On Structure, Process and Toolbelts, from a playwright, a director and a Lead. By Jorge deHoyos.on May 30 in Article, Blogroll, Dramaturgy, Interview, Theater by admin
As part of THEOFFCENTER Dramaturgical Conversation Series, TOC’s [**]! SPACE Coordinator and local dance theatre maker Jorge deHoyos sat down with Playwright Daniel Tabott, Director Andrew Nance and Lead actor Evan Johnson to talk about structure, process and other considerations of staging SLIPPING. This interview happened right at the start of preview week.
Sunday June 3rd NCTCs presents OnStage Insight Series brings the director and the cast of SLIPPING back the stage after the performance to discuss the entire creative process. All are welcome.
A play by Daniel Talbott, playing at New Conservatory Theater through July 1, 2012.
Directed by Andrew Nance
Starring my friend and colleague Evan Johnson
Evan asked me to help him with learning his lines since he’s playing the main character, Eli…
…I see his mind at work solidifying the language into memory…like assembling a pile of bones to make a skeleton. He holds a few bones at a time trying to remember where each one goes. He uses different emotions and intentions like glue to see if the bones fit in place (right now he’s mostly just trying to lay them all out, enough to see if he’s on the right track towards the correct arrangement). I sense that another part of his brain is playing with different muscular colors and fleshy outfits that will make this body of Eli’s look human.
The lines are short, and the breaks/silences often. I feel heavy about Eli. A lot of scenes are less than a page long—fractured. They jump around quickly in time—each a completely different mood, an effect before knowing a cause, reminiscing alone in one moment to shouting with his mom the next to an endearing flirtation from his friend a line-break later.
Daniel, the playwright:
I try to write plays that are experiential in nature, that force experience through action.
I think I was initially afraid of the play, so I first made it more metaphorical and dreamlike so I didn’t have to face the cock and balls, sweat, shit aspect of it – you know, the physical aspect of it, in a way. I think I hid behind the language originally and then really pared back and made it really spare so that a lot happens in the white space between the words and in the physical action.
Evan, The Actor: Daniel gives lots of room for the actor to find the movements and shifts from line to line, and there’s a lot of subtext that he wants the actor to find. It’s very actor-directed. He writes in the script that when the lines break that those are there not to impose a rhythm necessarily. He specifies places where the actors can tune into themselves and dive into the situation, which is not something that most playwrights do.
Seamlessly without even exiting or giving myself a little breather to prep for it. It’s rapid-fire, and it’s in a believable, naturalistic theater play with all those emotions funneled through character and emerging through a person who’s always trying to keep things under wraps—there’s always that psychological layer on top of it. Reading the play with an outside perspective, I can see where those switches happen, but getting those into my body is closer to the type of state work that might be practiced more by experimental dancers or in dance-theater.
Right now in the process we’re finding some nice moments of unspoken communication…the communication that happens between lines. Children pick up on it all the time with their parents. They pick up on huge waves of emotion. I like that stuff as an actor, the communication through the actions.
Right now, I’m watching the first preview run of the show for an invited audience. I’m facing a small stage with a minimal set. Evan is up there the entire time while the three other characters, the mom, a closeted guy named Chris and Eli’s friend Jake, are interspersed throughout. Right now at this moment, Eli and his mom are staring at each other, and I sense invisible stories passing through the negative space. Now Eli is alone and quiet, but I sense the presence of a memory making the air thicker. Now another pause.
Lots of these physical actions are visibly internal. It’s like dance in that they’re working an energetic choreography of objectives and states…trying to be out of their heads and in the present moment. They are performing, and it’s a performance.
Andrew, the director: I really got into the idea of trauma and how it affects all of us in some way in our lives and how do we deal with it. Some of us drink too much. Some of us act out with our parents or with our friends or with our lovers. I just looked at the various ways that the characters in the play are dealing with their own trauma, like the mom or Chris’s trauma around sexuality and living in his own secret world that he can’t quite understand and be truthful about. So that excited me, using that as a thematic touchstone.
I also liked hearing from Daniel that these characters were messy and volcanic; it was really nice to have another vocabulary for it. Sometimes you say the same notes over and over to an actor, but it might not be working. So it was nice to have the energy of the playwright to free up the actor to trust going down an unknown road.
Evan: Yeah, it was interesting to hear Daniel’s take on what he was exploring when he first wrote the play. He was referencing a time in his life when he was in love with this guy who was into sports, and it was this super angry, testosterone-filled, crazy-violent, sexual time.
He was saying that the play doesn’t have to be presentational theater. We can run down the aisles. We can go out into the audience, stare someone in the face and sit next to them. The more that the character Eli is unbridled and unabashedly not trying to be like others the better. The more punk rock and drag the better.
I’ve usually approached things really physically before: how a character walks, moves, what tensions they have, with what part of their body are they leading, their footfall… these things ground me if I’m feeling lost.
