Process Blog #1: Off-Leash Area

BACKGROUND

A few weeks back, I was performing at a cabaret, and one of the other performers on the bill was Jennifer Ilse of Off-Leash Area. I’ve been a lurking fan for a while, having caught fragments of her work at various similar venues around town, and their show Maggie’s Brain was one of the finest pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. Seriously. One of those shows that reminds you why we do this nonsense in the first place.

I must not have sucked, because immediately after the performance I was invited on board their next project by the other half of the company, Paul Herwig. We even got as far as a meeting at their apartment and a cold reading of some lines. Unfortunately, once I finally got around to sitting down with a schedule, performance conflicts prevented me from taking part.

I felt pretty lousy about not being able to do the show, and worse about pulling out in the middle of casting. Then I thought, hey. I have my tiny electronic soapbox here. I could attend some rehearsals, write about the process, and maybe drum up some publicity. I suggested it to Paul and he agreed to give it a shot.

I have to confess, I consider myself to be the winner in that deal. My own company is in the process of some dramatic restructuring, and poised between those awful decisions of losing what it was and choosing what it can become. The opportunity to witness somebody else’s process is an experience I’m eager to have.

VITAL STATISTICS

The title’s Border Crossing, and it opens April 24th. Subject’s immigration, and members of the creative team took at trip down to the border to talk to the various groups entangled in the politics of the area. At our initial meeting, Paul was intensely animated, energetically talking about the many facets and perspectives they’d come across, and how he hoped to articulate them in the show.

“What do you think?” he appealed to me, warmly.

I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “Man, I’m glad I’m not the one who has to pull that off,” I said. It’s *crazy* ambitious, particularly for a company that specializes in dance — a form that’s excellent at distilling the essence of things, but frequently struggles to communicate concrete ideas.

Not that I’m one to talk, anyway. I’ve written at least two shows about the subject, which I have varying degrees of satisfaction with. Part of the reason I’m looking forward to seeing this is because their *approach* is so baffling to me — but I know how phenomenal their *product* is. How they get from Point A to Point B is a mystery to me, and mysteries are one thing I can’t abide.

THE REHEARSAL

I showed up a few minutes late, thanks to traffic and inclement weather. I entered the building, wondering how the fuck I was going to find the rehearsal space, only to find that some wag, true to the spirit of the show, had left a trail of discarded water bottles leading to the room.

And, yup, it’s a movement rehearsal — actors appear in sweats and tote bags, performing limbering and focusing exercises both collectively and on their own. The atmosphere’s relaxed and playful without becoming chaotic. Scene work varies — a few are rushed through in broadly-defined strokes. But when they stop to work on detail, man, do they work on *detail*.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not a director — at the very best, I’m a kind of adequate journeyman — and watching this process helped verify that for me. They’ll pause to rework a single gesture a dozen times over, at a point where I would have shrugged impatiently and moved onto something that interested me more. There’s a degree to which I’d be right, because by itself, that single gesture isn’t going to have a significant impact on the show one way or another. But ultimately, I’d be wrong, because that attention to detail has a cumulative effect in creating a remarkably subtle, inventive, surprising piece.

This is a show where the two directors are also performers, which presents a whole fuckload of problems I was eager to see how they address. I’ve come to rely on a lot of clumsy techniques — video cameras, using another performer to stand in for me while I direct, et cetera. Here, they have a small team of colleagues they bring in to watch their material as it develops and contribute notes.

How does it work? Chaotically, in a way that I love, at least at this stage of rehearsals. I find arguments that take place over scene work — that interrupt hands-on scene work — to be stimulating. Of course, that’s the theoreticist in me. (Y’know, the part of me that leads me to be really excited watching other people rehearse.) True collaboration tends to break down quickly, and I imagine that there’s a point at which someone’s going to need to seize hold of the project.

Not yet, though. At this point, I think, the conversation is valuable.

SO WHY SHOULD I CARE?

The musician scoring the show came up to me during the rehearsal, and we shared a few words. I made a comment that working in his capacity for a dance company must feel like scoring a silent film. He paused thoughtfully. Yeah, he said. The last two projects felt that way. But this one is *different*.

Why is it different? Because it’s multi-disciplinary. Spirits of various animals inhabiting the desert are represented through a variety of mediums, including dance, puppetry, and text.

The puppetry work is, even in its rough state, and even isolated from the rest of the show, phenomenal. Some concepts are represented by a stage full of marionettes of clacking bone, one of those images the company is so good at that seems to be pulling something really fucking disturbing directly from my own subconscious.

There’s some mask work, too, and one, at least, is beautifully made — no, no. Not the word I’m looking for. I’ve seen plenty of shows where the puppets are beautifully *constructed*, and pleasing to the eye, but…they’re *static*. They don’t *move* in the space. This one does, it’s dynamic, and that’s presumably helped by the strong movement background of the actor using it.

The text is a bit more of a struggle. I’m not terribly enamored with it — I find it a touch too self-consciously lyrical in places for my taste. I’m hesitant to criticize, however, since I’m not really sure what the answer is — how *do* desert spirits speak? Not colloquially. Well, they might, and it would be an interesting show, but not *this* particular show.

Vocally, the performers are still groping after a way to deliver it, as well. The schtick revolves around shifting between a variety of different creatures — and while they’re brilliant at creating *physical* distinctions, the characters tend to blend *vocally*, into a kind of consistently poetic murmur. They’re conscious of this, and much rehearsal time was spent developing it.

And yet…hmm. It’s *jarring*. They enter, their bodies interact with each other and the space in a way that’s incredibly evocative, totally compelling — then they open their mouths, and the performance — flattens. It’s an interesting problem.

And it’s precisely that problem that makes this project *interesting*. Without it, this would be another movement show — a top-tier one, certainly, but formally indistinct from other shows that they’ve done. But this fucker’s ambitious — they’re trying to find a way to articulate some very complicated concepts, and doing so is pushing them into some fascinating formal re-inventions. I don’t know whether or not they’ll surmount the challenges the project presents — but speaking for myself, at least, whether or not they find the perfect solution is the *least* interesting part of this project. It’s the attempts they put on-stage that make this compelling theatre.

But man, I’m glad I’m not the one who has to pull that off.

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One Response to “Process Blog #1: Off-Leash Area”

  1. paul herwig Says:

    thanks for the commentary on attending our rehearsal. you have captured the difficulty of combining text into movement theatre. i hope you can emphasize, though, that this was only one two-hour rehearsal that the writer attended, and that the production is very very much in process, having been rehearsing for a few weeks, with two months to go before opening night. and that, as is true of all movement theatre, getting the “perfect gesture” is what it’s all about, as when a writer of words seeks the perfect word. interesting to have you have had a peek behind the curtain while we pull the levers and blow out the smoke! “Toto, get away from there!” ;0)


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