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Keyword: ‘Eugene Ionesco’

Rehearsal Report 2

February 10th, 2011 No comments

One prominent notion in Patterns is the character’s act of writing a play as she is acting the play. It is quite self-reflexive and for a large part dominated the content of the play. As the drafts have progressed, this element has been cut way back as it became somewhat apparent that the self-reflexiveness often as not came off as self-indulgent. There was an additional problem of the self-reflexivity being greatly redundant and, being interpreted by some, as insulting to the audience (even though that was not the intention).

Another component of this was to make the play more aware of itself. That is, the convention in plays predominantly is the audience’s agreement to pretend that the “characters” in the play are unaware of the audience and off in their little world. As I have quoted elsewhere, Eugene Ionesco:

Why could I not accept theatrical reality? Why did its truth appear false to me? And why did the false seem to want to parade as true, substitute for truth?… [The actor’s] material presence destroyed the fiction. It was as though there were present two levels of reality, the concrete reality, impoverished, empty, limited, of these banal living men, moving and speaking upon the stage, and the reality of the imagination. And these two realities faced each other, unmasked, irreconcilable: two antagonistic universes which could not succeed in unifying and blending.

So, many aspects of Patterns are directed at the act of play creation itself; to reflect on this as it is happening. One method of super-charging that reality is using the actual names of the actors in the presentation of the play. This is something that the Wooster Group does often. So, below, you’ll see mention of the cutting of this element in the script, as it didn’t seem to be working right in the actual process of staging the play.

Rehearsal Report
Date: 2/9/2011 Start Time: 6:30pm Break: 8:20-8:30 End: 10:10pm

– Reviewed blocking pages 1-11
– Blocked pages 11-20
– Ali did measurements

– Line change on page 2 spoken by King. Middle of his first paragraph of dialogue he used to say: “daughter: fill my cup and let not but that my cup continually runneth…” And now reads: “daughter: fill my cup and let my cup continually runneth…”

– Line change on page 11 spoken by Aisa. The actors’ real names are again eliminated near the middle of the page. Aisa now says: “Let’s look at the fairy tale again. I will play the role of the princess.”

– No new props for today’s rehearsal.

– Added a few items to the prop list for the Doc’s costume.

– On page 19-20, it was decided to lose the “playback” on the videotape during the scene with the Doc. The doc will now “review” the raw tape from an actual video cassette tape. The Doc will tear at the tape, look at it, and discard the cassette. The dialogue will have NO changes.

– Regarding the plywood for the Queen’s death scene, it only needs to be large enough for her to lie comfortably. Laura is 5’4” so perhaps a 5’8” board in length and 3” wide would work?

Next Day Schedule:
Thursday, Feb 10th 6:30pm
Company review pages 1-20, block pages 20-28.

Playwright who resonantes with me right now at this moment as we speak currently this second…and why

December 8th, 2009 No comments

I think the playwright whose work most resonates with me, right now, is Paula Vogel and her play How I Learned to Drive

I think this is the case because I have been struggling with an idea I have for a play, and have been struggling for some time, with the shape of it.  I heard something from Mike Geither recently that resonated with me; Geither said that he’s coming to realize that the structure or the form of a play is what is important, and I whole heartedly agree, and I think there should be a playwriting class dedicated solely to that topic.  In fact, I’m beginning to think that this is actually where the art lies.  I have heard in describing postmodern art forms, more times than I care to mention, that the form is the meaning, and I never really quite got what that was driving at, but more and more as I read plays I am coming to understand exactly what that means.  If we presented every playwright with the exact same story: plot, narrative, characters, etc, and asked them to turn it into a play, it is clear that we would have as diverse a set of plays at the end as we have already had presented to us.  Structurally, stylistically, vocally, in tableaux, image, symbol, language, and in use of space we would see a full range of possibilities for how plays can be constructed. 

