Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Jump-Off

I thought I knew a thing or two about cruelty. To be honest, I might have called myself an expert on the subject. I mean, I’ve seen movies like Pasolini’s Salo and NoĆ©’s Irreversible, and I’ve read everything I could get my hands on that’s been deemed transgressive or cruel. I’ve even tried emulating it in my fiction—one short piece about a man whose fingers split and cracked and fell from his body with each keystroke, or another about a car thief who moonlights as a life thief. All for the fun of it. So, I’m an authority on what it means to be cruel, right?

Here’s what I’ve been learning over the past few weeks. Cruelty, at least in the theatre (though it’s tenets would appear to be entirely fruitful in all mediums), isn’t about pain and suffering. True cruelty isn’t a splatter film; it doesn’t exist simply to turn a stomach. But to turn a heart, a mind. When I watched those films, read those books, and imitated them in my own work, it was a matter of exploitation, a search for a higher body count, more red dye and corn syrup (ex. Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive). There was nothing provoked in me other than a drive to see something I hadn’t seen before. 

Where the theatre of cruelty differs, is that the cruelty isn’t limited to the content, and is certainly more than mere acts of violence. The cruelty, at least for me, lies within the audience’s response to the performance. Are they uncomfortable? Do they feel queasy? Is everyone dying to run from the theatre? Now, is this because there’s a bloodbath on stage? It can’t be. We’ve seen Saving Private Ryan. This is nothing new, we’re used to gore. In fact, I’d argue most of us are less interested without it. Instead, if we’re feeling tense, it must be a product of how it’s presented. That lack of content, the tilting off center, is the cruelty. 

What I found interesting was this: as I went into writing my first scene, I wrote with the word “cruelty” in mind. I thought, let me take all the violence I’ve internalized over the years and boil it down to a single act of violence. I thought I’d shock the audience by staging a murder without reason or purpose, and the cruelty would pump out like a torn artery. I still thought that the cruelty was in the act, rather than the presentation. To add a spin, I made the murderers female, because that never happens, right? After, however, and continuing to think about the theatre of cruelty, I realized that this was just like all those exploitive pieces I searched for. I was trying to shock, not move. 

And so I set out with my second scene. This piece, I, much like the other scenes brought to class, featured very little, if any, violence. It was as if I shied away from violence, with purpose or without, simply because I recognized my reliance on it. Strangely enough, a suicide to end the scene would have tied in perfectly with the cruelty I’d been aiming for. I wanted the audience to be forced to crane their necks to see the actors up on the catwalk. I wanted them to dodge the trash and debris being thrown at them. I wanted them to get off their phones on the stage, in the line of fire. Letting the character with seemingly no intention to do so,  jump straight at them would have capped off the discomfort and movement (emotional or otherwise) I’d been seeking in my audience. 

Cruelty then, I’m continuing to discover, is violence and it isn’t. It’s the discomfort found in extended silences, in contorted bodies, both physical and emotional. Cruelty is found in what isn’t said, and whatever is elicited in the audience. I was blown away by Josie’s piece because I was forced to answer the questions myself. We’ve seen the scenes in movies, and heard the news reports. We’ve listened to lawyers and fought through testimony and such inundation has made us immune. All we have to do is change the channel or walk out of the auditorium. But with the theatre of cruelty, if done right, you can’t. You have to step into the shoes and feel the production strum a nerve that had otherwise been desensitized. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Little Blue Boxes

