the West End Theatre, site of so many of our other collaborations) and personally, I feel the unity we found had as much to do with our common creative origins back in 2001 as with anything else. Even Friend Kate was on hand for Friday night's performance, so we had a full Yurtian accord for the first time in years.

We had a problem with audience, due largely to the last-minute notice we were able to give, but miraculously I had very important people to me in the audience both nights. Friends Laura & Daryl attended Friday night, which was a little like introducing a new girlfriend to her possible in-laws. I've done lots of work with these two, particularly Daryl, but it's all been relatively straight (read: not circus-y nor expressionistic), scripted theatre. Introducing them to my silent-film clown, Lloyd, and some of the work (in-progress) I create for myself was slightly harrowing. Then again, they received it well enough, and perhaps my eccentricities are not quite as latent in daily life as I'd like to perceive them to be. Sunday, Michael and Joanna from Bond Street Theatre were in attendance, which was a complete surprise. It's nice to think that they followed up on last week's collaboration in that way, especially given how busy they both are. Afterwards we talked in some detail about my work, which was also nice, having two experienced clowners and physical-theatre types from whom to receive critique.

And what was there to critique? Plenty; but as an acknowledged work-in-progress, I thought my piece went off rather well. Most of all I was struck by how delicate a thing I'm trying to build via all this throwing myself about (oh man--pun above totally unintentional, I swear to you). Eliciting laughter through a character's confusion about, suffering from, and ultimate adaptation to a new environment (or a new perception of his environment) requires a careful journey, no matter how many pratfalls happen along the way. It requires an extremely intimate responsiveness to the audience, and I rather shut myself off from that possibility by giving myself restrictive music cues. The timing, in other words, was more dictated by the music than by the moment. If I could have, I would have changed the piece to take more time between our opening and closing performances, but I backed myself into a corner there with what I had orchestrated. That's a definite lesson for next time (right up there with making sure I have more than a week in which to prepare). Some of my other lessons included techniques and bits that definitely worked, however, and I can hardly wait to try them again.

What I ended up building was essentially an exploration of a couple of things:

  • The themes and tropes of silent film clowning I want to utilize in Red Signal, including transformation; and

  • The use of the surreal in relationship to comedy and our recent (current) history.

Lloyd starts out as an uptight, shut-off New Yorker, going about his daily business. The beautiful and surreal come at him in a couple of ways, through some "inanimate" objects (a flower and a hat) and a woman, all of which quickly break down his ability to adhere to his routines and function in the world. As a result, he has to start over with everything, soup-to-nuts. Also as a result of this, he's suddenly aware of the audience's presence, which terrifies him. Resisting this, he tries to flee, but finds himself trapped in the theatre. Recognizing this, he tries to at least shed the trappings of this new perception, and goes into violent attempts to be rid of the "sticky" hat that suddenly appeared on him. All fails, in spite of a (hopefully) overwhelming array of physical stratagems, until he sticks his head off-stage and tries to pry the hat off that way.

And this where it starts to get surreal (yes, the prior seems completely normal to me). When his head pops back out, it has a different hat on. Instead of a black fedora, it is a grey top hat, in turn wearing welding goggles on itself. Lloyd reaches up to investigate, then heads toward the off-stage to see about where the new hat came from. He doesn't get far, quickly retreating from a small, bright light that skitters across the floor toward him from out the wing. He retreats from it, to escape through the other wing, when a second comes shooting out. He crouches upstage, away from both, then remembers the goggles on his hat and lowers them over his eyes. Thus protected, he approaches one of the lights crouched, like a cat. He bats it around a few times, then pounces on it and puts it in his mouth. Then he pounces on the other and does the same, standing to reveal two glowing cheeks. He quickly starts to retch, however, and when the lights pop out, he palms them so they face the audience side-by-side and become eyes, his fingers the eyelids/lashes. They look around the audience, blink drowsily, wink at someone, etc.

