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Kids, Candidates and Character

July 8, 2015 / by Paul Bedard, Hangar Theatre Fellow


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Happy Wednesday!

Tonight is the dress rehearsal for my Wedge show at the Hangar, an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine. It’s the third and final show of a summer that’s been full to the brim with learning.

My kids show, The Emperor’s New Clothes, was a lesson in timing and precision. Being a kids’ show, the audience was amazingly honest. If a moment wasn’t working, the kids let us know. If a moment was working, they let us know. If we had their attention or if we didn’t, these kids hadn’t been told yet to keep quiet and passively receive their culture communion, their Life tiles. Remarkable and so, so awesome.

One of my favorite moments in the show is when young Emperor Marcus, in quick succession, tries on a bunch of different outfits held on sticks up to his body, the way you place an outfit on a paper doll. Well, one of the outfits, as he is trying on new identities, is a pink sequined dress. It was an unstoppable moment.

I imagine the children of Ithaca don’t see gender-binary subversions all that often, so the image of a man in a pink sequin dress was hysterical to them. I also imagine that for many of them, it was their first time in a theater, which is a room with many, many other people. You could feel the kids cracking each other up and building momentum. It was awesome. But…

Immediately after the pink sequin dress appears, a villager enters with horrible news of a sinkhole that has opened in the kingdom and has swallowed all the chickens. Unable to solve the problem of the poor chickens, Marcus blames and rejects the outfit. But the audience missed the whole thing. They were stuck on the image of a man in a pink sequin dress. We had to rearrange the oder the outfits came out to match the time the children needed to move on with the story.

All over the show, there were moments like this. Cracking up the kids became easy, pulling them back was always a challenge. The image of Marcus in his underwear (purple, of course) was another unstoppable moment, but as it was the most important moment of the show, we opted to let it breathe and give the kids as long as they needed before attempting to continue. It’s a delicate balance, and one that was so refreshing to work with. Director as mechanic, finely tuning the machine. The gears of the show were always apparent, ready to be adjusted. The Emperor’s New Clothes is also musical, and a comedy. There were many, many gears to work with. Thrilling.

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My second show of the summer was a studio project in which I had 8 actors and exactly 20 hours of rehearsal. I opted to adapt the infamous Kennedy / Nixon debate of 1960. It was the first televised debate and is littered with deliciously awkward moments. My favorite is around 16:20 when the correspondents swivel around in their oh-so-modern! swivel chairs to introduce themselves to the camera.

For the studio project, we worked with mimicry and selective breakouts from it. How do we gutturally translate a question put to the candidates? How do we tell the story of how the candidates behaved and treated each other without losing the content of their responses? How do we reconcile our inevitable biases? How do we, should we, could we keep score of who’s “winning”?

One thing we were fascinated to play with was repeated recasting. The same response sounds different when looking at a different body telling it. I’m particularly interested in how this might translate to modern debates now that we have a woman leading the democratic primary, who is actually pulling the party rightward, and an old white dude, who identifies as a democratic socialist. The character running seems to mismatch their beliefs and policies. How might we be able to play with that this fall when the candidates start debating face to face? The studio project was an awesome opportunity to devise quickly and with highly intellectual language. I can’t wait to get at this with modern candidates.

So now here I am, hours before the dress rehearsal of The Infernal Machine. I’ve learned a ton on this project too, specifically with how to work with actors simultaneously on heavy style and an incredibly abstract, task-driven set. I’m experimenting with a whole slew of things on this piece, but that’s a story for another blog post. If you’re in Ithaca or nearby, do get out to see this hilarious retelling of Oedipus, set on exercise bikes, that points to how class divide continues leting the machine grind on. Tickets and more info at cometothewedge.com

I was interviewed last week on the Ithaca Democratic Socialists' local TV show about my efforts to merge my activism work with my theater work. Check it out:

Cheers!