I had a workshop leader, Frank, who, during the discussion of my work, laid out the pages side by side, three rows of five so that my fiction formed a rectangle on the long conference table. This was his copy, and justifiably covered with the blood of a red pen. I’d seen this with plenty of my fiction teachers—slashes through sentences and whole paragraphs and notes like “could cut” or “What are you thinking?”—but there was something different. Frank had drawn large blue boxes around blocks of text, and most of the bloodshed remained in the spaces between each box. “These,” he said, by his estimation, were “the active scenes of my work.” They drove the story, propelled the reader forward. From that moment, I began to focus my efforts on the crafting of scenes and stringing them together to tell the story. Everything else, all the expositional nonsense in between became superfluous and excised when I began drawing my own boxes.
Because of this, I thought I had a handle on writing scenes, and in the realm of fiction, I still think I do okay. Though, in attempting to write my first scene for the stage, a short two person scene, I realized just how limited I am. This isn’t just to point out my downfalls with putting the actual words on the page, but with all the other details one needs to account for when writing for the stage. I’d like to equate to process of writing fictional prose to a digital art program like photoshop or the archaic MS Paint.
I begin with a blank canvas, and an idea of what I’d like to create, and for the most part I can dive right in. What aids this process, is the available tools surrounding the white space, the fills and splashes and borders, all at the click of a button. With fiction, if I have scene in a bathroom, I can describe the lighting, the putrid, jittery flicker of aged fluorescence bouncing off the cesspool of stained, green tile, the beads of sweat and spatter of blood contrasting the vivid blond of the woman standing and deepening walnut brown of the kneeling brunette. The hammer she drops can be as big or as small as I want. The dead man in the bathtub can be anywhere in the room, because I, with all my readily available tools, am the architect.
When writing for the stage however, I found myself really starting from scratch. The luxury of free-roaming creation wasn’t available. This isn’t to say that anything your mind can fathom couldn’t be performed, but instead, that everything you fail to consider when writing fiction comes into play.
My process for writing fiction is as follows: roll out of bed, smoke, guzzle coffee, smoke, put on a Vangelis record, open up the document, bang on the keys, smoke, smoke, guzzle more coffee, write a page I think is brilliant, then delete it upon further reflection, smoke, nap. I do all this from the comfort of a shabby blue leather couch with my feet propped on a repurposed coffee table. I don’t need to leave, save for research if necessary, because everything I’m creating exists in my mind, and my job then, is to appropriately transcribe this to the page all the while considering the mythical reader in my mind—a cross between the subway commuter reading my work on the way to the drone factory and the delegate sent from the canon to judge my level of worthiness. This person doesn’t exist, and never will, but as I sit here on the couch, I’m writing to them.
The first difference I discovered when writing for the stage began with the confirmation that my fiction instructor was still correct—the scene is paramount, and the words between prevent the audience from being propelled forward. The second, and more terrifying but essential difference, is that another step is needed for the stage. Now, the world in my mind must be transferrer to the page, then transferred to the vast expanse before a viewing audience. No longer am I writing for the mythical consumer/critic beast I’ve imagined, but now I have to write for the public. The world I’m used to laying out for the reader to fill in the gaps crumbles as I fumble with props and lighting and lines of sight.
What I tripped over was tangibility. I can’t just write in a lamp, or the glaring fluorescence, but now I must write the physicality into my scenes. I have to consider not only the fictional world, but how it will translate into reality. Will everyone in the audience, from the back corner, to the front row, get the same experience based on my stage directions. Can everyone see? Can they hear? In a short story, no characters need to face one another, or position themselves in such a way that the general public can watch their lips move, but on the stage, these amount to only a fraction of the necessary considerations. Where editing my fiction is for flow, for syntax, grammar, the hunt for the most beautiful sentence, it has grown to include not only all of that, but also the daunting task of editing to create a performance. And even further, an accessibility for every attendee.
In a way, writing for the stage, to me, removes some of the, for lack of a better word, laziness that I’ve grown accustomed. I can’t let my reader to the work. I’ve got to get up there, walk around the creaking stage, blow the dust off old props, move actors around like rooks and bishops, then return to the page to make adjustments. It is the ultimate recursive process, one that reflects, maybe, the very thematic elements of all creative endeavors—the arduous slog of trial and error, of success and failure—and in doing so, I might be able to create something that has the ability to transcend medium and speak to more than that invented reader I have been pandering to. But first, I’ve got to get up off the couch, hop onto the stage, and put in the work.
Frank, my instructor, had the right idea: break everything down into scenes and see where your story takes you, but I’m learning now that within those little blue boxes, amidst the bloodshed of hacked away prose, the real action isn’t simply text, but must encompass every single seemingly insignificant detail that creates a new reality.