Thoughts inspired by “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” by Shawn B. Hirabayashi

These thoughts are based on the January 10, 2017 performance at Profile Theatre.

I find myself thinking of a theory of dialogue I learned from Leon Katz. I’m relatively confident I won’t be able to do it justice. Regardless, here goes: the theory is called “the three levels of dialogue.” In the first level of dialogue, the character says exactly what’s on their mind (e.g., “I am the most powerful person here.”). In the second level, the character says the same in a metaphorical way (e.g., “The ants believe they’re in charge, until the anteater comes along. Say hello to the anteater.”). In the third level, the character enacts their power (e.g., Big Daddy’s elephant joke in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – Big Daddy establishes his power by telling a joke nobody wants to hear.). What Mr. Katz explained is that any given level isn’t better than any other – problems arise if there is too much of any one level. Great plays effortlessly move from one level to the next. Relating this to the Viewpoints idea borrowed from Zeami, one might call this theory “the Jo-Ha-Kyu of dialogue.” One might argue what percentage of time one should spend in Jo or Ha or Kyu, and perhaps, the varying percentages might be the signature of any given playwright, but varying the levels is paramount. By extension, this is true of all elements of theatre.

What does this have to do with “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue”? Well, by my estimation 90% of the dialogue was direct address to the audience. There was, thankfully, one scene in which Pop and Ginny interacted, but even that was interrupted with direct address. There was so much direct address that I would argue that this wasn’t so much a play as it was storytelling with theatrical elements. Basically, “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” is an interesting, timely story that is well told, but it’s not a play. And while interesting, timely stories have value and are worth experiencing, they, in my humble opinion, don’t compare with that same story dramatized. 

What is it to dramatize a story? Well, theatre is, essentially, about the present moment. Storytelling, by contrast, is about the past. Theatre and storytelling can intersect if the telling of the story changes the storyteller. But, as far as I can tell, no character changes because of the story they tell.

I ended up feeling a bit bad for the actors and the rest of the production team. You have all these artists dedicated to crafting the present moment working on a piece that is inherently not about the present moment.

Ultimately, all of the direct address wouldn’t have been a problem if I had come away with some understanding of how it deepened the story – how it was necessary. Unfortunately, that understanding escapes me.

Viewpoints in The Flick by Jake Simonds

Third Rail’s production of The Flick by Annie Baker is a really amazing piece of theatre. Either knowingly or unknowingly, the production utilizes a vocabulary of performance we’ve been at using at the Institute for Contemporary Performance all year: Anne Bogart’s nine Viewpoints of time and space.

For this exercise I just name the viewpoints where I saw them. It won't make much sense unless you've seen or read the play already, and also it's totally full of spoilers. This isn’t a review, but the exercise itself is a form of praise. The Flick closes Sunday, February 11th, and I believe tickets are going fast, so get on that.

The four Viewpoints of time:

Duration

Starting with the easy one. It’s a long fucking play. In the program note there was some quote from Annie Baker, about how she wanted to give a seemingly pedestrian story (minimum wage workers at a failing movie theatre) the time and attention normally reserved for grand, epic narratives. It works. God bless great three-hour plays, and God bless Annie Baker.

Repetition

The whole play is repetition. Sam and Avery clean that theatre again, and again, and again, and again. But subtle variations within this pattern tell a rich story. If it’s brooms, we’re mid-shift. If it’s mops, we're at the end of the night. Sometimes the theatre isn’t empty. Sometimes what they find is grosser than average. How they execute the repeated task changes too. In the first scene, Sam is the better sweeper; faster and more natural in his motions. But then the new guy, Avery, settles in, and he begins outpacing Sam. And this takes us to...

Tempo

Later, when Avery gets promoted over Sam, Sam shows his frustration thru action, an increased tempo as they clean, rather than speaking it. Avery hustles in a different moment, for a different reason: trying to finish up and get out before Rose can trap him for their impromptu movie night. The circumstances of the play--a failing movie theatre--mean the characters never have to do anything particularly quickly. The next showing is always hours away. This allows the tempo to always mean something, to always move the story forward. 

Kinesthetic Response

It’s there in the opening scene, as Avery apes Sam’s movements in his first day on the job. It’s there on that impromptu movie night, as Rose and Avery sit entirely aware of each other, and Rose decides to put the moves on. It’s there moments beforehand, as Avery watches Rose dance her amazing, ridiculous dance. It’s there when the sleeping man wakes up. It’s there in all the moments two actors share the projection booth, and must negotiate every movement.

