Saturday, March 28, 2015

In Wooster, OHIO

MARCH 22nd

I am currently in Wooster, OHIO, staying in this very charming home-stay (here's a link: THE LILY PAD), as the guest of the Department of Theatre and Dance in The College of Wooster. I'll be here for three weeks, conducting a theatre workshop -- a Devised Performance Workshop is what we're calling it -- built around two (and possible three), of my plays. Two of them are finished but I've always wanted to hear them and work on them a bit before publishing and the third is just a fragment, unwritten for all practical purposes.

Helping me in this process are the students of SHIRLEY A. HUSTON-FINDLEY, perhaps ten of them (I'll know for sure only later today). While I'm here we're hoping to do a rehearsed reading of LIGHTS OUT, with a small audience and I will give a couple of other talks too.

I plan to report about these events as I go along, so ... please expect regular updates! I'll try to keep them brief, but I may also blog about them, in which case they'll be longer descriptions.

Wooster, OHIO, March 24th & 25th:

Two very good days.

TUESDAY, 24th March
Our plan (Shirley's and mine) was to do a read-through of one of my existing plays, THE MATING GAME SHOW. A small number of you here at FB -- Gulan in particular! And also Divya Seth Shah -- will remember it from various failed attempts to get it produced in India in the late 80s. Since those days, it's had an erratic career. I've re-written it so often that after the 16th time I decided to stop counting. My aim was always to shorten it from it's original 3- or 3.5-hour length to something reasonable, given the typical budget of Indian Amateur theatre -- but it remained stubbornly un-doable even though (or so it seemed to me. Maybe everyone was lying?) there was always an initial interest in it because of the potentially "exciting" form.
Then there was Govind Nihalani's filmed version for TV -- remember BiTV? -- MGS was one of the shows that was slated for broadcast. But it was all hot air and though most of the 22-odd (I forget whether it was meant to be 22 or 25) episodes were filmed, the whole thing was canned. I typed all of it (on paper!), sitting in Delhi, and sending the pages by courier (no internet!) to Bombay, while the filming was on. Immense pressure. But kind of fun. In a reckless, swimming-away-from-sharks sort of way. No-one got any money out of it whatsoever, including of course, the poor actors.
It was only after that that I decided to pare it right down to the current version, in which there are only 6 contestants and the whole play lasts maybe an hour and a half. I attended a reading in New York (maybe in 2004?) organized by Geeta Citygirl at Salaam Theatre, directed by Paul Knox. He did a great job and I remember the performance was well-received. But in all this time, I always felt there was something left to do with the script.

Here in Wooster, with a group of ten of Shirley's students, five men, five women, we had a run through of the whole play and ... I think it went very well ... and I also think I need to pretty much re-write the whole thing. *grin* Okay, not the WHOLE thing. But keeping the characters and the situation, return to the original Game Show structure. I don't know if there's time to do that during this trip ...

WEDNESDAY, 25th March
Shirley had asked a smaller group of her students, seven this time, to meet in the evening for one of two reading rehearsals for LIGHTS OUT. It is due to be performed (as a reading) on Friday, in front of a small audience at the Shoolroy Theatre, on campus (I will eventually get around to posting a picture of the poster). It's been a very long time since I read/watched a performance of LO -- despite the fact that Katherine Lieder in Madison, WN staged performances last year (? Hmm. May have been 2013) and tried to set up a video session for me but it didn't work out time-wise -- so this was my first return to the play after many years. I had forgotten how very disturbing it is. Brrr. The students did very well. I am hoping to ask permission to post pix -- and also to take a few! -- and if either Shirley or I succeed, I'll hope to post some here very soon.

March 26th and 27th:
It's getting to be quite a task to keep up with events here. The past two days have been kind of packed. In a good way.

