Monday, March 29, 2010

Down and Out in Earl's Court

The earl in Neverwhere is nameless. He is so old his person and title are synonymous. The noun earl was used to distinguish nobility from those who weren’t noble, the churls. The word first appears in Beowulf as “eorla,” which here generally means a brave knight or warrior. The King Hrothgar is sitting amidst them. The earl of Earl’s court has something of the Anglo-Saxon about him. His elderly man at arms is Dagvard- his name from the Anglo-Saxon means Dag or day and vard or guard or day-guard. The other man at arms is Halvard and the meaning of the name is a bit more opaque to me. It feels like he should be either the hall guard or the night guard but hal is associated with rocks and sloping hills in my Anglo-Saxon dictionary. (Ah yes, I still have my Anglo-Saxon dictionary from a time when I thought I might be a scholar of this sort of thing so moving it from city to city and apartment to apartment has finally proved worthwhile.) Thus it is also significant that the poetry quoted in the Earl’s court is in the Anglo-Saxon mode which uses alliteration, “Brave the battling blade, flashes the furious fire . . .”

Just to speed through a little bit of English history. The early Celtic inhabitants (who themselves may have immigrated to the Island country) have been continually overrun by other people who thought it looked like a nice little green island for pillaging or possibly settling down and building a summer home. The Angles, the Saxon and the Jutes (from Jutland which refers to Denmark) are all early Viking tribes from the areas that are modern Scandinavia that over a long period of time invaded, settled then were invaded upon by other early Viking tribes who either forgot or didn’t care that these were some early cousins. The name England is derived from Angle-land. (There were others who have thought it was a nice little island the Romans and French prominent among them.) Stephen Smith in his book, Underground London, describes a Anglo-Saxon cross found underneath All Hallows that is carved with the word "Werhere" which he says Peter Ackroyd has said strongly suggests, "we are here."

There is another charming nod to this history sitting on the train platform where the Earl’s train court arrives. The beggar Lear is sitting on the platform. King Lear is based on the legend of an early Celtic king. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the foolish king divides his kingdom and loses his power, his mind, and his daughters. Of course Lear in Shakespeare does not live but his Neverwhere namesake sits begging outside the court of a later ruler.

There is a fool in King Lear (apart from Lear) who is known only as the Fool. In Earl’s court there is a fool named Tooley. Tooley is a London street in Southwark. It is apparently a corruption of St. Olave’s church, St. Olave or Olaf being the patron saint of Norway. It was apparently the home of many wealthy citizens in the Middle Ages. Since it was close to the docks it was for a time known as “London’s Larder” It is now home to the campy London Dungeon which features actor recreations of gory bits of London history. Tooley Street was also the location of a cheap boarding house where writer George Orwell lived played the part of a beggar while he researched social conditions for his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Richard is able to imagine the earl as he was when he was “a mighty warrior, a cunning strategist, a great lover of women, a fine friend, and a terrifying foe.” The earl’s court has undergone a similar decline to Tooley Street and similar to the end of Beowulf. (I have linked to the Gummere translation but if you get a chance read the Seamus Heaney translation.)In reading it again, was reminded of one of the final episodes of Beowulf in which the aging king Beowulf goes out to face a dragon with a young hero. There is a sense of decline in that the old King can no longer protect his people but the young hero, Wiglaf, is not up to the task and will not be the leader that Beowulf was. Together they slay the dragon but Beowulf dies of his wounds and lives only in the after-singing.

The earl is the one who assumes Door is out for vengeance he is also getting old and his memory is muddled. Hunter calls the earl’s real domain “Things lost. Things forgotten.” He has collected not only the lost detritus of London above compressed in London below but fragments of history and old alliances and knowledge of Islington which enables him to help Door.

A side note for those who are getting tired of obscure footnotes. I am looking forward to watching the first run through of the play tonight. All this research is fun but it will be nice to see the story "on its feet.."

Sunday, March 28, 2010

First Weeks

We are now out of the theoretical and in practical research mode, testing staging theories on an approximation of the set and figuring out the way we are going to tell our story.   I say "we" because the process, for this director at least, is about collaboration. I can't imagine doing this alone, the show will be that much richer for the contributions of all involved.

There is a sense of enthusiasm that continues to develop as we get into the scene work and discuss characters and as we stage this sucker.  Rob has had to cut much, but he tried very hard to keep in as much of the dialogue from the book he could, often rearranging some small bits here and there to emphasize thematically the growing trust, honesty, and heights of courage and speak to the heart of what is in the book.  And the entire cast is on to it.  

