Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Chicago Below

Last week while getting my cell phone back from a good samaritan I parked in a loading zone that I thought was appropriate but apparently was not and my car was towed by the City of Chicago. Now most of you who have had the pleasure of having a vehicle towed by the city know that the various impound lots are always in strange, vaguely dangerous and difficult places to get to. Mine happened to be at the lot on lower Wacker drive and as I was heading there I started thinking about Neverwhere and the hint through Hunter that all big cities have a city underneath. Certainly Chicago had Fort Dearborn and conflict between white settlers and American Indians that displayed as manifest destiny in bas relief on various buildings around the City. There were the gangsters, prohibition joints and strange tunnels and all kinds of layers of seediness to the city, as any city always has. It seems to be part of the definition of its city-ness. Chicago also has streets under other streets of which lower Wacker is one (more familiar perhaps to non-Chicagoans as the stand in for Gotham city in recent Batman movie chase scenes).

My journey to lower Wacker started by trying to look it up on an online map with walking directions and the on line map said directions were unavailable. It never bodes well when the place you are going is not on a map. I got off the bus I checked with a policeman and a homeless man who were standing together chatting. The directed me to an underground passage to the train station and but that I should go through the train station and out and I would be on the underground level. The underground passage to the train is one of those glittering and disorienting and rather pungent food courts with unflattering overhead lighting. I have lost enough of the rural girl by living in the city that I adopted the city practice of walking briskly and looking as if you know where you are going even when you don't. I made it to the train station crossed the platforms and exited into what was certainly the bowels of the city. It was almost entirely concrete and asphalt with huge pipes, strange six headed spigots, and engineer's hieroglyphics on the walls in yellow and orange spray paint that were surely indicating gas mains or electricity or monsters.

I started walking in the direction that I was told and then the sidewalks ended completely. Occasionally there seemed to be sidewalk but it was entirely enclosed by bars and gates and could not be used. I saw a woman walking purposefully down the island that divides traffic and decided to follow her since she looked like she knew where she was going. She seemed nervous that I was walking behind her. I saw a man moving a large dumpster down an underground loading dock and asked him if I was on the right track and he told me I was.

Along a wall of heating vents there were at least half a dozen homeless encampments, There carts and bags and sleeping bags in neatly defined areas but the homeless who were there were either absent or tucked away in blankets.

I finally saw the little hut that served as the station for the impound lot complete with flickering overhead lights and disaffected employees carrying out personal calls on cell phones.

I found myself thinking about both the disorientation of being underground. I discovered that the lot ran right by the Chicago river but couldn't picture where. I also saw, through a gap in the streets above, the flickering lights of the ferris wheel at Navy Pier. It had no idea it would be so close and yet it was also a world away. I also thought about what it is to be lost or dispossessed. The homeless people I passed, what were their stories. Then I thought about the lack of identity in a place as impersonal as an impound lot. I found myself thinking about Richard's loss of identity after helping Door. He has slipped through the cracks and for him to be ignored by the people he knew is a profound loss of identity. However, the threads of identity are so tenuous anyway. Friends family, possessions, surely these too once belonged to the homeless now sheltering on lower Wacker. We all fear of losing the things that we hold dear and even the not so dear things that help give us definition, that makes us identify so strongly with Richard's disorientation.

Ultimately, it would have felt petty to be annoyed about a car, or a towing, or an unhappy employee, when I got to drive out (the wrong direction of course) from lower Wacker into a world that was safe and familiar, at least on the surface.

Of course, I also just found out in my random research that Gaiman did a walking tour of a mysterious Chicago neighborhood. I may have to pick up a copy of A Walking Tour of the Shambles before my next ramble on Lower Wacker Drive.

Monday, January 25, 2010

"Designing a set is like trying to find your keys: when you find them, you can stop looking."

Last week's production meeting was chock full of inspiration.  From collages of magazine clippings and sketches of various costume possibilities to the sounds of Savage Aural Hotbed (google for samples) and a discussion of how machetes make sparks when they hit each other. We are all in the inspiration stage, taking in sources that initiate thought and discussion of the practical realization of how we can make this world feel right theatrically and do justice to the storytelling.

