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Demon Baby

December 8th, 2007 1 comment

Question: What’s a piñata, a twittering bird in a cage, a garden gnome, a children’s book, and several bottles of gin got in common? Well, you’ll find the answer to that question in Erin Courtney’s play, Demon Baby.

Unraveling the meaning of these objects is the key to figuring out just what Courtney has to say about how we deal with displacement and the stuffiness of our lives.

Wren (Dawn Youngs) is an American woman dragged along by her husband Art (Tom Kondilas) to London for work. Left alone all day to do what she pleases, she attempts to work, instead, on a children’s book commissioned by Alan (Curt Arnold)—a book that is to comfort children who are displaced when their parents drag them along to new places to work. The book in question (as well as the work that Art and Alan do) is for a company that is overly concerned with the relocation of its employees—as Wren and Art frequently, in one scene at least, discuss a “relocation manual”—another loaded symbol for you—and Cat (Amy Bistok) discusses her “relocation advisor.” Throughout Demon Baby, this group (Wren, Art, Alan, and Cat) are joined by Charles (Arthur Grothe) and Sally (Teresa McDonough) for Gin-and-Tonic-infused parties with heavy smoking, eating, and vapid conversation.

The lifestyle of heavy drinking and isolation may be what leads to the sudden turn of events for Wren, when she suddenly wakens one night to find an immense garden gnome sitting on her chest. The garden gnome, whom Wren refers to as the Demon Baby (Wes Shofner), is a demon baby because “there’s something a little bit different about it.” At first, Wren is very put out by the Demon Baby and afraid, but soon she comes to hold conversations with it, and soon after the two are thick as thieves.

The rest of the play revolves around the increasingly erratic behavior of Wren as she is influenced (freed from constraint?) by the Demon Baby. This erratic behavior includes one provocative scene in which Wren attempts to seduce Alan, but not knowing how to do it she simply walks out stark naked (bravely carried forth by Ms. Young). As irony would have it, though, Alan is attracted not to Wren, but to her husband. Alan is alone with Wren, actually, to review the children’s book that Wren has finished. The book is very good, as far as Alan and the company are concerned—excepting the strange introduction of a demon baby—which the company cannot accept.

In the end, the book is decommissioned, no one seduces anyone, Cat’s husband (whom we never see) leaves her, Cat falls off a roof while trying to hit the piñata (she lives), the influence of the Demon Baby affects all the partiers, and, eventually, Cat recovers from her agoraphobia. The caveat being that it ends up on Art, who at the end of the play is being visited by the Demon Baby.

The power of this play lies in the interpretation of the images/icons I mention above and that Courtney weaves throughout the piece: the bird in the cage (wren), the piñata, the demon baby, covering furniture with sheets, the content of the children’s book, etc. Through them, I think, the subconscious/unconscious reaction to displacement and suffocation—the fears and threats—are made concrete and real. And these bizarre moments are drawn in sharp relief against the vapid, tiresome lifestyle of the characters in their “normal” life. I am not going to undertake an analysis or excavation of the play at this time, but I likely will in the future, as it struck me and I truly think that there is more to this play than meets the eye.

One thing that I noticed very early on, and throughout, for instance, is the reliance by all the characters (other than Wren) on what is written. That is, what is written has an authority of incontrovertible FACT. Whereas experience is dismissed. For instance, Wren’s experience of the Demon Baby is dismissed by Art as “sleep paralysis” or something else–but the experience itself, the effect of the experience, or its result are ignored. I think Courtney has something very serious to say about our willingness in modern times to rely too much on what is construed as “socially approved” explanation (or what is scientifically known), and the “sleep paralysis” that all of these characters seem to be undergoing in both their personal and business lives demonstrates the sedative effect of ignoring experience or of seeking new experience and simply taking life as it is lived day-to-day.

Demon Baby is directed by Geoffrey Hoffman and it is his first stab at directing. For the most part, I think he did very well. There are some moments that I question—but, of course, who doesn’t indulge in the glory that is back-seat driving? Some of the more prominent moments include large swaths of dead time (scene changes, etc.) and those in which Hoffman deviates from the script. As a playwright, of course, the latter is where my great fear and offense lies. For instance, the script calls for incessant smoking by many of the characters—chain smoking, in fact. There is no smoking in the production. Now, this may have been done for political correctness (god forbid), or perhaps expediency—who knows? But it does take an element from the production that would have, at least, added atmosphere, if not demonstrated the high-strung nature of these characters through their behavior. Another, though minor, point, is an objection to the periodic use of the sound track from American Beauty. I think that sound track is overly loaded for anyone who has seen the movie, and it disrupted my experience. I think convergence-continuum and Hoffman ably used multimedia in this piece, especially in the setting—construction work outside the window and the passage of time; as well as to show—to demonstrate—the inner workings of Wren’s mind at an especially frazzled point (where the Demon Baby is helping her write the children’s book). I think Hoffman was, in many ways, hampered by a script that, to my mind, calls for a great deal of subtlety in its handling and runs a great risk of being flat—which it was at some points. It was difficult, I think, as well because some of the actors lost their British accents, or periodically moved in and out of them, and some were unfortunately flat in their interactions as well: delivery, response, etc.

I’m glad I saw it, as I read it first and it is always better to see a play than to read it, and I will likely go see it again. This is the first of the clubbed thumb deliveries to be at con-con.

Christopher Durang

June 10th, 2011 No comments

The first event I attended here at DG Con was a conversation with Christopher Durang, whose play Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them was at CPT not too long ago.

