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!

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