We came across a particularly tricky page or so in the script where Richard is in a variety of different locales trying to get to work and No One notices or recognizes him.  The morning after Door leaves, Richard is running late for work and the people on the street almost knock him down by bumping into him. Gary and Sylvia at the office look at him like they never met him before. His desk and things are gone. Jessica doesn't recognize him. His apartment is being shown to a potential new renter. And the phone stops responding. Then Croup and Vandemar show up, and they are not happy.

This all takes place in about a minute. There is no way I could imagine staging this without the cast in the room, just for the sake of seeing the bodies move in the space. On top of this physical necessity though, many of the cast members are directors and fight choreographers themselves and frankly there is no end to the feeding we get off of each other when we try and sort out a problem. This sequence took input from most of us to figure out. 

This is such an incredibly rewarding way to begin a process - collaboration and enthusiasm will go a long way for us in rehearsal and make the run for the actors that much more enjoyable. Everyone is getting along great, thinking and chattering and joking and figuring it out together.

It is hard to judge what to blog about or share at this point.  We've blocked the play. We are performing the entire play from start to finish for the first time tomorrow night. The fight with the Beast of London, which we haven't had the pieces in place to play with before, comes Wednesday.  To tell you about specifics or show you video of some of the combat we've choreographed would be showing too much - we want you to come see the show LIVE and not know what's coming in advance!  Just trust me - I've collected some of the best minds and voices in Chicago theatre to this project, and we're going to show you something incredibly special.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

London Above: Blindness and Sight

I have been thinking about the characters we see in London above that are from London Above: Jessica, Gary, Sylvia and Mr. Stockton. The new renters or Richard's flat. Almost every moment we see in the world of London above is associated with business or status. Richard works in the financial industry as do Gary and Sylvia and the descriptions of his actual work are coded in the jargon of the industry so as to be as obtuse as the hieroglyphics. Anaesthesia asks him "what's an investment an-thing." He is plunged into a world of bartering, favors and strange alliances where his matches and used hankie take on a new value but his credit card is worthless.
Perhaps it is because I have been dipping into Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, but it feels very deliberate that the world of London above is tied to money and status. Richard discovers in London Below that his whole life had prepared him to be an investment analyst but it hadn't prepared him to survive particularly well in London Below. Actual survival skills have ceased to be necessary in London Above and it is highly abstract work with an ambiguous monetary system that allows Richard to have a London apartment and a girlfriend who thinks she can make him into the correct marriage prospect.

Jessica and Mr. Stockton are not in finance but they are in a world peopled almost entirely with the wealthy and famous, who behave appallingly at the opening or "Angels of England."

In 1956, anthropologist, Horace Miner, famously published The Body Ritual of the Nacirema. In which he wrote up descriptions of modern Americans as an anthropologist studying a foreign tribe. Nacirema is American spelled backwards. It now seems to be a popular article to pull out in high school sociology or history classes to make students look at the common practices of a society with fresh eyes. This is what Richard has to do when plunged into London below.

It is telling that in the ordeal it is the faces of Jessica and Gary that come back to him, the faces of what his normal live and goals and values have been. Richard must struggle to hang onto a sense of self that is separate from what failure leading to suicide would be in London Above.

This does not mean that the characters in London below are idealized. They are often selfish, unscrupulous and dangerous but their traits are much more readily identifiable than in London Above. I actually have some sympathy for Jessica and Gary. Jessica is terribly hurt that Richard had changed and doesn't understand it. Gary thinks that Richard may be going off the deep end when he is back and still not satisfied. They both don't have the painfully won self-knowledge that Richard has gained. Jessica is not evil she is self-involved, fairly callous to the homeless but she is operating with in perfectly acceptable standards for success within her society. The same is true of Gary. He is unseeing and perfectly content in his world of work, pubs and women. Thus the refrain from London above is that above-worlders don't see anything.
This leads me to two other characters. The first is the old woman who tells Richard's fortune at the beginning; she first thinks he is homeless because she has been homeless herself. She tells him to beware of doors and that his good heart might be enough to see him through. She is the proverbial seer who links London Above and London Below and links Richard to his future but in the classic fashion of Seers, Richard fails to understand her.