Scenic designer Alan Donahue provided some early conceptual ideas for what we will do with the space we stage NEVERWHERE in, addressing right off the bat that there is a conundrum of making both London Above and London Below co-exist while creating a visual cohesion that fits on our "postage-stamp sized" stage.  We also need to make sure there is a large enough playing area for the combat to take place and ensure that the set can be struck back in a reasonable amount of time and effort between shows for our KidSeries production of THE BLUE SHADOW that runs in repertory with NEVERWHERE for the first few weeks.  A herculean task to be sure.  Alan was inspired by materials - black industrial palettes - and the architectural element of doors.  He showed a few sketches of ideas and even made a quick miniature of what basically looked like the inside of a black cube, made of doors, skewed at an angle. These were very much thoughts for incubation, and we agreed we needed to meet just the two of us to talk through the functionality of these abstractions.

Alan and I met Friday evening and again yesterday.  Friday night had us breaking down the elements into individual pieces. He considered columns, doors big and small, platforming and catwalks.  By the end of that meeting we had kind of settled on something actually quite spare with three tall (12'-15' high) doors upstage center with perhaps some platforms in front and behind.  Honestly, Alan didn't seem very settled and nether was I.  We set up a meeting for Sunday afternoon, only about 36 hours later, to talk again. 

You should know Alan has a lot of irons in the fire right now.  Two of the other shows I know he is currently designing,
Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Dancing At Lughnasa (directed by my good friend Elise Kauzlaric, Lifeline Ensemble member and our Jessica/Lamia/Anesthesia) are coming up soon and I wasn't convinced he would have the brain space, let alone the time, to spend working on NEVERWHERE.  How he did it, I don't know, but when I met with him yesterday, he showed me something completely different and really exciting.

Alan went back to his early sources when he was searching for pictures of underground tunnels.  He landed on a few specific images that really spoke to him. Tunnels reaching away to unknown depths and some very intriguing vertical elements, connecting the Above to Below. He recalled a Shakespearean design of discs of playing space in layers, representing earth and heaven, and considered how they would help create this sense of verticality in the structure of tunnels and add to the above/below relationship. It is a sculptural approach to the space that doesn't overwhelm the stage but creates a true sense of where while allowing a variety of entrances and exits, ups and downs, ins and outs. Lighting designer Kevin Gawley requested areas of the set where lights could be planted so that lighting sources could be very focused and intimate and Alan has possibilities all over the place.  And while it isn't formally, logistically designed, there is now a sense of arriving at a place of agreement and mutuality. Something's here we are both interested in getting our teeth into. 

Alan teaches at my alma mater, The Theatre School at DePaul University, and occasionally gives me examples of how he speaks to his students. He said to me "I often say designing a set is like trying to find your keys: when you find them, you can stop looking."  As a director I get to witness a lot of individual creative processes and sitting in on Alan's
fascinating depth of research and creative thinking is exactly the kind of thing that makes me excited to work on this project. Here then are some of his sources, for you to get excited about it too.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Blood and Transitions: Inside Production Meeting II

Blood and Transitions: Inside Production Meeting II

I was not in attendance at our first Neverwhere production meeting and Paul's blog post on that particular meeting gives you a great idea of the roles the various contributors to the artistic process of producing a play. I was delighted at the way our second production meeting started with our director, and birthday celebrant, Paul, announcing that we needed to talk about blood and transitions.

It made me laugh and it highlighted the difference between what it means to read a book or watch a film and what it means to stage a play. Questions like: how a death will be handled? Will there be blood? Will it still be on the stage floor in the next scene? Will it be on the costumes and should it be on the costumes in the next scene? If not how will it get off? Will this costume work in a fight scene? Which weapon is right for Hunter? When can we visit the dump together?

Most people never get to see the men and women behind the curtain (so to speak) in theater or know that we meet months in advance to hash out these sorts of questions so that there is a shared aesthetic and continuity to a production. Theater continually amazes me in that it is an art form that can not be practiced alone and it amazes me further that you there are a room full of artistic and enthusiastic people working together for a shared goal.

