Dark Knight Dramaturgy

A Bay Area Theater Blog

Watching Little Brother

Posted by Dark Knight Dramaturg on February 4, 2012

I now know that there is, in fact, a way to successfully translate a novel into a play, thanks to Custom Made Theatre Co.’s charming production of Little Brother—and the key, it appears, is narration. I have seen a number of page-to-stage adaptations, and they’ve always fallen into the same trap of trying to capitalize on the elements that made the novels strong, namely 1) the internal (thus unspoken) growth, discoveries, and musings of central characters and 2) a fully-realized (thus detailed) fictional world. These do not play onstage. If it isn’t said, well, then the audience doesn’t hear it. And details equal set changes equal pacing woes (not to mention budget woes).

I don’t know what Cory Doctorow’s award-winning young adult novel is like. After seeing the play, I cannot wait to find out (and after zipping through the Hunger Games trilogy last fall, I have zero reservations about being found in the YA section of the library). The story follows a teenage hacker wrongly detained after a terrorist attack blows up San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. He is tortured—by our government—and released. His city, already a place of extreme surveillance, was now a police state, suspending personal freedom and privacy in order to protect the citizenry. He decides to fight back, assembling an army of teens to commit city-wide acts of civil disobedience.

I imagine the book promises to be an action-packed thriller, one that would likely make a fun movie (and imdb tells me it is in development; Doctorow’s blog tells me it was optioned back in 2009). As such, it is an odd choice for a play. And yet, Josh Costello’s adaptation smartly focuses on what will work onstage: the character development and struggle, the relationships (familial and romantic), the storytelling, and the Big Idea: freedom versus security.

As the name suggests, Little Brother is a tribute, an update, to 1984, and after the show my thoughts went to all the ways we self-report (Facebook. Twitter. Blogs); all the easily-accessible records we create (Emails. Texts. Voicemails); all the electronic trails that authorities could examine (Transit Cards. Credit Cards. Bank Accounts. Cell Phones. IPads. Every time my laptop logs onto WiFi. Every time we drive over a bridge or the airport parking lot and our FasTrak beeps.) Is there an off-the-grid to flee to?

Why do you want to flee? What do you have to hide? What are you guilty of? These are questions the authorities ask in Little Brother. It is easy to hate them. It feels good to hate them. They are the 19th-century villain in an American melodrama, clearly defined as that which is out to harm the innocent protagonist. In the end, we even learn they are on the take from corporations that are growing rich off the unrest.

But the protagonist’s father complicates that narrative by voicing what many of us feel: If it will make us safer, then what’s a little invasion of privacy? We, the audience, are, of course, to respond, “Because it’s wrong!” (and the father eventually comes around), but I don’t know . . . Walking through airport security, I side with the TSA, not Ron Paul. I imagine someone listening to my phone calls or reading my gchat conversations and think not, “How dare they!” but “What poor sap has to sift through this drivel.” But perhaps this complacency is naive—perhaps dangerous. Maybe it’s time I finally deleted that Facebook account . . . but then, how would I be able to keep tabs on all those people?

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Do You Read Theater Programs?

Posted by Dark Knight Dramaturg on January 30, 2012

I’ve never found a good way to tell people what I do. In person at least. I can write about. (I better be able to write about it!) I’ve had plenty of opportunities with random strangers in casual carpool (the Bay Area phenomenon where pedestrians wait for drivers they don’t know to pick them up on one side of the Bay and drop them off on the other—alive and in tact and on time), but I never get it right. Here are a few scenarios:

Dammit, Robin, watch out for that page!

Scene 1
Driver: So what do you do in the city?
Me: I work at a theater.
Driver: Oh.
[Driver turns up NPR]

Scene 2
Driver: So what do you do in the city?
Me: I work at a theater.
Driver: Oh. [Pause] Like a movie theater?
Me: No. I work at A.C.T.?
Driver: Oh… [Long pause]
Me: What do you do?
[Driver explains that he's a psychiatrist at a V.A., a lawyer, a bookie, sells tickets to Alcatraz, etc. and we stay on that more interesting subject]

Scene 3 [Best case scenario]
Driver: So what do you do in the city?
Me: I work at a theater.
Driver: Oh? Which one?
Me: A.C.T.
Driver [with recognition] Oh yeah, I saw _____ there!
[Conversation about that show, other shows, and how A.C.T. compares to Berkeley theaters. Very fun! Usually ends with me pitching our current show and the nice driver smiling and telling me he'll definitely try and make it. Who knows if he ever does.]