The second is the abbot of the black friars who is blind. "The abbot regarded his own blindness neither as a blessing nor as a curse: it simply was. . ." But in the abbot's darkness he knows another pilgrim is going to arrive and attempt the ordeal. He has a measure of foresight but his sin is waiting because he knows a pilgrim is coming and he ceases to live in the present. However, the abbot does not anticipate how Richard will survive the ordeal.

Seers are associated with blindness but so is Justice. The statues picture here are of Justice, which has long been depicted as blindfolded with sword and scales. The first is on top of the Old Bailey, the criminal court in London, the second is outside the supreme court of Canada (it just looks more menacing and mysterious). Yet, so much of Neverwhere there is not justice. It is not fair that Door's family has been murdered; it is not fair that Richard's life is taken away by being a Good Samaritan. Door seems to hesitate every time revenge is suggested as the motivating factor in her quest. She never seems to be trying to mete out justice herself but to see, to understand her unfathomable loss. Sight in Neverwhere becomes a more nuanced thing purchased at great price. Richard and Door can't go back to the way things were they can only come through them to with a clearer vision. It is a much more sophisticated idea than that everything will just be made okay again by an omnipotent source. It is telling that Door, Richard and the Marquis end up back at the black friars who are not there to make everything as it was but to help heal their wounds.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

New article on another site

The comic book industry news website "Bleeding Cool" just posted about Neverwhere, with some quotes from Rob and I about the show and a cool picture. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Croup and Vandemar (and Freud - yes that Freud)

"Croup and Vandemar, the Old Firm. Nuisances eliminated, obstacles obliterated, bothersome limbs removed, and tutelary dentistry."

I have struggled with writing about Croup and Vandemar, so I have put it off. They are so specific and at the same time deeply ambiguous. It was delightful to hear our actors Croup and Vandemar at the first read through of the script and I suspect it is a delight for the actors who play them to have the comedic payoff of the Croup's circumlocutions followed by Vandemar's bluntness. Yet, I find the idea of the characters (not the actors) deeply disturbing.

First, to focus on the names. Gaiman has said that Croup and Vandemar are what they call themselves and no one would dare call them anything else. The word croup in the Oxford English Dictionary is defined as the hindquarters of a horse or other beast of burden and also as a disease fatal to children of inflammation to the larynx and cough, or the short form of a croupier or card shuffler. None of which is inappropriate for Croup but none of which captures his menacing loquacity.

Vandemar, is a Dutch name van meaning of de the. I did not find any specific Dutch translation for Mar as either a region or of the sea. However, on its own to mar can mean to hamper, hinder, damage or impair which sounds about like one of Croup's lists of their favorite activities.

There is a history of appealing villains. Iago in Othello, Edmund in King Lear, Count Fosco in The Woman in White. But none of them compare to the menace of the pair of Croup and Vandemar and I think that is because they are all at least human. Croup and Vandemar are not human. They move with great speed and apparent ease, when Croup asks, quoting The Merchant of Venice, "If you prick us do we not bleed." Vandemar answers, "No" Vandemar puts a knife through his hand without feeling any apparent pain or bleeding. When Richard calls them men, Door scoffs then says, "I suppose you could call them men." She then refines her definition of their being men as has having two arms, two legs and a head a piece.

Part of what makes Croup and Vandemar so uncomfortable, so uncanny, is the fact that they have the appearance of the human but are, in fact something other that seeks only destruction. Sigmund Freud has an essay on The Uncanny (which is very accessible - it is as much literary criticism as psychoanalysis) in which he talks about E.T.A. Hoffman's fairy tales and the uncanny. He specifically addresses the idea of the double first in the idea of the body and soul which allows one to think about the immortality of some part of the self in response to fears about mortality but then mentions that its reverse can be seen as a harbinger of death. In Neverwhere, Croup and Vandemar are uncanny because they represent a double or a doppleganger. They have the appearance of men but are not human. These apparently immortal humanlike creatures bring death with them. An outraged Croup lists their credentials to their mysterious employer as having assassinated, kings, popes, heroes and reputed gods as well as starting a plague. Their uncanniness is heightened by their powers seeming to be magical and beyond human. Not only do they bring death but also the can not be stopped by normal human means.

