I’m in a rehearsal room a few weeks ago. I’ve just seen a sequence about same-sex activity among dolphins. The sequence is extremely informative. Statistics and other data are footnoted. After running through it once, the deviser-director of the piece gives the cast a few reactions to what she has just seen and tells them that they will run the sequence once more. I can’t wait to see it again.
Did I mention that the sequence was presented as a sort of go-go production number? Or that the footnotes are delivered by a singing/dancing pair of back-up singers, placed slightly behind the number’s lead voice? Or that the dolphins are danced by the balance of the 8 person cast who, while executing their moves, also do some call-and-response with the lead singer? This is in addition to the vocables (words considered only as a sequence of sounds or letters rather than as a unit of meaning) that the dolphins deliver. The dolphins are encouraged, regarding these vocables, to plum their “inner funk souls”.
I was attending a rehearsal of Forum Theatre’s upcoming The T Party. No, it is not a piece revolving around the “Tea Party” movement frequently discussed on cable news networks. The “T” in this piece stands for different things at different times, but mostly for “transgression.”
Before attending the rehearsal, I had interviewed the deviser-director of the piece, Natsu Onoda Power (hereafter NOP). She spoke to me about the piece, including how it came to be a part of Forum’s season.
NOP had once heard about a “T” convention and had assumed that it revolved around tea. What she learned was that it was a celebration of gender transformation, and that got her thinking about the concept of “gender transgression”; that is, a situation where people feel that their identity is somehow counter to a traditional expectation. This certainly includes, but is not limited to, gender assignment at birth.
In fact, it includes a situation when a space created for a particular group is “transgressed” by someone outside that group, creating a situation where a member of a putative majority group can be seen as the transgressor, and a member of a minority serves as a symbol of the transgressed norm. NOP mentions her experiences as a straight woman entering gay bars that cater mostly, if not exclusively, to men. She also told me about a field trip she took with her cast to The Green Lantern on a “Bear” night. (She reported that her out-of-place contingent received a warmer welcome than, say, the Al Pacino character receives in Cruising when he tries to enter a bar wearing leather on “Uniform Night.”)
Michael Dove, Artistic Director of Forum, approached NOP about a collaboration between the company and her, an increasingly prominent local director (often of pieces she has devised) whose work has been or soon will be seen at theaters including Studio, Synetic, and Theater J. In the past, she told me, she hasn’t made a habit of revisiting pieces once a production is over. (When I asked her, for instance, about publication of or potential successor productions of her critically-acclaimed Astro Boy and the God of Comics, which ran at Studio in 2012, she admitted that an obstacle to that would be the state of the script, which she described as a “mess.”)
However, NOP is on the faculty at Georgetown University, and there she has done a few pieces she feels could be candidates for subsequent professional production. After a piece that, when produced at Georgetown, involved a scavenger hunt and food service was deemed too logistically difficult to fit into Forum’s RoundHouse Silver Spring space (though the current project is plenty complicated), they decided on The T Party, which piece NOP began developing at Georgetown in 2008, working with a group of largely if not completely non-actors who were taking her class on gender and performance.
I mentioned that The T Party, even without food service, is logistically complicated. That’s because the first section of the piece will divide the audience among a series of parties taking place in different spaces and each with a distinct theme. The second half will be experienced by the audience together and at once, and will echo and integrate events that occurred at the earlier “parties.” (The sequences I observed being rehearsed were from the second part of the piece.) And, for those allergic to interactive experiences, NOP stresses that these parties will not be at all confrontational, but rather that the audiences will be treated as party guests. Each audience member will be assigned a party, although it may be possible to change parties, an analogue, NOP points out, to birth gender assignment. If all of this sounds like a lot of fun to you, I encourage you to check out The T Party; I certainly had a lot of fun watching the rehearsal I attended.
Let’s pause, however, for a flashback. When I interviewed NOP for this article in my living room, it was not the first time she had been over. Before this article was assigned to me, she had asked if she could interview me as part of the development of the piece. I had auditioned for her recently. After the audition, Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth had mentioned to NOP that my husband and I were new parents of twins, conceived via a gestational surrogate and an anonymous egg donor. Intrigued by our experience, NOP came over and talked with my husband Jay and me about our journey to non-traditional parenthood, and she met our son Aksel and daughter Ivona.
