by guest writers Robert Michael Oliver (director) and Elizabeth Bruce (author)
Oliver: I think of this show as a sort of grand experiment. I’ve done poetry in performance before, and this time I really wanted to try prose in performance. When I landed on doing Elizabeth’s fiction, these short little pieces, I thought they were perfect to really experiment with as an ensemble piece — to make them both prose and performance.
We all have a particular relationship to money. And the ideas we have about money are shaped by the significant people in our lives, whether they’re parents, grandparents, friends… That’s the idea at the heart of Elizabeth’s book “$50” — it’s made up of fifty short stories that each have to do with a character’s understanding of money. Specifically: one dollar.
Bruce: That dollar is what we’d call the ‘intimate detail’ in flash fiction. These are all quick scenes that tell a complete story in a very short amount of time, and the dollar is the common detail through each of them.
Oliver: So we’ve selected nine of these stories to perform as Legal Tender. But this isn’t fiction adapted for the stage. We are performing the prose itself, and we’ve changing very little of what Elizabeth has written. These are mostly rapid-fire scenes, with various narrators, and even though the literal action of the story may only cover a few seconds or a minute in someone’s life, through the prose we are able to go into people’s heads. To do flashbacks. To see memories and thoughts and fears… all of that internal world that we have such good access to in fiction but that we often lose the chance to really see on stage.
Bruce: This means that each piece has an objective narrator, and then almost every piece has some sort of subjective narrator as well. And it all moves quickly — characters even complete each other’s sentences at times. In some ways it functions sort of like a choir. If you’re the alto, you sing alto even though there’s a soprano singing right next to you. So in this show the objective narrator has to hold that voice even though there’s a subjective narrator playing through the scene as well. The characters have a variety of tonal qualities. It’s an interesting aural experience.
Oliver: Even though most of these stories appear on the surface to be very simple, there’s something going on inside the main character that tickles, irritates… sort of like a pearl in an oyster. These character often have memories that are rubbing them a little raw, like that of an alcoholic parent, or a criminal past, or a fear they don’t ever talk about.
by Robert Michael Oliver and Elizabeth Bruce
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So we do a story called “Airport Caddy,” where we meet a woman struggling with her bags at the airport. She really wants a push cart, but she’s frugal and tight with her money. We hear chatter all around her about how elegant her mother was and how much of a mess she is. It’s only at the end that we figure out what this moment is really about.
Then there’s a story about a man who’s just got out of jail who’s driving on a toll road and doesn’t have change for a $20. There’s one about a woman on the run from an abusive ex-husband who ends up in a divey motel outside of Pittsburgh, wondering whether to spend a dollar on one of those old Magic Fingers beds.
Oliver: Every piece has a bit of a twist. There’s this seemingly mundane situation that has a deeper condition, a deeper narrative underneath. There’s lots of opportunity to find a darker tone to some pieces that are otherwise pretty comic.
Bruce: Within this interior landscape of a character there’s all kinds of things happening. And this process that we’ve put forth really takes all of the components of that inner monologue and sorts them out. The subjective narrator — or what we might call the main character’s imagination — is really part of that character’s inner monologue. Through this, we get new information about what’s going on in that person’s head. And then there are other characters that are summoned forth by the main character’s memory… previous conversations or interactions… so the cast of characters onstage gives life to all the voices — on the inside and outside — that affect the main character.
As a clarifying process for a fiction writer who is trying to sort out point of view, it’s a really interesting process to sort of determine what point of view is actually being presented.
Oliver: It’s also been great because we’ve had the opportunity to make certain changes to the text since we have the writer with us. And I think it’s possible that rehearsals can reveal changes to the text that might be in the writer’s best interest even as a prose piece. You really discover things when you get a lot of people working on a story together.
Presented as part of the 2013 Capital Fringe Festival, a program of the Washington, D.C. non-profit Capital Fringe.
– Elizabeth Bruce is a writer, arts educator, and theatre artist living in northeast DC with her husband Robert Michael Oliver, a local theatre critic and theatre artist. They co-founded Sanctuary Theatre in Mount Pleasant in the 1980s, and have since expanded the program into an arts workshop series called The Performing Knowledge Project.