February 19, 2009

Double Espresso: The Artistic Associates

Double Espresso:

Artistic associate Jeremy van Meter appears in both of Caffeine’s spring shows, which run in repertory beginning 14 March 2009. Artistic associate Donald Gecewicz interviews, and is interviewed by, van Meter.

The Body of the Actor

Donald Gecewicz: Your first role for Caffeine Theatre was as Philoctetes in The Cure at Troy. You spent much of the play sprawled across the stage, crippled by a snake-bitten foot. I might call your performance “physical.” But does saying that an actor’s performance is “physical” truly mean anything? After all, acting is action done with a physical body.

Jeremy van Meter: Every role that I take on is physical in nature yet there are roles that require more "physicality" than others. As an actor, if I am cutting off or in any way making less important what is taking place in the body then I am doing a huge disservice to my character. The body is the instrument of the actor and the only thing about acting that the audience truly "sees." They are not party to what is going on in my head only so far as that translates into the body. "I just love watching you move on-stage" is one of the greatest compliments I have received as an actor.

DG: Some writers have compared Philoctetes to artists. Philoctetes must learn to turn his wound into power, and artists have wounds that they must learn to rise above. Did creating Philoctetes spur you to think about actors and playwrights and their “wounds”?

Artistic Associate David Dastmalchian, center, was
Neoptolemus to van Meter's Philoctetes. Dastmalchian has
recently been on the big screen in The Dark Knight
and small screen in several Wendy's commercials.

JvM: Philoctetes allowed his wound to feed a deep sense of anger and resentment. Those emotions are incredibly unhealthy, and he clearly was not able to rise above those feelings. I have not allowed every rejection that has come my way over the course of my career to "wound" me. Of course those things are painful, but I have never allowed them to settle into feeding a sense of something that I must rise above. Maybe that is atypical to the norm. In the past, whenever something that I was hoping for fell through, my father would always say "Well, suppose something better is about to come along." More often than not, the man was correct.

The Body of the Playwright

JvM: Speaking of actors and playwrights, recently, a script of yours entitled Chassano was given a staged reading by Caffeine Theatre. Why is it helpful to hear the words that you have written spoken aloud by actors prior to a rewrite?

DG: Well, the play works too perfectly in the playwright’s head. All of those voices have to leave the playwright’s body for the actors’ bodies. Chassano is about the body, too, about what Chassano himself wants to do with his body. What actors do goes beyond reflecting the play to the playwright. It starts the first of the great conversations in the theatre, between playwright and actors. This conversation can eventually lead to the main conversation, between playwright and audience—except that the playwright never speaks directly to the audience. The actors converse for the playwright. The first readings of a play by actors overload the playwright’s circuits. The actors keep the playwright honest. All of the little mistakes suddenly loom large, and the big mistakes overwhelm. And then comes rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

JvM: Thinking about the time before rewrite, how do ideas come to you as a writer?

DG: Plays show themselves. They start as an apparition. Playwrights hear voices. Don’t tell anyone. But ask any writer, particularly poets and playwrights, about what happens in the shower. Yes, the shower. Somehow it lets voices and images loose, and then characters present themselves and start to move in a visualized space. It may be the touch of water against skin, first thing in the morning, or just relaxation in the warmth.

Soda Bread and Murderous Thoughts

DG: Your second role for Caffeine Theatre was as Manus in Translations. Translations is about witnessing the wiping out of an ancient but living culture that has gone from being the majority to being a beleaguered minority. Not exactly the experience of the dominant culture of the United States. How did you prepare for the role?

JvM: I recall trying to locate first-person accounts of the emotions certain people in Ireland encountered as the "colonization" effort was taking place. This was a proud people that were being forced to rename their country and homeland. To translate that into the portrayal of Manus, I did plenty of "acting as if" I were in that position--from the two perspectives of this occurring in my homeland and then someone taking away someone I love quite dearly in the process.

DG: Is there something murderous about Manus, who seems so mild, who worries about his father’s soda bread even as he, Manus, is leaving the village?

JvM: I would not say that there is something murderous about Manus but I will say that he is a man of mystery and that what is taking place in his home is maddening to him. Someone else watching the play may have the opinion that, of course, he is a killer. I enjoy playing men who force the viewers to make their own final impression when they walk out of the theatre. I am satisfied and have done my job properly when an audience is engaged in conversation based on my character and my performance of that character. One person might see him as capable of that murder while another might simply see it as escape from a situation he can no longer tolerate. Manus is, as you say, a mild man who wants his life to turn out in a certain way with the woman he loves. His exit from the village and the action of the play occurs when he realizes that this life is not possible. Given circumstances beyond his control, who knows what the mild-mannered person is capable of.

