February 15, 2009

And more Japanese theater!

I've been on a real kick with Japanese theater. Don't know why, but it appeals to me in a way American theater doesn't. At the very least, it's given me some way to refer to other styles when I talk about the play I'm doing, which is experimental to say the least. With the works I've looked at lately, I've gained more confidence in the uniqueness of what I'm doing and how I'm approaching my current piece.

There's something about the totally obvious theatricality of Japanese theater that makes me engage with it. I want my audience to have this same experience (more on this later). Somehow, being invited not to take the work literally did something to my brain. It sort of told my rational mind to shut the fuck up and concentrate on what's really going on instead of getting sidetracked by ephemera such as lights, sets, and costumes. Not that those aren't important, but they have no need to be completely plausible or logically consistent. In fact, too much consistency in the externals sometimes detracts from my enjoyment of the story, as if perhaps I was distracted from the deeper truths within it.

The main issue I'm having - and I wonder if Noh theater artists have the same problem - is how to translate the substance of the piece from my head to the page. When I envision the transformations and interactions going on in the story of the play I'm working on, they work very well. I can even imagine the stage, the lighting, even the audience. But how do I get that across on the page in a way that opens potential collaborators to its possibilities? You have no idea how frustrating it is when I say that this-or-that changes into such-and-such, only to have people go, "Do you mean for this to be on a projector?" and look at their blank or disbelieving faces when I say, "No."

Part of it, I think, is a preoccupation with naturalism, even in works that are clearly fantasy. There's a certain lack of engagement with the imagination, as if imagination is something that happens to you rather than something you bring with you wherever you go. Somehow, even with the clear invitation to leave behind our everyday notions of reality, we need to be consumed with an illusion.

Another thing I'm not always sure I know how to answer is, "What's your play about?" I may have mentioned this before, but I don't really write plays for plot or character. I write to create worlds (as in types of realities) for my audience to experience. If I had to pin it down, my enjoyment of a piece hinges heavily on the world it creates. Character, plot, setting, and so forth reflect that world - or rather, are manifestations of it - but they aren't things in and of themselves. It doesn't have to be overtly fantastical, either. Think Spike Lee (especially his early stuff like School Daze) or Quentin Tarantino (particularly Pulp Fiction). Even at their most seemingly realistic, there are hints of a different world, usually reflected through how characters speak and interact.

But the question remains: How do I write in such a way as to help people - especially performers and crew members - make that leap?


  1. "How do I write in such a way as to help people - especially performers and crew members - make that leap?"

    My first thought is that they would need much more than just the script. There would need to be additional text, separate from the script, or interlaced with it. They might also need drawings, and possibly even something to listen to, like some of the music you've mentioned, and creepy moans or whatever.

    I just had an idea of how to invite people to find their own meanings. Two or three repetitions of the same piece, shortened if necessary, with variations to highlight different possible meanings.

  2. "But the question remains: How do I write in such a way as to help people - especially performers and crew members - make that leap?"

    I see one answer in the question itself. Not an answer, maybe, but possibly a helpful question: Do you have to be limited to writing?

    Or: How much can you break free from the limitations of dialogue and character analysis, without breaking free of the kinds of word-oriented scriptwriting associated with it? How far can you go with unprecedented movement-oriented performance, without developing new spirit-oriented ways of preparing them.

    Another question: How much can a cast and crew do, with any script, to help people see the magic around them, if the cast and crew haven't seen it themselves?

    It might be possible, to some degree, to give an audience what you want to give them, using a cast and crew that has no experience with it, and a written script, but it seems self-defeating to me. It might be much more satisfying and fruitful to explore new possibilities in preparing the cast and crew.

    One idea that comes to me is a training-oriented approach. Another is either to find a cast and crew who have some experience with seeing the magic, or find people who are willing to learn, and ways to help them.

  3. Yeah, the training-oriented thing usually happens during the rehearsal part.

    I actually had in mind to do something like a comic book - except not focused on the art. More like a visual representation of what I want.

  4. A comic book sounds like a good idea.

  5. Your love of Japanese theater makes total sense, given what I've seen of your work so far. I have more experience with Kabuki as opposed to Noh, but the Japanese approach to art, as far as I've understood it, is very thrilling, and very of a piece with nature.

    You may want to investigate the work of Chicago director Shozo Sato, who has done numerous Kabuki adaptations of Shakespeare's works - most recently Kabuki Lady Macbeth. It's funny how non-plussed Shozo gets when one talks about Naturalism. To the Japanese aesthetic, naturalism isn't about Xeroxing nature, it's about reproducing the essential energy of nature. So footsteps in the wood become Ki hits, Blood is not represented with stage blood but a huge stage-wide kabuki drop of strips of red fabric.

    Boil the energy of your world down, and yes: feel free to liberate your script to visual and audio research and non-traditional scripts.

    The script for the incredibly successful promenade work As Told By the Vivian Girls (based on the works of Henry Darger) by Dog & Pony was drawn out on a sheet of posterboard - Intersecting plot lines and happenings, drawn in three dimensions rather than dialogue. The form of the script should support the energy of the final production in your head.

  6. So when you see (or read descriptions of) my little stick-figure drawings and go, "Is that a head?" don't say I didn't warn you.