Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Embrace Ambiguity

I genuinely love That Pretty Pretty. For me, it is one of the most eloquent pieces of writing about the process of writing I have come across. Of course, I expected that some audience members will dislike the play as strongly as I like it. Sheila's take on gender is not for everyone, nor are her loopy structure and hard-to-stomach characters.

What I did not expect was the number of people who leave the theatre stuck on the fence--unsure about what they were taking away, unclear about what Sheila was trying to say, and uncertain about their own reaction to the piece. And yet, as cast and crew members will attest, this is our most common audience reaction.

Upon reflection, this should not have surprised me--it was exactly the way I felt after seeing the original production at the Rattlestick Theatre in New York. Days later I decided I liked the play, after reading it again with Exile, I fell in love. For those still trying to work out their feelings, I wholeheartedly recommend a second viewing or a reading of the script. Those who have agree that repeated exposure really helps.

John Patrick Shanley wrote about his play Doubt that the last act of his play does not occur onstage. Rather, it "takes place after the play is over, when people decide or don’t decide what the play’s about and who did what...the end of the play takes place when you go out and have a drink and have a fight with your wife about what happened." And even then, he allows, you are unlikely to come to any concrete conclusions. That "doubt" is what he's after. And, to a certain extent, ambiguity is also what That Pretty Pretty encourages. Hopefully, no matter how you feel, it'll get you talking.

That Pretty Pretty does not make it easy on audiences. Some will walk out knowing exactly how they feel. But most will find trying to pinpoint Sheila's meaning like trying to catch light on the wall, just when you pin it down, it slips away. You may never figure out what she means or how you're supposed to feel. And that's ok.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Acting is Dangerous

When we first started working on the play, I thought the psychological aspects would be the toughest. I’m lucky that my character is generally benign, and I don’t have to shoot, bludgeon, or rape anyone. Or be shot, bludgeoned, or raped. Of course we had lots of conversation during the rehearsal process about how we felt about the different scenes and how to get through them. At this point, we are actually able to have fun and just take the ride of the play.

But wow, we are fucked up physically! Charlotte comes to the theater with frozen corn strapped to her lower back, which is messed up from all the wrestling and throwing herself down on the ground. Allen stove-piped his thumb in the fight scene with Jered, so it’s all swollen and black and blue. And I dare you to dig your fingers into anyone’s shoulders. We have knots the size of grenades in there.

As a dancer I’m used to physical injuries, but this play is hard on the body, dude. We are still loving it, but seriously looking forward to a super hot bath on December 5.

--Amy Smith Jane Fonda/Jane

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The "Polarizing" Effect of That Pretty; an Industry Night Protest -- by Allen Radway

Industry Night, an "off-night" performance that many theatre companies add to accommodate other theatre professionals who may be involved in conflicting productions, can be unnerving for actors. The audience is usually comprised of more peers of the theatrical realm than usual; and the sense of being under the microscope is more, well, magnified. The silencing of the actor's inner-critic, the "How am I doing out here tonight?" part of the ego, can be a bit more daunting of a task than other nights. However, it must be done in order to focus on the job at hand...telling the most effective and compelling story possible. That is, unless the audience attacks.

That Pretty Pretty; or the Rape Play by Sheila Callaghan has proven to be an incredibly challenging production for we proud few that are walking the boards in Exile's wonderful production. (Get your butt to the theatre if you haven't already. We run through December 5th at Christ Church). That Pretty Pretty isn't your typical production. It's episodic pastiche at first that gives way to an all out theatrical orgy, touching on sexual violence, gender politics, male-dominated trends in contemporary media and a healthy dose of Jell-o wrestling as refereed by the iconic Jane Fonda. It took us the entirety of the rehearsal process to map those beats out, understand them externally and ultimately to dive in and relish in them...for we must in order for the play to succeed. It's pretty pretty racy stuff...and, in the end, amazingly rewarding and liberating for a cast. That sense of "How are we doing?" is always there though, every performance, every scene. The audience's role in That Pretty Pretty is therefore more amplified for the actors, and in some respect essential to our flow from moment to moment. Yes, the audience is always the uncredited cast member in performance, but in Sheila's unsettling, raucous and controversial adventure into the bowels of American culture the audience's participation is welcomed (maybe "appreciated"). We need it. It allows us to know where we are and how we stand...every laugh, guilty snicker or gasp. Only Shakespeare has provided me that brand of intimacy before.