They are disturbing precisely because they seem human and are not and because their power to harm or bring death seems unstoppable. They are also disturbing in the way they function as a pair. They seem almost to know each other's thoughts. At the beginning of the novel Gaiman gives us a long description of how we can tell Croup and Vandemar apart and then tells us they look nothing like each other. Yet that description is necessary because the two beings function together. When Door has opened the door at the end of the novel Vandemar shrugs when he sees Croup sucked in without out him and then lets go to join his partner. The two of them seem to need to be together to function. Oh and for all the Gaiman fans, if you decide to read the Freud there is an interesting discussion of Hoffman's Sand-man.

I also wanted to mention something that has always struck me about Croup and Vandemar's crucifixion of the Marquis. As it is described, the Marquis is not on a cross but on a circle. His arms and legs are out in a gruesome parody of Leonardo daVinci's drawing "The Vitruvian Man" above. It always struck me that this is the height of what Croup and Vandemar stand for. It is not just the loss of life (which would be enough to horrify) but the destruction of beauty, thought, art, every good humanist ideal that we could associate with Leonardo daVinci's renaissance world. It is why Croup's eating a one of a kind piece of T'ang Dynasty pottery fits with the destruction of human life. It is not just an erasing of life but of all human potential and capacity for goodness and beauty.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is their ability to as it is put in Hamlet, "That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain."Although perhaps that refers to Islington since Croup's smile is described as ghastly.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

The beating of wings, candlelight and a game

When I started my reread of Neverwhere a couple weeks ago. I noticed the quotes Gaiman gives the reader at the beginning of the novel and thought it might be worth thinking about them a bit.

"I have never been to St. John's Wood. I dare not. I should be afraid of the innumerable night of fir trees, afraid to come upon a blood red cup and the beating of the wings of an eagle."

The first quote is from G.K. Chesterton's
The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Which is a brilliant choice to allude to. Chesterton's novels blend the fantastical and the real in fascinating and disturbing ways, and although he was writing at the turn of the last century, I am always stunned by how modern Chesterton's books feel. The Napoleon of Notting Hill takes place in a future London (1984) that is much like the London of 1904, when it was written, but it is just a bit off. By agreement and lack of interest the England, which seems to have amassed more empire in the intervening years, now choice a king by alphabetical drawing. There are many analogous interests in the story. The people of London seem to have become entrenched in the ordinary, accepting of their class system and social roles. Clerk Auberon Quin is made king, and being of a whimsical (and possibly mad) nature starts requiring the provosts of the various districts of London to dress in obscure and antiquated ways. As king he also makes up some fairly fantastical histories related to London place names.

The relationship to a fantastical London in which the place names are tied to different histories than we might expect is clear. I think there is more. I confess I am a fan of Chesterton but had not read The Napoleon of Notting Hill, I am about half way through now. I have long reading history with especially The Man Who was Thursday but also The Man Who Knew Too Much and even Father Brown. It struck me how often Chesterton uses the word nightmare. Both Chesterton's worlds and Gaiman's worlds take on a nightmare-like quality in the true sense of a dream the feels real but in which normal things are displaced, distorted or somehow menacing. Both also freely mix humor with societal or personal events that are much more terrifying like say anarchists or murder. Both writers unapologetically take you to that place that is familiar and frightening and fantastic without explaining or making things easy for the reader which, I think, is a mark of respect for the reader, not to explain too much.

The second quote is the 14th century Lyke Wake Dirge from north Yorkshire

If ever thou gavest hosen or shoon
Then every night and all
Sit thou down and put them on
And Christ receive thy soul

This aye night, this aye night
Every night and all
Fire and fleet and candlelight
And Christ receive thy soul

If ever though gavest meat or drink
Then every night and all
The fire shall never make thee shrink
And Christ receive thy soul

The portions of the dirge, or funeral hymn, that Gaiman quotes all refer to the acts of charity that one might have done while living which in the last stanza protects one from the fire (presumably the fires of hell). Lyke is a dead body and wake is the watch that would be held for the deceased. Hosen are stockings and Shoon is an archaic plural of shoes. Fleet can be a small stream but I also saw a variation on the dirge that seemed to substitute hearth or home for fleet. Sleet is sometimes substituted for fleet which is an old form a salt that may have to do with early funeral rituals. The refrain with firelight and home contrasts with the judgment meted out to those who were not generous in life. It fits nicely with Richard's act of kindness that starts everything for him.