I have been struggling with the play I am loosely calling Patterns.  It is a play that uses the metaphor of pattern as its uber theme and begins with a young woman addressing the audience about making a dress and the sewing machine and pattern that she has chosen.  The problem is that I could not get beyond the visual image of the woman addressing the audience and I could not get beyond a play structure that had direct address as its primary vehicle of exchange.  The awkwardness of this form was reinforced recently for me when I saw a couple plays at Little Box, including Waves and Projecting: both of which use women who directly address the audience as their primary form.  Waves has very distinct, well-drawn characters and events and is an emotionally enthralling piece; however, the form of the thing is not right.  In fact, I would characterize it as grueling.  In retrospect, I recently saw the play The Heidi Chronicles at the Eldred Theater at Case and it is, in my mind, what How I Learned to Drive would be had not Vogel had a different vision for the play.  The Heidi Chronicles expresses a woman’s life as reflected upon and shows in linear time the course of events that lead to where she is in the present.  It is boring.  It is difficult to sit through.  It is the exact problem of linearity that Vogel escapes. Very like Waves and The Heidi Chronicles, I simply have no doubt whatsoever that my play Patterns would become the same thing: grueling, maudlin, even tiresome and repetitive–if there is no consideration of what can be done by breaking form and reconsidering structure.  The art comes in the consideration of the form.  The art comes in stepping back and figuring out, like some ancient mathematician or philosopher, what the underlying structure or form is–and identifying how that form can be brought out.  It is no easy task and requires as much focus, concentration, and serendipity as writing alone.

A while back I read an essay by Eugene Ionesco called “Discovering the Theatre.”  I ‘found’ the essay in several beat up copies of the Tulane Drama Review that I somehow have laying about my house.  In the essay, Ionesco writes about his dissatisfaction with theater.  He writes:

“Why could I not accept theatrical reality? Why did its truth appear false to me? And why did the false seem to want to parade as true, substitute for truth?… [The actor’s] material presence destroyed the fiction. It was as though there were present two levels of reality, the concrete reality, impoverished, empty, limited, of these banal living men, moving and speaking upon the stage, and the reality of the imagination. And these two realities faced each other, unmasked, irreconcilable: two antagonistic universes which could not succeed in unifying and blending.”

I think I have finally come to understand what so upset Ionesco and am coming to understand what makes metatheatricality so important and a hyperreal or absurd or fantastic approach to theater equally important: the alternative is “impoverished, empty, and limited.”  There is something about the “two realities” facing each other that just shows the staged reality to be a thin grey thing…or, as Sylvia Plath might say, "They are always with us, the thin people / Meager of dimension as the gray people / on a movie screen. They / are unreal, we say."  As I read realistic plays and watch plays like The Heidi Chronicles it becomes almost unbearable: the unbearable unreal reality of it, like a scab that you mustn’t pick, and yet your fingers keep on sidling over to it.

My mind has boggled lately at trying to figure out what theater is.  What makes it theater?  For instance, can you simply take a novel or short story and put it on a stage, have people speak the lines, and say: “behold, theater?” And if that is not theater, or not theatrical, why is that?  What defines or demarks what theater should be?  I tried approaching the question of “what is theatre” from several different points of view, and have even discussed it on my blog: what is theatre, why is theatre important, etc., all to no effect: any attempt to write about it seems boring or redundant, definitely uninteresting: academic. And even in the context of considering craft with Vogel in mind that danger emerges.  But I’ll go back to Ionesco, as the nature of the conversation changed for me when I found his essay in that 1959 issue of TDR.

The article shocked me. At first, it shocked me because I was appalled by what Ionesco was saying about theatre. Then, I was shocked because I was agreeing with him. Finally, I found myself mentally applying the points he was discussing against the play I wrote most recently and identifying what was right and what was wrong with it—and I knew that what Ionesco was saying was correct. For instance, I’ll highlight one of the comments that Ionesco makes late in his essay which, although it may seem confounding, is precise and elucidating:

The theatre can only be theatre, even though for certain contemporary doctors of “theatrology” this identity with itself is charged with tautology, or considered false, an attitude which strikes me as the most incredible and amazing of paradoxes. / For these doctors, the theatre, being something other than theatre, is ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essays or literature. This is as aberrant as if one were to claim that music should be archeology, or painting, physics and mathematics. (Ionesco and Pronko 16)

The point is so critical that I will no doubt make a fool of myself here articulating it clearly, redundantly, to myself: theatre is theatre. Well, what does that mean, precisely? It certainly begs a question. It begs a question that I want to avoid like the plague: If theatre is theatre, what then is theatre?

