Welcome to Simpatico Theatre Project’s blog-roll, What’s in the Wings, your window into “one of the best indie theatres in town!” You’ll find a variety of posts on this page from directors, designers, actors and special guests, giving you a sneak peek into our company, our current production, and our electrifying 11th Season in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for tuning in and for staying Simpatico!
ALI – How would you describe the movement style of the piece?
PETER – Collaborative. 100 % collaborative. Brenna was thoughtful in bringing together a movement coach (myself) and fight combatant (Arlen Shane Hancock) from Theatrical Trainer and K.O. DelMarcelle as a choreographer as well; between us we were able to draw on classical dance, French Apache dance movement, Graham contraction work and inspiration from Amanda herself. The style is unique in its combination of movement sources and Amanda herself, she’s really a powerhouse. She brought so much to the table, we only had to craft already finely crafted clay. She’s able to take on movement with such ease it was fun for us to engage with her body. The movement is essentially our own, a hybrid, if you will of many minds.
ALI – What inspiration did you draw from silent films? Had you seen many (or any) before?
PETER – I actually watched a couple of silent films right before the “talkies” had emerged. I always find them fascinating in which the gestures are so large and direct, it translates well for inspirational work on-stage. However, I only kept them in the periphery of my mind because the piece was so unique in the ways in which Theatrical Trainer was brought on to help that I didn’t want them to color my process too much. Our portion of the process was for Arlen (Theatrical Trainer Fight Combat Instructor) and myself to come in and collaborate on movement for the final moments of the piece, which was actually more or less inspired by the French dance known as La Danse Apache, or “the tough dance”. It combines street gang movement of the early 1900’s with dance and fight choreography.
ALI – This is an immensely physical piece, how did you help Mandy prepare for the physical demands of performing THE IT GIRL?
PETER – Yes, at the heart of Theatrical Trainer, our goal is always to remember the ‘actor as athlete’ and an athlete Amanda was! We first met with the actors and gave them a specific regimen that would break down the kinesiology and conditioning needed for the specifics of what we were creating. I looked largely at what muscle groups and tendons Amanda would be using for the dance and from there began to craft specific exercises and stretches that she could easily incorporate into her daily life over the course of the run. Every role and dance is different, so it’s important for actors to condition specifically those muscle groups which will be stressed or compromised over time in the creative process. In addition, we talked about injury prevention and ways in which actors are always safe and that their longevity of their careers comes first, meaning that we always take the actor’s body into consideration first and foremost above anything else.
ALI – How does movement tell a story differently than dialogue?
PETER – I’m not so sure that they do, I think movement is a dialogue in and of itself, it speaks when words no longer do the world of the play (musical) justice. I equivocate movement very much to when characters suddenly sing in a musical, in that world, in that moment, nothing else will do. I think we need a combination of these things, verbiage, movement, song to express the full range of the human condition. Movement is our body’s way of telling its story, through shape, gesture, contraction and breathe. I think it gives voice to the world in which we are emerged in just a different way then verbal dialogue does.
ALI – Why is it important to tell Clara Bow’s story?
PETER – Women are not dispensable; actors are not dispensable; people are not dispensable. That is why this story is so important. Society has always found a way to objectify and utilize its “stars” until there is nothing left and then we move on. The large question is why? The larger question for me is what happens after we have consumed their talents? What is life of the “It Girl” like after? I think Amanda’s brave for telling this story, and answering those questions. They are burning coals in our hands and need to be answered.
ALI – What excites you and/or what challenges did you encounter when working on this piece?
PETER – The unknown. Brenna is very giving in her process and we went into this piece with inspiration but not concrete choreography, which is different than my normal process. That was so exciting and thrilling and at the same time, scary because we would think in the moment and create on the spot largely informed by our research and combining that with what Amanda was giving us physically; it truly was one of the most collaborative experiences I’ve yet to have in my career. No one person was responsible for the movement, it part of a hive-mind. The challenge is always in letting go and trusting the work for me, and trusting that the audience will go on this journey with you.
ALI – What do you hope the audience will take away from watching the movement in THE IT GIRL?
