Thursday, May 10, 2012

Breaking Through The Fourth Wall

For many years -- and in theatres around the world -- once the curtain rose on a production the audience accepted the fact that an invisible "fourth wall" allowed them to view the stage action as if they were watching a diorama. Actors stayed onstage and theatregoers remained in their seats.

All was well, until, of course, some stage directors demanded more space. In 1964, to help bring Dolly Levi's soliloquies out into the audience, Oliver Smith designed a ramp around the orchestra pit. Director Gower Champion used the device to brilliant effect, especially for the show's title song:

While big production numbers can wow an audience in a large theatre, actors working in small venues can magnify the intensity of the show's intimacy with the oldest trick in the book: reaching out and making physical contact with members of the audience. The effect can humbling, electrifying and, in some cases, life changing.

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What are the actors thinking when they're required to break through the fourth wall? Ken Slattery has furnished some delightful insights with Death to the Audience, produced by Precarious Theatre as part of the Bay One Acts Festival.

In Slattery's farce, Mars, the God of War (Andrew Calabrese), is a big brutish character who plans to attack the audience by breaking through the fourth wall. However, weary from spending too much time downstage left, two of his spear carriers are quick to fill him in one who's who and what's what in live theatre.

Having originally created Death To The Audience for San Francisco Playground (when the assigned topic was "Son of Juno"), Slattery confesses that:
"Gods are larger-than-life characters, a little childish, definitely not adults, and that seems to suit me generally when it comes to writing comic characters and situations. I wrote it in March 2004, so I can’t remember exactly how I came to have the idea, but I’m sure I researched who Juno was, discovered Mars was her son, read that Mars was the God of War, and somehow progressed to writing a play where Roman characters onstage decide to declare war on the audience. PlayGround topics often work like that; they usually require a little research that inevitably opens up all sorts of ideas you wouldn’t have thought of having."

With Juno (Erin Carter), Minerva (Hannah Knapp), Spear Carrier #1 (Vince Rodriguez), and Spear Carrier #2 (Sarah Meyerhoff) nervously keeping an eye on Mars to make sure his actions don't result in total disaster, Death To The Audience is filled with lots of in-jokes for theatre lovers. M. Graham Smith's stage direction rams each point home with care, comedy, and absolutely no compassion.

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Those who pass through the San Francisco's Tenderloin District know it as one of the nation's grittiest concentrations of single room occupancy hotels (many of which are filled with a mixture of drug addicts, seniors living on fixed incomes, and Vietnamese immigrants). At any hour of day or night, life on the Tenderloin's streets can seem threatening, depressing, drunk and/or demented.

Like New York's Lower East Side more than 100 years ago, it is filled with the types of people Emma Lazarus described in 1883 as "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...the wretched refuse of your teeming shore...the homeless, tempest tost."

On one block of Eddy Street is the infamous Tearoom Theatre, a rundown movie house specializing in gay porn where I once collapsed in giggles upon realizing that a pornographer with artistic aspirations had used the overture to Mozart's opera, The Marriage of Figaro, to accompany a rather bland and boring seduction scene. Directly opposite are the EXIT Theatre (which, in addition to presenting the San Francisco Fringe Festival, DivaFEST, SFOlympians, and numerous other productions, is Cutting Ball Theatre's landlord) and the Empress Hotel.

The first thing one notices upon entering the tiny performing space where Cutting Ball Theatre is presenting the world premiere production of Tenderloin is the wonderful, topsy-turvy unit set designed by Michael Locher that captures the upside-down, inside-out turmoil of the lives of the neighborhood's residents. Locher's set is peppered with poignant black-and-white photographs by Mark Ellinger, a former heroin addict who found a new lease on life after someone gave him a digital camera which allowed Ellinger to document the architecture of the Tenderloin.

As the cast of Tenderloin brings the show's characters to life, the nervous energy that is usually found outside the theatre starts to seep inside its walls. The usual mixture of police sirens, honking horns, and arguing drunks drifts through the theatre's vents, reminding the audience that Tenderloin is very much a work that is "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Tristan Cunningham with the cast of Tenderloin (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Under the guidance of director Annie Elias, the actors involved in this docudrama were an integral part of the play's developmental process. Just as Ellinger set about documenting the part of town in which he lives, the actors were given tape recorders and sent out to interview people who live in the Tenderloin (people they might otherwise avoid while walking down the street).