In his essay defending poetry, Shelley begins with a discussion of reason and imagination and the actions of mental processes on the individual and society. I will not presume to be so lofty. I will instead attempt to identify, of my own accord, those elements that make theatre unique. That is, what is it about theatre that makes it theatre? What makes theatre different from poetry, or different from screenplays, or what is unique when it is compared against the novel? To do this, I’ll begin with questions: Is theatre simply a physical space in which an action takes place? Is theatre the notion of seeing an action or event enacted? Or is theatre a glib sneer for practices that are intentionally dramatic and unnecessarily emotional—red herrings drawing attention from something more important? This question ‘what is theatre’ is likely has old as theatre itself and, despite my attempts, it not likely to be any nearer an answer than theatre is near its end. Perhaps theatre can be defined using the words of Potter Stewart, the Associate Justice of the United States, who, in articulating a definition of pornography said, simply, “I know it when I see it.” But if that’s the case, then it begs the willful suspension of disbelief: a phrase that not only irritates some but is a statement whose precise spirit led Eugene Ionesco to write his essay in the first place: namely, that theatre had become dishonest and embarrassingly false. (Ionesco and Pronko 3-18) The complicated fact is that theatre is all of those things mentioned above: a space, an action, and, unfortunately, a diversion. Theatre is many different things to many different people: to children, it is Bread and Puppet Theater or guignol; to subscribers at the Cleveland Play House, it is On Golden Pond; and for more sophisticated palates, it is the productions of experimental theatres such as convergence-continuum or the more extreme performance art of Karen Finley. In the introduction to his book Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically, Michael Wright, talks about plays in a way that can be generalized to theatre, saying:

…there is no longer any meaningful single definition of a play that applies across the spectrum of what is being created around the world, beyond saying that a play is a (largely) live event that takes place in a space that all involved have agreed is a “stage.” And in the end Wright concludes that “there is little reason to believe that theatre will retreat to the well-made play or to some rigid Aristotelian framework. Theatre is far more likely to continue its expansion of form, subject matter, language, use of space, and so on…theatre continues to evolve in an open and free manner. (Wright xiv)

If this is so, then how can one define it? Worse still, how can one judge what is good theatre and what is not good? Is good theatre a full evening of theatre? Is it an hour? Ten minutes? Is it theatre that makes you laugh and feel good—or should it make your heart break? Or should it come right out and punch you in face and scream “hey, buddy, wake up and take a look around you?”

Let’s go back to Michael Wright, who has several ideas regarding what is important about theatre: first, it is a witnessed present, that is, the event that happens in real time; second, it is immediate: there is no filter or interpreter. To Wright, theatre is a ‘witnessed present’ that is “the problems of the characters are being worked out in front of us, right here and now,” and this, whether the play was written “today or in 504 B.C.” (Wright 6-7) And further, Wright notes, that “since the play needs this ‘us’ in order to exist, it’s our present at the same instant, because the problems of the characters reflect on our own lives.” More precisely, “the play is a present event—a play needs real time in which to occur and is put on by real people in front of other real people. Humans are watching humans…when we watch a play, the people performing in the play are right there, we are aware of them and they of us. And this means that thinking theatrically is also rooted in this awareness of the existence of the other.” (Wright 7) The theatre provides a sense of immediacy unlike other forms, “there is no filter between you and what’s acting upon your sensory receptors: we listen, watch, and feel the human struggles on the stage directly.” (Wright 8 ) Wright gives the example that, “we know without hearing a word that the couple over there is arguing, or the man sitting to our left is really nervous. We read these things in the behavior of people, but we also feel these things because we are in the same environment.” (Wright 7)

Aristotle in his Poetics states that theatre’s object is imitation, “Since those who imitate imitate men in action, and these must necessarily be either worthwhile or worthless people.” (Aristotle and Else 17) He then goes on to describe the elements that create good imitations and what they may be categorized as (comedy, tragedy, epic) and of what attributes they must consist. It is of note that the categorizations and attributes that Aristotle outlined where rebranded later as principles and eventually became a form of dogma in Europe that controlled what was and, more importantly, what was not produced for centuries.

