Contextless Scenes

We’ve had a good couple of studios since the last blog entry. One of our collaborators, Brendan, built a series of exercises exploring silent scenes. Some with no dialogue, and some where the intent is to communicate specific words, but that communication must be made without the benefit of spoken language. It was a fantastic reminder of how, without the crutch of language, the demands on the quality of listening and observation of partner grow exponentially.

These experiments got me thinking about the context of conversations. In one experiment, Brendan used a scene from a well known story but kept the name of it from us. The dialogue generated a variety of scenarios and exciting moments that never would have occurred if we had all the context and back story. As a result, this past week I asked the collaborators to transcribe a conversation they overheard over a specific 24 hour period. I requested they include no context at all, so that we can play with these dialogues free from those constraints.

As you read, notice your own desire to fill in the holes of context. There is something inherently human about the desire to create story and narrative out of the snippets of information we get in everyday life. I love that. I’m excited by the idea of making the audience lean forward and try to build the story around the events they witness. It feels true to me. Here are some of our overheard dialogues…

Dialogue One
A: “You dunno what a Kindle is?”
B: “Nah.”
A: “It’s like a book on a iPad. D’you read at all?”
B: “Pshh! No way.”
A: “Oh, yeah, then never mind. I coulda gotten you one real cheap…”
Dialogue Two
A. He’s dealing with some guilt issues this weekend.
B. What? What is he talking about?
C. Nothing…
A. This fire wood is too wet to start a fire. I can’t even get this kindling going.
B. Will it not light if it is wet?
A. No, I am obsessed with my fire wood at home. I turn it two or three time a weekend to keep it from getting wet.
B. What if you put the bigger logs by the fire so they dry?
A. Ok….do it…
B. What? I am sorry…am I being too much? Am I micro-managing?
Dialogue Three
A: I went to a bacon banquet the other night.
B: Oh, really?
A: Yeah, it was great. Everyone had to make a different dish–appetizer, main course, dessert, and there were judges who had to taste it all. I made bacon fudge.
B: Have you had those bacon chocolate bars they have downstairs?
A: Oh yeah, they’re good.
C: (laughing) This whole time you were talking, I thought you were saying vegan, not bacon.
A: (laughing) Yeah, it’s the total opposite
B: I’ve heard a lot of vegetarians say that bacon is their gateway drug.
C: For me, it’s shrimp.
Dialogue Four
A: Once you try it with half and half you’ll never go back.
B: I like cream.
A: Half and half is, like, half cream half milk.
B: Yeah
Dialogue Five
A: I kinda wanna get Chinese food.
B: Yeah! But I don’t wanna eat crazy monster zombie.
Dialogue Six
A: Where shall I sit? There’s no…
C: There are plenty more – we have lots…
B: Here, sit here.
A: Is that? Can I just sit there?
B: You may.
A: Thank you. How will I be able to get myself in there… I’ll just… I’m going to sit here, shall I? Is it okay for me to sit here?
C: You’re fine there.
A: Yes.    …I can’t hear them.
Dialogue Seven
GUY: What do you think of the sunglassess. Too Gaga?
CHICK: They’re a little bit too gaga. And I think the glasses with the fairy tattoo is too – there’s too many messages going on.
GUY: So just the glasses will be enough Gaga.
CHICK: Definitely enough Gaga.
Dialogue Eight
Woman 1: Anything you see here but just one I think.
Woman: This is too much pressure.
Woman 1: Then some vegetables.
Woman 2: I don’ do them. That’s not true. I did them last week. This is really stressful. Life is all stress. I hate my apartment too.
Woman 1: She’ll have the white chocolate chip.
Woman 2; I think I need take some time off. Couldn’t pick out a – but I don’t get time off until next year so I would have to quit.
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Beat of Your Own Drummer

I admit it, there’s nothing quite like riding in the subway and listening to songs about New York on my iPod. It feels like the world is in sync. Perhaps this is why I do a surprisingly good karaoke rendition of ‘Empire State’. As a director I regularly use music as major component of creating theatrical experiences. I want as many ways as possible to sync my ideas with the audience’s experience.

At this week’s studio (thanks for honing in on that word Antonia) we experimented with recorded music. I developed several exercises using iPods/mp3 players as a tool. Much of it grew out of recent experiments I conducted with a really lovely ensemble here in NYC known as LabRats.

We first created abstract, wordless physical stories and then some 10-line scenes. We explored how music changed the experience for performers and audience. What if everyone in the audience listens to a different song? What if each of the performers hits ‘shuffle’ and begins the scene with their headphones on? What if we do the same scene 5 times and randomly play a different song each time, letting the performances adjust to the influence of the music?

The results were exciting, surprising, funny, and heartbreaking all in turn. A silly exchange between lovers suddenly became a disagreement that could tear them apart. Questions about a book went from annoying to ominous. The sound gave life to the listener and the curiosity about it woke us up as audience members. At the end we found ourselves imagining all the ramifications, good and bad, using these tools in performance might create.

I was nervous going into this week. I wondered if I really knew what I wanted to discover or if people would be willing to just take the ride. I wondered if it would have much affect. I couldn’t be happier with the results.

I spent the past couple of days since our studio with one headphone on and one off. I find myself listening with one ear for the song playing in the hundreds of heads I pass each day while keeping my own beat in the other. Every once in a while though, I put the other headphone on and force them to dance to Jay-Z.

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Book Club

We got together last night for our first ‘session’. I’ve been having troubling figuring out what to call these things. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I believe that the language we use to think about things often deeply affects the way we view them. I know these gatherings are not rehearsals. They’re not classes. Are they workshops? Are they workouts? Are they experiments? Regardless, we had one.

