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?