November 10, 2013

What I Learned in the Theatre:
Tina Satter's House of Dance

Tina Satter's House of Dance presents itself as such an amiable, loose-limbed, unassuming piece that it's easy to miss how complicated and tricky it really is.

Some background: There are several scenes, all set in more or less real time in the kind of small town dance studio you’d find in a strip mall or storefront of an otherwise abandoned downtown. Martle, the owner, is a big ole galoot with a gut and a toupee who’s slowly going to seed; his assistant and accompanist, Joel, is a prissy little fruitcake who clearly thinks he’s the only reason the studio’s stayed open. In rushes Lee, a longtime "prize pupil" (you figure this out because they all wear matching pink jackets with the House of Dance logo on the breast, and Martle gives her a bearhug the minute she explains her desperate situation) who needs to come up with a routine for some kind of Teen Tap roadshow contest tomorrow (later, she’ll tell everyone she’s planning to get the hell out of this dinky town and be a millionaire by the time she’s 40—but you already knew she was going to say that the minute she first opened her mouth). They have only just started this “solo class” when Brendan barges in, saying she needs space to finish her piece (or some such malarkey); by the time she spills her dance bag all over the floor—a tumble of tatty tinsel accessories and beauty products--and refuses to pick up the mess, you and everyone else in the studio knows she just one hot mess. The scenes unfold slowly, but somehow nothing really ever seems to get accomplished. These guys are all such slackers, such losers, they don’t even seem to be in a panic about their fecklessness (except for Brendan, of course, who seizes every possible moment to create another little drama; Joel also probably knows that nothing much is really going on, but since he disapproves of everything and keeps taking little nips out of one bottle after another, it’s all just his own little private drama too—which nobody, including himself, really cares about). Every once in a while they break into little dance routines. Every once in a while there’s a song while the action more-or-less stops. An hour later it’s all over, and that’s it.

Because it’s co-produced by Rich Maxwell’s New York City Players and Jim Fletcher is pretty much his main man, there’s more than a passing resemblance to an early Maxwell piece like Showy Lady Slipper that had the same mix of dopey, deadpan, low-brow scenes and out-of-the blue songs. But the differences are much more striking and ultimately revealing. It starts with the characters: Tina’s quartet are so juicy—so deftly drawn and so ripe with possibility—that the succession of scenes take on the kind of “theme and variation” patterns of, say, a good sitcom. Just as each new episode of Seinfeld tosses the same set of characters up in the air and lets them come down in yet another improbably yet entirely logical combination, so Tina’s scenes all have the same deep structure and all amount to the same kind of thing; they’re like beads on a string or—maybe a better analogy—a series of snapshots from the same roll of film (I have to use that metaphor while people still know what it means!). Plus—and this is an even bigger difference—they let all the performers have a field day. Because the room is small, and because these guys are all pros, they seem to be playing a game in which the person who underplays the most is the winner. But it’s all just that—a game they’re playing with each other and with us, and it’s not hard to catch them with that competitive glint in their eyes (Barbagallo's having so much fun she wants to sell every routine, the lousier the better). There is level of tension you almost never see in Maxwell’s work, and of course the fact that the dance is tap and tap is pretty much the ultimate high-energy showbiz plea for approval creates an even stronger connection between the characters in the story and the audience.

The tricky part, though, is how flimsy the attempt to “ground” everything in story turns out to be. Tina’s the polar opposite of Annie Baker; when you think back, it’s surprising how little specificity there really is, and the detail is mostly on the order of the tacky dance props and costumes that are produced from time to time. Baker’s plays toy with the idea of time standing still, but that’s just an elaboration of the boredom of cruddy little downs with winter coming on. In her plays, you can almost smell the cigarette butts floating in the rain-filled ashtrays. But Tina’s dramatic premises are all just that—after they’re tossed into the air, nobody pays any attention to them any more and it’s hard to remember where, or even whether, they fell to earth or just… disappeared. Just what is this teen tap roadshow really supposed to be, anyway, and how is it possible Lee has only just heard about it the day before the contest? Why doesn't anybody seem to care about whether it's even possible to learn a winning routine in 24 hours? For that matter, why does Lee have an eyeliner pencil mustache1?) And I think it’s this offhand treatment of the ostensible “action” that smooths over the breaks into song or dance (never—and for good reason—both at the same time. That, again, would run the risk of appearing to amount to something).