PETER – I think they will come away with the burning question we all have- why do we consume people’s creativity and then leave the well dry? Why do we move on and why don’t we take into consideration their humanity; art is for public consumption, yes, but at what price? I hope the audience walks away asking those burning questions of themselves. I hope we all walk away valuing the hard work of so many talented and strong women on stage and that our hunger for more work from them comes out of a really considerate place, a safe place, a place where an “It Girl” can show her humanity and creativity without compromise.
ALI – What was your inspiration for this piece?
ALI – Why is it important to tell this story?
AMANDA – Clara’s story is larger than life. I mean, it’s completely Hollywood worthy. As we delved deeper into her story we realized it started to tell a universal story of a woman’s experience in the arts industry and in the world, for that matter. Her films grossed more than any other star’s of that time period. She was also underpaid, exploited and forgotten. I kept thinking, “how did this happen? And why?” And then we started to take a look at how often this happened after her time and how it still happens in our modern day culture.
ALI – How do you relate to Clara Bow’s narrative?
ALI – How has the piece evolved since SoLow Fest 2013?
ALI – What do you hope audiences will take away from The It Girl?
SARAH – This adaptation was your first encounter with the story of Watership Down. What jumped out at you about the Watership world when you first read the script?
JOSH – The characters go on a grand adventure of distances that they never would have dreamed of traveling in hopes of finding a home. They embark on an epic quest with all kinds of trials and tribulations. They experience all sorts of new amazing things beyond anything they could imagine. All of this happens in the story, and then you take a step back and realize: Wait…these are RABBITS! Their entire adventure happens within literally a few miles! It made me reflect on how large and wonderful and exciting and scary the world actually is!
SARAH – In this production, Allen [Radway, the director] chose to have cast members perform the music live, so you based your instrumentation on the actor-musicians’ particular skills. How did those boundaries affect your composition?
JOSH – As an instrumentalist, I have a certain skill set. So when I write, I tend to start from a place of what I myself can play. (Often that approach is out of necessity, because I will be the one performing the score live or recording it for a design.) Then when I have a melody or musical idea that I am playing with, I will let my mind wander to what another instrumentation might do for it. What story do horns tell? vs. What am I saying plucking the melody on a banjo?
With Watership Down, I was given the palette of sounds that I could play with right off the bat (violin, cello, piano, electric bass, percussion). This made me think about the score a bit more backwards than I normally would. I explored melodies, progressions, and arrangements with an ear towards how the sounds of each of these instruments would sing together.
SARAH – How would you describe the style of music you created for the production?
JOSH – It actually struck me in tech, while listening to the incredibly talented musicians play the score, that the show is a lot jazzier than I had anticipated. I use a lot of thick voicings in the arrangement to create moments of tension or wonder.
But I definitely wouldn’t call the style jazz. Possibly a cop out, but I am going to call the style cinematic. By that I mean it is definitely being used to heighten emotion or to manipulate the audience to feel what you want them to feel. That may sound like a negative way to describe it, but it’s really not. Film scores are said to manipulate our emotional responses to scare us, excite us, tug at the heartstrings, etc.—it’s just another layer of the storytelling. And Watership isn’t a musical, so characters aren’t bursting into song to express themselves. So the music is used to drive the story forward, and to help shape our feelings about the action.
SARAH – Watership Down is about an epic journey. How do you evoke the epic in your design?
JOSH – From a music standpoint, I try to evoke that feeling with sweeping melodies, great moments of musical tension, and then harmonic release. I try to make the five-piece band sound as big as possible by having them all play melodies in unison and then splitting them into a big chord to explode the sound. Also, there are definitely themes for various characters in the show, which I think of as necessary in epic adventures. We can always tell the exact moment Superman is going to fly onto the screen when we hear the big iconic brass. Or there is no doubt that a shark is close at hand when we hear “Da-nah, Da-nah, danahdanahdanahdanah.” When El-ahrairah is seen, we hear one melody. When we see Kehaar, there is another. General Woundwort has his own Imperial March theme for sure.
From a sound effects standpoint, we try to immerse you in various locales. A forest at night feels very different than a field during the day, so we try to tell the story sonically in the world as well. We want the audience to feel as if they are the same size as the Sandleford rabbits and going on the adventure right along with them!
SARAH TOTORA – There are so many different forms of puppetry that you’ve mastered. Why did you choose to use shadow puppetry in this production? How does it uniquely suit the needs of this story?
