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Reflection on Process: The Normal Heart

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I greatly appreciate the blogs, “On Darkness and Audience,” and “A Queer Eye for The Normal Heart,” that have been posted about the recent production at Boston University on The Normal Heart. I want to thank you not only your attendance at the production, but also for your thoughtful reflection about it.  They have provided me the opportunity to begin my own reflection about the show, and in particular, theatrical choices made about the production.

Dramaturgically, one of my first starting points to developing ideas for how a particular production may unfold is to ask myself: “what does this play want?”

This question stems from my work at Redmoon Theater with objects, and with puppets especially.  The question comes from thinking about how a specific object wants to be manipulated. Essentially, one can imagine all she wants to about how an object might move or be interacted with, but the object will actually tell you how it wants to be manipulated – what it wants. This isn’t something mystical, but rather simple physics – the weight of the object, the sharp or soft lines of it, the hinges, the knobs, the fuzzy lining, the surfaces of it, etc…everything about the object, including the sounds it makes, is all useful information that then guides how an event with an object might unfold—what action the object inspires. In addition, once the ‘rules’ of the object are understood, one can propose how the rules of that object might be broken – and thereby give the audience a moment of astonishment (hopefully:).

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For example, when I first saw the puppet for Dr. Caligari, a puppet in Redmoon’s The Cabinet, I thought – ah! this guy is creepy, he’s going to slither around the set. This was how I imagined he might move. But then I held him and tried to ask, what did this puppet want? He was round, heavy, had tiny little arms and tiny little legs. He wasn’t going to be slithering…rather, he wanted to do little jumps to get to places, and wriggle his creepy little head back and forth. How he ended up moving was totally different than how I imagined – and, as often is the case, 10 times more interesting than how I imagined he might move.

So, I think plays work the same way…

When I asked myself, “what does The Normal Heart want?” I began to think about what it didn’t want. I did not want poetry – which I translated into meaning it did not want theatrics. To me, the play feels like a hammer being raised in Act I, and then slamming down in Act II. The horror of the play is real, so awfully real, that I wouldn’t even know how to encase it, theatrically. It seemed to resist anything being put on top of it. So, I chose not to.

Much of my career has been creating work that is spectacle based – that uses spectacle and the magic of theater as the primary mode of storytelling; imagery married to robust physicality was often at the same level if not overriding text. So, thinking about The Normal Heart and knowing that, in my mind, it didn’t want any spectacle, I was excited by the challenge. I asked myself: how can this production team create a show with the minimal amount of theatrics as necessary?

Aside from the actors and their words, the next largest presence in the show is the wall of names and statistics about the disease. Now that I’ve seen the show in this manner, I don’t know how else it could be done. It asks you to realize, constantly, that you are watching a show about real events, real people, real life and death.

It was because of this that I felt comfortable adding what might be considered the most theatrical (and in a lot of ways not theatrical) element – the old school overhead projector. We used the projector to display the scene location at the top of each scene. Each title was handwritten, like the names and stats on the wall. I think one of the only reasons that the play allowed this element was that it worked in a Brechtian way—it reminded the audience of watching a play, to be critical, to engage with the play and its subject matter critically, which is what the author, Larry Kramer, wants us to do.

In addition, I had to ask, “what does the performance space want?” Initially, the play was scheduled to perform in 102 (a performance space in the CFA at Boston University) which is an incredibly theatrical/poetic space. I was greatly relieved to find out that the performance space could be switched and that we would perform the space in 105 (an elongated space with a wonderful angle that, from the right perspective, pushes the energy of that room along that angle). And, the performance space of 105 is bare bones, not necessarily poetic, and fairly utilitarian. In other words, the space was perfect…it also didn’t want any poetry. I tried to put lights in it, for exactly the reason that Laura speaks about in On Darkness and Audience, but in this way (which is perhaps only my take on it…) the space didn’t want it.

The space said: I’m a dance studio. I have a wall full of mirrors and ballet bars, some of the ceiling tiles are falling loose and one of my walls has a large set of windows that will never let the sounds of the outside world, including a subway train, be filtered out (not to mention the guy practicing his tuba next door). Great, I thought – let’s embrace it (otherwise we’d need a whole butt load of theatrics to try to mask it). But, luckily, we were working with a play that didn’t want theatrics…that wanted the real world and its noisy sounds to bleed in, that wasn’t perfect and had missing tiles.

Ultimately, what I came to understanding the play wanting was community – the play wants people to listen to one another and to open our hearts to each other. This is one of the reasons I asked the ensemble to remain on stage during the show – and why the first row of the audience curved around to almost meet up with the actors as they sat on stage.  And, why it asks that actors to give so much of their hearts to the show and to the audience – and, they did.

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One comment on “Reflection on Process: The Normal Heart

  1. What a fantasic dialogue you’re cultivating here.

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