THE MYSTERY OF FAITH IN PROCESS
In keeping with Atlantic Acting School’s focus on creating your own work, 2014 Evening Conservatory alumni Bautista Duarte and Janine Renee Cunningham, formed the Coyote Theater Collective along with Australian writer Derran Moss-Dalmau. Their first original play Re:Late/Able, directed by Atlantic Full-Time Conservatory alumna and Director of Admissions Brandi-lea Harris, runs February 19 – 22 at the Access Theater in New York City. Tickets purchased online are $12 with special Atlantic discount code “CandyGimlet.”
Playwright Derran Moss-Dalmau discusses the complex process of creating Re:Late/Able including character development, workshops and more:
Theatre process is a strange thing. It seems rigid and flexible, a help and a hindrance, reassuring and terrifying. It is both solid and liquid, keeping you locked into a form in order to allow you to function, but also forcing you to flowing around it to fill every space, every chance, every possibility. And sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work at all, and you throw everything away and leap sideways and forwards and out and up and away. And that’s probably what it intended.
But most importantly, or at least most relevantly, it’s not something I knew anything about. I knew about stringing words together into pleasant-sounding cantrips and convolutions. If I were being philosophical, I would say that I knew about the basis of turning energy into action and action into emotion. If I were being self-flagellatory, I would confess I knew about writing short sketches for laughs so poorly earned that to call them cheap would be to diminish the concept of cheapness to a null point of meaning.
So when two Atlantic alums – Bautista Duarte and Janine Cunningham – raised the possibility of writing a full-length theatrical work and them actually performing the show, I was intrigued and excited. What little I knew of the Atlantic Acting School and its Practical Aesthetics technique was derived from attending an end-of-semester showcase and numerous conversations, often assisted by a healthy application of liquor. But it seemed grounded, it seemed sensible and above all, it – or at least the two Atlantica alumni before me – seemed pro-active. And thus, we forged forward to discuss, debate and conceptualise a play.
Working from a broad initial concept (“relationships….and technology…and love….?”) we sat together to develop something new, that we hoped would say something interesting about love and connecting with others in a time of technology. The initial overview had four friends at three dinner parties, with a duo of possible lovers providing commentary and a pair of possible paramours arriving late. There were eight characters, three simultaneous physical locations, three consecutive time periods and a division on stage between the real and the virtual world, with audio-visual technology employed throughout as a virtual ninth character. Suffice to say, it was a work of staggering conceptual genius and near-impossible actual execution. It was also preachy, obvious and, for a time, involved actors collecting macro-data from audience members in breach of Federal law.
Around and around the concept cycled, with the Atlantic alumni sensibly raising the “why” for each one of my “and thens.”
Characters, even the most absurd and overblown, needed reasons, they needed to want something, to go somewhere, to achieve something, and not simply to be and to exist. A chair could be and exist, but using a chair was a choice and had meaning and import. And thus the narrative changed. The seventh and eighth characters dropped away, followed by the sixth (he was a fool, albeit a handsome one), and then the screen with the tweets and then audience asides with the recitations of texts. Finally, even the fifth character was metaphorically killed, though for those who loved Colin, be rest assured that he lives on at the heart of the script –much spoken of, much maligned, though never seen. And then finally, as we circled the final conceptual drain, the technology was removed, completely, to make reference to its absence rather than wrestle with its presence.
And we were left with a leaner, meaner, script. 70 pages, lots of booze, four characters and one increasingly stressful dinner party.
A broad discussion, turned into a tight concept with a shaky script which then became the launching point for workshops, revisions, debates, deviations and more workshops. A process of searching for something, an elusive quarry that might be glibby called “truth,” but in reality is that near-intangible sense of “it’s right.” The workshop approach in this regard was critical. Though discussed between three people, the lifeless words transform under even the most brusque table-reading into an actual script -faults and incongruities laid bare like the rightly-feared conversational dead-cat, flopped onto the table and beginning the smell. And there was many a cat that died in the service of the early drafts of the script*. Transitioning a script from concept to draft and then through an evolutionary process measured in days and weeks, not months and eons, meant that the script carried with it many ghosts from earlier ideas. Characters, lines, references and timeframes all changed and each reading revealed not only those moments that rang wrong with the flaccidity of a moist plaster gong, but also those that retained echoes of lives no longer lived by characters both alive and dead. Perhaps the workshops were the theatrical equivalency of Schrödinger’s cat after all**.
Workshops and auditions brought into the fold two more actors– Jackie Viscusi, a stand-up and improv specialist to play the role of slightly unhinged best-friend Fran, and Brent Dixon, a veteran of The Flea Theatre to play the maybe-possibly-could-be boyfriend Paul. And with new blood came new discoveries, new readings and new questions to answer. And of course, that meant revisions, edits and a further mutation to the tale. All of a sudden the voices in the playwright’s head were not the only voices the characters might possess. These characters suddenly had their own, terrifying identities, loosely limber and breaking free of the inky constraints of the page, muscling up to demand attention. Nuances appeared, driven by slight inflections, minor tics, major movements, fresh perspectives. I could feel the piece suddenly springing into life on its own in ways that were both expected (which was thrilling) and unexpected (which was even more thrilling). The lightning had struck the anodes and earthed on the brain-pan of the written word and what arose from the operating desk was familiar and wholly unexpected. I was seeing things I hadn’t seen, meaning things I never meant, hearing things that I could not, once vocalised, un-hear. I feared it might kill us all, and urged it to do so, if only to see where that led.
But an audience doesn’t want to just see a monster, at least not one untethered and mindless. Direction is needed to channel those diabolical energies down useful, dangerous and exciting paths. And a story should be exciting, in the sense that it evokes emotion, reaction and response. It should awaken and energise something in the actors and through them the audience. The story must leave the leaden and dreary rooms where it is written and sear itself across the frontal lobes of the front row, the actors playing the role of conduit and catalyst. Or so is the hope. With this in mind and the script in such a shape that it could be held (even if with the tremulous fragility with which a small child holds the leash of an excitable Baskervillian hound) we turned to two more Atlantic alums to take charge of that leash and bring the woolly monster to heel – Brandi-lea Harris, Director of Admissions for Atlantic Acting School and Atlantic professional conservatory alumnus stepped on as our Director, and Karen Frances, indomitable Atlantic improv elf as Stage Manager.
And thus we were joined. Concept to draft, draft to workshop, workshop to audition, audition to final script, final script to director, director to the stage. Once more unto the breach, to the front of the stage, to the very edge of madness, and then onwards and into the unknown, that yawning creative chasm between the actor’s front foot and the audience member’s seated behind, that must now be bridged by carefully crafted dark arts rooted in that very mystery I first mentioned – theatre process.
Whatever that may be…
* No actual cats were harmed in the writing of this script.
** Seriously, I really promise I don’t have a thing against cats.