The great innovation of Rodgers and Hammerstein supposedly had to do with integrating music and scene, with the song "emerging from" the drama. No doubt this is true, but I wonder if behind all that was the growing sophistication of the American popular song. Though the songs from the musical theater have always been dumbed down relative to the best of the Great American Songbook (and yes, I’m looking at you Steven Sondheim!), there’s no question that average R&H number was in another galaxy from the Tin Pan Alley numbers of the 20’s. You could get away with sticking something like "Alexander’s Ragtime Band" in between two silly scenes or dance routines. A song like "What’s the Use of Wondrin'" raises the bar too high. But as songs developed further—especially when folk and rock took over in the 60’s and hit songs became intentionally oblique—it was possible to come out the other side, and throw a complex, evocative and ambiguous song right into the middle of the action and let the audience figure it out. TV’s been on to this for at least ten years, I think—those episodes of Homicide and then The Wire (did it go back even earlier?) where the action would go into a holding pattern—the cop or the vic would be wandering through a weeded lot or driving down a cruddy street—as a ballad flooded the sound track.

Tina’s piece uses the songs for emotional effect, of course—that’s what music does—but I think even more as “stuff-in-between” the scenes. If this blog has a thesis, it's that the future of the theatre (or at least dramatic structure) lies in cutting things apart. That the traditional play form is so dependent on closure and uniformity that it’s like a detective story: perfect, thrilling yet deeply, deeply limited. It can only do what it’s designed to do, and it’s only designed to do one thing. What Tina does with the interstitial stuff—the other stuff, the music and the dance—is just as important to the overall piece as the scenes, the "dramatic material.' And what she’s doing right now better than almost anyone out there is blending, smoothing, making these totally separate pieces fall into a pattern so they appear to be one2.

I wrote a play long ago in which I knew I wanted to to treat the scenes as separate, interchangeable pieces, but in order to make them clearly identifiable as pieces, I had to leave “blank space” in between. Tina’s figured out you can put richer stuff in there, and of course the result is also that much richer. Note to playwrights: Maybe you don't need to work so hard on those damned scenes after all; maybe you just need to come up with a really good song and a dance routine.

1 The minute you start looking for them, the whole piece appears riddled with these reality-breaking clues. The fake backdrop out the window. Lee singing her song into a mirror stage right. The missing onesie that turns up stuffed inside a pillow. Other than the endlessly mysterious performances, the only firm reality are the cinderblock walls of the studio space, and even they are covered with cardboard stars.
2  There's a great goofy moment toward the end where the four performers suddenly break into something they call the "Crypt dance." Never mind the set up--there's barely any--or what the routine actually involves (hint, it's "very scary.") It's the closest thing the piece has to a production number and it's clearly something the cast has worked up on their own. Speaking with Tina afterward, she said she knew she couldn't cut it but worried that it was still a little random. To me, that was precisely the point--it was random, but fulfilled the expectations we as audience had for the piece over and above the ostensible situation. Within the "reality" of the play, there was no way those four characters could come together in a routine. Fortunately, with the reality of the performance, there was no problem at all.

September 29, 2013

An Exchange with Barbara Cassidy

My friend Barbara Cassidy invited me to a production of her play, The Anthropology of a Book Club. Afterward, we had an e-mail exchange about its structure.

To: Jeffrey M. Jones

Hi Jeff-

Thank you so much for coming last night!
Let me know if you have any thoughts about the play.

As I said—liked it a lot but its very weird play (which is not a sin in my eyes).

You've always handled space and time differently than most people—this seems to push that even further.