Last night was Exile's first Industry Night, and the ensemble overcame those Industry jitters quite early on and fastened it's seat-belts for sex, drugs and rock-n-roll for reals. We were clipping along at a great pace, the play was humming, wild and fun as shit. Christie and Charlotte rocked their early scenes, Jered's head-wound didn't fall off, Amy was as charming, hilarious and elastic as ever. The Jell-o wrestling was a delicious success, and I didn't trip on my dress once! Then...a hiccup. Participation. Two-thirds of the way home, during what we call "the real hotel scene", an audience member decided she had seen enough. She stood, she protested, directly chiding Jered and me onstage, then exited. Apparently unsatisfied with the effect of her mutiny, she would return. More on that anon.

"The real hotel scene" represents a style shift in the play. Up to that point the content (the violence, the raunch, the profanity and ribaldry) is heightened by design, and requires a no-holds-barred execution from the cast. A performance style that Joe, our director, worked on meticulously to perfect and extract from us since day one. Callaghan's theatrical instincts are daring, unapologetic and dead on in this respect, amazing for such a young writer, especially one who so frequently works in television. She is absolutely brilliant in her craft and will take a seat among the luminaries of contemporary American drama. I'm more convinced of it every day...and, PS, I had very little interest in this play until Joe twisted my arm and kicked my ass to audition for it. Sheila pushes this over-the-top style to exhaustion intentionally. She knows perfectly well the audience will tire and seek, if not demand, clarification at some point. These broad styles repeatedly fail the characters, particularly my character, Owen, the meta-theatrical author. That is, until Jane Fonda aerobicizes in and saves the day. Jane stops the play, focuses Owen and consequently the dramatic action along with him. It is at this moment that Callaghan pulls the rug out. The lights change, Jane exits, and the audience quickly finds itself watching a highly naturalistic scene involving Owen and his best friend "The Rod" as Owen attempts to finish his screenplay. The real hotel scene. At the risk of giving away more than I already have, the audience begins to connect some dots from the earlier action. This abrupt shift in style, though much needed, is jarring. All of the prior anarchism is suddenly boiled down to the language of boys being boys behind closed doors (and perhaps the power of the pen in society?). It was this "real" language that our protester took umbrage with.

This show is not for everyone, admittedly. Exile clearly markets that sentiment. Hell, Sheila, blatantly does. It is The Rape Play after all; and as a result we've had one or two patrons walk out consistently since our first preview, a few mumbling, though none clearly as vocal as last night.

"You ought to be ashamed. They are women, not girls. Don't you dare call them girls." I think she said "disgusting" a few times in there too.

Jered and I paused briefly to let her finish her sentence, and to allow ourselves and the rest of the audience a moment to digest what had just happened. In those few seconds, I heard the encouraging words of Jen Childs in my mind "Don't deny. Never deny. Now, go git 'em." Accept it and proceed. No big deal. A hiccup. Theatre's awesome. It actually fired us up, and probably gave the audience new ears momentarily. Again, no big deal. Exciting. Let's get the play back on track and do our nasty, fantastic thing. And we did just that. Until...

The closing of The Rape Play finds Owen fielding questions from the audience on what we can only assume is a junket stop for his wildly successful screenplay (in which he stars, of course). It's a wonderful meta-theatrical, meta-filmic, meta-meta moment that wraps the evening up. (Especially interesting on evenings that Exile hosts an announced talk-back of their own. There's a brief "Which is which?" moment. Love it.) Halfway into the mock-talk-back epilogue, however, I heard a familiar voice from the darkness of the house-right aisle.

"You need to stop."

She had returned for an answer. Again, I took a beat to let her finish, but, no way, would I let her derail the play so near its end. Besides I had a microphone now. I continued.

Unfazed, so did she...a few steps closer to the stage.

"They are women. Not girls. You call them girls. It's disgusting. How could you write that?"

Reality was beginning to blur. Did she know the play wasn't over yet? That I'm just an actor? Now unsure of the argument she was making...or for that matter that the word "girls" could somehow offend someone worse than hacking at Charlotte Ford with a machete...I decided to include it into Owen's ridiculous Q&A. "Why don't we hear from someone else for a second?"

She was at the edge of the stage light now.

"You are little boys up there. They are women. You're just little boys. You should be ashamed. I'm talking to you."

"I hear you."

"How can you do that? How can you say that? They are women. How can you do this play? You smug..."

She had an indescribable visceral reaction to the play. She was upset. Very upset. I didn't want to single her out anymore than she was willing to do so herself by speaking her mind in front of eighty-six other patrons, but the show must...blah blah blah.