Augusto Boal in his book Theatre of the Oppressed suggests that Aristotle’s Poetics presents a coercive structure who’s plain intent was to glorify the powerful and to dissuade those who would challenge them: seeking to elevate one moral sense (that of the patron) above another (that of the viewer) and disenfranchise the “worthless people” mentioned above. (Boal 3 ) Boal defiantly states that theatre is a means to political action and a means of creating political action and a political consciousness. For his trouble he was run out of Brazil.

William Henderson in his article “Why Theatre?” raises possibilities that are both similar to those raised by Michael Wright and yet different, identifying elements important to both those participating in the creation and those viewing it. Henderson is unique in including in his consideration of theatre the aesthetic elements attendant to all aspects of theatre: both inside and out, both actor and audience member. Specifically, Henderson points to the adrenalin of performance and the never-to-be-repeated moments of sheer astonishment; the sensual “pleasure of entering unfamiliar and strange ramshackle buildings, or coming upon an entirely new spatial configuration…the simultaneous danger and allure of performers’ bodies in the space around us”; in true Bakhtinian form, “the multiplicity of dialogues that exist—between performers and audience; between the various technological media at work; amongst the performers themselves; and between them and the technological forces employed—create the possibility of an intellectual engagement at a level which purely electronic media can only gesture at.” Henderson comments that “Theatre is also and always, the circus…is a high-wire event through time with the constant risk of falling off and never being able to recover…”; and that “the frailty of the performance…the very real vulnerability of the performer, the artist; and here, possibly, the real truth…the question not of our power to woo and entertain and audience but of our weakness…the sheer vulnerability of the human being in front of us surely confronts us with our own…the real sense that in our vulnerability and weakness we are fully human and thus fully connected with those around us…” (Henderson 11/08/2007)

In his article, “Why Theatre: Questions and Answers”, Craig Stewart Walker quotes Rick Salutin, a Canadian novelist and playwright, who bluntly states, “anything that brings people together in a communalizing way is valuable.” (Walker 55)

So, to sum things up (to this point), theatre is a physical space (that may or may not be dangerous to get to or strangely configured) in which actors (who may be dangerous or alluring or both at the same time) intentionally imitate (or enact) dramatic and emotional actions (that may or may not be politically coercive) which take place before us in real time (and thus will never be precisely repeated again) allowing no filter or intermediary interpreter (so we have to figure things out ourselves) which exposes the vulnerability and weakness of all present and may demonstrate the truth of our human condition (as weak and vulnerable) in a communal environment such that a dialogue is created, connecting all of us.

Ionesco would be quick to point out, I think, that what is missing (and it should be missing) from the summation I provided above is that which is contained in the latter part of the opening quote I took from him, namely that misapprehension that theater “is ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essays or literature. “ That is, nowhere in the summation I provided is there any mention of the content of the theatre (okay, there’s one mention)—nor is there any attempt to explain theatre in terms of something else: something that it is not. It is precisely Ionesco’s point that theatre should not be ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essay or literature, for these forms already exist and do perfectly well on their own. So, theatre should be theatre.