I think I understand the method and the “content.” This may not be quite right, but it all makes sense to me to imagine a central “node”—a women's book club in Bay Ridge that brings together Muslim and non-Muslim women—around which extends a “field” of all possible associations that arise from the node. So You have very obvious associations, like the encounters that might be imagined between the women, and secondary associations, like events (9/11) that connect them, then tertiary associations (women's roles/identities > “hibab”/feminism > sewn genitals). And then another plane, if you will, arising out of associations with the books, where Dave and Zora and Simone are. And then some formal devices, like the choruses & songs, that point to sub-nodes or create a kind of punctuation.

Mostly, I'm curious about the design—the pattern, the map, the rules that connected the parts. How you wove things together.


To: Jeffrey M. Jones

Yeah so I think for me its like the authors create the book club, but the book club also creates the authors.  where it seems like the  authors are Controlling the bc, the bclub has control over whether the authors stay by merely talking of them. I think of the first part of the play as struggling to be in the real world with all our social problems and so on & the second part breaking down more in a kind of understanding that this world has components that we just don't get.

The gods fΓΌck with us and really does anybody know anything about this existence for sure? Does anybody know what the deal is with time?

I am also interested in the breakdown of time space social order gender notions of who and what we are and group think. The crowd is coming to get them they are alive they are dead they are characters they are people they are believers they are not it is the past it is now 

They are women they are puppets of their structures in a kind of spiral. Looping in on itself

Going fwd looping back past and present happening now interior exterior hap now


I recognize these ideas, now that you state them, and I like them.

Is there a formal break point between the first part and the second part?

Is there a visual way to represent the looping/spiraling inward, and if so, is there a way to abstract that out into a dramatic pattern? (To me, the idea of looping involves cyclic motion relative to some static marker).

As staged last night, and seemingly as written (though the script has changed a lot), the action on stage seems continuous, even when it seems to move between parts or sections or threads. Actually that isnt quite correct. The action within the book club is presented as a continuous flow between very different states/conditions. Sometimes, as when the authors touch the women and they fall down (die?) the transition is marked by an action (a causality)  but not always. I wonder what interruption in the flow would do to the design. Thought experiment—having the authors come up behind the women in the midst of one scene, touching them and making them die (transition to another place in the same scene) is very different from a scene that starts with the authors touching the women, making them die, and then ends.

The crowd is coming to get them they are alive they are dead they are characters they are people they are believers they are not it is the past it is now 

The crowd is coming to get them // they are alive // they are dead // they are characters // they are people // they are believers // they are not // it is the past // it is now 

The crowd is coming to get them // they are alive they are dead // they are characters they are people // they are believers they are not //it is the past it is now 

The crowd is coming to get them they are alive // they are dead they are characters //they are people they are believers // they are not it is the past //it is now 


To: Jeffrey M. Jones

I love ur visuals. The formal break is right after the first boom right b4 authors come in. There is a blackout


Hmmmm. You're right—now I remember, there were those booms—but I didn't recognize them as markers. I thought they were just real-time events. Also, the crowd wasn't really established clearly enough—but that's a production issue.  Rereading the earlier draft, I realize there is at least a third “plane” which consists of outside characters trying to break into the other plane(s?) and disrupt things. The “reality” of these characters is called into question in different ways—I like the drunken woman now being an offstage voice, though she felt pretty unreal even in the earlier draft. The crowd is another character on this plane but of course its totally invisible. Never arrives—at least onstage. Interesting problem—and structurally very different from the standard “offstage crowd” situation, where everyone knows the crowd is only threatening.

Are there any plays in which an actual crowd suddenly runs on stage and takes over the action? That would be a lot of fun! Morgan Gould did a piece for LT where about 15 people suddenly ran onstage for the last scene, and I saw a piece at Ice Factory where 10-12 uncredited actors suddenly walked into a motel room in costume (it was supposed to be a Halloween party) and trashed the place. That was good.