Scene 4
Driver: So what do you do in the city?
Me: I work at a theater.
Driver: Oh. So are you an actor?
Me: No.
Driver: So what do you do?
Me: I’m a writer?
Driver: Oh yeah, you’re a playwright?
Me: No, well yes, but not for . . . I write for the programs . . .
Driver: Oh yeah?
Me: You know, the programs you get when you sit down? And I also write a “patron study guide” . . . with articles . . . and interviews . . .
Driver: Sure. [Pause]
[Driver turns up NPR]

Even at opening nights, amongst other theater people, I have trouble. I mean, I know what I do, I love what I do, and I know other people appreciate what I do . . . but if we’re being honest, I often question what I do, especially with the program.

Because, if we’re being honest, I don’t read theater programs. There. I said it. Whew.

I saw an amazing production at Shotgun Players last Thursday. I believe I’ve talked about this before, but Shotgun Theatre’s programs are the most beautiful books you have ever received sitting down to watch a show. Hands down. They’re complete, unified concepts from cover to cover by the unparalleled illustrator/designer R. Black. Last Thursday I saw God’s Plot by local theater-superhero Mark Jackson: Jackson’s work is not for everyone, but those of us who like it usually love it, so I went into this show completely and confidently blind. I knew nothing about the story, the production, if the run was well received. Nothing.

The lights went down, and the first of countless, gorgeously written, brilliantly executed monologues (which often left the actors literally gasping for breath) hooked me: I was transported to 1665 colonial America. I had no idea I was heading back to 1665, and I was thrilled with the surprises it allowed for. Stories of coming over from the old world; traditional traditional values; Puritans hating on Quakers; court being held in a tavern; traveling downstream by raft; anger at government and business leaders making decisions an ocean away.

Everything was new. I had no idea where any of it was going, which for me is a rare joy. And then intermission came. And I opened my program. And I read one line, and I learned that the play that these 17th-century characters were performing (three characters decide to put on an amateur skit lambasting unfair trade practices) was the first play known to have been written and performed in the United States. And, in a blink, I saw where it was all heading. And I slammed by program shut! Too much! Don’t interrupt the ride I’m on with information!

…Says the man who spends his days thinking of new ways to contextualize plays for his audiences. [Exhale.] There are plays that need it (I tell myself), and certainly productions that need it (I comfort myself), and your readers certainly ask for/demand it (I excuse myself). But do they need it? And if they do, why do they?

These questions keep me honest, but they also keep me on edge. What if everyone else decides to go into the theater blind and opt not to read their programs? Then I really won’t know what to say when my casual carpool drivers asks what I do in the city . . .

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How I Learned to Juggle

Posted by Dark Knight Dramaturg on January 21, 2012

Larry Pisoni, Cecil MacKinnon (center) and Peggy Snider juggle in the Pickle Family Circus. (Photo by Terry Lorant)

San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus would juggle. I am left with many things from my research into this amazing organization—an investigation that led to interviews with the two cofounders, Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider; Peggy’s daughter, Gypsy, who was 8 when the circus began; and, of course, their son, Lorenzo, who was literally born into the PFC, started performing at age 2, and is starring in the one-man clown show Humor Abuse, a show about his childhood, on the A.C.T. mainstage now.

My research reminded me of the powerful artistry of talented and inexhaustible young people. It reminded me of what can be accomplished with next-to-no funds if the drive is there. It reminded me of how brilliantly executed ideas will always trump brilliant spectacle. It reminded me of the power of intimacy, of community, of communication, and of carnival food—and how we need events to bring all those elements together. It reminded me that good things don’t last for ever, that inexhaustible youth become exhausted, and that the 1970s were a long time ago.

It also taught me that there are many ways to parent and that “babies will naturally cling to a trapeze bar if you let them because we are not inherently afraid”; that theater probably has more a need for the circus than we realize; that there are circuses around the world (like Gypsy’s Montreal-based Les 7 doigts de la main) that are thriving.

I am left with many things, but the take away I keep returning to is this: everyone in the PFC juggled. Larry and Peggy began as the Pickle Family Jugglers, passing the hat around Union Square, and the jugglers mentality permeated their circus: every show would end with an epic Big Juggle, involving everyone, even the roustabouts. Backstage and during rehearsals, Pickles would take juggling breaks “like normal people take coffee breaks,” wrote one journalist. They would do this to loosen up, to activate their muscles and their minds, and to connect with their fellow Pickles, for the solo juggle was rare: they were almost always juggling with someone else.

“What is the trick to juggling?” I opened my interview with Larry. “Trick? There’s no trick. It’s all practice.” When I was in the toy store last December buying soft footballs to donate to the fire department holiday collection, I picked up a set of juggling balls for myself. I’ve been bringing them back and forth from the office to home, taking them out when I need a break. And I have to say: it really is just practice.

Now I need to convince my colleagues. Because we could all stand to be a little more like the Pickles.


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