Durang was a highly engaging story-teller and was fabulous to listen to. For some strange reason, or perhaps not so strange, I was reminded of John Bellairs–perhaps it is the Catholic upbringing and the way it manifests itself in the work.

What follows below are the notes that I took as I listened. I have expanded on some things as I was inspired to do so:

One of the opening questions posed to Durang by host Jim Price was what is it that leads to the mix of serious and the strange in his writing. Durang talked about early influences, including: how to succeed in business w/o even trying; and I Love Lucy. Durang said that he was always attracted to quick paced performances and is not a fan of the real-time nature of drama in the 50s.

Durang wrote his first play @ age 8; and it revolved around the I Love Lucy episode when Lucy has a baby… the family and friends practice… it’s time… then panic when it happens… he loved that.

Durang says that he came from a family that was open to the arts
memoir of johnny durang…? He had his first production in 2nd grade… and he discovered that it was fun.

early musical banned in boston, etc. 13th birthday gypsy… his mother was like gypsy because she would tell everyone about his plays…

The 1st audition process he was involved in included girls from other schools; he was at an all-boys Catholic school; he recalls that the nuns were not happy that the girl (in the show) had to drop a shoulder strap at the end; the show ended w/4 weddings (it was very shakespearean).

Durang attended Delbarton 7 -12; had to work hard at math, not very good at it. Durang remarked that his mother’s divorce lawyer suggested he attend Harvard, where he goes. There he goes through a bout of depression from fresh – junior; not much theater during that time. Part of the depression he attributes the discovery/realization that what he learned during his Catholic upbringing, with regard to God and the universe, is not true.

At Harvard he creates the greatest musical ever sung for which Al Franken auditioned. (mad magazine style spoof of “real” songs)
Gospels in musical comedy terms. “everything’s coming up moses”
He lived in Dunster House. al gore and tommy lee jones were there at the time. The show included 9 apostles (5 women) couldn’t get 12. 2 weekends; good reviews; later uproar… offensive to Catholics…
“pigs trampling in a sanctuary” quote… included this statement in his Yale application.

albert? irish nuns (repressive) vs. italian (violent)
a lot of cabaret stuff
howard stein
william blake/thomas gray met in glass menagerie
& eleanor and franklin roosevelt
2 weekends
graduate newspaper (wrote their own review under a pseudonym — did not give themselves a rave)
life story of mitsy gaynor? gloria steinem…

Durang remarked that from one of his shows there were lines cut … And Durang had to go to whomever cut them–professor, faculty–and say, essentially, sorry, our name is on it, not yours… I don’t remember the context; fully. But this goes to the Holding Our Tongue DG conference in Cleveland, where I first met Gary Garrison; and the issues surrounding the forms that censorship take.

new york
sigorney weaver
so hard to make a living…
wendy wasserstein
taught acting even though he didn’t act
typist at Yale Medical — had to write rejection letters for people’s “donated” bodies because they had too many
got $8K grant from yale
cbs playwriitng?
titanic… (sigorny weaver)
idiots karamozov
lustintania (another ship that sank) das lustintania songer spiel…
sister mary ignatious
vanities — 11pm slot $5 per performance
brecht — eva perone the demon first lady of buenas aires (a ‘fib’ they created)

With regard to the playwriting business today, Durang remarked that he has found the movement to be toward development versus production;
caveat being that he doesn’t know as much now about what’s going on…
teaching with Marsha Norman. Durang finds the atmosphere troublesome
in that, as he recalls when he started out in ’75-’76; there was alot of $ for production of plays (new american plays); now it’s “workshops”; and that if 5 theaters have an interest in a writer all five theaters will do readings of his/her work; the playwright doesn’t get a production and each theater will dramaturge the play and make suggestions and “playwrights lose their play” that way.

Further, Durang finds that dramaturgs tend to subscribe to rules when there are, in fact, no dramaturgy rules. For instance, one dramaturg told him that you “can’t open a play w/ a :30 minute monolog”.

Advice to writers: if you see something you love, try to figure out what it is about it that you love and how you can write something similar to it; additionally, it is important to find people who will give you feedback about the play that YOU want to write.

find your voice:
have them write from “their own stuff”
best plays come from when you’re writing “your stuff”
wrote from a feeling he had (sister marry ignatious) had no idea it would be successful

how long can you not produce before people forget about you: agent: 2 years (laugh)
mother was dying of cancer
the actor’s nightmare… (another play)

don’t hold on to just one play… be prolific…

question: self-censorship (sister mary)
wasn’t mad when he wrote it
did he ever not want to put some stuff in the play–want to hold back
thought everyone would agree with him
rules didn’t make sense to him
no idea people would find it funny
adults performing something children wrote (as funny)
especially with their understanding of the story
jesus crucified, but for children replacing it with a blonde-haired doll, etc.

sex and longing was tough for him because it was so badly received
hasn’t even read the reviews yet
difficult because he couldn’t fix it.

difficulty getting into expository writing classes at Harvard
was having a difficult time at that point in his life
didn’t feel brave enough to go to NY on his own
teacher encouragement was very important

write intuitively, spur of the moment, and when he feels like it/enjoys it

found it important to schedule time and force himself to write and stick with stuff even when he didn’t want to

business of life and laziness keep him from writing…

daniel goldfarb in his class…

betty’s summer vacation
writes improvisationally–so a serial killer appears…

friendliest plays–beyond therapy
best received

depressed to discover that the things he learned in Catholic school weren’t true (part of his depression)
cognitive therapy — positive frame of mind will generate positivity, etc.

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