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Friday, September 12, 2014

A Disturbance of Dramaturgy: Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature

by Annie-B Parson

Photo: Mike van Sleen
Annie-B Parson (co-director, Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature, BAM Harvey Theater, Sep 30—Oct 4) founded Big Dance Theater in 1991 with Molly Hickok and Paul Lazar. She has choreographed and co-created more than 20 works for the company, ranging from pure dance pieces, to adaptations of plays and literature, to original works combining wildly disparate materials. Outside of the company, Parson has created choreography for David Byrne's Here Lies Love and St. Vincent's 2014 world tour. Parson discusses the origins of Big Dance Theater’s latest work.

1. Threes:
The plan was to make a triptych, three discrete parts, not overlapping. The sources: three film scripts, three decades, three countries: Terms of Endearment, Dr. Zhivago, Le Cercle Rouge. The piece would be about acting, performance, and about film and film styles, ranging from intimate to epic, each expressive of its own time and place.

2. This Against That:
Not all events and histories speak directly to each other. Juxtaposition, a this against that, is an artificial phenomenon born of both chance and synchronicity. A peeling poster in the subway station that reveals the corner of the previous image sets the discarded voice against the new one, sometimes in comment, sometimes in an inexplicable harmony, sometimes with no affect. How and why these chance elements speak to each other is one of luck, craft, and the muscle of an awake viewer. But oddly, some histories that happen out of context, space, and time seem to inexplicably agree to mutual contemplation.

3. Maybe and Because:
Putin’s Romanov-esque power grab... Cold War feelings re-emerging in the US... Russian literature looming large over our literary psyche... the Russians' sweeping contemplations framing our solipsistic ones... maybe for all these reasons, setting an intimate, suburban 1970’s family drama from a mid-20th-century moment of American history when we were allowed—we demanded—to think only of our comfortable lives... setting this against a mid-20th-century sprawling novel that brilliantly shows how the Russian Revolution dismembered Russian psyches and lives... and then, further and stranger, exploring the too-neat and romanticized English film of this novel made years later, utterly out of sync with the brutal reality the original novel in the best sense messily and muscularly depicts... and maybe then intercutting these sources with the brilliant “staging” of Melville’s classic film, Le Cercle Rouge—its existence validated simply by its craft and artistry... Maybe these various sources were destined to gather into a river of over-abundant materials that reached and pulled at the other materials. But truly, we didn't plan on over-running the riverbanks. It just started happening one day in rehearsal. We don't even remember the moment.

Photo: Mike van Sleen
4. Screen Plays and Poetry:
The project started in part as a curiosity about tampering with the impoverished language used in the screenplay of Terms of Endearment. The lead actresses’ performances were so sublime in the movie, yet the language they used seemed in contrast, unexplored. Thus, I gave myself the task of “choreographing language” by becoming a student of poetic form itself. This is not such a leap for a choreographer, as we trade in structure, and using words instead of bodies again felt seamless. The task I set for myself was to rewrite the entire screenplay of Terms of Endearment using a different poetic forms for each scene. I pruned each scene with sonnets, villanelles, pantouns, odes, and sestinas. The script that emerged from this rewrite was yet another component in the pile of leaves, twigs and embers we stoked in rehearsal.

5. This Play is a Dance:When all these source materials were crafted into a dramaturgically irresponsible whole, re-thinking what dramaturgy can be and do becomes part of the subject matter. In this work, we are not giving audience the comfort of exposition or costume to define “who” performers are playing, what gender or how many performers play each role, nor a consistent “where’’ we are, nor a stable “when” things are occurring in time. There is no first act: Exposition, second act: Obstacle, nor third act: Revelation. It is instead structured like a dance. (And even if the viewer believes they have never thought about structure as they watch theater, in fact, I am sure there is nothing that they are experiencing more strongly than the structure.) In the case of text that is derived from narrative-based film, it can be quite disturbing to be robbed of the expected structure. In this piece our structure unfolds from simply walking from point A to point B. It is held together with movements that are repeated and developed over time and take on new meaning in new contexts. Our play is a dance.

6. Alan Smithee Walked into a Dance Studio:The title implies a loss of creative control*, and by god there is one here—but then a seizing of a different control, one where dance elements co-exist with and render narrative elements powerless, one where identity is fluid, character is fluid, gender is fluid, and personal stories, histories, and locations slip into one another and speak across styles, countries and centuries. The title becomes a suggestion, a wry comment about creative control and the formal artistic pact with the audience, reconsidered. I have an image of this anonymous man, Alan Smithee, hired to fix the mess Big Dance is making. He leaves a film set and walks into the theater for the first time to try his hand at a theatrical-cinema, an imaginative space structured more by dance, themes, and objects than by narrative tropes. In my mind, Alan Smithee leaves the theater after the final rehearsal; he is subsequently fired, and David Lean, Jean-Pierre Melville, and James L. Brooks come in and take back what they rightfully own.

*The Director’s Guild of America invented a pseudonym for directors who had lost creative control on a film’s production and wanted their names off the final version of the movie.

Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature will be at the BAM Harvey Theater from Sep 30—Oct 4.

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