The play is in five parts, and features seven actresses. The first part features four voices (A-D) repeating several themes and occasionally breaking into monologue. The second part features another performer (E) onstage alone, listening to her own voice played over speakers, and occasionally echoing key phrases. The third portion features three voices (E-G), who repeat themes from the earlier pieces, this time primarily simultaneously, with various light accents or breaks. The fourth part features B, C, and F sitting alone onstage in silence for five minutes. The final and fifth part, features a reprise of the text from part one, with slight derivations, this time with all seven performers.
Some of the central text of the piece came from audio recordings I mixed with my own voice at home, a few years ago. I linked to those recordings on this blog at the time, for those with long memories. I'll see if I can do that again, if people are curious to hear them.
The themes of the piece linked to the phrase "I am ready to have cancer." Some of the links were loose, some very clear. The effect I'm after is essentially musical, but I'm doing this essentially by instinct... I've got very little in the way of formal musical training. I play a couple of musical instruments with mild proficiency, and that's the extent of it.
A typical pattern of the text would be:
She tells me I have cancer and in this way I start to count my blessings. Cancer is quiet. I am ready to have it. Cancer is something to do. I am ready to have cancer.
There is a hole in my body that makes noise.
She tells me I have cancer and I believe her.
I was full but now I’m empty.
I make a joke. What do you have for the plague? Everyone laughs.
The hollow. The hole. The hollow. The hollow. The hole. The hollow. The hole.
I am ready to have cancer.
This isn't a narrative piece and I spent far more time trying to create variations in the patterns presented than finding character. This makes the distinctiveness of each voice paramount. Not that each performer should treat themselves like a separate character, but to present their parts with a distinctive sound. Much in the way that a violin and cello might play the same theme to different effect.
The hole. The hole. The whole. The hole. The whole. The hole. The hole. The hollow. The hollow. The hole. The hollow.
Is spoken throughout the play. It's a repetition itself, and I believe this is repeated in excess of ten times. My hope was to allow an audience to move past their initial response to repetition and silence, and begin to listen for accents and differences. I hope that the difference between hearing "B" and "F" read the same monologue, for example, would pop out to an audience member. My hope would be that hearing "Someday, I will be looking into a bathroom mirror" at the beginning of the piece and later hearing "Someday, I will be looking into a bathroom mirror, eyes open" near the end would cause a tuned in listener to take note.
For example, late in the first piece, that same text becomes:
The hole. The hole. The hollow. The hole. The husk. The husk. The host. The host. The hollow. The host. The hole. The ghost.
The responses to the piece were pretty uniform in their either confusion towards or rejection of what I'd presented. Obviously, that's a risk you take when you try something new. I can't say it was personally very easy to hear the reactions, but I think at this point, there are a few things I've heard that will help to strengthen it.
What are some of the responses?
I was told that there was some effective writing in the piece that seemed muddied by the form.
I was told that it made people want to run out of the room.
I was told that I should focus more on plays that were more like my short pieces, which tend to be funny crowd pleasers, and that I shouldn't really waste my time with this sort of thing. That when I overthink, I move away from what I do well.
I was asked what if I had "heard what I wanted to hear."
I was told that the piece might be more effective with more to "see." That simply watching an extended poem that repeats itself needs some visual flair or actors engaged to make it tolerable or bring out the meaning. Or, well, impose some meaning.
I was told that hearing anything 10 - 15 times is simply not pleasant for the audience, no matter which way you slice it.
I was challenged on the subject matter: if I'd never personally had a cancer scare, and if it wasn't something I personally felt a deep connection to, why write about it? Now, my grandmother died of lung cancer, I've been an on-and-off smoker, etc. But it's fair to say that cancer is a theme that hits home with a lot of people and writing about it in terms of "turns of phrase" can seem cold. Replace cancer with AIDs and the whole piece could come off as sophomoric and/or insensitive.
I had a friend say he found the piece hateful and agressive, as if I was being cruel to the audience on purpose. Certainly not my intention!
So, as you can see, not the easiest responses to hear I can't say that I didn't take it too personally at times, or that I didn't feel angry in private moments. That's, I think, pretty natural.
There are other creative artists who may read this, here's how I'm essentially responding to this in a way I feel could be constructive. Nothing too carefully thought out, some some thoughts.
- I think it's worthwhile to accept that the play has flaws and that I certainly heard them too. And that trying something for the first time is an exercise in seeing what works and what doesn't work. That's obvious, but it always bears repeating. I had hopes that this would soar, and it crashed a bit. All that means is: back to work.
- If I want an audience to seek and enjoy the musicality of the language, I have to respond to the question of narrative. Because of the choice to present the play with women's voices, and because there is some cohesion in the themes, it's only human to seek out the thought processes and storyline within. The idea that this piece is a mediation on a woman discovering she has cancer is something that organically grew out of the themes I was presenting. I can either let that be true purposefully, or remove that if I don't want that to distract from other effects. I don't feel inclined to back away from what the text seems to make reference to, I just need to balance my other intentions against how seductive narrative can be.
- The final piece is too long and doesn't present anything distinct or revelatory. By presenting text that is essentially the same as the first piece, simply with more voices, I don't take advantage of the opportunity to reach a crescendo or use the many, many more sounds available to me.
- I think five minutes of silence was too little. I loved watching that. There are people that didn't. That's one place that I have to stick to what I love to watch, and hope others find a way to see what I do.
- The next edit has to more actively use repeated phrases as a tool to produce a specific effect, as opposed to just repetition as an end onto itself.
- Add a little more fresh text to the later pieces, instead of relying so much on the older text being heard in new ways. As of now, its hard to expect spoken voices to carry the burden of freshening the repeated phrases.
- Think about the presentation. It was suggested that I might want to put an audience in the center of a stage and put the actors in places surrounding them, so that when the text comes from a different place, it does some very actively. The reading had seven actresses lined up on stage, focused on their books. That creates a static experience, certainly, and there was ways to ease up on that without undermining the piece by adding unneccessary visuals that would lessen the impact of the words.
- Accept that, no matter how I adjust the piece, there are certain tastes that just won't enjoy this sort of thing.
- The piece runs one hour and twenty minutes. Personally, I think that's not too long. But if the piece were to remain in its current form, it would have to be cut down by at least twenty minutes, it seems. If I made adjustments where some fresh text and something more expansive closed out the piece, I could probably justify the extra time. I'm sure there are people who heard it that would argue that 45 minutes is probably about as long as it should be. I'm not sure about that, but I figure its worth trying ways to keep it at length and MAKE it effective, as opposed to simply cutting to make it digestible. Part of what I'm after is to create something that does demand an active listener with a lot of patience, and rewards that patience with something beautiful. To reduce the intensity level too much is to surrender my original intention entirely.
There are a few scattered thoughts for public consumption. Much more to say about it. If you have questions or comments, it'd be fun to have an open discussion about my creative process with this piece.