Control & Risk

Photo by Daniel Haley

A Rumination from my dramaturgy of Steven Dietz’s This Random World directed by David Lee-Painter.

I find myself thinking about control and risk….


I have a tendency to read multiple books at a time. The coffee table is always loaded down with homework, play research, archival information, the latest papers and plays in progress, and whatever fun-stuff I’m engaged in.

Beyond being a squirrel brain and hopping around to different subjects and stories, I find it prompts cross-pollination of ideas. So! I have been reading Sheryl Paul’s The Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts Are Gifts to Help You Heal.

The current chapter is on intrusive thoughts and how they function to bring metaphorical messages from the subconscious. The Mayo Clinic website helpfully defines intrusive thought as “an unwelcome involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate.”

Paul writes:

Intrusive thoughts cover over many core needs and feelings, but at the root is the need for certainty. As our culture fails to guide us to develop an acceptance of the changeable reality that defines our existence, we have a very hard time accepting uncertainty, which is another way of saying that we have a hard time accepting death in all forms. We resist grieving the emotional deaths that occur when we transition to new places in life….We’re not mentored on how to live life fully, which means feeling all our feelings. And when we don’t live life fully, we actually fear it, which then creates a fear of death.

The question of how to live life fully is one of the dominant themes for me in This Random World. So many of the characters are wrangling with different sections of this idea. Beth meticulously plans ahead even making arrangements for her death and funeral services—which people are encouraged to do—but she goes so far as to investigate when she probably WILL, die statistically speaking, and plans alternative arrangements based on season and availability of resources. She writes her own obituary and admonishes her brother: “Take control of your death, Tim Ward. Or somebody else will.”

Controlling your death is a neat flip on Dietz’s part. Beth looks to control her death by controlling her life. Which is another theme I find in TRW, issues of control. The characters work to control life, conversations, identity—how the world perceives them. And in the end, there is very little we can control which returns me to Paul:

Living with uncertainty. We simply don’t like it. We want definitive answers. We want definable goals. We are intrinsically wired to gravitate toward a need for control and a subsequent attempt to create the illusion of control, ….[and not to] connect to the transitory flow of life.

Scottie’s conversations reflect these ideas. She finds herself reflecting on her need for control, certainty, and the tedium all of that can bring about. She longs to have indulged more in the risk-taking of not knowing. Her doctor, one culturally assumed to be an expert on life and death, is unsure of how long Scottie has to live. She likes that unsurety in him and his willingness to admit it. She wishes she had been that way more often. It considers the idea that while confidence is a desirable strength perhaps we take it too far or misapply it. Rather then using it for risk avoidance we should use it to help meet vulnerability and welcome it.

The fear-based self is terrified of risk, terrified of anything that touches into vulnerability, it creates elaborate and convincing reasons why you need to walk away…. This creates an illusion of control…. In other words, the question to ask yourself is, “Is it more important for me to remain attached to the illusion of control or to learn about what it means to be loving?” If you want to learn about what it means to be loving to yourself and others, you have to be willing to let go of control.

Claire and Gary are at a point in their relationship where they choose to part. Each seeks protection temporally, Gary plans ahead. He’d planned a trip to Nepal for years and intended to marry Claire after one last big, solo adventure. Knowing and controlling the future is his way of minimizing risk to himself. He chides Claire for living in the past with her painful nostalgias.

Her teenage romance didn’t end happily but she knows what it was and how it turned out. She also controls the memories of those days and can focus on its idyllic nature and the hopes and dreams they had tendered. There are only fleeting moments where any of the characters are fully in the present, living and exposed to the moment as it happens. Those moments in TRW are more frequently only planned for or reflected on. Few are played out before us. Rather they are refracted through a character’s lens of seeing. The character decided how to interpret and control what the events mean and show that to the audience.

And in the end, Scottie discovers that she has missed the sunrise—and every sunrise is different—she wonders what else she has missed.

It’s a terrifying choice, no doubt. It’s a choice that flies in the face of every illusion of safety that you’ve spent a lifetime constructing…. The truth is that there is so little we can control. We make plans because we want to know what will happen in the next hour, but the unknowable and mysterious force of LIFE [sic] could subvert your plans in an instant. The only freedom is to make friends with not knowing.

Words, Words, Words

It’s never surprising that when doing online research, I will find myself tumbling into internet rabbit holes.

I’ve been reading up on The Man Who Came to Dinner by Kaufman & Hart after watching the movie with Bette Davis. There’s a scene part way through where Davis’ character loses a gambit to save her lover from the conniving movie star played by Ann Sheridan. Davis has almost no lines in the scene but you’re very much aware of her presence and watch her reactions as her dreams fall apart. Under Sheridan’s attack, Davis visibly shrinks in on herself. Her character knows she’s beaten.

Image from Wikipedia

I next started researching Davis and her work. This led me to reading Martin Shingler’s article, “Breathtaking: Bette Davis’s Performance at the End of Now, Voyager” which discusses the melodrama inherent in her work. Then it occurred to me that I don’t consider Davis’ work to be melodrama. It’s just, well, awesome. It’s definitely a heightened reality but it is also a truthful performance which I felt exempted it from the melodrama category.

One of the few contemporary performers that I’ve seen capture that style of performance from Davis’ hey day is the female impersonator, Charles Busch.

The mellerdramas I’ve watched were overblown for comic effect. I’d read somewhere that Victorian performances weren’t like that. Rather they were done earnestly and somewhere along the way the ironic detachment became the performance.

After citing several reviews of Now, Voyager Shingler broke down Davis’ performance of that classic film:

The final scene from Now, Voyager reveals Davis to be in total command of her vocal technique and able to use it to tremendous effect. She seems to know exactly how to pitch her voice and how to vary volume and tempo in order to convey changes in the character’s mental and emotional state.