Another reference Gaiman has mentioned in interviews is a children's game with a map of London. I suspect it might be Scotland Yard. Where a group of detectives chases the criminal Mr. X through London using the bus, the underground and taxis (why Scotland Yard does not get its own vehicles is never explained.) What is splendid about the game is how much time you have to look at the map of London with all its place names. Before I had visited London I had played the board game and spent time staring at the map, not just trying to win but as if it might give me understanding of London when I should finally visit (it didn't). Nightmare, dirge, game, it is somehow right that they should all fit together.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

No. Its Just Door. D-O-O-R. Like something you walk through to go places.

So a couple of weeks ago Paul emailed me about how Neverwhere was like The Wizard of Oz but turned on its head a bit. Richard wants to get home but Door sounds like Dorothy. What are the roles of Hunter and the Marquis in that party if you want to extend the comparison

I agreed but replied that Neverwhere is also like many other fairy tale quest narratives. However last week I did another reread of the book before first rehearsal and it struck me that twice Gaiman invokes the Wizard of Oz. Lamia makes fun of Hunter and Richard and Door as being like the Wizard of Oz, when they are on their way to meet Islington so Door can avenge her family and Richard can get his life back. So Gaiman both invokes the Wizard of Oz and mocks it at the same time. This is a darker fantasy than the Wizard of Oz. The revelations about Islington are much darker than discovering the Wizard is just a man behind a curtain.

Of course the story makes it clear that Door is just Door. It is not short for Doreen or Dorothy. If anything Door, because of her ability is like the physical doors in other fairy tales, the door to the wardrobe, the hole in the ground. So many fairy tales start with some sort of entrance. Of course, the old woman warns him to beware of doors.

Door's whole family are "openers" and their skills allow them to find and open doors and locks. The names of the family are all portal names. Door, Arch, Portico, Portia and Ingress. (I have to point out that Portico also refers to the colonnades where Greek philosophers met - which is appropriate for Door's father.) Richard does find a door to another world.

I was struck when I was rereading the novel how twice uses her skill in a way that shocks her once she opens to save herself from the assassin and kills him. Once she reaches out for somewhere safe then, at the last moment, thinks "someone." She calls a person not just a place and so her guilt over having gotten Richard into his mess is real. She called him.

It always pleased me when reading the novel that the story switches back and forth between Door and Richard. Certainly Richard follows the classic fairy tale or mythological model. He is forced into an adventure. He is from our world so he is our point of view character. We experience London Below as he discovers it. (Unless perhaps there are folks from London Below reading the novel). But Door is on her own journey, she has had her own loss and being orphaned and seeking revenge are also fairy tale devices.

What is trickier is that there isn't quite a direct analog for Door. She is both the entrance to this other world for Richard, but she is not just the guide to Richard. She is in the midst of her own story. Strong women in fairytales are tricky. There are a host of evil witches or bad step-mothers.
There is a clever girl like Molly Whuppie. (I had the Errol Le Cain Illustrated version as a child.) The Twelve Dancing Princesses are clever but only so they can evade their father and dance at night.
In East of the Sun West of the Moon and the Frog Prince the peasant's pretty daughter and the princess go on quest but only after they had rejected a magical suitor.

A number of years ago I read Reviving Ophelia, in which psychologist Mary Pipher examines the increasing problems facing young women. She describes how strong female characters start to disappear from books for girls when they hit adolescence and those characters become increasingly focused on relationships and marriage. Door is refreshing in that she is so unique. She is strong and skilled and independent. She has vulnerabilities but does not need saving. In fact, all the women in Neverwhere are strong.

She is not just an entrance for Richard into his story. They both have stories that are tangled together like a map of the London Underground.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

First Rehearsal: Instructions, Beginnings and Tribes

At certain first rehearsals there is a sort of alchemy that happens where you look around the table at the set design and the costume designs and hear the sound designers play clips. It is magic to hear the actors start reading a script and hear the voices from the page aloud and laughter at the funny bits.

It is also exciting to feel like you are embarking on a journey with people who care about the same things. This was a good first rehearsal. The designs were fantastic and there was this feeling in the room of how excited each person was to be working on Neverwhere. Paul and the cast read aloud Gaiman's poem, Instructions, (instructions for what to do if you are in a fairy tale) which seems like a good way to start. Like Richard we are all embarking on journey, however we have the luxury of a group to help us. So here are some musings on Richard's journey and our own journey.

I have been thinking about tribes. Theater is certainly its own tribe. There are tribes in London Below (or fiefdoms and duchies).