It is also inspiring to see set sketches and hear sound inspirations and costume collages, having colleagues to feed each other's work is worth the challenges of collaboration. I should also point out that this meeting involved a pile of weapons in the middle of the room and listening to Tom Waits. (I wish I had a photo of the impressive pile of weapons to share with you all).

It also struck me that that blood and transitions are the crux of almost any good story and good life, well maybe blood on the floor or clothes is not a good thing but certainly action and transition.

It makes me think of the line from the Player King in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,

"We're more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can't give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They're all blood, you see."

There is something of the roving band of players in any modern theater group who come together to try by alchemy, sweat and late nights to create magic. It is fun to be a part of a rag tag band that shares a goal. It is the making of an adventure.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Here Be Monsters Mapmaking and London Below

I have been a tad neglectful in my blogging but not in my reading.

Here is a link to a fantastic article in the Guardian about Henry Beck, the who created the famous map (he would call it a diagram) of the London Underground.

Neverwhere makes use of the fact that London has so much beneath it. It is built on the remains of the earlier cities that were London past. it also has the intestines of the underground railway that wend their way underneath it.

I wanted to share a picture from Bath actually where the layers of civilizations have been excavated and coexist. Here you can see the Roman baths built after the displacement of early Celtic peoples and above you can see Bath Abbey looming in the background. In the Abbey, which was first Catholic and then after the dissolution of the monasteries Anglican, you can see the layers of tombs and memorial placards. The Abbey was bombed in World War II and only recently were renovations completed. I indulge in this digressive story about Bath because it illustrates the layers of history, religion, geography and human experience compressed into a single space. It is the compression of London Below. London Below still has Roman soldiers and black friars. It hasn't forgotten the history merely added to it. I can only imagine that those early Roman soldiers must have been so happy to have found the magical hot waters of Bath having left their warm climate to travel in this strange, cold, and to them god-forsaken country. Being able to build baths like they had at home at to feel amazingly civilized.

Speaking of compression I also wanted to share a bit more on the London Underground which is featured in Neverwhere. More specifically, the map of the London Underground which we know so well. This map (diagram)was designed by Henry Beck and it was a leap forward in map making. Beck realized that a map of the underground did not need to show actual distances but the relative positions of the of the stations along a route. All maps in someway alter reality. They are smaller than the thing they claim to represent. They leave out details. The exaggerate the shape of Greenland so that they can show a round globe on a flat surface. I have always found maps fascinating because they hint at something not seen at that moment strange places. In Neverwhere, these places are strange places but they are also more what you would imagine if you were just reading a map. Shouldn't Blackfriars have black friars?

In addition to this the Underground does have closed stations that are not used and it makes you wonder what might be there. Much in the way that early map makers put monsters on the edges of the map where they were uncertain what might be there. At the edges of the earth at the edges of reality you might fall off the map. You might meet monsters.

This is perhaps why the places one visits in Neverwhere feel so real, or at least possible even while feeling magical and impossible. We've seen these places on a map or at least imagined them. Like the Roman soldiers that arrived in Bath and London these places were off the map and full of monsters. That is why it is so exciting to go with Richard off the edges of the map.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mom writes in

... my mother wrote the following to me in an email response to the previous blog entry and I want to share it, it's good...

Is it too simplistic to think this is a coming-of-age story for Richard?  Although plenty old enough in years, Richard starts the story awfully immature in all the areas you mentioned (responsibility, self-direction, purpose, etc.)  He (to an almost self-destructive effect) allows his dreaminess, his not paying attention to the real life of a grown up, to sabotage the things he does believe he values--Jessica, for one. In a way, to me, he starts out as a Boy.

Because of his Good Heart (he certainly does not seem to be thinking, deliberating, choosing), acting on instinct only, on "a feeling" only, he rescues Door.  A more grown-up "old" man would not have done this.  Jessica (as I recall) has a list of sensible alternatives to get the girl cared for and the two of them on with their adult life full of adult plans and responsibilities.  Grown-up men cannot risk behavior like Richard's--to scoop up in your arms a strange girl from off the street (strange, dirty girl) walk away from your fianc√© and install this girl in your bachelor apartment. Once done, this simple act starts him off on a quest from which there is no return.

