Monday, June 8, 2009

Knowing the Questions: I’ve Never Been So Happy Workshop Day 5

A guest blog series by Christina Gutierrez, a Ph.D. student in Performance as Public Practice at UT Austin

For those of you who tuned in to Friday’s live feed at  the work you watched probably looked more like a traditional rehearsal than anything we’ve done so far. No one wrapped themselves in rope and flailed across the floor, for example. Instead, we combined the extensive vocal work that our trio of singers has been doing on “the hardest song in the history of songs” with the new puppets and projector effects Erin brought in, and attempted to run Scene 1. Almost immediately, however, we had to ask questions that felt natural and worth pursuing to us, but probably aren’t standard fare for rehearsals of, say, Death of a Salesman. Questions like “wait, where do we put the audience?”

Since this workshop, unlike the December Off Center workshop, uses a cyc as a giant projection screen in the first scene in order to play with extremes of scale and perspective, we’d originally imagined putting audience in the Payne house for the first scene and then potentially moving them onto the stage for Scenes 3, 5, and 6. This set up would have made the entirety of the Payne stage our all-purpose backstage area and the workspace for the projection team. Ideally, the singers and musicians would also have been behind the cyc, making the projections the only visual mode of storytelling for the whole of the first scene. We hit a snag in this plan when we realized that it’s basically impossible to hear singers who are trapped behind a floor to ceiling screen. So, we thought, move them in front of the screen. Simple, right? Well, not really. In that configuration, those of us working with projections and puppets couldn’t hear them. As the images on the screen illustrate and interpret the lyrics of the song, everything is timed (and tied) to words we couldn’t make out. So, if it doesn’t work to separate singers and projectionists, and the audience and the singers have to be on the same side of the cyc, the answer seemed to be, well, everyone on the stage.

So we moved the audience (played on Friday by Kirk, Lana, and Thomas) behind the cyc. With the projectors. And the musicians. And the singers. Watching Scene 1 at UT now means watching the images on the screen and the people who are making them, seeing live actors and their projected shadows, much like the December ’08 workshop production. There will be no “backstage” for Saturday’s showing because, in this workshop format, there is no backstage anyway. The work is part of the show. Just as it’s really interesting to watch someone wrapped in rope struggle (sometimes successfully) to stand up and dance, we discovered its also kinda fascinating to watch as tiny puppets and giant coils of rope become unexpectedly detailed and strikingly beautiful projection images. Projection artists became performers as well, executing intricate and precise choreography while moving puppets from screen to screen. This new seating configuration also means that the technical aesthetic of the show is readily visible. It seems important to the world of the musical to have the audience realize that we’re making this happen with old-fashioned overhead projectors, not cutting edge digital technology. Interestingly, what we wound up with on Friday was close to the look and feel of the December workshop. The experiment was in separating audience and performers. Turns out, keeping them together just works. I’ve Never Been So Happy now simultaneously tells the interwoven stories of Julie, Jeremy, Brutus, and Annabellee and the story of its own creation.

Of course, what we show on Saturday will not be the full musical. That will happen in April of 2010 at The Off Center. Lots of Friday’s conversations were about how the work we’ve done at UT will translate to a space without a giant proscenium and a 500 seat house. In the spirit of giving every idea the space to be a good one, we’re finding it possible to take full advantage of the Payne space. The answer to what that will mean for the future of the project isn’t clear, but at least we know the questions. 

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