“Find an ending, please.”
No, this is not what was asked of the audience on Saturday night at Shear Madness, one of those (otherwise quite conventional) plays at which the ending is determined by an audience vote. These words were spoken a bit down river from that production, and during a performance occupying a quite different place on the theatrical spectrum.
I heard those words during the working rehearsal segment of Trust Me, the piece which force/collision, a relatively young and itinerant local company, presented as part of the Kogod Cradle Series at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater. The evening began with an excerpt from the company’s latest offering, which is still in the process of being fully developed. Following that, we saw the company continue to work on the piece for about 15 minutes. Then, a moderated exchange between artists and audience took place.
This combination of excerpt, rehearsal, and discussion is the template for the Cradle series, an Arena initiative supported by the Barbara R. Walton Endowment Fund for New Playwrights. The force/collision residency, which ran four nights, is the third of three presented by the series this season.
Previous evenings in this season’s slate of work in development included a new piece by Karen Zacarias, one of Arena’s Resident Playwrights, as well as performances by local companies dog & pony dc and banished? productions. (Presumably, companies whose names utilize capital letters would be eligible for inclusion in the series, and it is only coincidence that this year’s three groups prefer the lower case.)
Open rehearsals are not uncommon in town; those held by Michael Kahn at Shakespeare Theatre Company are reportedly quite popular, and I’ve heard that Arena’s Molly Smith, during early previews, often works with her cast in front of an audience. The force/collision approach, however, was slightly different. They presented an exercise incorporating spontaneous movement with learned text, rather than continued refinement of what had already been developed and presented earlier in the evening, and it was in this context that the director, sitting in the audience and speaking gently into a mic, brought the rehearsal to a close with the words quoted above. (An actor during the talkback related that, at this point in development, and in terms of movement, about half of what we saw had been set and about half is newly created each night, in the manner we were witnessing.) This section felt unselfconscious, with the audience observing the work without the artists feeling a need to explain their process, or even all of the vocabulary they employ during that work.
David Snider, Arena’s Director of Artistic Programming, reported during a phone conversation on Friday, after f/c’s first night, that there are many of the regular Arena audience who are not used to, but who very much appreciate, this opportunity to witness “the sausage being made.” Arena promotes the series on its website and in e-blasts, and the audiences (which numbered about 100 per night) included Arena subscribers, many of whom would not have otherwise been aware of the work of a more low profile company such as f/c. (Arena also makes a point of inviting their Volunteer Ushers, and a show of hands demonstrated that several were in attendance.)
The audience cross-pollination, however, was a two-way street: at least two people on Saturday night admitted that they were at the newly-renovated Arena for the first time (though one of the two later recanted, having remembered a previous visit).
There were other factors that made the evening distinct from other series entries. For one, Trust Me was developed from existing material, two plays (Trust and Rausch) by the highly regarded German writer and director Falk Richter. (It is intended that a third play, called Protect Me, will eventually be included in the mix.)
force/collision has been working with Richter, via Skype, and, in addition to forming this collage from Richter’s texts and giving that text a quite dynamic physical and aural score, f/c has included other found texts (including a very funny list of cost-saving ideas for one’s wedding) and the company also seems to have added some content specific to US/DC culture and experience, as well as specific to the performers. This helps to make the evening fit into the Cradle series’ focus on new American work, though the piece is based on a European source.
Also, force/collision has an interdisciplinary focus, and Trust Me was heavily movement-oriented, and its cast of seven (Karin Rosnizeck, Dane Figueroa Edidi, Ilana Faye Silverstein, Sarah Elizabeth Ewing, Amber Tietgens, Ivan Zizek, Augustin Beall) were as comfortable, facile, and impressive as dancers as they were as actors.
The opportunity to experience the work of Richter was what brought at least one of the audience to the performance on Saturday. Some have called him the most important contemporary German playwright. The program calls this a US premiere, and, certainly, Richter is less known and less frequently performed in this country than some of his older compatriots, such as Kroetz or Fassbinder. In fact, his Wikipedia entry exists only in German. From it, though, I saw a list of his directing credits, one of which stood out in particular. The impressionistic aspect to the text, which doesn’t feature a linear narrative, reminded me a bit of the plays I’ve seen by Sarah Kane, one of which (Psychosis 448) Richter has directed. Coincidentally, the production of that play I saw was directed by John Moletress, the creator of f/c and the director of Trust Me. (That production was at Factory 449.)
Between the excerpt and the working rehearsal, the audience on Saturday actually grew. (Though one woman left, two guys came in.) The exchange with the audience was lively and could easily have gone on twice as long as it did before exhausting audience comment. In addition to audience and subscribers, I saw many members of DC’s theatre community. Most of the feedback was extremely appreciative, but it wasn’t entirely uncritical. One Artistic Director of another theatre remarked that he found the piece most powerful when text and movement weren’t layered over each other. A young man (the audience, though diverse, included many young people) admitted that this was his first experience with non-narrative theatre and that he was interested in learning how to develop the tools to engage it more fully.
I must admit that I am not totally unbiased toward f/c. I have worked with and am friends with some of its artists and company members and I have seen previous f/c productions. That said, I was extremely engaged by Trust Me. Richter’s thematic concerns resonated deeply with me, particularly the recurring motif of a desire for change in one’s life that is at once stoked by and frustrated by not only our personal relationships, but also by societal expectations and materialistic habits of consumption.
The climax of the excerpt presented Saturday night began with a striking sequence during which one performer’s clothes became a palpable and stifling symbol of his dissatisfactions and his unfulfilled desires. This ended with him stripped to his briefs and flinging himself repeatedly into the arms of other actors, who seemed to be at once cushioning his fall and preventing his escape. Then, a pristinely packaged pie is brought out, displayed, and then pounced on by several of the cast, who end up eating it off the floor with their hands in a striking juxtaposition of civilized consumption against animal-like behavior. They then sang “American Pie” in one of the several witty and telling musical touches. (Derek V. Knoderer is the Sound Designer.)
I’d love to see if the full piece feels as satisfying to me in terms of shape and length as this excerpt did. I’d love to know if any, or how many, of the audience new to force/collision follows the production to its next step and the company in its subsequent work. Moletress reports that the company has gained Twitter and Facebook followers. Everyone involved, certainly, spoke enthusiastically about the collaboration that the Cradle series facilitated. Snider called it a good partnership and pronounced Arena “really proud” of the result. Moletress and Knoderer, speaking informally before the show, both said that the Arena folks had been “amazing” and one of the performers said during the talkback session that not only had the company learned a lot from the talkbacks, but that subsequent social media contacts had given them other valuable feedback.
Sadly, Moletress says that the company doesn’t, at present, have a venue for a full run of a more fully developed version of the work. (As is well known, it is not always an easy thing to find space that is available and affordable.) A screening of a film component (not part of the Cradle excerpt) is planned for July 8 at the Goethe Institute, and the Sunday performance was streamed online by HowlRound TV ( visit howlround.com). Information about the future of Trust Me will be found, when available, at its website force-collision.org.
The rehearsal of Trust Me by Falk Richter, directed by John Moletress, was performed by force/collision at Arena Stage June 13 – 16, 2013.