LORNA HOWLEY – This play requires three distinct realities: rabbit mythology, rabbit reality, and man’s world. How do we represent these worlds? Rabbit reality is presented with the live actors who connect the audience with the story. Rabbit mythology is represented in shadows with overhead projectors. The flat cutouts and simple movements create a moving storybook—these stories are told again and again. Lord Frith—the sun and the creator—is part of this world. She brings the light that keeps these stories, these lessons alive. Man’s world is foreign and large compared to the rabbits’ reality. Using masks and light we can make man bigger in scale and keep him on the edge of rabbit reality. There are also times when the worlds overlap and collide. Music, staging, stage lights as well as texture with light sources up the stakes visually for the rabbits in their reality.
SARAH – As a puppeteer, how do you read a script for the first time? What goes through your mind, or what do you look for?
LORNA – When considering puppetry in scripts, I like to look for moments, scenes, and events where puppets can do things an actor cannot. Animals, dreams, flashbacks, aging a character, etc. are all possible moments for puppetry.
SARAH – How is bringing a character to life via puppetry different from inhabiting a character as a human actor?
LORNA – Because of scale and limited movement, bringing a puppet character to life involves boiling the character down to essential qualities and actions. There is a tradition in puppetry that the lower the status of a character the simpler and more elementary the puppet. For me, puppetry is where dance and sculpture meet. The impulse to create life through movement is essential in puppetry. I have found that audiences will suspend their disbelief more readily for a puppet than they will for actors. A puppet in despair can make an entire audience “awwwwwhhh” with one breath.
ALI – How does the choreography help tell the story of Watership Down?
COLLEEN – The movement work brings the audience into the world of the play – a world where we are surrounded by animals that look different from us, but deal with many of the same issues of community and alienation that humans do.
ALI – Take us through your process of studying rabbit movement.
COLLEEN – We had the really special treat of getting to meet some bunnies in person! Additionally, we have been able to watch videos of wild rabbits feeding, sleeping, and fighting.
ALI – What patterns are represented in the movement of rabbits?
COLLEEN – As prey animals, rabbits are constantly on the lookout for enemies – or ‘elil’ as they are called in our story. Because of that, they are always paying very close attention to what is around them, knowing that danger can appear at any moment. For that reason, some of their movements tend to be sharp and quick.
ALI – How are the movements of humans and rabbits similar and how do they differ?
COLLEEN – In the beginning of our story, Lord Frith – the mighty ruler of the sky – gives each of the animals a gift that is unique to them and will serve them in times of trouble. Our rabbit has his head in a burrow at the time and so he tells Lord Frith to bless his bottom! Lord Frith does, and his back legs grew long and powerful, his bottom half full of strength and warning and speed. Because of that, our actors are working with strong legs that ground them low into the earth and propel them with strength across the stage. Their quads are definitely getting a workout!
ALI – Can you briefly describe the process of teaching people to inhabit a rabbit body?
COLLEEN – After warmup and conditioning, we begin walking through the space and then make the physical changes that drop us into our bunny bodies:
1) The knees bend and the hips lower as the strong rabbit legs come into play.
2) We imagine individual eyes on each vertebra of the spine blinking open – animals, particularly those may be someone’s dinner, pay attention to the world with their whole body, they sense everything that happens around them – and this image works of tiny eyes up the spine help remind the actors to activate in that way.
3) We imagine that in addition to their human eyes, two giant brown bunny eyes blink open on the side of their head enabling them to see 360.
4) We imagine two very sensitive bunny ears connect to the back of their neck – like the spine and the eyes, constantly tuned in to possible danger.
5) The hands stay relaxed but curl in ever so slightly, taking the emphasis off of individual fingers
ALI – What challenges have you encountered while exploring rabbit movement through the human body?
COLLEEN – The lower body work is absolutely a challenge, so we have been doing conditioning to get those thigh muscles up to the job.
ALI – What do you hope the audience will take away from watching the movement in WATERSHIP DOWN?
COLLEEN – Our animals are anthropomorphised. They are not dressed in furry rabbit outfits and we are not crawling around on hands and knees. I want our audience to be able to identify with our rabbits and be able to notice the ways in which they are able to work together successfully.