But the confluence of many of these elements into theatre had a damaging (and still does have a damaging) effect on the experience of theatre, leading Ionesco to write that:

I derived no pleasure from [theatre]…The playing of the actors disturbed me: I was embarrassed for them…there was something false in it all…it seemed to me that the actor was doing something inadmissible, censurable. He was renouncing himself, abandoning himself, changing skin…It seemed painful to me, and somehow dishonest…To go to the theatre meant for me to go and see apparently serious people make a spectacle of themselves. (Ionesco and Pronko 3)

On the surface there are a few things that draw me immediately to Vogel and especially the play How I Learned to Drive: the routine breaking of the linear narrative; the use of visual images and aural statements from driving guides/classes to break into this monolog-driven play and add a higher level of meaning; the use of direct audience address/narrative broken by engaging, staged sequences between the characters; the nature of what Paul Castagno calls in his book New Playwriting Strategies, the polyvocal text–that is, the intrusion of other voices.  The idea of polyvocality is taken from Mikhail Bakhtin and his work the Dialogic Imagination, which holds up the novel form as the great potential for polyvocal, multitemporal texts–but theater can accomplish the same thing in a much livelier way.

Pam Monteleone in the journal Theatre Topics, writes:

In Part II, "Strategies of Structure and Form," Castagno explores ways in which the dialogic principle shapes larger structural units, from the "beat segment" to the scene, the predominant "building block" for most contemporary playwrights (129). Two of the most useful chapters examine monologue, a noticeable omission in many playwriting tests. Castagno’s analysis of new monologue forms, multiple narrators and voice-overs, for instance, that blur the distinction between telling and showing, furnish playwrights with more creative choices for structuring time and space than writing "blackout."

Castagno uses playwrights such as Vogel as the exemplars of how new playwriting strategies can be employed and realized.  As a result of exploring Castagno’s book, I have recently read Eric Overmyer’s Native Speech which was equally revelatory to me in terms of jarring narrative structures and spatial/scene changes, as well as techniques for making the monologues work: such as the use of a microphone and radio program, the main character adopting different personas and voices so frequently that the polyvocal nature of the text cannot be doubted.

The power of How I Learned to Drive comes through its oblique approach to the narrative, which is precisely structure.  The play is revealed piecemeal through techniques that break the linear narrative and cause the audience to view events out of time and out of place and thus to view them all through different eyes.  A play that is presented linearly allows an audience to predict what will happen by seeing ahead, and more importantly, to judge the content of the narrative because the structure is an inherited structure which advances a traditional logic that is not only not challenging but is based on assumptions of epistemology that postmodernism directly confronts and seeks to overturn.  The logic of how we know is not step one, step two, step three; experience comes at us from many angles and we never really understand what happened until we can get distance from the events; a distance which the play itself plays with.

The use of visual images and aural commentary or framing provides another postmodern break to the traditional narrative structure and focuses attention on society’s formal structures and rules but abuts them to a highly transgressive story.  Although, I guess I’m forced to consider how postmodern some elements are as I guess Tennessee Williams used projected subtitles in The Glass Menagerie, and I doubt many would consider him postmodern. The nature of these visual and aural segments also function in a highly symbolic way as the mind is much more capable of comprehending and holding concrete concepts delivered through symbolic presentations than highly abstract constructions.  The use, then of these visual and aural symbols provides the mind of the audience something to “chew” on or digest as the contrast is presented or as the overt meaning of the symbol is reconstructed by the playwright in the context of the events of the play.  In some cases, these stage symbols act as foreshadowing for directions that are to come, besides commenting on the action of the piece. For me, this is an interesting “toy,” for lack of a better term, as traditional pattern use in dressmaking can be used in a similar manner; that is commentary can be added to the events of the play from dressmaking texts of a certain period alongside images standard to dressmaking.  These external structures again provide the minds of audience members something to ponder or consider in and of themselves and also in the context of the events and meaning of the play.  Also, these external structures make the text of the play polyvocal or include elements of what Bakhtin refers to as heteroglossia–that is, multivoiced texts create new meaning and multiple layers of meaning.