March 26th:
There were two events today. The first was in the afternoon, with Shirley's class of ten participating students, in the development of a new play that I hope to write in the course of my stay here. Let me hasten to add, it's unlikely that I will actually FINISH writing it. What I said to Shirley when we were planning the events of my stay, was that I had a fragment of a play, something I had begun writing perhaps ten years ago. I can't be sure whether or not the idea has legs on it. But I'd like to try. So ... that's what her students are helping me with: to see whether or not there's a valid idea there or not.
Those of you who know me will be aware that I'm not at all used to working alongside anyone else! So far, I have only ever written in complete isolation. That's quite normal with novels and short stories but ... plays? Well, let's just say it's unusual. I have often wanted to engage with a group of actors, but so far -- until Wooster -- I have been unsuccessful. What has happened so far is that I finish writing my piece and then I leave it with actors/director. At most, I have some interaction (and DISAGREEMENTS, haha) with the choices made in production. With the Mating Game Show, I had several bouts of writing and re-writing the play after each interaction. But I've never written something WHILE interacting with actors.
The play is well-suited to being worked on because (a) I've only got the first few pages of the script, with only the barest minimum of an idea fleshed out. In fact it's too early even to discuss its title: for the purposes of FB I'm going to call it "New Play". All I can say to the students, aside from sharing the few pages of the script, is that I know where I want it to go but I can't offer a map for getting there. That's what we're going to work on. (b) I had always wanted to write something looser and more flexible than my typical script (normally, I have to be prevented from describing every twitching nostril and raised eyebrow ...).
What the students did on Thursday was to read the few pages of script and then improvise based on what they'd read. Shirley had them form into three groups (of three each, with the tenth person interacting with each of the groups during their improv) and improvise based on the very sketchy information they had. I enjoyed the session tremendously and the students threw themselves into it with gusto. Still, at the end of the time (an hour and 45) I know only that I didn't feel much confidence in my script in its current form. At this moment, it's like a very thin mattress with lots of springs poking out. Not comfortable to land on. All I can say right now is that from the start, I could only see a small flicker of life in the idea and I can still see it. It's very faint though. I have a lot of work to do! (I haven't named any students yet because I'd like to ask their permission before doing that).

Another rehearsal, the final one, of the LIGHTS OUT reading. At our previous session, we didn't have time to get to the final scene of the play, so this time we started with it. Anyone who has seen LO will know that it's unnerving to sit through. No difference here. Everyone did very well. Shirley took the part of one of the characters and the lady screamer (who remains out of sight if/when the performance is staged) outdid herself. I went home thinking that I really must try and write something less gut-wrenching one of these days.

March 27th:
... and the reading went very well. There was a small audience of maybe 20 people and Shirley's young actors (including Shirley herself) read with dignity and passion. One decision we made at the outset was to re-locate the events of the play to the US. This may seem an odd decision, but it was an idea I borrowed from a young student director, Kat Lieder, who staged LO in 2013, in Madison, WN. She asked my permission to set the piece in the US and I agreed. According to her, the play settled quite easily into place. When I suggested it to Shirley and her students at the first rehearsal, on Wednesday, she/they readily agreed.
So: the names* have been changed. Leela=Lila; Bhaskar=Oscar; Mohan=Noha; Naina=Nina and Surinder=Kurt. In the photograph below, the narrator (Tristan Lopus) sits to the left reading the stage directions, while the characters sit together in a row, starting with Nina (played by Shirley), then Noah (Noah Hibbard), Lila (Summit Starr), Oscar (Jeremy Miller) and Kurt (Kito Ashbey). The lady-screamer (Mary E. Manack), is only just visible (her forearm!) in the rear. (*I asked Shirley for permission to post names)
There were a few small adjustments that needed to be made in the script -- words like "chowkidar" (=security guard) and "goonda" (*grin* ... changed to "goon") but other details went in unchanged, such as the presence (of course unseen/unheard in the reading, since she is mute during the performance) of the cook, Frieda. Very few American homes would include a live-in cook these days, but we decided to leave her in the performance. At the brief talk-back later we explained that it wasn't our aim to wholly re-write the context of the play. It was stated in the program note that the location of the play had been altered from its source, i.e., Bombay.
Undoubtedly, the hardest part of watching/listening to LO is the screaming. It always comes as a surprise because the play, till that point seems to be a somewhat simple-minded exchange between three tedious middle-class types. Then the screaming begins and the performance transforms into an endurance ordeal. I've seen it several times and this always remains true -- the screaming is very painful to sit through. You want to slap each of the characters one by one for doing nothing to stop it. At the end, there's no question of applause. You want to crawl away and stare quietly at the stars (but there was light snow all of yesterday here! No chance of stars).
I am very grateful to Shirley, her students and the (mostly young) audience for being willing to perform and to attend the performance. I talked a little bit about the background of the play, to confirm that I really did hear about it from a friend who was an eye-witness and that most of what is described IS what was described to me (this fact is stated explicitly at the end of the play in a series of slides). Then we all said our goodnights and went our separate ways.


Vive La France!

The full archive of my columns in the Hindu Business Line's Saturday Magazine, BLink.