I know that, as theatre artists, we tend to focus on the logistics of making plays. While that does get things done, sometimes that means we skip over crucial principles and ideas, things that would give our work more direction and purpose. So these reflections won't be particularly "stagey." I'll try to keep them somewhat coherent, but don't hold me to it.
One of the main insights I've had into Tulpa is its depth, nuance and complexity. There is a lot going on in the play, so much that a single performance cannot convey the most important things about it. I'm not just talking about the Big Ideas the play wrestles with. Even just focusing on the setting, Tulpa has some six different worlds presented in the play, some of which are worlds within worlds within worlds (such as a memory of a dream by a fictional character created by [Name]). The reality (realities?) presented in Tulpa is very fluid, often changing on a dime without warning.
Now if we're going to talk about aesthetics, the complexity of Tulpa is even more evident. Tulpa does not fit into a particular genre or style familiar to most theatre practitioners. Tulpa does not owe its form or content to a particular work or artist, so there is no default or standard way to approach staging it. On the one hand, this gives theatre artists a lot of freedom to put their own creativity into it, unlike, say, a realistic period piece. On the other hand, the freedom can paralyze people due to the problem of having too many options.
Alright, I said that Tulpa does not fit a particular style, but that's not exactly true. I owe a lot to my very limited exposure to Japanese theatre, not to mention my love of shoujo-ai anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena (ditto Shadow Play Girls) and Strawberry Panic. I've talked before about what that meant for a play I've abandoned for the time being, but a bit of reflection on my part reveals that this Japanese (influence? sensibility? style?) is something I consistently incorporate into my work. With Tulpa, that Noh-ish (links to video) quality manifested as the main character, who is strongly based on myself. The things I enjoy about Noh, what appeals to me most about it, is the contrast between powerful feeling and minimalist expression. Here's a quote that really sums up what it's about:
Although the costumes are gorgeous, Noh is minimalist in style. It employs and empty stage, formalized gestures, and the use of masks, in order to create a distanced sense of tragic atmosphere (rather than dramatic action). In Noh, there is very little expressed emotion, or direct conflict, and few spectacular effects.
Not surprisingly, that combination of depth and subtlety has been the most challenging thing to bring out in a performance, particularly with a main character like [Name]. What's most important about her is what happens beneath the words and the things she doesn't let herself say so that when she finally gets to express what she keeps bottled up it really means something. It requires silence and stillness, a gift for understatement, that goes against the training many Western actors have. This is not good or bad, just different. It can definitely be done, but it ain't easy.
[Name] is a tough role to play. It's very unforgiving of any sloppiness or superfluousness. [Name] is one of those roles that is virtually impossible to underplay (it's something David Mamet would love to see more actors do). But overplaying it creates an imbalance that undermines her complexity. If the actor overplays the vulnerability, she comes off as timid (which she is not). Overdo the force behind some of her boldest statements, she comes off as harsh and/or aggressive (which she is not). Go too far with the reserve, and it becomes impossible to understand why she allows Anne to keep coming back. Make her too strident, and her alienation rings false. She's in a constant state of tension between the craving for intimacy and the fear of being hurt - a fear she has every reason to have.
In a way, she's similar to Hamlet in this regard. It's easy to play up Hamlet as madman, but that leaves the poetry and humor (amongst other things) unfulfilled. Likewise, a performance that can make you believe "To be or not to be" has to be the same one that convinces you that Hamlet would run Polonius through without thinking twice about it.
Speaking of Shakespeare, another thing I discovered about Tulpa is how important precision is to a successful performance. Skipping over words or ignoring punctuation or omitting stage directions actually impacts the pacing of a scene and/or meaning of a line.
I speak a great deal about performance, which means actors, because of something I realized about Tulpa after the most recent reading: that it does not need a full production in the sense of lights, sets, and costumes - what Aristotle would call spectacle. When the performers hit it right, it didn't matter that the TV set was a cardboard box with an antenna taped to it or that the sofa was two cushions on top of a wooden box. It didn't matter that the Guardian Angels of Blackness didn't have wings or halos. If the actors are true to every moment, the audience will go with them, even if they do not quite understand the rules of the play-world.
Talkbacks work best when they are not thinly veiled critique. I get more out of a real discussion with audiences speaking to each other as much as if not more than they are to me or the other artists. I get a better feel for what they're really bringing to it and getting out of it by keeping my mouth shut and listening to them talk, argue, and reflect about my work than I do with any feedback they give directly to me. First of all, I'm my own worst critic, and I don't need anybody's help in that regard. It takes a lot of writer-crack to work up the nerve to say anything unequivocally positive about my work. Second of all, I've learned that, due to a perfectionist streak the size of the grand canyon, I should not think or talk about my work in terms of quality in the sense of its worthiness. I put a lot of heart into my writing, and too many critical voices in my head sometimes leads me to destroy the very thing I put into it. I owe it to myself not to do that to myself.
What Tulpa also makes very clear is how the theatre world can be particularly limiting for Black women playwrights. This is probably my own internalized racial inferiority operating here, but I can't quite shake the feeling that, because nobody White gave me any substantial positive feedback (except for Gus and one audience member who stayed back for the post-show discussion), that my work is worse than bad - it's mediocre. Seriously, I often feel like a Salieri surrounded by Mozarts. And because Tulpa is such a deeply personal piece, it's hard not to internalize that, not to feel like what I sense as a lack of response says anything about my worth as an artist or as a human being.
I know that has a lot to do with the current dynamics of the theatre world, a world that is, unfortunately, still dominated by White men and is, despite liberal politics, governed by a conservative mindset. One of these days, I'm going to do a power analysis of New York's indie theatre scene, but that's probably for a time when other theatre people decide that what I say is worth listening to (hinthinthint- that's part of the analysis).
I don't mean to be such a downer, but I find it very telling that this keeps happening. Every few months the theatre blogosphere has some discussion about diversity (I think we're due for one in February; bet you can guess why). They ask the same questions about the theatrical landscape: Where are the women playwrights? Where are the playwrights of color? Where are the poor and working-class playwrights? Where are the playwrights who don't have MFAs or didn't major in theatre in undergrad? Why aren't Black people seeing our shows? What are we doing wrong? Yadda yadda yadda. And I say the same shit I said then, "Hello! I'm right here. I have a show/script." And then . . .
All of this actually points to the fact that I need to reconsider not only how my work gets put on but also how I define success. Prizes and festivals and commissions used to be something I thought I wanted to strive for, but I've changed my mind. My goal now is to bring Tulpa to as many people who want and/or need to see it as possible. I don't care if they're in school. I don't care if they're in prison. I don't care if they're in a fetish club. Wherever people are who need to see Tulpa, that's what I'm willing to go with it. In the city. In the country. I don't care. That's how I define success. I don't give a shit about Obie, MacArthur, Julliard, or whatever. It's about getting the work to the people who most need to see it.
Somehow, I think the way we normally go about doing things gets in the way of that.