Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Meet The R&D: Gina Rattan

This post is by R&D Group director, Gina Rattan, about a new play she produced and directed for the New York International Fringe Festival last summer. "Sweet Tooth" is about two 18 year old soon-to-be step-siblings in a quest to define true love. The play was the result of two years of work and research in collaboration with her frequent collaborator, Zach Lupetin. For more about Gina and her work, check out her website HERE, or follow her on twitter: @rattanica.

In a new work there is always a degree of trial and error. Sometimes using an investigative theater method tells you how to structure a play, even if the play is 100% fiction. This really surprised me.

When I set out to direct and develop this piece, Zach and I were wanting to investigate a question: How do we know if/when we’ve found the person we’re “supposed” to be with forever? This is a question we were both interested in exploring for personal and cultural reasons. We set out working on the play (writing, workshopping, rehearsing and eventually performing) in a traditional way (e.g. not using any particular documentary or investigative methods). 

Coming from a divorced household myself, I was intrigued by this idea. How do we know? When will we be sure? Zach had wanted to experiment with the possibility of a mathematical formula for love that lasts forever. And so were born these two characters, a teenage boy and teenage girl, who desperately wanted to understand this. Looking to their parents and themselves to define the perfect love algorithm. A guarantee.

From the beginning, the playwright wanted the characters to ask the questions themselves.  He wanted the characters to be at a point in their lives where they could address this question in a way that affected their lives, but also that the question affected their world, what they knew to be true. The two characters in the play ended up being high school students whose parents were engaged to be married. These high schoolers also had a crush on one another but were going off to college in the fall. High enough stakes for them to be faced with this question.  

Ok, so what’s the problem?

After the first draft of the piece we realized that the play could easily become an interesting, character based, discussion in an effort to answer this question, but we needed a strong structure. The actors felt similarly, “where was it building to?” “what’s the action here” “when do I get what I want”? We realized we had a lot of thoughts and ideas, but not a structured drama.

In examining how to strengthen the material two things became wholly clear, one was that we needed a structure, a build to the storytelling—an hour long discussion on the nature of love (theirs and their parents) isn’t dynamic, it amounted to an anthropological exploration and academic conversation. We were looking to make a play with a complete world, a naturalistic reality, but not to the point where we would forgo a dramatic build. Secondly, the success of the piece would rely upon how specifically we could get the two actors, the writing, and the environment to inhabit and portray teenagers.*

Gina in rehearsal with actors Sam Gedymin and Emily Kron

The playwright, actors, and myself set out to clarify our story by beginning to research online, through interviews, and people-watching. The most compelling research I conducted were the interviews. This surprised me. Not only did I get a lot of information as to what was important, cool, acceptable, to teenagers. Not only did I hear their thoughts on love, sex, marriage, true love, etc. But I learned that the more I would meet with them, or the longer I would meet with them, the type of conversation, the tempo of the conversation, and the vocabulary would change.

As we listened, interviewed, researched, and then discussed and worked on the play, it became apparent to me that the audiences' role in watching the play should feel like our experience interviewing these adolescents. I found that the research/investigation gave way to the structure of the piece. The behavior and priorities of teenagers showed me how to put the piece together, how to build and tell the story.

I generally approach work, especially that of fiction, by doing a lot of research but it is primarily visual or literary. I cannot express enough how instrumental these conversations were. And how much they contributed to the final arc of the story, the build, the brush strokes.

I felt strongly that we needed to give the audience the same connection to the characters that we felt in interviewing them. This meant structuring the conversation, the debate of the two characters onstage in a very specific way: they needed to begin the play as two unfamiliar, uncomfortable and opposing forces. They needed to approach each other as we were approached by the teenagers, with distrust, a distance, a coolness. And the further they got into the debate, the more they became invested in the outcome of the interaction, and less about seeming cool or funny or pretty or smart, or any of the other pressures teens feel in social interactions. By the end of the play the characters needed to break down those social barriers and grapple with their real fears about relationships.

Production photo by Matthew Murphy
Structurally speaking we finally were able to have a story with a distinctive dramatic build and a clear visceral coming together of two people. It is a great reminder to risk, to try new things. And. Of course. Get out in the world and talk to people.

*I should note that the choice to use non-teenagers (actors in their early 20s) was intentional. We needed actors who could portray the age convincingly, and also inhabit and make real the social pressures that teenagers face. I felt strongly that teenagers who are still experiencing these pressures are unable to explore them without inhibition. The perspective that being an adult provides was necessary for the material.

Thanks for sharing your process, Gina. For other posts from our other R&D Group artists, please click HERE.

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