Bothering the Audience

DG: It has been a characteristic of Caffeine’s productions to play very close to the audience. How does working close to audience members affect your acting (besides having to make sure that you don’t bonk someone on the head)?

JvM: Much of the stage work that I have been involved with in Chicago has been nose to nose with the audience and I must admit that I love it. There is power in the sensation that the audience cannot get away or fade into the darkness. The style of play that Caffeine is famous for sets up perfectly for that mindset. I suppose then the effect this has on my acting is that it forces a deeper honesty and purity. It places the performance on the anvil because the audience is witness to the minutiae that the audience in the larger theatre is not privy to. One can almost play the same way that one would for the camera which, in my opinion, jacks up the intensity on-stage. I am looking forward to living in De Flores (The Changeling) and Filene (Tallgrass Gothic) within those confines.

DG: As a playwright (and audience member), I think of the audience as the gold standard, the final test. How do you read an audience, react to an audience?

JvM: One of my teachers at the University of Iowa held firm to the advice that as an actor you have to disregard the audience. Those are not his exact words in that I am deleting the expletive involved. This was always a point of contention with me because I disagree wholeheartedly. Of course, my main responsibility is telling the story of the play and living honestly as the character along with my cast-mates but the audience is one of the main reasons that my passion lies on stage. The audience is the other living, breathing character in the world of the live theatre, and taking care of them is one of my jobs as well. Reading an audience is never simple and the trap that many actors fall into is that of making assumptions about an audience. A quiet, non-responsive audience is tagged as being bored or a "bad house" when in fact they may be enjoying the hell out of the play and are simply quiet and non-responsive. Each audience is different and made up of people with different sensibilities and the great thing about that realization is that the play changes with that. One audience can react one way that makes the play different from the night before when the audience reacted in a completely different way. Box of chocolates...

The Challenge of Rep

DG: Caffeine will run Tallgrass Gothic and The Changeling in repertory as its offerings this spring. This is a first for Caffeine. You are one of two actors who will appear in both plays. How do the plays relate to each other? How do they harmonize?

JvM: Thankfully, I am far enough along in my career to have had the chance to perform a rep schedule, and thankfully, I do enjoy the challenge. These plays are a bold move for Caffeine and I applaud Jennifer Shook's willingness to take leap of faith with this project. The way the plays relate to one another is in the main story line which, for the sake of our audience, I will not spoil. There is a subplot in The Changeling that is not shared in Gothic. In my opinion, the plays harmonize and play against each other at the same time. A plot line is shared, but character motives do not necessarily match up in both. For instance, what motivates De Flores is not what motivates Filene. The objective is the same for both but the reasons why they are seeking that objective are not. I am also humbled by the challenge and opportunity to create two quite similar yet different characters.

DG: How do you prepare to play two roles in two plays that will be running at the same time? How do you keep their mannerisms and characteristics separate? Do you have to split your mind, in a way?

JvM: The language certainly is of assistance in ensuring that these characters are not carbon copies of one another. The difference in motive between them is another. I am simply attempting to achieve absolute clarity in those differences. In terms of splitting these personalities, that is what is most vital to me as an actor. For example, love as a motivating force to carry something out is much different from lust as the force to do the same thing. As a matter of fact, I am now at the point in my creation of these men that I am looking for mannerisms and characteristics that they might share. They have differences and similarities.

DG: Tallgrass Gothic and The Changeling both have aspects of the grotesque in them. For instance, in both, your character is deformed. Back to “physical” acting, what does the twisted body mean—the grotesque, the deformed, the scarred, those aspects that unnerve us?

Artistic Associate Erik Schnitger (shown here as Xothous in Ion, right)
will play Tin in Tallgrass Gothic.

JvM: In terms of the "deformity" of both men, I am more interested in exploring what that scarring has done to both of them internally. Of course, we are able to see what happened to them or what the scarring is physically, but the juice of that for me as the actor is delving into what the resulting mindset and psyche are because of that scar. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a grotesque and ridiculed figure yet quite gentle in nature and pure of heart. As I said earlier, one man will rise above the scar and another will be consumed by it. In the creation of the men that I am portraying, I am centered now on what the scar turned them into that they might not have been without it. I think that to be the unnerving part of the deformed. The mind is a part of the deformity.

DG: Both plays also have comic characters and comic scenes. How do you deal with the conjoined comedic and violent sides, and the deliberate shifts from one to the other, all of which are integral to the way that each playwright wants to tell a story?

JvM: All three of these playwrights have succeeded in creating well-rounded characters. Too much of one thing in a character is quite dull. There are layers to each of them, and because of that, the intelligence and wit are in place as well. Speaking from my own character's perspective, there is a confidence and a cockiness in both that add to the sense of humor that both clearly have. I also think that comedy is used to serve as the glass through which some truly horrible things occur.

