Wednesday, October 24, 2012

R&D Group: Don’t Mind The Gaps

This post is by R&D Group member, Mia Rovegno. The post is wrapping up her work in the Group from 2011-12. For a list of this year's participants and projects, please click HERE!

In this past year’s R&D Group, I wrote a play that attempted to capture the swiss cheese of life in all it’s hole-y elusiveness and eternal pining for answering the unanswerable. I was interested in creating a space where an audience could feel as if they were pouring over a collection of photographs, culling missing details from the incomplete snapshots of other people’s lives. The way they might feel if they listened to someone else’s record collection and stumbled upon some old song they’d forgotten they knew so well, that in hearing it again had the power to project them into the annals of their own cobwebbed histories.

The play would be a revolving door of disparate voices, offering fleeting glimpses into a slew of stories plucked from the American landscape. All the characters would set out to locate themselves as they struggled through love, loss or longing for something to make them feel at home inside the dissonant geographies and subcultures that ebb and flow around each other across this vast landscape. I wondered how an audience might fill in the gaps if only given a small window into each story. I hoped these brief encounters and unexpected absences would ask the audience to come to the play in a different way, and awaken a longing to smooth out the rough-edged unknown with the familiar roundness of their own rose-tinted glasses. In The Field Guide To Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes, “When someone doesn’t show up, the people who wait sometimes tell stories about what might have happened and come to half believe” in them. Without concrete details, the mind works hard to clear the haze between events, memories, and the misremembered facts of unreliable storytellers, in order to arrive at their own subjective sense of truth.

I think there’s an honesty in telling stories that still have holes in them. It evokes the kind of active listening music asks us to do. The joy of listening to music revolves around the glorious anticipation of a moment when one can slip inside a private, singular world of associations. Music jogs the memory, but leaves room for a fluid sense of freedom as the listener pursues those satisfying moments of recognition. A space of introspection springs from the heart and the gut of the listener, motivated by a desire to shape the unknown into the familiar. The brain instinctively works to recall some combination of recognizable sounds that hold the power to release a deluge of subterranean memories, and render us emotionally prostrate to that heartcrushing, soul-wringing deity we both love and hate to worship: Nostalgia.

Of course, language can open just as potent an emotional landscape, but I was curious about whether we listen to language the same way we listen to music. Conversations are driven by a musicality that expands and contracts, catapults and suspends, just as a piece of music might. But perhaps music, in its abstraction, offers a freer, more open space for an audience to truly interpret what they are listening to. I wondered if a play could offer such a space through an unexpected blending of voices, surprising rhythmic changes, and rapidly shifting progressions—a space that leaves the listener to check expectation at the door and connect the dots of a narrative in a motific, rather than linear way.

The play I was writing landed the audience in a new location with new characters every handful of pages. Many appeared briefly only to never resurface again. The interweaving stories defied a linear structure, their multiple voices washing over the listener in a kind of sprawling theatrical missive. I found myself questioning the logic of a narrative that could spiral out from theme and motif, rather than the architecture of plot and character. This line of questioning proved extremely useless to the associative theatrical experience I was attempting to create. So I turned to the act of listening, and let myself listen to the play in the same way I might get lost in listening to a piece of music.

A recurring voice revealed itself as a trusty bassline, subdued in its understated reliability. An exchange lingering only long enough to leave the faint odor of ennui wafting through an empty kitchen late at night was a saxophone taking an impromptu, contemplative solo. The voices of the 18 characters coalesced through variations on a series of repetitions that functioned like motifs in a piece of music. These motifs were a kind of percussion, prominent and driving, but still allowing for each character’s story to burst forward in harmony or dissonance before riding the current into the open landscape of the piece.

The play seemed to want to wind its way toward its elliptic end the way moving water finds its journey around the rock forms in a riverbed. So I let it do that. On such a journey, perhaps one has most enjoyable ride when the urge to control the experience gives way to tiny acts of letting go. Or the simple act of listening. You listen to the river so it can tell you when to slice a paddle through the water, when to hold and just glide, and when to move in a clear direction with your destination in mind. You ride the current with abandon and let the river take you. As I began to allow the piece to tell me how I should listen to it, I realized I could probably take some advice from Mel, one of the elder characters in my play. She says, “Sometimes it’s good to get lost for a while. And not try so hard to find your way back.”

Many thanks to Mia for writing this post! We'll have more to come about this year's R&D Group soon; they just had their first meeting. Click HERE for past posts!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Occupy Your Mind, The Podcast, Part III

Following the last two episodes focused on the French revolution of 1871, this week's episode finds us back with our local Occupy Wall Street protesters. Nina Hellman and Daniel Jenkins perform an interview with Savitri and Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. To close out this podcast, we have Gibson Frazier performing Mark Read: the infamous "illuminator" behind the 99% "bat signal" on the Verizon Building last November. Interviews for this podcast were conducted by Steve Ginsberg and Quinlan Corbett, and are part of Occupy Your Mind, a program dedicated to documenting the living history of the Occupy movement. Find out how you can get involved HERE! And check out the videos of these performances on our Tumblr HERE!


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Literary Corner: We Were There by David Lawson

This post was written by Allison Hirschlag, staff member of The Civilians, who went to see We Were There by David Lawson, as part of an ongoing series of writings about artists working with the investigative method to create theater. Many thanks to Ally, and to David Lawson for so generously sharing this piece with us.