But my physical training has sort of tripped me up here since my character has to be all over the place chronologically, and I’m onstage for so long with so many different beats. It’s not linear, so I can’t just remain a static “Eli”. I have to ask which Eli? He’s an emotional teenager still experimenting with who he thinks he is, and all of these traumatic events are just happening to him.
It’s very uncomfortable terrain to be playing, and staying in a specific physical posture, etc is not going to help me gain the momentum I need to get me through to each scene. It’s not like getting on a horse and riding it. The timing is all very musical and very technical and painstaking. It’s actually much more true to life because people are much more expansive than just some limited vocabulary of physical choices.
I found that the best thing I can do is really listen to the other performers because they’re preparing backstage, and they bring onstage with them all this energy. The best recourse I have is to just respond to that.
[Daniel, Andrew and Evan are all actors as well directors, teachers and a range of other roles in the theater. Evan is also an emerging playwright, and Slipping was the first published play that Daniel wrote when he was a student at Juilliard in New York.]
To Daniel: How much do these other experiences in theatre affect the way you work when you sit down to write and direct?
I started as an actor mostly because I love all of the theatre, but I didn’t know how else to start.
For me the heart of theatre is playwrights and actors. If you take away everyone that doesn’t have to be there, in the end you need a space, you need words and you need someone to activate and translate those words through the body.
I think a lot of people just don’t understand what actors do and how hard it is to be a great actor, and also how hard it is to write a play, which is why I think it’s so good for people to try all of that. I know a lot of actors who will sit down to write and realize, this is hard, and suddenly they have a new respect for playwrights.
It’s so important that people do more than one thing, and I know that I’m a much more empathetic director and playwright and artistic director because of having done everything from lights to handing out tickets to cleaning the toilets to stage management to acting on stage both large roles and small roles. You realize that one person’s job doesn’t work without the other person’s job, and it gives you empathy and respect.
To Evan: One of the worlds you traverse is a more experimental performance scene in San Francisco. With this play, it feels like it had a spirit of new, collaborative and DIY when Daniel was first workshopping it. Now that it’s published and has been produced a few times, do you think it might be dismissed as more “traditional” theater or less cutting edge contemporary somehow?
Yeah, now that it’s published and you can get the rights to it, and buy your copies…now that it has all the stamps of being just like any other play… There are so many great plays that haven’t been revived or don’t get repeat productions. They just sit there, but when you give them a read, you might think it’s an amazing play to do in this community…something to really dig into and do the work of putting it up, and hopefully then it might have an impact. That’s the best thing about scripted theater is that one production is so different from another production, and it can still maintain the truths of the characters and the emotions. I also think that’s what a good playwright does—designing a vehicle so that those driving it can go someplace.
Working on this play has been really refreshing actually. For me, I’ve always had issues with permission…feeling like I need permission from everybody else before I give it to myself to embrace my instincts and be unapologetically full. As performers, I think it’s a constant challenge for a lot of us. But confronting that again in this process has made me feel that as an artist I have a lot more room to grow, and it’s been really humbling.
I think that when you’re making DIY work and making work on your own terms, you’re not always humbled in the same way as when you work on a project that’s maybe a more straightforward and traditional way of making theater. You’ve got a producer, and artistic director, a reading committee, a budget, tech people. Then you come in, and the actor is just supposed to sit at a table in a room full of actors with scripts, and you have to take it simply from point A to Z. I’m actually being challenged more than I ever have. The more traditional way of making a show has taught me that I have a lot to learn and that my technique and my skill set would benefit from more training and workshops and more engagements with teachers and people who can really kick my ass into gear.
I feel like it’s easy in this city and this performance climate to stay where you are for long periods of time and chart your own growth in a way that maybe isn’t the kind of growth that’s going to make you able to swing and hit the ball time after time. Maybe the growth here is a social one, I’ve grown in my individuality in who I am and who I am becoming within this community. But am I as an artist refining the tools to do what I do? I think I am growing in this process, and I’m thankful for it. I think it’s shown me that I have room to grow even further.
To Daniel: Do other plays you’ve written deal with gay subject matter or is this unique?
All my plays deal with human beings and sexuality and I would say most of the sexuality tends to be heterosexual. There are people of all sexualities in every play I’ve written and I want it that way for the rest of my life. The minute you say, this is a gay person or this is a straight person you’re separating yourself somewhat. I think that’s really dangerous with theatre – you start to play an image or an idea instead of an action of what it is, as though you can say, “Oh I’m playing a gay person; this is what a gay person is…” I think there are “homosexual-in-quotes” characters in all my plays, but I don’t think of that as a driving force.
From Evan: I think Slipping is a new take on the kind of story that Eli would be so resistant to…being the victim or all these things that an audience might already be coming to expect given the prevalent archetype where the character is always being bullied or martyred. Eli’s realizing that he’s falling for this kid, and he’s rolling his eyes that it’s “another gay love story.” His attitude about being “that kid” in “that story” is really resistant. Eli is just who he is, and all of the characters in the play, except for maybe Jake from Iowa, are also out of balance and not handling their shit well. So it’s not just a statement about the gay character, and it’s not just about his sexuality.
