Saturday, January 03, 2009

Production notes for STRESS AND THE CITY

Rehearsals start today!

I founded NYCPlaywrights (along with my ex-boyfriend) back in November 2000, mainly as a way to have a community of theatre people to work with. Once you are out of school, you have to build a community yourself, or join one. I had actually joined one, and then my ex got into a snit with the bigwigs of that theatre group and I decided it was time to move on. So we started NYCP and gradually, a community came about. So that was a good thing. The other good thing about being part of NYCPlaywrights is that it forces you to write - once you are on the schedule, you have to show up with something to hand out to actors to read.

These STRESS AND THE CITY plays were all written to be read, initially at an NYCPlaywrights' meeting. (Although this show is produced by my company Mergatroyd Productions.) Here's a little background about each play:

  • FOX FORCE FIVE - based on a true story, and in fact the character Amy, played by Phoebe Summersquash, actually is Phoebe, and Phoebe really did say to Jackie "we made out." I thought Phoebe was gay after that, but it turns out she is married. To a man. The part about calling ourselves Fox Force Five wasn't true - until AFTER I wrote the play. Bruce Barton, BTW, is an honorary Fox.

  • PERSONAL JESUS - I was raised Catholic. I'm not Catholic anymore. I used to do clinic defense for a women's health center in South Jersey, and sometimes the protestors, Catholics and the born-again Christians, would clash about just exactly who this Jesus was, whether his mother was a perpetual Virgin, etc. That inspired this play.

  • POOH STORY - everybody in the theatre world adores Edward Albee, except me and John Simon. It really embarrasses me to be in a group that has crusty old John Simon in it, but there it is. I thought it was high time for a parody of Albee's ZOO STORY.

  • STAGE DIVING - I did go to a Sleater-Kinney show with my daughter, and I did marvel at the fact that everybody was wearing office casual clothing as opposed to the leather-based regalia of Ye Olden Days in the 1980s. The rest of it I made up.

  • THE B WORD - based on a true story of what happened to me and my two brothers when we went to a playground in Camden NJ. Except it was a gang of boys and they punched my brothers, but left me alone. The Latino teenager who came along is completely true.

  • MR. BLACK - based on my ex-boyfriend, and a story he told me about what happened to him before we met. He has some anger issues.
  • HAPPILY MARRIED - is based on some people I knew recently. I was always being told that an actor was "happily married" but after watching her massage, cling to, and grope a man who was not her husband, on several occasions, well, all I can say is that I have a very different idea of what it means to be happily married than some people.

  • THE HELICOPTER - did not happen to me, but could have - my daughter worked next door to the World Trade Center back in 2001. I've been working on this play off and on since 2002.

This production is very low tech, for a couple of reasons. One is of course that as of this writing (December 2008) we are in a world-wide financial recession and things are tough all over, especially in the arts. Low-tech is more affordable. But there are also very good aesthetic reasons for the low tech, and I want to quote Thornton Wilder on the subject. Wilder, you probably know, wrote Our Town, which many people, including me, consider a masterpiece. But here is a segment of the theatre world that disparages OUR TOWN, thinking it's sentimental and old-fashioned. They could not be more wrong. But many of these are, I suspect, people who think that theatre isn't valid unless somebody is getting his eyeballs sucked out, or some little girl is being crucified, both of which have been portrayed on the New York stage recently. These people, in my opinion, would be better off spending their time at a monster truck rally than theatre, so thuggish and petrified are their sensibilities. Fie on them, I say. Anyway, back to Wilder, who said in the Preface to a collection of his plays:

The novel is pre-eminently the vehicle of the unique occasion, the theater of the generalized one. It is through the theater's power to raise the exhibited individual action to the realm of idea and type and universal that it is able to evoke our belief. But power is precisely what nineteenth-century audiences did not - dared not - confront.
They tamed it and drew its teeth; squeezed it into that removed showcase. They loaded the stage with specific objects, because every concrete object on the stage fixes and narrows the action to one moment in time and place. (Have you ever noticed that in the plays of Shakespeare no one - except occasionally a ruler - sits down? There were not even chairs on the English or Spanish stages in the time of Elizabeth I.)
So it was by a jugglery with time that the middle classes devitalized the theater. When you emphasize place in the theater, you drag down and limit and harness time to it. You thrust the action back into past time, whereas it is precisely the glory of the stage that it is always "now" there. Under such production methods the characters are all dead before the action starts. You don't have to pay deeply from your heart's participation. No great age in the theater ever attempted to capture the audience's belief through this kind of specification and localization. I became dissatisfied with the theater because I was unable to lend credence to such childish attempts to be "real."

I began writing one-act plays that tried to capture not verisimilitude but reality. In The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden four kitchen chairs present an automobile and a family travels seventy miles in twenty minutes. Ninety years go by in The Long Christmas Dinner. In Pullman Car Hiawatha some more plain chairs serve as berths and we hear the very vital statistics of the towns and fields that passengers are traversing; we hear their thoughts; we even hear the planets over their heads. In Chinese drama a character, by straddling a stick,
conveys to us that he is on horseback. In almost every No play of the Japanese an actor makes a tour of the stage and we know he is making a long jurney. Think of the ubiquity that Shakespeare's stage afforded for the battle scenes at the close of Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra. As we see them today what a cutting and hacking of the text takes place - what condescension, what contempt for his dramaturgy.

Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante's Purgatory). It is an attempt to find value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set the village against the largest dimensions of time and place. The recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it)are 'hundreds', 'thousands', 'millions'. Emily's joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents - what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living and will live? Each individual's assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner. And here the method of staging finds its justification - in the first two acts there are at least a few chairs and tables but when she revisits the earth and the kitchen to which she descended on her twelfth birhtday, the very chairs and table are gone. Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind - not in things, not in "scenery." Moliere said that for the theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.

My play The Helicopter is a 9-11 play. But the focus is on one woman and her tragedy, and her co-worker's reaction. In spite of the big important historical international meaning of that day, my play actually focuses on something that happens every single day on this planet. Like Wilder, I'm trying to make a connection between the very specific and the very general - not verisimilitude but reality.