The use of dramatic sequences is central to the success of this play, as the temptation to have a monolog-driven play that takes as its form direct audience address must have been quite tempting at the outset of the writing of this play.  But as mentioned above, per my experience at Little Box, and other minor plays that I have had the chance to see off and on, this play form may have worked one time (the first time), but has little hope of working effectively with audiences today.  People expect much of their entertainment and given the amount of time people a lot to doing anything these days they have a right to demand the most from the time they spend doing anything other than what they want to do–assuming, of course, that theater isn’t it.  Sitting in a theater and listening to one character vomit for his or her neurotic problems or the history of her neurotic condition is not particularly favorable, nor is a fatty layer of maudlin emotion buttered on top.  People today are much more cynical than of yore and while compassion exists, consistently overplaying emotion does not.  So, finding new ways to make people feel the emotion or feel the emotional confusion or experience the suddenness of the event and attempt to synthesize the experience in the context of the play is, to my mind, a much better solution than mere presentation.  As well, like it or not, when coming to the theater people expect to see representations of dramatic events.  As far as we try to get from the Aristotelian model of play construction there are some aspects which cannot be ignored, and that of a re-enactment is one of them.  Beyond that, character in action is still the single best way for an audience to understand and derive meaning from theater: showing not telling.

The polyvocal nature of the text is driven home (beyond the use of audio voiceovers) by the use of the Greek chorus and the addition of regular interactions with family members–especially those of earlier generations documenting the voice of the past.  The use of the Greek chorus accomplishes at least two things: it further plays with the structure of the play and how understanding of the events of the play and the issues of the play are delivered to the audience; it provides access to yet another voice (lens) through which events are expressed and understanding achieved.  The use of the Greek chorus, I think, also underlines the somewhat faceless nature of influences on our lives.  That is, while we might be able to trace certain childhood mis-understandings of the world back to our family, it can never be precisely clear what their origin is–whether something heard or felt or witnessed–and the use of a chorus presents the audience with a largely faceless construction that can manifest itself in many forms or identities throughout.  Considered in this way, the Greek chorus is much more ominous than any one character could have been.  The ability of the chorus to adopt a multitude of voices again underlines the significance of the polyvocal nature of the play and the diverse method by which meaning is constructed and life is understood.

The end of the play delivers a sense of “this is how I’ve come to be” without the age old framing device of a person sitting down on a wooden stool and saying, “Well, it all began back in…”, and going on to bore us from there, or the terrible linearity of The Heidi Chronicles.

The power for me of Vogel and the “language” playwrights in general, as labeled by Castagno and others, is that they force the construction of theater into a different form–a form that defines itself over for each play and is and can only be unique for that play: as each experience is unique.  In fact, it has just struck me how absurd is the notion of the Aristotelian form for plays–this “handed down” construct: that all plays should be forced into this single form–like Cinderella’s sisters cutting apart their feet to shove them into the glass slipper! 

So, craft for me has become a search for form, and many of the playwrights we’ve read this semester, Vogel especially, point a path for such discovery.

Works Cited:

Aristotle, and Gerald Frank Else. Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970.

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press, 1993.

Brustein, Robert Sanford. Millennial Stages :Essays and Reviews, 2001-2005. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.

Hayes, Thomas. A playwright’s blog: dedicated to all things play building. October (2007): 11/16/2007.

Hayes, Thomas. A playwright’s blog: dedicated to all things play building. November (2009): 11/17/2009.

Henderson, William. “Why Theatre?” Craft Culture. September (2006): 11/08/2007.

Ionesco, Eugene, and Leonard C. Pronko. “Discovering the Theatre.” The Tulane Drama Review 4.1 (1959): 3-18.

McKee, Robert. Story :Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. 1st ed. New York: ReganBooks, 1997.

Miller, Arthur. “The Shadows of the Gods: A Critical View of the American Theater.” Harper’s Magazine 217 (1958): 35-43.

Monteleone, Pam. Review: New Playwriting Strategies: A Language-Based Approach to Playwriting. By Paul C. Castagno. Theatre Topics 14.1 (2004) 375-376. Accessed: 11/17/2009

Walker, Craig Stewart. “Why Theatre: Questions and Answers.” Canadian Theatre Review Spring. 86 (1996): 55.

Wright, Michael. Playwriting-in-Process : Thinking and Working Theatrically. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.

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