Will Slipping have an impact? Is it vital to this time and this place? Is it something that San Francisco is ready to listen to or absorb? If we the actors can really make the moments that full then we can have a catharsis, and the audience can go somewhere with us that’s intimate, maybe dark or scary, and maybe there can be some kind of release or insight. That’s a goal anyways…to provide something that’s going to resonate.
I ask Evan for updates after each preview run of the show during the week leading up to the premiere. He’s test-driving the skeleton he assembled from the playwright’s pile of bones. Structurally they’re all in the right place by now, but he’s still working on coordinating the muscles and making sure the skin and hair stay on. He feels the director’s expectations and desires like a sort of gravitational pressure gauge sealing him together. He’s trying to get warmer with each run so that he can be keep Eli alive while onstage.
I’d be curious to see this Eli standing in a lineup with previous Eli’s—a strange brotherhood I imagine. I’m sure some would look more fleshed out than others.
[bring in a reflection on process and choices made thru it, mention living parts (and intentions) behind the staging of any work, and close with a link to a similar moment experienced in past while working on dance theatre work. Process is unique in each specific instance, one this is certain tho, we all go through it.]
Andrew Nance – coming soon.
Daniel Talbott – DANIEL TALBOTT’s most recent work as an actor includes the Theatre for One project in Times Square and around NYC, The Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis), Master Builder (Irish Rep), Rocket City (Alabama Shakespeare Festival), Tartuffe (McCarter Theatre/Yale Rep), Marat/Sade (Classical Theatre of Harlem) and the feature film Pretty Bird, Dreaming American and The Big C on Showtime. Recent directing work includes Squealer (Lesser America at Theater for the New City), The Umbrella Plays (the teacup company/FringeNYC – Overall Excellence Award: Outstanding Play and at The Tank), Keep Your Baggage With You (at all times)(Theater for the New City), Footprint by Mac Rogers (part of +30NYC for Red Fern Theatre),Afterclap by Daniel Reitz, Birthday and Nobody, both by Crystal Skillman (Rising Phoenix Rep at the Seventh Street Small Stage), and Fall Forward (Sitelines/River to River Festival produced by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council). His play Slipping was produced at Rattlestick with Piece by Piece Productions (named one of the top ten plays of 2009 by The Advocate), premiered in Chicago at The Side Project, and was part of the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. It was published last year by Dramatists Play Service and was a finalist for a 2011 Lambda Literary Award for Drama. His play What Happened When was produced at HERE Arts Center and The Side Project and was published as part of the Plays and Playwrights 2008 anthology. He received a 2011 Theater Hall of Fame Fellowship, a 2007 New York Innovative Theatre Award for directing, a Drama-Logue Award, two Dean Goodman Choice Awards and a Judy Award for acting, and was also named one of the 15 People of the Year 2006 by nytheatre.com. He is a member of MCC Theater’s Playwrights’ Coalition, of last year’s 24Seven Lab, and of TOSOS. He is a graduate of Juilliard and of Solano College Theatre’s ATP, and teaches at the Primary Stages Einhorn School of Performing Arts (ESPA). He is one of the literary managers of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and the artistic director of Rising Phoenix Rep (recipient of the 2007 NYIT Caffe Cino Fellowship Award). Bio as of August, 2011. For more info visit www.RisingPhoenixRep.org
Evan Johnson – Evan was last seen at NCTC inTreefall. Other recent credits include Jesse Hewitt’sFreedom at Z Space and his original solo play Don’t Feel: The Death of Dahmer at Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory. He performs a comedic drag character act as Martha T. Lipton, an actress from Fresno, and raps as Rhymin’ Ralph in NCTC’s YouthAware Program educating youth, grades K-3, about HIV/AIDS. Johnson also teaches acting classes through SF Parks and Rec. His next solo show Pansy is being developed in NCTC’s Emerging Artist Program.
Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos is a San Francisco-based interdisciplinary artist focused on dance and contemporary modes of performance and embodied presentation. Jorge’s work seeks to create a space to scrutinize, question and (de)construct the systems that hold the personal in relationship to the social, spiritual and ecological. His work ranges from contemporary performance art for the stage, public interventions, communal ritual experiences to traditional Mexican folklorico dance. He’s worked with many artists including Meg Stuart, Sommer Ulrickson, Christine Bonansea, Erika Chong Shuch, Laura Arrington, Jesse Hewit, Nathaniel Justiniano/Naked Empire Bouffon and mostly with his two mentors Keith Hennessy and Sara Shelton Mann.
Jorge finds energy from the vibrant communities that abound in San Francisco (artistic, permaculture, sexual, spiritual, etc), especially his friends working in queer performance/activism. He was born in Los Angeles, studied Cultural Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz and currently lives in and coordinates THEOFFCENTER, a community and queer art space. Jorge has also written articles for the publications In Dance (San Francisco) as well as Dance Theatre Journal (London).