We Were There by David Lawson quite adeptly captures the fundamental tone of today’s veterans, and part of the reason why is because Lawson implemented investigatory theatre methods akin to those used by The Civilians to develop it.  He interviewed three veterans of the Iraq war with whom he happened to go to high school and wove their stories together to create this innovative theatrical piece.  Chris Croghan, Sameer Khan, and Ryan Groat had vastly different experiences in the army due to where they were stationed, what their jobs were, and why they joined up in the first place, hence their stories varied significantly from man to man.  However, one thing that resonated through each man’s account was how civil everything seemed to be for the most part in a technical wartime environment.  This is not how I ever envisioned a soldier’s life, especially during actual conflict, so it was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me.  I also really appreciated the actors’ portrayals of these men.  They kept their performances simple and matter-of-fact which in turn helped me see the veterans and not the actors.

The way in which Lawson put this piece together was particularly interesting.  He interviewed the veterans separately putting each one on tape, and then interlaced their stories to create a three person dialogue on stage.  Each man has moments where he breaks off and tells a personal story, but there is a palpable comradery among the characters that was created entirely by the playwright, and unless I had stayed for the talk back I would have thought the three men had been interviewed together.  This element really worked to enhance the concept of the piece.  You could almost see these men as they were with their unit; laid back, jokey, and totally on the level.  They had an undeniable connection between them that could only have come from a shared state of mind.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the evening was sticking around for the talkback and listening to actual veterans declare how accurate the play was in depicting what actually goes on in the lives of soldiers, both during active duty and after they’ve returned home.  It seems no matter when you served there is a great amount of routine drilled into you that is hard to let go even after you’ve been home for years.  The veterans commiserated over feeling the need to check for bombs in trash cans and roadways even though they realize they’re no longer in a war-torn country.  And while many people consider this an aspect of PTSD, the veterans both in the play and in the audience claim that it’s just part of what sticks from serving in the army.  Most declared they wouldn’t trade their experiences as soldiers for anything.

There are, however, a few things to consider when looking at this investigative play versus any other play about veterans.  Lawson interviewed men who enlisted voluntarily, and while they varied, they each had strong reasons for wanting to be soldiers.  They also joined up during a less active war time when infantry soldiers were mainly dealing with civilians and keeping an eye out for suspicious activity that might lead to IEDs.  So we are getting a somewhat skewed view in this play, but it’s a window into the lives of the soldiers of today which is an angle that absolutely should be explored.

We Were There is an incredibly topical, poignant piece about the current state of military service in Iraq.  It is a rare thing to hear such personal accounts of what it’s really like to serve in the army today, and this piece captures the mood so well that you can’t help getting engrossed.  I hope David continues developing it because the world is full of preconceived notions on this front, and his play delivers a large dose of clarity.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Featured Associate Artist: Marsha Stephanie Blake

Meet our October Featured Associate Artist, Marsha Stephanie Blake! She is working with us this month teaching a course about investigative theater at the Brooklyn High School for the Arts. The kids are conducting interviews around Brooklyn asking, Why do you vote? Marsha Stephanie has also performed with us in a few different projects... read on to hear from her!

Name: Marsha Stephanie Blake
Year Joined The Civilians: 2006/2007ish
Where you’re from: Clarendon, Jamaica
What City You’re Living In: Brooklyn, New York

How did you first get involved with The Civilians?
Coleman Domingo, an actor who has now faded off into obscurity and meaninglessness (just kidding, he's an award-winning superstar) had to drop out of The "Evangelical Project" which later became "This Beautiful City." I happened to already be in Colorado when they called in desperation for someone to go help interview people in Colorado Springs. So it was kismet.

What have you done with us, both in terms of investigating and performing?
"This Beautiful City" and the investigation and first version of what would later become "In The Footprint"

Tell us about something that surprised you, either in an interview, in using the investigative method, or in a rehearsal process.
I was accused of being a lesbian and also of coercing some teenagers into giving interviews. Neither was true. But it was surprising.

Why has it been interesting to work in this way?
It is always interesting to hear people's stories, no matter where they come from or what they believe. I love that people trust me with their lives and I'm honored to represent each and every one of them onstage.

What is the last project you worked on outside of The Civilians?
"Bullet for Adolf," a comedy co-written and directed by Woody Harrelson. Talk about interesting.

What artist has had the biggest impact on you?

What’s the last play you saw?
"Triassic Park," a musical about dinosaurs. Excellent entertainment.

What’s your favorite bad movie?
"The New Guy."

Do you like sports? (… which ones/what team?)
I like dominoes. Whatever team I'm on.

Question from Last Month’s Featured Associate Artist, Aysan Celik: What book do you re-read?
Angela's Ashes.

What question would you like us to ask our next Featured Associate Artist?
How many times has Michael Friedman made you cry in rehearsal?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Paris Commune - A Podcast Discussion

A special guest joins us in this week's episode: Kristin Ross, Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University. She has written extensively about Paris Commune. Her book The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune was what inspired Steve Cosson and Michael Friedman to start working on Paris Commune, which premiered at ArtsEmerson last month and is running in BAM's 30th Next Wave Festival. The play investigates the Parisian working-class uprising in 1871, and we want to extend a special thanks to Kristin for talking with us and sharing her expertise on the subject with us in this podcast. This episode kicks off with Brian Sgambati performing Leur Bon Dieu, a nineteenth century song in the show originally from the Commune with Lyrics by Eugène Pottier, Music by Emile Bouillon. Wrapping up this week, we have Aysan Celik (our Featured Associate Artist for September), singing “Mon Homme” by Jean-Baptiste Clément, adapted and translated by Michael Friedman.