Fortunately, Sheila Callaghan ultimately saved me and more importantly her own art. Due to the conceit of the "talk-back" I was able to incorporate the protest as part of the play. "This kind of work is polarizing. Some people just don't want to see the truth..." Verbatim. I charged to the end, god-mike in hand, without issue.

Thank you, Sheila, for a crazy, exhilarating and truly effective work of theatre. Mad props are also due to Exile's fiercely protective audience members who had our backs, and to Greg Campbell, AD of Luna Theater, in particular, for finally stepping in to help discern reality lines before anyone actually crossed the apron. And, perhaps most importantly, thank you, Theatre Exile, for not stopping the show, forcibly removing anyone or losing faith that we could get through That Pretty Pretty alive.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I Love 80s Rock, or Do I?

I never liked 80’s hair bands. I never liked “cock rock” either. As a teenager in the 80’s I listened to Joy Division, Gang of Four, and Sinead O’Connor (who was in her bald, punk phase). I hated Whitesnake, Van Halen, and Rush.

My only fond memory of listening to hair bands is when I was working at a summer camp in northern Michigan in 1987. My fellow counselors and I would drive around the woods drinking Boone’s Farm wine and sit around campfires on the beach at Lake Michigan smoking weed. Poison’s song “I Want Action” was all over the radio and it was an appropriate underscoring for our lust-driven teenage shenanigans. I felt ashamed for liking the song, but couldn’t help myself. And I would never have admitted it to my punk friends at home.

So I barely appreciated the beauty of 80’s hair bands at the time, but now That Pretty Pretty has opened my mind to White Snake. One of my favorite scenes in the play is Jered playing David Coverdale and seducing Allen’s Owen. Jered’s lip-synching, dancing, and sexy leather pants reminds me of the Poison feeling. I’m ashamed for liking it, but I can’t help myself. And then there’s David Coverdale kissing Owen, which is both hilarious and disturbing, and Owen’s plea for David Coverdale to impregnate him, which has me cringing offstage as I wait to re-enter. The scene reminds me so much of the intense desire for intimacy that teenage girls have, before they are jaded by the reality of how most men (especially teenage boys and 20’s man-children) actually act.

As my character Jane Fonda knows, Owen needs to go through what its like to be a woman (dress, lipstick, teenage lust, giving birth) so that he can continue his creative process. But along the way, he reminds me of my own confusions, lusts, and disgusts.

--Amy Smith, Jane Fonda/Jane

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Bechdel Rule

Callaghan raises questions (although doesn't necessarily answer them) about the role of women in social media--especially film. Through Owen, Callaghan explores what sometimes happens when a man--even with the best intentions--tries to create female characters.

It's hard to argue that Hollywood privileges male characters. Perhaps you are familiar with the Bechdel Rule. Named for its originator, Alison Bechdel, creator of a weekly comic strip in the 80s called "Dykes to Watch Out For," the Bechdel test is simple. A character in the comic strip refuses to watch a movie unless it meets the following criteria:

1) It has to have at least two women in it (named characters only, faceless baristas do not count)
2) Who talk to each other
3) About something other than a man.

While more movies in 2010 meet these requirements than when Bechdel's strip first appeared in 1983, it's shocking how many movies still fail (44 in 2010 according to the The Bechdel Test Movie List including some that might surprise you).

Perhaps not every movie needs to pass. Saving Private Ryan would lose something with a cut away shot of two women discussing the weather. But if you're looking for a fun Thanksgiving Dinner game for the family, try listing as many films you can think of that pass--bonus points for action films.

Have a favorite movie that passes--or doesn't pass--the Bechdel test? Think this test is stupid or irrelevant? Go ahead and let us know in the comments section.

And as a bonus, here's's Female Character Flow Chart. Try to figure out where Agnes and Val fit in!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Welcome to Theatre Exile's 'That Pretty Pretty Blog'

Ever since we started working on That Pretty Pretty; or, the rape play by Sheila Callaghan, we can't stop talking about it. And we want you to be part of that conversation.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be posting thoughts from the cast, director, production team, and Exile staff. We also invite you, dear audience, to use the comments function to let us know what you think. Feel free to share your opinions and even ask us questions--we'll respond. After all, what better way to talk about a play whose author cites her inspiration as "the psychic runoff of surfing the internet" than online?

Production Dramaturg and the Jane Fonda of That Pretty Pretty Blog

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play opens Wednesday 11/17

The office is in the midst of last-minute preparations for our press opening tomorrow night -- we're pretty excited about Pretty Pretty, and we hope you are too.  Because we can't stop talking about this show, we just had to blog about it -- and we hope you'll share your thoughts with us here, too.

Thanks for coming with us on this wild ride!