Artistic Associate Dan Smith, dramaturg for both Rep plays, recently became a 3-time Jeopardy! champion.

But Who’s in Charge There?

DG: Tallgrass Gothic has an overtly religious side that The Changeling does not share. What do you make of playwright Marnich’s evocation of religion?

JvM: In preparing Gothic, Jen had us as a cast watch a brilliant documentary entitled Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Faith and religion in the Deep South made up the thread throughout the film. One of the quotes from one of the true life "characters" in the documentary is that church and religion allows one to "forget what they have done during the week." That is exactly what I make of religion in Gothic. From the character's viewpoint, when I am in church I can pretend that I have chosen heaven rather than hell.

DG: More on choice. In both plays, it sure seems to me that the women run things, and the men sort of bounce off the walls. Am I on the right track? How do you perceive the power relations between men and women in the two plays?

JvM: I would say that the women have the ideas of what needs to happen and the men make those ideas so. The power relationship then is that the women are not in control and the men are. Or in the case of my story-line, the woman is in control of the idea to take action but is in no way in control of how the action is carried out. She loses further control when the idea and the action begin to unravel around her. In that situation, the man again shows up with the action plan.

DG: Would that make De Flores of The Changeling evil, or is he just asked to be evil? Given the opportunity… and a weapon.

JvM: De Flores is not evil, and he is not asked to be evil. That would make him one-sided and acting for the sake of evil's sake alone. The action that he takes and his capacity to carry out evil tasks comes from a place of genuine emotion and adoration for a member of the opposite sex. De Flores is truly in need of something that will prove that love and service. That something happens to turn out to be evil in nature. The act is evil, but the man is honest. He is not evil, much in the same way that Iago of Othello cannot be branded with that name either. Intense love, lust, greed, jealousy and the quest for revenge can make the saintliest person lose grasp.

JvM: Think about it this way: Do you like every character that you have written or not?

DG: I do like them. And my reasons relate to what you just said about De Flores. You can’t think of a character as repulsive. The playwright has to have a basic sympathy, a minimal compassion, for even the most deformed character.

DG: Then is De Flores mad? There are many questions of madness in that play. Who is mad in The Changeling?

JvM: I think the title role of the play refers to Beatrice. I also believe that being a party to what is carried out in the play sends her over the edge in a sense. This woman is not, at the end of the play, the same woman who entered in act 1, scene 1. Other figures in the play may act out madness, but in the final stages there is only one figure who loses grasp on reality.

Turn Off the TV, and Take a Dose of Caffeine

JvM: You see quite a bit of live theatre here in Chicago. What propels you to the theatre?

DG: Theatre is intimate, private but public, accessible. What other artform still engages all of the senses? I agree with Augusto Boal, the Brazilian director, that theatre is life itself, not a mirror. Real emotion, from real people.

Associate Dana Black, left, as Carla
in Like the Moon Behind the Clouds,
a world premiere by Gecewicz.

Playwright-Actor Talk (Don’t Tell the Director)

JvM: Just why are playwrights important?

DG: My Italian friends tell me that we English-speakers are lucky because Shakespeare shaped our language. Dante’s style is much more highly structured, and the Divine Comedy is almost too perfect. Shakespeare breathed life into our language, and we still benefit from his achievement. Also, playwrights have discerned certain problems, and again, Shakespeare guides us. He describes the necessary decline of religious belief, the anxiety of life without various certainties, the horrors of war, the staleness of ambition, the endlessness of desire, and the use of love potions. Poetry is a kind of prophecy, and, for that reason, hard to come to terms with. Novels are observations, always a step removed. Yet the stage is life itself—where we go to have a sentimental education. The stakes are highest when our emotional makeup is being created.

JvM: Your play Like the Moon Behind the Clouds was produced by Caffeine early in 2008. Did you begin writing that play knowing that Caffeine was the venue or was that discovered later in the writing process?

DG: Nothing was certain at first, of course. Jennifer Shook and I had met collaborating on a workshop and staged reading of my play, Chassano. She was interested in scripts that fit Caffeine’s mission to depict the almost-prophetic language of poetry with the urgency of theatre. I was working on the translation of Carla Vasio’s prose memoir of her time in Japan. I started on the prose some ten years ago. I showed Jen excerpts of the prose, and she suggested that we continue. I started on the play about four years ago. I had a table reading early on at Chicago Dramatists. Never discount the influence of Chicago Dramatists on the development of plays here in Chicago. Then Jen led a workshop and staged reading. At a certain point, we agreed that we had something that could move toward production. It was a dance, in a way. It had to be a dance.

Keeping a Theatre Alive and Lively

DG: We are both artistic associates of Caffeine. What does that august title, “artistic associate,” mean?