It is a bravura display, as she glides through her character’s ever-changing thoughts and emotions, all subtly conveyed through the actress’s body and voice. One of the most remarkable aspects of this performance is the fact that the scene culminates in a line of dialogue that some consider one of the corniest in Hollywood history.

Yet the strength and subtlety of Davis’s performance makes it possible to accept the line when it comes as a truthful and heartfelt expression.

Remarkably, the infamous final line, “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars!” hardly feels like an aphorism at all. Somehow Bette Davis makes one of the great rhetorical flourishes of Hollywood melodrama seem real.

From here Shingler explores the nuances of Davis’ work in creating that scene. Language is an everyday tool to make our way in the world that we give little thought to. But to truly focus on a section of text and really see how sentences are structured, the shape of chosen words, and how variations in pronouncing them can color the meaning of the message is sheer delight. It gives you an awareness of how flexible language is. It has a power to influence people’s opinions or to get them to pass the salt.

It is instructive to pause here and consider the kinds of critical decisions Bette Davis had to make in order to play this scene. For instance, she had to decide which lines and which words to emphasize. She had to consider how to vary the rhythm of her speeches using differences in pace, pitch, tone, and volume: for example, which words to whisper, which to project firmly or even loudly. She had to work out the best places to pause and decide in which pauses to breathe. She had to think about how much breath to use. She also needed to consider when to move, and, when speaking, where to look: up or down, at or away from her costar.

When my first play was being produced by classmates in college, we engaged in similar work in the rehearsal process. There is never time to spare and yet Kimberly Bouchard, the director, chose to spend several of those days on the opening monologue. She had the actor slow down her reading to the point that each phoneme was isolated. Then she sped up, tasting the shape of sounds and how each was articulated.

There is a Royal Shakespeare Company series led by John Barton that discusses close text analysis of Shakespeare’s works. It was on You Tube last I’d check and is fascinating to watch. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it is populated with RSC alumni that I’m quite familiar with from film & tv. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105518406

Diving in to savor the minutia of a script and pulling back to incorporate all the pieces into a performance never gets dull. There is a duality in it where one is immersed and beside a script at the same time. This idea is reflected in this final quote from Shingler quoting Davis’ 1962 autobiography.

…. Davis wrote: With young actors who talk about becoming the character and losing themselves in a role, I must argue. There is a part of you that must hold the reins and control the projection. There is a part of you that must be aware of pace and timing. Without discipline and detachment, an actor is an emotional slob, spilling his insides. This abandonment is having an unfortunate vogue. It is tasteless, formless, absurd. Without containment there is no art.

And it occurs to me that This Random World also deals with containers…

Shingler, Maring. “Breathtaking: Bette Davis’s Performance at the End of Now, Voyager.” Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 58, No. 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2006)

Tempus Fugit

by Dona Black, Ariana Burns, & Tim Waterman

I think Tempus Fugit was the closest I’ve come to writing a 10-minute play thus far. It was the opener for a Theatre Outside the Belljar show. I wrote it with two wonderful friends and still like it. It was a part of the “I got this place in my head that ain’t right without you” series that I was writing back then. Below is a snippet.

EMCEE
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a performance piece. If you derive any pleasure from this piece, it is strictly coincidental. This is art, and as such, should be view by the audience with the same appropriate gravity as any beleaguered granting agency. This piece, in triplicate, has been sent to our advisory board for review. A moment please, I can’t work without a cigarette hangin’ out of my mouth. . .Art is.

TWO
Art is a sedative for the obsessive compulsive.

EMCEE
It consumes.

ONE
It penetrates.

TWO
Hurry!

 EMCEE
Admit One.

 TWO
Are you an Enemy of the Future?

EMCEE
Art rips your heart out.            

ONE
But you think you did it to yourself.

Dramaturg—A what?!

This last spring, I had a new play produced at my alma mater. Since it’s also my hometown, I was able to attend rehearsals as the new piece took its fledgling steps. The play was directed by Professor David Lee-Painter (DLP), a member of the university theatre faculty.

During rehearsals, DLP told me that a student had joined the company as dramaturg. Then he had to tell me what a dramaturg was. At that point I was a bit miffed. Here I was. The playwright with my extensive collection of research already completed and you bring in a—a—a what? No, really what was that word again?

Much to my surprise dramaturgs have been around since the 1800s and perhaps longer. I’d never heard of the profession and can only conclude that I missed that day in theatre history class.

After my show opened, DLP asked me if I would dramaturg his next show, This Random World (TRW) by Steven Dietz in the fall. Researching someone else’s play was vaguely terrifying. I knew nothing about how to do it. In the past, I would’ve fled. This time I said, “Yes.”

I had all summer to put this—whatever together AND learn dramaturgy. I’m already an anthropologist so I’m down with research—love it, truth be told. This project would happen outside of work and my other responsibilities which I’d been avoiding since my play went into rehearsals way back in February.

A few weeks after my play closed, DLP was invited to direct a summer show that would go up in less then a month, Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House. He asked me to put something together which I agreed to do. I’m not sure why I said yes but I was already doing research. Another play didn’t seem like that big a deal. (Q laugh track.)

While he was out of town, I planned on a month free to work on other things. BUT he liked what I assembled so much that he asked me to get TRW done sooner rather than later. He wanted the design team to have it over the summer as they began their work.

So this summer I learn dramaturgy.

Dramaturgy, like many of the loves in my life, was something I backed into. Within this blog will be ruminations on things I discover on my journeys. Space will also be made for my other myriad interests.

#dramaturgy #DLPAnotherFineMess
Photo by Daniel Haley