The five Viewpoints of space: 

Spatial relationship

Rose sits right next to Avery on their movie night. But Avery and Sam, when they chat, generally leave a few buffer seats, or the aisle, between them. When Rose is in the booth, she feels miles away from the action in the theatre. When Sam confesses his love for Rose from the down stage-left corner, as Rose stands in midway up the aisle. All these spatial choices help tell the story.

Architecture

And of course the architecture makes all these choices possible. A few awesome things about the set: the projection booth is so small and so far away, while the theatre is close and big. There are so many fucking chairs, the abundance of chairs leads to an abundance of places to be. We can’t see most of the floor Sam and Avery have to clean, which means there can be surprises down there. And, best of all,it’s a familiar environment, made strange by how we see it and when we see it (said everyone who ever wrote about The Flick(but it’s still true)).

Shape

There’s how they sit and slouch in the chairs. There’s how they hunch and shimmy in the projection booth.

Gesture

There’s behavioral, workplace gestures: how they kick up and down the standing dustpan, how they empty the dustpans into the trash, how they sneak the brooms behind the seat-rests. There’s more expressive gesture: Avery counting on his hands as he plays "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," how Rose puts her feet up.

Topography

The seats of the theater impose a topography on the space, and it’s rigid, grid-like. Roughly illustrated, it’s this:

___I  I____

___I  I____

___I  I____

_________


So the best playing space, theatrically, is the center aisle. And, correspondingly, this is where the most theatrical moments happen: Rose’s dance, Avery’s Pulp Fiction speech. 

A Stop in the Middle - Tahni Holt's Sensation/Disorientation by Jake Simonds

We walked into Reed’s Diver Studio Theatre, and the seats formed a circle with two rows--about as large a circle as you can comfortably fit in the space--with additional seating in the balcony. The six dancers were in a lump, a lethargic but alive pile of bodies crawling and falling over each other as we took our seats. The only other items on the bare stage was a red keyboard, and two large beige sacks tied not-quite-shut, with something gold shimmering out.

The dancers wore patterns. Each dancer sporting around a half-dozen bright patterns on patchwork outfits, it was like watching a strange, possessed quilt. But amid this quilt were isolated hands, feet, heads. Sometimes belonging to a discrete body, sometimes not.

For the first few minutes the dancers remained a single visual unit. An individual might break off momentarily, but they always remained in physical contact with the whole, which would soon envelop them again. When the mass did break up it was into three pairs, and the pairs began to move and share weight in a manner similar before, but gradually this sharing turned into something more violent, a kind of wrestling.

It was particularly arresting when, after the wrestling and the harsh monotone sound accompanying this action had raised to a climax, the sound cut out. And suddenly we also heard what before we only saw: the grunting, and breathing, and sounds of body against body, and body against floor.

I don’t trust my memory or enough to continue a literal retelling of any more of the dance, but after the pairs broke up we saw some gorgeous blending of fast and slow tempo, as well as some solos where one dancer would break from the other five. The next moment that arrested me was when the dancers began to manipulate their costumes.

There is something so powerful about stopping right in the middle of an action. A great example of this from the theatre world is in the final act of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, when General Vershinin has come to say goodbye to his love, Masha. Chekhov does not give us goodbye scene we crave--and expect--right away. Instead, we get a scene between Vershinin and Olga, as they wait for Masha to arrive from the house. It is a strange, haunting, beautiful scene. Pregnant with the action which has not happened, the circumstances for which they--and we--must wait.

Holt had her dancers stop midway thru shedding their big, flowing patchwork skirts. Underneath the skirts, the dancers wore gold leggings. These leggings matching the material in the mysterious beige sacks--along with those skirts, while beautiful, masking much of the dancer’s motions--told us, as an audience, that at some point the skirts would be cast off. But instead of simply casting off the skirts, the dancers next just wore them differently.

I guess the simplest way to say it is that the dancers assumed an almost downward-dog-like pose, and tossed the skirts over their torsos. Falling to the floor, the skirts now concealed their entire upper halves. And the resulting image was striking. In motion, the dancers no longer resembled humans. They looked almost insect-like, moving by jackknifing expansion and contraction.

The dance ended much busier than it began. After this section the skirts were discarded and left lying onstage, and then were accompanied by the contents of the beige sacks: a few dozen partially inflated gold mylar balloons. The balloons moved as the dancers moved, but also sometimes on their own. They squeaked under the dancers, bumped up against audience knees, elbows and heads, revealed the space’s very air currents. I loved the balloons. I loved their strange texture--partially inflated, they were pocked with sad craters and canyons--I loved the abundance of them, I loved how they complicated the audience’s exit from the space.

I feel a little bashful, writing so much on something I have so little background in. But as a theatre person who has long wished to see more dance, Sensation/Disorientation did not disappoint. Tahni Holt is a name I will keep my eye out for in the future, as should you.