I recently heard a discussion of the theories of the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, they resonated with the line from the beginning of Neverwhere when the old woman tells Richard's fortune. Part of Arendt's statement that struck me, in rough paraphrase, is that a beautiful soul is not enough to live fully and securely, every human being needs the social and political status that comes with full membership. The old woman tells Richard,
"You've a good heart. Sometimes that's enough to see you safe wherever you go. But mostly, it's not." Without trying to minimize or simplify Arendt's theories, I think both thoughts get at some of the key ideas in Neverwhere, that is that being having a good heart or a beautiful soul is not valued, it is in fact a liability, but also that we want membership in a social group to live securely.

Richard's decency in helping Door is not appreciated by London above, or in many ways by London below. In fact in both worlds we see acts of great selfishness it is under a veneer in London above that Jessica doesn't care about an injured girl or that Mr. Stockton doesn't really care about art or the guests. In London Below the stakes are higher, Lord ratspeaker would happily slit his throat. London below is more extreme because existence is more extreme but the motivations, selfishness among them are the same.

Richard is not only disoriented by the foreignness of London below but also by the lack of a group of friends who help give him definition. When Richard enters London below he is tribe-less. He is continually being asked to whom he swears fealty, which duchy, which fiefdom? Part of Richard's desperation to return to London above is to be part of the established and familiar social order. He breaks down and cries when he has lost his identity in London Above and when Door, Marquis and Hunter have left him. He wants to belong.

In truth, in London above he doesn't have a tribe either, but he is lulled by the normalcy of everything around him into thinking his life, his work, his fiancee are all fine. Whey he returns from his time in London below he lost again, and finds work, going out for drinks are meaningless. He tells Jessica he's changed. This is why the challenge is so harrowing. He is forced to face the loss of a group that could give him definition but also he conjures the images of his former fiancee and friend to tell him he is insane and worthless. He must decide if his live is worth living without the certainty of others to define him and yet it is the recollection of the generosity and loss of Anasthesia that recalls him to his senses.

Interestingly, Henry Mayhew, journalist, social researcher and editor of Punch, who wrote the 1851 London Labour and the London Poor, refers to the various groups that he interviews in the London underclasses as tribes. But even while his approach is anthropological he wants to understand the costermonger and the orange a lemon seller. It is that same curiosity that infects Richard Mayhew. He keeps asking, Door, the Marquis and Hunter questions about the peoples of London below, he wants to understand the world.

What interests me about Richard's journey is not just the journey (that story is familiar to us and Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey has described separation, initiation and return and it is interesting see that journey) but after then end of the journey, after the return. What happens then? Fairy tales always get us home but they don't talk about what happens after you get home.

When I was a child, I was always frustrated by children having to go back after having an incredible journey. Back out of the wardrobe, out of the rabbit hole, back to Kansas, to the Dursleys. I didn't want them to go home much in the way that I didn't want the stories to end. Richard has changed, almost without knowing it. He is back home and discovers he his allegiances have changed, in a world that may be dangerous but after technicolor who wants to go back to black and white. Richard can see a life of security in London above but he forsakes that security. It makes me think of the last line of Instructions, "And then go home, Or make a home, Or rest."

I am glad to be on this journey with a tribe of like-minded individuals, who switch from Cockney to Irish in a heartbeat and design magical clothes and sets and lights and sounds. Where else would I get the chance to exchange emails about how best to create a piece of tang dynasty pottery that can be eaten several shows a week.

Oh and one mores thought, when we left the first rehearsal the misty day had turned into a thick fog, a peasouper, which seemed auspicious for our production. It smiled as I drove (slowly) all the way home and saw the strange shapes of gravestones in the cemetery and the dangerous trees in the park and the pale yellow glow of street lamps in the fog. It is late now and I think I choose rest.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Beginning with Bravery

On a personal note, I have been enjoying this researching and information gathering and the whole evaluation process like a warm blanket. It is an indulgence, in my experience, to really incubate these ideas and notions theoretically without having to make any real decisions. Without any pressure to PRODUCE RESULTS, the experience of sitting with the material and investigating sources of further inspiration without committing to them is a delightful notion. Like bathing in the creative flow of possibility, irresponsibly and childlike.

The time has come for that process to have some closure and for realization of the ideas to become manifest.  I enter it with a bittersweet heart. Now all the ideas of this baby's realization must become guidance, authority, structure and technical actuality.  The reality of our medium and the technology available at our level of budget and space must be dealt with. 

