“It’s a really hard play to put into words. I think it’s an exploration and a dive into what we call home, where we come from, and how we connect with what that means both in a larger societal way and in a very individual, personal way.” That’s Theater Alliance Artistic Director Colin Hovde talking about Mnemonic, which his company has just opened at Anacostia Playhouse. It is a multi-disciplinary work combining story, movement, puppetry, projections, lighting, and sound to explore who we are and how we relate to each other. The piece was originally devised by the British company Complicité, lead by actor, director, and writer Simon McBurney.
Sarah caught up with Dody DiSanto, Mnemonic’s movement director and Hovde, who is directing the piece, just before a rehearsal:
Dody, tell me about Mnemonic.
Dody DiSanto: For me, it’s really a piece about memory and what mnemonics are for us individually. What are the things mnemonics remind us of? How do we understand our own identity in the world? Our personal history and our memories are tied to that understanding. This piece is a multi-layered journey that tells of one person coming to understand another’s disappearance: where she is and whether she is coming back.
He’s trying to piece things together from voicemails that she’s left him. The backdrop of the whole thing is the discovery of the Ice Man in the Alps who is 5,200 years old. There is an ongoing inquiry into what he is about, where he is from, and what he was doing. It is a micro/macro schema on history and romance and origins and who we are inside and how our memories and imaginations shape the way that we live it’s a very interesting piece.
Colin, how did you come across this piece?
CH: I don’t remember when I first heard about Complicité, but I had heard of their work the kind of work that they did. But I had never read any of their works or seen any of it. And eight or nine years ago, I was in London for some reason on a layover for a couple days visiting friends and family, and I found out that you can actually watch videos at the Victoria and Albert Museum, much like you can New York Public Library. So, I took the tube out to some random residential, suburban neighborhood and went into this warehouse which was an archive and pulled three Complicité videos. I got to watch the full video of The Noise of Time about Shostakovich. I got to watch the whole video of Street of Crocodiles that they did about Bruno Schulz and his artwork. And then the last one I was watching was Mnemonic, but they closed in 30 or 45 minutes, and it was an hour and a half or two hour long show.
So, I watched the beginning of it, and then I fast forwarded it, and then watched a little bit of it, then I fast forwarded it and watched a little bit of it, and so on – so I watched probably 30 minutes of the two hour production. But I got to see these elements and these moments that took my breath away in their simplicity and in their elegance and in their raw power. And then, I found out that I could buy a copy of the script, so I bought a copy of the script immediately. And then I read it, and it said something in the front about performance rights, so I immediately emailed them and was like, “do you mean to tell me that I could actually do this play?” And they were like, “absolutely, we want to be people to do our plays. No one does.” So, it’s been on my back burner for a very long time as a show that I would love to do.
And so, when I took over Theater Alliance six years ago, I planned for it to be the first show I directed. I was like, “okay, I have to pull shows that I love. What are the shows I know and I trust and I love that are just literally in my back pocket?” And this was the first one I thought about, but when I took over the company, we had as much debt as we did annual budget. We were a company that was broken. And I just knew that there was no way I could pull off this show with all of its complexity and the projections and the voice recordings and the movement. I just didn’t have the design team or the relationships built up. I didn’t have the admin infrastructure at the company. So, it always sat on the back burner. I always thought about it, and I’d always talk about it at season planning, but as we focused our mission to be more socially-conscious, thought-provoking, really about works that are about what people are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, and less about the larger existential questions, I sort of drifted away from it as a Theater Alliance show.
And then a year and half ago, I would read about the Syrian refugees, and it just broke my heart. And I would see images. I have a friend who lives in Syria who is living in Lebanon right now, and I speak with her from time to time. I just started thinking back about Mnemonic, and how much it’s about race. How much it’s about where we are from, and how we are always moving. And we always have been moving. We’ve been forced to move, and we’ve chosen to move, but we, as a human species, have always been in motion. And I thought about how relevant that is to the conversations we’re having in this country about immigrants and refugees and about what we call home and where we are from and how that defines us. So, I thought it was a time to really dig into the piece. When I gave it a read, I was like, “holy cannoli!” this thing really is relevant.
It seems like it’s a great time to do it.
CH: At Theater Alliance, I don’t want to produce theatre that points fingers and just says, “oh these people are terrible.” Because I feel like most of the audiences that are going to be coming to the theatre probably don’t feel the same way about some of the politics. I’d rather find plays that resonate on what we’re dealing with and ask us personal questions about how we individually either take care of ourselves or relate in complex ways to those situations. For many of us, that’s all we can do. It’s a complex thing as the leader of an organization to try to figure out how to respond to the political climate and the social climate of our country right now. But I love this piece because it responds to it in a very direct but very nuanced way.
Want to go?
from Theater Alliance
closes April 9, 2017
Details and tickets
How does movement inform the piece?