One of the sequences I saw being rehearsed was a series of short vignettes revolving around the evening’s organizing theme. Before it began, NOP leaned over and whispered to warn me that I would find something in the sequence familiar…and I did.
Of course, it was a thrill to see my Mother, my Husband, and me as characters, albeit briefly, during this sequence. (I won’t relate the punchline I contributed, or another that Jay provided, as I think they are quite funny, and I wouldn’t want to spoil any big laughs.) That said, there were several other times during the rehearsal when I was also quite moved by what I was seeing.
Watching this young cast share stories about people dealing with the unique joys, as well as the pain and confusions, associated with otherness in a variety of forms, but primarily connected to gender roles, triggered emotions, associations, memories, and important perspectives during our own current transitional moment (this Summer of the SCOTUS rulings on same-sex marriage), a time of celebration that is nevertheless tempered by a keen awareness that the “T” in LGBT isn’t sharing nearly as fully in our progress, and that, for too many, there is a hollowness and bitter edge to our celebrations.
There is something particularly poignant in watching young actors play the awakening of unexpected attraction (even if they are playing dolphins). I think that’s why so much of Gay Lit focuses on the coming out story. Those of us who are older invest it with a hope that the experience will be easier for a next generation than it might have been for us, that the innocence we find so moving might not become as tainted by harsh reactions and by distorting compromises as our experiences may have been, and certainly the much-remarked-upon and striking differences in generational attitudes toward these issues that we are now witnessing stoke those hopes. For some in my generation and older, who lived hetero-normative lives before discovering or acknowledging alternative desires, it must be wildly touching to watch a representation of a youthful innocence that they never experienced.
You won’t, by the way, be able to identify the small exchanges that were yielded from my family interview. Unlike groups such as, say, Tectonic Theatre Project or The Civilians, who interview subjects and present real names as part of the burgeoning investigative theatre movement, the cast refer to each other by their own given names. This isn’t, however, a device to allow for a fictionalization of stories inspired from fact. NOP points to three elements the stories presented share: they are true; they are local; and she has a direct connection to them. (Presumably, that means that they were related to her first hand and are not hearsay.)
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Another striking thing about the work I witnessed was how easy and open was the developmental process. One sequence concerns a married man who created a female persona (based partly on his Hollywood ideals Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield). After watching a run-thru of the sequence, NOP worked with the principals, honing the staging. She told the other actors involved to go into another room to work on how they were presenting “The Wedding March,” which they were vocalizing as part of the character’s wedding. She tasked them with exploring different approaches to it. The following run of the sequence included the resulting re-tooling. When the run was over, she leapt to her feet, applauded, and yelled “Bravo.” Later, she reacts to how one of her requested adjustments to a scene had been executed by saying, “That’s not what I said but it works well. Better than what I said.” During the interview, NOP had described the script from the earlier iteration as a skeleton. I was witnessing that skeleton being fleshed out, and I was being made aware of how central to its development the cast is.
This cast, infectiously energetic, seemingly absent of the least impulse to be at all uncooperative, and fully trusting of the project and the process, is also very young. Strangely, NOP reports that there didn’t seem to be much interest in a call to audition for The T Party; that perhaps is somewhat explained by a shorter-than-routine run of only two weeks and by its occurring right in the heart of the extremely busy Fringe season. Whatever the reason, she has ended up with an engaging group including several recent or soon-to-be Georgetown grads. I inferred that some of the references in the script and in the sound design might have needed to be given context by her to her youthful collaborators. Her team, though, is obviously inspired by the rigor NOP brings to her work.
Even though movement is a major component of this piece, NOP figures that it is more “dialogue driven” than anything she has done in recent years. (She also said that having no set is “very radical for me, but I love it!”) Interestingly, the prominence of the movement component echoes the early days of Forum, which began its life as Forum Theatre & Dance.
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