We’re “log-rolling” our new piece, Survival. The logs are in the river, yes, but they need to get lined up in the right direction so they flow easily down-river.
I’ve got two wonderful characters, Lou and Bozo, and love them both. They each have chunks of jokes and text and gags that are funny and moving and good, but they don’t line up into a clear path yet for the audience, so our task is clear. Get the buggers in the right order, shoulder to shoulder and all pointed in the same direction.
We had a very good day last Saturday in Ft. Bragg as part of the launch of what hopes to become an annual festival by Theatre de la Liberte, and it was totally unique. Part was in a Victorian house’s side yard, blessed by mild sunny weather in the afternoon, and our two performances were in a small front room of the house itself. Packed house, indeed. The afternoon presentation was “Summer of Love,” a piece we’ve lived with and polished, and it rocked. The evening was the baptism of Survival, a solo piece for me, never before seen by any human who wasn’t Conrad Bishop.
It’s a pretty dark comedy/clown piece, edgy humor, sardonic jokes, a ping-pong back and forth between Lou and Bozo—a down-to-earth rural woman and her inner clown. Bless the Ft. Bragg audience, they hung in there and responded moment by moment, but by the end it was clear that we needed theatrical GPS to get the real journey to happen.
So we’ll spend a month doing that, and then have four free previews at our Sebastopol studio. When we created my earlier solo piece, Dream House, it arrived with a story-path baked in, an intimate dealing with multiple facets of personality that rocketed its central clown through a bumpy path to an integration, a new beginning.
Making comedy of the tricksy process of surviving our uniquely demented times is a different challenge. Laughter is a survival tool, and as theatre-makers it’s something we can create to contribute to our collective sanity. We think we’ve got the lumber, we just need to get it to the mill, build a sturdy house, and then rock on.
Last week I wrote of our start on a new novel set in the so-called Dark Ages, necessarily involving a huge amount of research. We’ve been down this path a few times before: another novel set in 1944 Nevada County; a MARIE ANTOINETTE; a play about Sir Francis Drake; a music drama about Cornish miners in the 1840’s; and THE WHITESKIN GAME, a wild agitprop gameshow about Westward Ho! and genocide. And of course if you’re directing something, there’s often a significant research aspect. The most concentrated research, probably, was back in the days I was going to be a college prof: my doctoral dissertation, “Performance Styles in 19th Century English Melodrama” took me deep into the bowels of London, the 19th Century, and the Houghton Library at Harvard—all pretty musty places.
Now, beginning work on MASKS, we face again that basic challenge: reconstructing the realities of characters 1400 years dead. Accuracy be damned, as far as I’m concerned, but the reader has to believe it, and the characters themselves have to believe it.
These are touring performers at a time when (a) there’s virtually no historical record of such folks and (b) traveling even short distances was problematic. Having toured for 47 years, we can intuit commonalities. But these folks don’t have phones, a Dodge maxi-van or an interstate highway system to get them from Venezia to Ravenna in one piece. A donkey moves damned slowly unless you flog him.
Most crucial, perhaps, is the question of how they get their news. The dangers on the road to Bologna? Local strife or plague? The movement of armies? New church decrees? We can go out on the road and neglect tuning into the news for a week or so, knowing that all kinds of shit is coming down but nothing that affects our immediate survival, so we’ll just check in when we get to wi-fi and update our general disgust. However paranoid the daily news makes us feel, the fact is that Mik and Asta and Bragi and Erda and Ludd live in a world where it’s a whole lot easier to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Our play MARIE ANTOINETTE involved the title character—child-bride self and widow self—in her prison cell, with the entire French Revolution happening on a shadow screen behind her: an analog to the flickering, flat-screen shadows that give us our daily news, subject to distance and filtration. In recent weeks, it’s felt so rare, so primitive-sounding, to be told by friends of their experience of a neighbor pounding on their door in the night yelling, “Get out! Fire!” We’ve come to believe that stuff like that doesn’t happen to college graduates. Not in the USA.
Well, onward. A triviality has been obsessing me: how does a king acquire a nickname? Charles the Fat, Magnus the Good, Harold Harefoot, Ethelbert the Unready. Granted, some guy is fat or good or a chronic ditherer, but how does the sobriquet get attached? It’s useful for historians to be able to distinguish the multiple Charleses and Harolds and Willies, but no Pope declared, “I crown thee Charles the Fat.” In a world without viral Web memes, how does a king get monikered?
Western literature does not depend on our solving this conundrum. But I wouldn’t mind minimizing those issues that wake me up at 4 a.m. and leave me chewing my cud for hours.