The actors were then tasked with transcribing their interviews (including every stuttering exclamation made by the interviewee) and paying careful attention to inflection, body language, and any other signs that could help them build authentic characterizations of the people they had interviewed. According to the production notes, one transcribed interview was 65 pages long. As dramaturg Erin Moro notes:
"In my research and transcribing of the interviews for this piece, I was touched by the musicality of the voices from the Tenderloin.  The mere study of language through the spoken word was fascinating as I labored to capture each breath, stammer, and vocal inflection in the text. The people who live and serve in this neighborhood are passionate, vibrant people, with exciting stories and experiences that go way beyond what you see at first glance when you walk down the streets of the Tenderloin.  The connection that the residents and workers of this neighborhood have to one another and to their physical surroundings is special and rare."
Leigh Shaw portrays Reverend Karen Oliveto from
Glide Memorial Church (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Because I've spent more than 35 years as a professional medical and legal transcriptionist (and wrote an online text entitled Dictation Therapy For Doctors), I'm acutely aware how hard this type of work can be for people who are not used to transcribing, lack a foot pedal, or whose ears have not been trained to convert sound to text in the same way that a sign-language interpreter makes the sounds he hears emerge through his hands.

A good interviewer with strong editing skills will be able to make an interviewee think that what he reads on the page will be exactly what he said (and the way he said it). But it's important to remember that, while court reporters are tasked with recording every single syllable a witness utters verbatim, medical transcriptionists (who must often transcribe the voices of medical professionals who speak English as a second or third language) must edit on the fly in order to create a coherent medical record.

When transcribing interviews (which I used to do when writing about opera), part of the challenge is to catch the musicality of a person's speech, the shifts in his phrasing, and the underlying rhythm that defines his  character. Not every interviewee will deliver equally dramatic material, which can lead to a structural problem when crafting a docudrama.
  • Some of the transcribed material must function as exposition, delivering the facts of the situation and laying out the reference points needed to understand the circumstances of the people depicted onstage.
  • Some parts of the show can easily take on an air of lecturing the audience about local injustices, social issues, and the challenges faced by the characters they are meeting.
  • The best material will always come from interviewees who are compelling characters whose dramatic strengths will capture the audience's hearts.
In a curious approach to casting Tenderloin, the actors were tasked with portraying the characters they interviewed. Thus, the owners of the 105-year-old Cadillac Hotel are portrayed by members of the opposite sex, with Rebecca Frank appearing as 87-year-old Leroy B. Looper and David Sinaiko impersonating Looper's wife, Kathy (Sinaiko also appears as photographer Mark Ellinger).

Rebecca Frank as Leroy Looper and David Sinaiko as
Looper's wife, Kathy (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Weaving together the material gathered in interviews with Tenderloin residents has resulted in a collage of humanity reflecting the depth and diversity of the neighorhood's demographics.
Michael Uy Kelly as Vietnamese refugee
Tony Nguyen (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Throughout the performance, I was especially impressed by the work of Michael Uy Kelly and Tristan Cunningham (whose radiant portrayal of Filipina Health and Wellness Director, Ester Aure, is worth the price of admission alone). Toward the end of the evening, some of the characters reach out and ask members of the audience for a hug, a smile, or a chance to simply shake hands.

Even though the Cutting Ball Theatre has no proscenium, it is a moment in which breaking the fourth wall is as challenging a gesture as acknowledging the humanity of the people who actually live on the streets of the Tenderloin. Tenderloin's director, Annie Elias, is quite open about the impact this project has had on her own life:
"Before making this piece it was my habit to traverse the Tenderloin in a way designed to have the least amount of interaction with the neighborhood. Once in the theatre, I would try to block out the sounds of the street that drifted in, intruding on my theatre experience. While we have attempted to pull back the layers and get beyond an outsider's first impression of the neighborhood and the people one encounters, there are many more layers to be discovered and many more stories that deserve to be heard. I hope you will take this piece as an entry point and an invitation to get to know this neighborhood better, to shed your own defense, look up and look beyond first impressions to see the vibrant humanity around us."
Tristan Cunningham as Filipina Health and Wellness Director,
Ester Aure (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Tenderloin continues at the Cutting Ball Theatre through June 3 (click here to order tickets).

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