I asked everyone in attendance to bring something they’re reading right now. I wanted to explore two things: 1. When you begin to adapt a text, how do you discover the ideas, moments, images that are most theatrical? 2. What happens when you know how you want to rehearse but don’t know what you’ll be rehearsing?

This second question may seem odd, but I’ve become more and more curious lately about this idea of purposely creating artistic constraints. Does a unique (and potentially more alive) creativity come from pushing against the sides of the metaphorical box you’re in? You might wonder, “Why impose arbitrary limits to your creativity?” A fair question, except I would offer that there are always some limitations on our work. Money, space, producing partners, the text, collaborators, and time to name just a few.

Part of what overwhelms me when thinking about creating a piece of theatre from scratch is wondering how to begin. There are an infinite number of topics, ideas, stories, places, etc to explore. What do I care about? What gets me excited? I feel overwhelmed. By giving myself specific constraints I’m no longer forced to begin with a perfect idea but rather, can rely on the group and lean on the rules I created. Then my job becomes finding creative solutions within those parameters. I get to be the rebel fighting the rules. Later, of course, a time may come when you take the walls away and fly.

The reading material people brought was fantastic: everything from horoscopes to non-fiction about child slavery. The little theatrical events we created ranged from the hilarious to the horrifying. All were things we never would have created alone. That is, after all, the point of our theatrical experiments (or a book club for that matter): letting the group surprise you by the insights that only come from a shared focus on a single moment, word, idea.

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A First Date

Yesterday about a dozen of us gathered to begin our collaboration. It was great to see so many people eager to start something new, hungry for some artistic inspiration, and willing to dive in head first without knowing what’s on the other side. It is my intention to post here each week after the meetings about our experiments and ideas. I encouraged the rest of the group to do the same. I want the discussion to continue and take many forms.

At times last night I felt a little like a friend setting up people on a blind date. Will they hit it off? Will they let down their guard? I think they’re great, but will they see that in one another?!

I certainly expected the interesting ideas, good humor, and generous spirit. More surprising were the connections and springboarding that began to happen immediately. One person has an idea, someone else has thought of that, but in a different way. One collaborator is curious about silence – the space between words, another about the space between bodies.

Most of all I revelled in everyone’s willingness to say yes to the unknown. We have no firm expectations, just a desire for a space to ask theatrical questions and a group of people happy to join the experiment with their unique voice and artistry.

I walked away from yesterday relieved and grateful that my matchmaking skills are pretty solid. Seems like a second date is in order.

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Lighting the Match

The Problem…

The way we make theatre is killing theatre. Theatre isn’t dead, but our development and producing process often ensure it is as anemic as possible before it reaches an audience.

Producing plays is a mixture of passionate art and savvy business. Often, though, it feels like the mixture is heavy on allaying the fears of the business side and light on the risk taking we all know makes great art. We’re afraid. We’re afraid of critics. We’re afraid of losing money. We’re afraid that we won’t work again or the failure of the art will be pinned on us personally. So, how do we make creating art as risk free as possible?

We make a machine that makes our art. That machine is institutions and workshops and reading series and on and on. Money or reputation (or the admiration of someone with money and reputation) are the most likely way a play sees the light of day. Otherwise, they enjoy years in development that rarely lead to a production. Worst of all, little theatres that could work differently don’t. They act like the big theatres because that’s who they want to grow up and be someday.

But those institutions alone cannot be blamed. We, the artists, are guilty of our own risk adverse strategies. How do we avoid taking ownership over the art?

We have our tidy jobs. “I directed it, but the script is flawed.” “I was in it, but that director didn’t really work with me.” “I designed it, but I had nothing to work with.” We don’t step on toes. We don’t want anyone mucking about in our department. We don’t speak up because it’s not our job. Then, if it fails, it’s also not our art.

Meanwhile, most of us sit and wait for permission to make the art that we then work so hard to distance ourselves from, all the while bemoaning that we aren’t working enough.

Enough is enough. I can barely figure out what kind of theatre I want to make because I spend half my time begging to make it and the other half hoping what I make pleases someone else’s idea of what it should be.

The Solution…

Today I’m beginning a new artistic experiment. I’m officially announcing the launch of The Capnomancy Project.

I once read about a mystical art called ‘capnomancy’. In it, people light a fire and watch the smoke rise above the flames. In the shapes and changes of the rising smoke they read the future.

That idea always felt ephemeral to me in the way that great theatre does. There is a spark. You capture all you can of it. It is gone in an instant. The knowledge gained, the experience, leaves you changed.

Here’s the idea…

Bring together performers, designers, writers, and directors to create an ongoing community focused on the exploration of new theatrical ideas and collaborative development.

For now, we’ll meet once a week. We’ll experiment. We’ll play. I have lots of ideas. I want to know yours. Maybe one day we start with a song, another with a pair of shoes, still another with the way that light comes in the window or that letter you wrote and never sent.

I want a laboratory for theatrical hunches and terrifying new ideas. It’s not about producing plays. I want a new way of working: an artistic community without the same rigid structures and job descriptions and formulas. I want a new theatrical vocabulary.


Maybe a great piece of theatre will result somewhere down the line. Maybe not. Either way I’ll be a better artist in all my collaborations for this venture. When I engage with the traditional theatrical model, my understanding of fellow artists and my own theatrical passions will be more clear and alive. I’ll know what makes me excited and inspired and creative.

Does this spark you?

Maybe this idea appeals to you, too. If it does, then don’t be shy. Grab your piece of music or idea or fear or paintbrush or flashlight or shovel. Send me a message. Join me. I can’t predict the future, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone else tell me what it looks like.

Find out more…

capnomancy @ me . com

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