I've taken the time in the past week to enjoy some other manifestations of similar creative works. From Hell, Beowulf (thanks again, Neil), and Alice in Wonderland come to mind. I'm also this close to finishing Watership Down. There is an element of steeping myself in these epic works that speaks true to the process of creating theatre to me and I'm compelled to share it with you.

Any journey in our life, planned or sprung upon us, involves a deeply personal confrontation with the inherent truth of the self.  We must look within, face our utmost limits of fear and identity, before we can complete our quest.  All quest stories, from Frodo to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter echo this.  Neverwhere is no exception.  Epics or quest tales evoke our innate sentiance to see ourselves and judge our own actions, our own decisions that brought us here and confront our moving forward and realizing our true potential.  Therapeutic technique is based in this notion as well. We dig in the dirt of our past to figure out how to grow and be whole, we seek a holistic identity coupling the forbidden wounds of our past with the ideals of our present. And we become something indelibly, singularly, personal and present.

This journey takes great imagination, reflection, honesty, wit and resilience.  Our natural leneancy and laziness hopes to say NO, I wont go there, I know myself well enough thank you. It takes a huge amount of bravery to confront your reality and say this is not what I want, this does not fit me, I am SOMETHING ELSE.

Richard is helplessly thrown into this process, he doesn't enter willingly. He is tossed asea in this fantasy left and right.  Coming to a crisis of identity in The Ordeal, he finds he does have the strength to be Himself in The World. He actually does have enough self value to Go On. It is this strength that changes him in action, from this point forward he acts more bravely, becomes a Warrior instead of a Follower, finds his gumption and his resolve.  He screws his courage to the sticking place only by discovering there is a sticking place and a courage to work with.  

After arriving back in London, the current status quo doesn't seem to fit. Ultimately, there is a lie present. He is faking something that isn't true to his knowledge of himself. It doesn't matter what other people think he should be, he knows better.  He knows he is The Warrior. He believes his greater power. And he goes back to seek it.

Simply put, the experience of actor, designer, and director in a theatrical production is a similar process. There are preformed ideas of what will be. There are realities to confront. There is a strength of resolve that must be honored.  There is a bargaining process. And then there is a belief that makes everything else is unimportant.

I am here. Now. I am committed to this beauty of Truth, I am an embodiment of Honesty, I face my limitations with bravery because I am a Warrior. And I fight for Trust, Truth and the Story. My purpose is greater than me, I am humbled and at the same time exaulted by it. We are one in the same. And we are inpenetrable. The Truth will stand even if I perish in the attempt to exemplify it. Without me, where will the Truth be told?

We are always questing. I think of this process being an expression of that quest. It will be deeply personal, honorable and truthful and scary. It should be. Such demons must be present to be dealt with or we aren't doing our jobs.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

VOLUNTEERS NEEDED! Enter the Floating Market...

Lifeline Theatre is seeking volunteers to work at our 2010 Annual Benefit: Neil Gaiman’s Floating Market on April 19, 2010 the Chicago Cultural Center. We are recreating the Floating Market as conceived by Neil Gaiman is his bestselling book, Neverwhere. There will be food, drink, belly dancers, fire dancers, a wheel of destiny, fortune tellers, and musicians playing found instruments.

We are looking for technical people to help with set-up and break-down and performers to work the event.

Technical: Set up will run from 1:30–6:30pm and will encompass load in and set up of the market. Break down will run from 10:00–11:30pm and will encompass break down and load out at the Cultural Center. All set-up and break-down volunteers will be able to attend the Benefit free of charge.

Performers: Performers will be required from 5:30–10:00pm. You must dress up as a character from the Neverwhere world (e.g. Rat Speakers, Velvets, Sewer Folk, Salvation Army Restoration fops, Junk Yard warriors, etc) and work an assigned area (silent auction tables, entertainment areas, roaming) in character and interact with patrons. We will provide guidelines but you will be responsible for creating your own costume. Performers will be given one complimentary ticket to Lifeline’s production of Neverwhere.

There will be a mandatory meeting for all volunteers on Sunday, April 18th at 3:00 PM.

All inquiries about this opportunity should be sent to Please indicate how you would like to help out. First come, first served. Spots are limited. 

