October 1, 2008

Bonsai Theater

Nature is the ultimate theater.

There is no 4th wall. The very act of living is a drama. Being itself tells a story. Forests, oceans, deserts, mountains - all have eons of narrative, ages of plot behind them.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that I got a lot of inspiration about the style of my play from the Bonsai exhibit at Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I'd love to visit it at night when there aren't so many people around, just to look at the bonsai.

Like the geek I am, I read the little display plaques talking about where bonsai come from, how they're shaped, what they mean. What intrigued me the most about what I learned was the idea that bonsai are more than just living sculptures. They are actors in an unspoken story. Their shapes suggest an entire landscape, even a story.

So as I was looking at the bonsai, I thought of them as miniature models for a story. I took in the details about each one, wondering what its story was. A trunk bent at a severe angle recalls a powerful storm that razed the land. A blue bowl was more than an aesthetic touch - it was the suggestion of water. What body of water? Where? What happened near or beneath the tree? Who or what was involved?

It made me think about my play and how it's presented to the audience (I thought about Matt's play too, but in a different context).

The process is quite Zen, "empty," because the active part is invisible, only grasped by the imagination, never by the overt display. The point is to engage the audience's own ability to create story by suggesting narrative rather than imposing one upon them. The performance is meant to help the audience see the unseen.

(Digressing to talk about Matt's play . . .

In retrospect, it makes me think of birdsong. Now, what kind of birds is up for grabs - but the constant repetition suggests parrots, mockingbirds, cuckoos, and other "chripy" birds (as opposed to, say eages or owls). I'm not saying Matt's play is about birds. It's just the connection I made when I heard birds in the garden.)

But the question remains: How can we apply bonsai to theater?

Clearly, if we're working from a text there has to be a kind of narrative, doesn't there? I'm not so sure.

Let us imagine that I'm just giving you small slices of the overall story, something like fractured dreams, where the audience is meant to connect the dots, to imagine the story behind the performance. Of course, American audiences are used to having things spoon-fed to them. Actors tend to relish roles they can sink their teeth into. Directors and designers might have a feld day with the freedom they have - or they may simply become overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities. Or worse yet, they don't recognize this freedom then fall back on convention and cliche (as in, remaking my play in Walt Disney's image).

I could use a little perspective here. Actors, directors, designers - what do you think?


  1. A lot of well made plays are pretty boring. Thankfully that's not the only way to tell a story.

    For me, it depends on how good the story is and how well it's told.

    Not how it's told. Some stories are better told in different ways. Narrative forms are more frequent and more audiences are accustomed to it.

    But I think a problem that a lot of folks get into when breaking from that mold is leaving a trail of clues behind.

    So if the audience is supposed to try to connect the dots, they can. Granted not everyone will connect the same dots.

  2. er should have said failing to leave a trail

  3. I'll go ahead and tell you one of the ideas I wrote about on my blog.

    The play takes place in a restaurant. The cast has about 10 characters. Each scene consists of one, two or three characters sitting at the table eating dinner. They talk about random controversial topics (adultery, abortion, elections, what-have-you). The only thing that stays the same between each scene is the waitress, the set, and the sounds. The people and topics change each scene.

    The sound effects are basically the exact same sound effects for each scene. For instance, one minute into the first scene, you hear the sound of a baby crying. Fifty seconds later, a glass shatters. Two minutes later, a phone rings. So on and so forth.

    In the second scene, maybe 2 minutes into the scene you hear the glass shatter, two minutes later you hear a phone ring, so on and so forth.

    In the third scene, you hear a man cursing offstage, fifteen seconds later a baby cries, fifty seconds later glass breaks, two minutes later phone rings...

    The idea being that these are all taking place concurrently in a restaurant. The clues that each conversation is going on at the same time as all the others lie in the sound effects going on in the background. In each scene, the source of a sound effect would be discovered. For instance, in the first scene you might have a baby (doll, obviously) that cries on cue. In the second scene, at the appropriate time, a cellphone would ring. So on and so forth.

    The actual conversations that occur wouldn't be particularly relevant to this concept, but they could be self-contained dialogues about any topic I choose. The puzzle isn't what they're talking about, but WHEN they're talking about it.

    They're all eating at the same restaurant at the same time.

    That's one of my ideas. I can understand that an audience might not appreciate it, but it's something that I would be fascinated by. Hopefully, by the end of the show, the audience would guess that the whole thing takes place at the same time.

    The second idea that I had has some similarities to this, but it's more of a story than an experiment with time.

    So, with respect to tony adam's comment... I'd hope that most of my audience would connect the right dots. Of course, it might make a better show if there were more than one set of dots to connect.

    Like your bansai dream idea, my "story" isn't the forefront of the show, but rather the things that happen in the background that bring the entire thing to another level of experience.

    That make sense?

  4. @Tony -

    So if the audience is supposed to try to connect the dots, they can. Granted not everyone will connect the same dots.

    Yeah. It's a tough act, knowing how many clues to leave and of what kind. I mean, you want to have it be open to interpretation, but you don't want to completely lose the audience.


    Of course it makes sense. :)

  5. I'm interested in the miniature aspect of bonzai -- that they resemble full-sized trees in miniature. How might a play be miniaturized? For instance, how might an epic novel be presented in a very small space? (Cf Peter Brook's story in "The Empty Space" of the performance of "Crime and Punishment" in a London attic during the blitz.) I remember reading about a Mabou Mines production of "Cascando" done with tiny puppets manipulated by David Warrilow.

  6. I posted some of my thoughts about this in my Wayfarer's Tales.

  7. This might help me with something I've been trying to understand. I keep seeing a desire not to convey anything specific, to avoid putting any specific ideas into the minds of the audience. At the same time I see a desire to convey *something*. I've seen some clues about a sense of fantasy. The biggest clue for me so far is this:

    "In fact, that's what playwriting is for me: giving people a piece of one of those many worlds I inhabit on a day-to-day basis."

    Maybe you want to help people see the magic all around us, beyond the routine meanings of everyday life. You can't do it by telling them what they will see.

    I wonder . . . I'm not sure you can do it by trying not to tell them anything, either.

    How to do it, how to do it . . .

    I'll be thinking about that.

  8. Maybe you want to help people see the magic all around us, beyond the routine meanings of everyday life. You can't do it by telling them what they will see.

    I wonder . . . I'm not sure you can do it by trying not to tell them anything, either.

    How to do it, how to do it . . .

    How to do it, indeed.

    I'm sort of getting there. As I said in one of my earlier posts about my process, I'm more often unwriting than writing - paring down the non-essential and focusing on the actual phenomenon at work. It requires a very specific frame of mind that straddles dreaming and waking, rational and intuitive. It's a paradoxical thing that requires discipline while at the same time letting go of control.

  9. I don't have any ideas for now about using a play to help people see the magic all around, but I discovered an exercise that helps me do it for myself. I look all around me, looking for impressions that feel like they mean something, especially impressions I have no words for. The way one branch of a tree crosses in front of another, for example, or the shape of a tree or of a skyline.

    This reminds me of two people lying on the grass looking at the clouds and telling each other what they see in them. "Look, there's a mountain" "It looks more like a dish of ice cream to me."