Suddenly, one of the "eyes" goes berserk, flying about erratically. The other soon follows suit. They fly into proximity to one another and flip about there for a bit, then part to explore away from one another; now they are like mating fireflies. One suddenly hovers, focused on something in the darkness upstage. His/her mate eventually notices his/her absence, and flies to join him/her. They zoom upstage and illuminate the woman, and look her up and down. Then Lloyd places the lights as lenses in his goggles. The woman smiles at him, takes his hand, and together they leave the stage, his "eyes" lighting their way.

That's the short play what I made. I don't know how much of the reasoning (the abundant reasoning) behind it was clear to the audience, but given the exploration of the surreal I was aiming for I'm content to have people make of it what they will. I learned a lot about the exploration of transformation involved in my script for Red Signal, mainly that people get and appreciate it best when they have a little distance from it. This was made awfully evident for me in the moment of recognition of the audience. It served as a very clear indicator that his world had changed, but only worked for me when it was very deliberately comic. When I did it with very precise double-take timing, it elicited a laugh, and the audience felt enough sense of perspective to appreciate Lloyd's plight without feeling responsible for it. So, I believe, they felt safer to empathize and identify with him. If I did it at all naturalistically, it created, rather than released, tension for my audience. They identified with his fear too immediately, perhaps, and felt a need to rationalize his (their) existence rather than go along with the humor. The film, if I can ever get it made, needs to steer a careful course between observation and empathy.

As for the surreal . . . well, what can you say about it, really? It was fun to do, I can say that. Certainly people enjoy having their expectations boggled a bit. My question about it was whether or not something made today in the spirit of the old silent-film comedies ought to step up the surreal aspects a bit. I mean, the silent comedians were often surreal in their creations; Buster Keaton particularly, and he was practically revered by the Surrealists who plied their philosophies after him. Yet all that surrealism came from fairly rational sources, used in supposedly irrational ways. Do we as audience experience the same lifting-out of the mundane as the audiences of Chaplin's and Lloyd's (Harold) films? With all the strange twists and turns art and culture have taken in the past century, might a contemporary silent film benefit from reinterpreting its moments of "surreality" into more abrupt or inexplicable forms? In his time, Keaton's use of a bass as a boat and a violin as a paddle were absolutely surreal, but now I wonder that it might only be perceived as "clever." When we can hardly tell what's CGI anymore, our surrealists must take a somewhat harder tack. My hypothesis for this little experiment was that a contemporary audience must be confronted with something a little more abrupt, a little less sourced, if they're to experience any real sense of surrealism.

I think it worked. I think, actually, it really worked. In a sense, all I really did was to subvert the order of transformation for the objects a bit, so that their immediate given purpose may not have been as obvious. (Frankly, I don't really understand the intended purpose of those weird little light things.) The hat and goggles contradict one another's associations -- assuming you're not a big steampunk proponent. The lights immediately behave differently than one might expect -- an idea that came to be, by the way, from reading Sophie's World. All the action was a sort of fluctuation (or flirtation) around the intended use of the objects until finally the lights become Lloyd's actual eyes. (Incidentally: They definitely weren't made for that; I owe myself a little more work to make those little sums-of-riches stick in there.) The effect, I think, was to initially baffle, but coupling it with a laugh (the surprising change of hat off-stage) made it non-threatening. Lloyd was threatened, then playful, then interactive, which allowed the audience along for the ride a bit. It's hard to say just how good the result was, but I think I'm at least on my way to something really positive, unique and satisfying.

That's what it's all about, really. I'm excited to keep the momentum going, both on my own work and on collaborating with Patrick and Melissa (and maybe even Melissa's dancers, Zoe and Madeline -- they're Tony-the-Tiger grrreat). The holidays can be a real sluggish time for me in terms of my creative work. There's just so much else to do. But somewhere, in the back of my head, I'll be revisiting this harrowing and lovely experience. If you see me with a distant look on my face, I'm probably imagining how I might do a handstand whilst blinded by my own brightly shining eyes . . .

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