Sewerfolk, Ratspeakers, Anesthesia and a Load of Tosh

I have been reading an illuminating book by Stephen Smith called Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets. In it, the author investigates a variety places and histories that took place beneath the streets of London. I am in the chapter on the rivers/sewers, which seem to have been the same for much of London’s history. Many of the small rivers that were once open and flowing were covered over at various points in London’s history. Fleet street was actually the location of the Fleet River, which was slowly covered over, a process completed by the 1800s. Its fragrance had been a source of complaints since the Middle Ages and covering the river converted what was already a sewer to an underground sewer.

Apparently the gases created by the sewage built up and 1846 part of Fleet Street blew up and sewage flowed in the streets. In the 1850s, after the introduction of flush toilets, the increase in liquid sewage caused an overflow of the cesspits directly into the into rain gutters and into the Thames and various small London rivers. Increased industrialization brought waste from slaughterhouses and tanneries. By 1855, the warm summer heated the sewage filled rivers and the overpowering smell came to be known as “the Great Stink.” (There are a couple of books about the Great Stink as well here and here.) The heat made the smell so intolerable that bags drenched in chloroform of lime where hung outside the windows of Parliament in an attempt to mask the smell. Sewer reform would soon be a political imperative. By 1859, then engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, had been commissioned to overhaul the sewers of London. This is also about the same time doctors proved that cholera was being carried by contaminated drinking water. They had previously failed to understand that the waste was not being carried out to the ocean because the movement of the tides through the estuaries pushed the sewage back up into the rivers where it continued to build up.

What was fascinating to me about the chapter was the long history of people who work on or in the sewers, often the incredibly poor in earlier eras. There are a series of colorful names for those who made a living in the sewers, flushers, rakers, mudlarks, and toshers, thus the phrase “a load of tosh.” Many of the poorest sought to rake through waste to try and retrieve valuables The Sewer folk who find the Marquis certainly seem to be in this direct tradition (or perhaps they are just the same toshers).

Sewers are also the haven of rats, but Smith does much to resuscitate the image of rats, certainly they were in the sewers and blamed as plague carriers but they were also apparently popular entertainment in pubs in rat or rat/dog fights in that cockfighting and bear-baiting tradition. I find it funny that humans have such distaste both for rats and pigeons because both among the creatures that not only survive but also thrive amid human waste.

One interesting tidbit that I should mention but probably will do better in a section on Richard is his name. Mayhew. Henry Mayhew was an anthropologist who wrote a book, London Labour and the London Poor, in which he transcribes his 1852 interviews with rakers as well as many people on the fringes of society. The rakers told him some fairly tall tales about the rats in the sewers and how dangerous and large they were which seems like it can’t be coincidental to the naming of Richard Mayhew. In fact, Gaiman includes many facts and historical details about the history of London and its sewers and underground world that might seem odd in a fantasy (although history is also in some measure storytelling) but it is one grounded in reality as well, or rather, many realities some from Richard’s present and some from the 1850s and some are even more ancient. The ratspeakers are in some sense a counterpart to the rakers but they are also their own invention, particularly their code and their communication and apparent fealty to a society of rats. There is a sense that the ratspeakers operate on the border of London Above and London Below.

Anesthesia is an interesting case, I part we only know that her name is that because of Richard who hears it as Anesthesia when she says it while eating the banana she has stolen from Richard’s bag. She is unique among those in London below for having a background that we actually get to hear and it is one of neglect, abusing and running away that fits with how we understand people falling through the cracks in a society and not receiving help. Anesthesia has fallen through the cracks and found better at the hands of rats than humans. I found myself thinking about what it means that night takes her. Why her? She is also one of the few people in London Below who shows kindness to Richard in spite of her own life. She also is the only person who seems to have come from London above in any recent history.

Her name, Anesthesia, which is a means of numbing or putting someone to sleep generally before a medical procedure, is of course appropriate because when Richard enters London below he feels anesthetized. He has entered a borderland where all that he understands has shifted slightly and become dreamlike and unreal.

In addition to all these subterranean tidbits, is the story of the Beast of London. There is an historical story, one that is told to the Marquis de Carabas by Old Bailey, about a pig that escaped to the sewers of London and became enormous there living on garbage. The historical tale has him reemerge a much larger pig and sold for a profit the Gaiman version has the pig become the beast of London. Fed in the dark by the refuse of a city over centuries, it is easy to imagine how a creature of cast-offs would become fearsome and terrifying.