Coming-of-age is also a no-return deal.  You just relentlessly forge ahead, meet those various demons and challenges, some of them disguised, to cope with and conquer as best you can. In the very end, he cannot return to his former hum-drum paper-pushing life because it is a Boy's life and he is now a Man.

In the back of the book there's a short interview with NG in which he says that this story is a lot about the homeless people in London and that the Underground was always going to be the setting.  He also says "I wanted to write a story about someone growing up and changing."  and this really makes the story very meaningful to me.
...thanks mom...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Marinating and Pondering Journeys

Been a while since I posted - sorry for that.  I've been enjoying some R&R after the holidays and simply marinating on some things, reading and making notes. 

Under the tree for me this year was "Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman" which is a passionate guide to Gaiman's work published before Fall 2008.  A great reference of the behind the scenes development of the man's career and just a fun read.  In it I learned that Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar make an appearance in "Mr. Punch" which means I must stop by my local comic shop and investigate.

On Saturday the 2nd, Maren and I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to visit the collection of Victorian photo-collage art that recently passed through, our interest sparked by the art of the music video costume designer Elizabeth Wislar shared with me a few months back.  Ultimately the art is not relevant to our production values but was an illuminating immersion into the bizarre and fantastic minds of the idle Victorian woman, influenced heavily by Darwin and Lewis Carrol. 

Last Wednesday I had a fascinating chat with Rob over some beers and BBQ. He's in the midst of some thinking and pondering on the script before diving into more writing probably in February he shared with me notes and thoughts and ideas from feedback given to him after our reading a few weeks ago. Our discussions continue to delve deeper into Richard's character arc; where is he at the beginning, where is his shift, and where does he end up.  There is something very interesting to me about Richard being a blithe participant in the modern cultural machine, a cog, a brick in the wall, at the beginning of the play.  He's absent minded and doesn't seem to be able to make any long term goals. He has no vision and little purpose.  As he gets wrapped up into the adventures of London Below, he continues to go along with what's demanded of him, more or less with bravery but without much personal investment.  He feels somehow deep inside that he must intervene and protect Door when and where he can.  When he loses Anesthesia on Night's Bridge, he experiences what may be his first profound sense of responsibility.  Further trust and emotional investment and even vulnerability with Door deepen his personal connection to the quest before him and in The Ordeal Of The Key there is a deeper, more radical shift. 

What The Ordeal is, what it actually symbolizes and provides for Richard, has been a challenge for Rob and I to articulate.  There is a tricky combination of Richard struggling with his sense of what is Real vs. what is Imagined and his being urged to off himself.  What he ultimately wins, besides the key, is a grounding - he feels more deeply and truly that he has purpose and that he is Doing The Right Thing.  And he gains that knowledge by rediscovering Anesthesia's necklace and confronting that guilt and loss.  He then becomes something of a leader, more confident, less whiny.

Fighting the Great Beast of London is the next evolution of Richard's character, but one I wonder if it may be even more felt later, when Richard returns to London Above.  At that point in the story, when Hunter dies and passes a torch of sorts to Richard, he must quickly go forward to complete the quest. Time is of the essence and self-reflection is a luxury he cannot afford. But when he finally gets what he's been wanting all along, like Dorothy, to just go home again, he's left feeling deeply dissatisfied.  At the moment of killing the Great Beast and painting its blood on his face, he becomes The Warrior.  How could he go back to paper pushing then?

Our next production meeting is coming soon.  Between now and then I am:
  1. rereading the script and pondering the logistics of the transitions and what they may mean tech wise
  2. considering the many pros and cons of using liquid blood on stage - a HUGE question
  3. investigating the use of puppets (rats, pigeons and the Great Beast) and thinking logistically of which actor will do what and how should they be seen, what are they in the world when they are manipulating a puppet