DD: Simon McBurney, the driving force of Complicite, studied at the same school I did under Jacques Lecoq in Paris, which is a school of creation. You learn how to build work simply by building work. You work off of theme rather than study repertory theatre. It is a physical, corporeal, and dynamic approach to acting.
Tell me about the process of taking a devised work from another company and putting it onstage at a different theatre with a different team.
DD: This a very ambitious endeavor: to take a devised piece of work that is scripted, and follow the script but also fill in the spaces by devising the images. So, it’s a hybrid.
Colin Hovde: I think about plays like Tectonic Theatre Project’s The Laramie Project and how I don’t think people really talk about or realize how devised that play was. I’ve talked to a couple of the company members at Tectonic, and they spent two years creating it from the ground up. There was no playwright really. So, this is sort of similar to that in the sense that you’re getting the fully made stew. You see the ingredients of this amazing meal sitting in front of you, and you don’t know how they discovered that those ingredients went so well together, but they’ve given you the recipe to make this incredible stew. So, it’s like we have to reinvent the portions and literally make the stew ourselves without ever having done it in this particular form.
DD: You are given a list of ingredients, but how they go together is a mystery to solve. So, that’s the trajectory of the hybrid of a script that embodies a devised work but doesn’t have the breadcrumb trail. It’s a world between staging and devising.
CH: Yeah, I’d say in reading through the script – I’ve read it so many times – and the more you read the script, the more you see nuances and aspects of what the writer was doing and how things relate. With this script, every time I re-read it, every time we do a run-through, I see another echo of a different part of the play. And I see the play in a different way. It’s just very dense – and I don’t mean that in a “heavy” kind of way – I mean dense in a –
CH: Yeah, a thick and connected network way. Which makes it really fascinating because in exploring the play and trying to put it on its feet and give it that structure, things reveal themselves to you. It’s pretty complex that way. You can’t approach it like, “now we’re going to move here. Now, we’re going to move there. I know what this piece is.” You have to build the component parts and find out how they interrelate.
That’s fascinating. That’s a very different way to work that many typical theatre artists are used to.
DD: Yeah, it is fascinating because that is in fact the path of creation: that discovery of connection. The more you work, the deeper it gets. Since Complicité has a methodology by which they create work, they have this ability to create those deeper connections that just keep resonating and rumbling out and out and out and then coming back in. It’s fascinating. It’s daunting.
CH: This rehearsal process has been different than any rehearsal process I’ve been in – more frightening – but also more exciting. Because, in a way, we have to reinvent the process. As a director, once you’ve directed enough plays, you have tools, and you know the bench marks of where you need to be at what stage in the process. So, with this piece …. you have to create it in a different way and allow yourself to trust that it is finding its own path – as ephemeral as that sounds.
Are the actors involved in the creation?
CH: Absolutely. You always need that outside eye; you need a director to say, “eh, that doesn’t look quite right,” or, “here’s this really complex moment where this moves here, and that moves there,” and then there’re projections and all of these things are happening, so they need a certain amount of guidance. But there has been a lot of input from the actors. We started out in rehearsal with a full week of table work and then four days of ensemble building and then ensemble exploration around the script. So, a lot of things came out of that process that inspired some of the moments and staging that we ended up using. And some of it we didn’t – some of it was lost on the cutting room floor.
DD: I agree with that. The hardest part so far has been the constraint of time. With devising in Europe, it’s a different track. And here, there is a real sharp turn into getting it on stage. So, I think, in the end, that’s going to help us with this. Because the play does have a structure and has already been discovered as Colin said. I think we are right at a precipice now. We are about two days away from going into tech, and it’s all going to come together in a magical way.
CH: I was classically trained in Shakespeare and all of that, so I come from a text-heavy, Stanislavski-esque approach to theatre and storytelling. And Dody, in her bones, has this movement vocabulary and exploration conversation. So, I feel that, had we not partnered on the project, there could have been a world where I focused more on the emotional and psychological narrative of the piece and the movement world might have been a little bit flatter or less dynamic. So, the way that we are partnering is neat, because I can focus a little bit more on the text, but Dody’s movement vocabulary and way of understanding that world has opened things up a lot for me – specifically with this piece where the people who created it all studied Jacques Lecoq. So, embedded within the DNA of this piece is a movement vocabulary that is very specific.
I haven’t seen any other productions other than a few clips from a recording of Complicité’s production in 2000, but I have seen the production photos of other productions of Mnemonic. It’s interesting to see those photos because I feel like what we are trying to bring to it in this production is very much in the spirit of the piece and how quickly it moves. There are about 30 characters in this play, and if you get bogged down in trying to focus on each character, you lose the overall story and the macro journey that the piece really has the potential to take an audience on. So, I think that is a real testament to the way that Dody and I work together and that Dody comes from this Lecoq pedagogy that looks at that macro level.