To: Jeffrey M. Jones

I will think about ur ideas more later tonight not Sure I totally understand them yet.  But I think I do
The mental exercise would make the looping more obvious to the viewer correct ?


Exactly. The physics behind all this is that viewers need to be able to orient themselves throughout the experience of a piece of art, and this is particularly challenging in time-based art because the reference points have to be loaded into memory in real time. There is no way you can go back and “discover something you hadn't noticed.” So the formal problem is, how do you describe a loop dramaturgically? Its not a hard problem, but it can seem like a weird problem because of the deep expectation that time is always moving forward in a play. You want to find a way for the viewer to recognize “Oh, I've been here before!” Thereafter, you just repeat the signal/marker/construct (with variations, if you want to get fancy) and the viewer will know they're going in loops and circles. This would make a really great exercise for a naturalistic playwriting class, but you'd have to spend too much time getting rid of the objection “but that cant really happen.”


To: Jeffrey M. Jones

Yeah maybe.  its interesting and weird for me to think about the play in this way. i usually don't think about my plays so theoretically, but i like that you do!


I don't think one has to approach this entirely from a theoretical basis--that's just my bent. But I do think that pieces like yours (and mine) need a structure that functions as the equivalent of narrative, and maybe the simplest thing is to think of them as shapes. If you think your play has a shape, then you can make that shape.


To: Jeffrey M. Jones

yeah i  think i get it ( & i do like it.)   it makes sense.....

also just thought tonight that i found it difficult to  make a play with characters talking directly about some specific ideas w/o sounding either didactic or all over the place and some of the weaving of weirdness may be there to work against that for that reason (as well as more theme oriented reasons.)


Upon further reflection…


To: Jeffrey M. Jones

Yes I get it.  
I fear my phone is dying
& no charger...
Good stuff


July 24, 2013

Dispatches from the Front: The Designated Mourner at The Public Theatrre, NYC

If you admire the plays of Wally Shawn--and if you don't, you're wrong--this is the one you've been waiting for: The Fever quite literally raised to the power of three. There are all the familiar Wally Shawn tropes and tricks--the lacerating putdown of the highbrow tribe (which, if you were raised among 'em, are painfully, side-splittingly funny); the arabesques of self-loathing and self-regard; the sudden little acts of brutality and desecration; false sentiment; horrific tableaux; the casual cruelty and dispassionate indifference doled out to stranger, family, lover and friend alike; the evisceration of every manifestation of good taste; the glee in misbehavior, etc..

But the dramaturgy is far more sophisticated, as the introduction of additional voices and characters supports a far more intricate interweave of episodes and arguments. Reviewers apparently want to make the play about life under a brutal oligarchy, which it is--in the same way Gone With The Wind is about the burning of Atlanta. It's far more of a kind of Socratic dialog, with the same sinuous, treacherous turns of thought--just when you think you know where it's headed, it pops up from behind and gooses you. And the concerns are the same: how should one live, how should one think, how should one behave, how should one be, how should one talk, in a world of other people (though unlike Plato, Shawn leads with the joke that God must love assholes since he's made so many of them--making it clear that the joke was told about himself, by yet another asshole). It's about knowing the infinite ways in which you are (of course) an asshole, in a world (of course) of assholes you were raised and trained to take your place among ... but who now know only too well that you don't quite measure up, and will at best be tolerated until the time you are cut loose. Murderous assholes, as it turns out. Shawn's protagonists have always been self-aware weasels; they know they ought to give a shit and don't--it seems in almost all the plays that "mere" survival is a dominant concern. What's new here, though, is that the weasel has somehow acquired a thinly-disguised working knowledge of Buddhism (the jokes about the self and the soul being some of the best). Who knew?

The performances alone are revelatory (all 3 understand only too well the power of words to harm) and the brief fight between Shawn and Eisenberg is a brilliant dissection of the layers of contempt that support any long, stable relationship. The space is so tiny, it feels like a master class, or an intimate dinner, at a one of our finest restaurants, prepared by an exquisite prisoner. .