Recently I had the opportunity to catch Company One’s production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Really. And it was really damn good.
The play has kept me thinking about the nature of death and memory, about how my baby brother has more picture and video footage of him than any of my grandparents, about how relationships change radically depending on whose lens you view them from, and about motherhood. It is a play chock-full of interesting and complex revelations that Drury seems to be having in tandem with the audience, through characters that feel deeply autobiographical and yet easily relatable.
One of the most compelling parts of this production was the decision to produce it in a gallery space, in tandem with visual artists whose work was exhibited in conversation with the play. It was an interesting experience to watch a set of fairly regular theatre-goers be thrown slightly off-kilter by the very act of coming to see a play. The pre-show went like this: we started in one gallery, where a stunning portraiture exhibit was displayed, then migrated to a downstairs gallery in groups based on cards received at the front door. While the structure was easy to follow and Company One had staff around to assist, it was fascinating to overhear the mumbled side-conversations and ever-so-slight eye rolls at the whole process. What exactly was so frustrating about this means of production, I thought?
Well, I think that many of us are uncomfortable experiencing anything in a different way than we expected to.
I’m risking being diminutive here, but I can’t help connecting that experience with both Mother’s and Girlfriend’s in the play. Neither of them expect to lose Calvin, a promising young photographer, and the shock of that unnatural loss vibrates throughout the play – even audibly as various tones enter the soundscape. What is the sound of what you love being ripped away from you? How do we quantify that feeling other than through its negative space, the hole left behind?
The idea of negative space was solidified for me in the moment of Mother’s silent scream. The lights swelled and the atmosphere seemed unutterably thick, like I was trapped, like death, as Mother silently screamed for her son. The negative space was all around me; I felt everything and nothing at all.
Nothing is scarier than the unknown, really.
After the show, the audience filled out the usual C1 post-show survey, on a clipboard under each of our seats. A lovely addition to this post-show material was a postcard-sized photographic print with a question on the back. There were a variety of questions that we could answer and then leave in a box at the front of the space. We could browse through others’ answers or simply deposit our own. My question was something to the extent of: Have you used art as a means to help you through grief?
I sort of laughed to myself, because art as a means to process grief often feels like the only thing that I do. My artistry was vitally important to help me heal from and process the death of my big brother. I could pour my pain and confusion and terror into a container that could hold all of it, without fail. Even now, years later, I think that much of the art that I make and the art I am drawn in by has to do with death, with the empty space, with the unknown and with what is left behind.
This photo is of my late big brother, Matt, who died nearly ten years ago. After his death, at the age of 19, this photo changed its meaning and became part of his mythology. This photo stood for everything he was and simultaneously made tangible the feeling of losing him, of the negative space as he – literally – walks into the light. It’s almost too poetic to be real.
Too poetic to be real.
That’s a little like what I felt during Company One’s production of Really. I don’t mean it as a criticism, because it feels like the playwright’s intent. After all, we do abstract reality when we place it through a frame, whether that frame is a camera lens or a piece of theatre or both. Mother and Girlfriend’s grief is bordered, contained, edged inside a small white basement gallery, grief at a run time of 90 minutes no intermission, grief including dramaturgical notes, grief with a script and a lighting designer and some really damn good actors.
I wish my grief could be as neat.
For more information, check out Company One’s rehearsal and production blog.