DD: What governs the creation process in the Lecoq technique is that you look at everything through the triune principals of space, force, and rhythm. The lens is not necessarily a psychological lens. It’s a macro/micro lens that is constantly moving and taking into consideration all manor of the story. It’s hard to explain. It includes understanding spatial vectors and the compression and expansion of space to tell a story, the musicality of it via the rhythm. The actors are all trained corporeally in order to sense and understand and be able to temper those vectors and rhythms to create a facsimile of a psychological environment without having the actor be psychological.
CH: In Complicite’s show A Disappearing Number, at the beginning of the play, a guy comes out and does a mathematical magic trick. I saw it at the Lincoln Festival, and there were like a thousand people in the audience, and we all gasped at the same time. It was such an incredible moment of theatre where all of the artifice was thrown away, but it was also built back up in a really incredible way. It charged us to be able to go on the journey of the piece. Mnemonic has a similar relationship to the audience: one of mutual imagination and mutual journey. What I love about the piece, is that it is very proscenium. Our production is very proscenium. It’s a black box, but it’s in a very end-stage configuration. But there is no moat that separates the audience from the performers. If anything, you’re completely connected with them. The actors are onstage doing all this work, but they are doing it in communion and sharing with the audience.
I recently saw a show where the actors onstage were having a fantastic time they were loving it, and they were doing great, beautiful, and hilarious work, but it just never reached the audience. It was in a very intimate space, and we just weren’t a part of it. I think that’s what is really interesting about Complicite’s work and the Lecoq work, is that it doesn’t matter what’s onstage, it matters how it interacts with the audience.
So, I think what the piece is about for me: origins and family and home, and the fact that it is about being connected with the audience on that journey of exploring who we are, it gets to why I do theatre: which is for us to reflect back on who were are and understand a little bit more about how we are living our lives. My favorite thing is to sit in the back of a theatre and watch an audience watch a play, because for two hours, you get to see humans dropping all of their defenses, sitting quietly in a dark room, just focusing on some other story about someone other than themselves. And the fact that this story is about someone 5,000 years older than we are and about someone who is sitting next to us at the same time, really has a magical quality to it.
The production elements are a big part of this production: projections, sound, etc. How are those working with the piece?
CH: It’s fascinating. A lot of the designers I’ve worked with numerous times before, and the set designer we have is Tony Cisek, who in my opinion, is one of the best set designers in this town, if not in this country. He’s really created a very sparse but very specific set for the world of the play to live in to allow for all of the shifts and changes and ducks and weaves of the piece. For projections, we have some pretty intense projectors, and we’ve been speaking with our projections designer quite a bit. As we’ve been rehearsing and discovering and staging things in rehearsal, I’ve had more designers in more rehearsals for this project then ever. Usually, they are there for the first read, the designer run, and then you see them at tech. For this show, I’ve had our projections designer, sound designer, and lighting designer in for two to three days at a time, multiple times – just watching us literally in the space while we’re creating a movement moment over the course of an hour and a half. They are engaged in it and it’s inspiring them.
The sound design of this piece is really intense because there is a lot of voiceover. I’ve worked with Matt Nielson numerous times. He’s a phenomenal sound designer. So, we recorded our first table read, and then he took that and cut it up so we could use it in rehearsal as those voiceovers. So, in doing that, it really forced him to know the structure and the rhythm and the piece. And then we recorded another reading of it after we had done tablework, and he put those recordings in. So, he has gone through the text beat by beat two times already. And now, he’s coming in and he’s watched the designer run, and he’s watched us working, and he’s talked with the lighting designer in the rehearsal room while we worked. He told me he knows this show better than he knows most shows going in to tech, because as a designer, you can plan all you want, but once you get into tech, when that next moment happens, you’re like “okay how are we going to tackle this moment, how are these things integrated,” and you learn the piece over doing it. He now knows the piece incredibly well, so we are going into tech with a bed and a foundation on which to build.
I don’t want to give away any juicy details, but we have a puppet in the piece being custom built and it is one of the most magical things ever. I just recently emailed with a colleague who runs one of the larger houses in DC, and they said, “I remember when I saw [Mnemonic] 20 years ago. It is still etched in my mind.” And I just think that this piece specifically is a special piece of theatre. And part of it has to do with that puppet and the way that transformation happened and the way we look at ourselves.
Is there anything else you’d like audiences to know?
CH: The great thing about the piece is that you don’t need to come in with anything. The piece holds your hand and takes you on the journey and makes sure that you’re along for the ride. It’s a very personal piece. Did you see The Encounter?
CH: So the way that the audience wears headsets in The Encounter, there is a similar device in Mnemonic where the audience interacts like that. I don’t want to give it away.
Of course not! Complicité really plays with our definition of theatre.
CH: Yeah. And it’s very personal – this interaction. So when you finally enter the piece you’ve already gone on a personal journey. And it’s an incredible relationship that this piece has to the audience. It’s not to be missed.