JvM: It means having an artistic home. It means that if it was my desire not to work on stage anywhere else, I could make that choice and still find fulfillment as an actor. It means creating theatre with a group of people that I truly enjoy being around and who make me a better actor because I am their company. When I first came to Chicago, I always thought that becoming an associate with a company meant that I had arrived. Whether or not that is the case, I am certainly proud to have found a home with Caffeine Theatre.

DG: Yet Caffeine isn’t a repertory theatre or an ensemble, even though the artistic associates are part of the continuing life of the theatre. What does that mean—working on the continuing collaboration that Caffeine Theatre is?

JvM: There is a sense that the work Caffeine Theatre puts out there strengthens theatre in Chicago and in America. Specific to the mission of Caffeine there is also a sense that we are strengthening the poetic community as well. There is value in both and matching the two means that each will continue to play a vital role in both the small and large theatrical/artistic worlds.

JvM: How do you serve the Caffeine Theatre company of artists by being an artistic associate as a playwright rather than as an actor?

DG: At times, I am there as a naïve audience member, someone not as attuned to the creation of a performance. That way, Caffeine can call me in at various points in the process of rehearsals as a different set of eyes, a different mindset. I also read scripts that have been submitted and give advice about their quality. Because part of the mission of Caffeine is to bring highly charged poetic language to the stage, a playwright, who is supposed to know something about highly charged language, can come in handy. I also try to look decorative at fundraisers.

Courtney Knysch, our casting associate and Rep co-producer,
studied travel writing in Morocco, and has been interning
with Chicago Shakespeare Theater. We're happy to share our expertise with them.

Starving Artists in America

DG: Speaking of funding, it is fairly obvious to me that theatres in Chicago are better at planning their work and at managing money than the boys and girls on Wall Street. What have we learned about the economy and the role of theatres in the life of the city from being parts of Caffeine?

JvM: We, all of us, in the artistic community understand about the operation of our talent within a shoestring budget. Greed and a devil-may-care attitude regarding money will not get the job done in the storefront-theatre world. Therein lies the quality and the skill at creation and development. All ideas are valid because, more often than not, there are several ways to go about creation.

JvM: To continue my thought as a question, though, are there truly “new ideas” out there to be written about, or do you feel that the modern playwright is rehashing old ideas?

DG: I think that our society is now thoroughly saturated by melodrama. Melodrama is the norm for emotions. So we see Rod Blagojevich, various scandals among the clergy, Senator Larry Craig in the bathroom, tawdry John Edwards and the baby, the woman with the octuplets, grown men with teddy bears, business executives who can’t make decisions, lots of novels that read like ho-hum screenplays, and poetry that reads like prose with line breaks. Any time a playwright can write lines that liberate through laughter, jolt us into a strong emotion, or shatter conventional wisdom, the playwright has done something new. We want to cut through the fog of melodrama and self-absorption to unleash something not discerned before.

DG: You also recently appeared in a play by The Plagiarists that included a crab marionette. Caffeine artistic director Jennifer Shook and I worked with marionettes last year. Puppets have their own life—and that is how we learn to deal with them. Yet the crab in your show had much attitude. How was it for you to share a production with a marionette from the crustacean world?

JvM: It was pure hell. That crab had a bad attitude, was a huge diva, and smelled of month-old tuna.

JvM: Crab marionettes notwithstanding, what do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment over the course of your career?

DG: That I actually have a career as a writer. So many people get discouraged or are ignored. They lose heart, which is understandable. After Like the Moon Behind the Clouds closed, I was at the Coffee Studio here in Edgewater, adding some rewrites to the script. A woman at the communal table asked me what I was doing. I explained how playwrights rewrite even after the show closes, how I had had a show at the Chicago Cultural Center. She said to me that it must have been a dream come true. Almost immediately, I had a revelation, as if she were a messenger in a folk tale, that of course she was right, that my career has been like a dream come true, and that by committing to do the work, I somehow looked like a success to an outsider observing me in my element, looking at my dyer’s hand, stained by photocopies and ink and experience.

February 11, 2009

Designing punk tornado

Our design team has quite a job on their hands. Of the two plays in our spring rep, one is a 17th century Jacobean tragedy, and one is its 20th century American counterpart.

For director Rachel Walshe, The Changeling tells a story of conflict between generations, of control and rebellion. So, quickly, design inspiration turned to the punk movement.

For me, fleshing out the world of Tallgrass Gothic has lead me from its setting in the Great Plains out to Southern Gothic (Flannery O'Connor and Jean Toomer), to rural ghost stories, to Appalachian religion, to fantastic American Roots music, to unusual prairie habits. While none of these explorations may be visible to the audience, they feed our thinking as we create this world together.

Meanwhile, the physical space of the theatre has to speak to and transform into both plays. We began with church-plus-barn:

and then came here:

Something, though, still lingers just beyond reach....