Night and Day – William Liotta and Bill Walters

Abstract

“I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world. And then I like to put this—with some sense of struggle remaining—into a classical form, a Greek form, or a beautiful dance theatre piece, or some other effort at civilization.” –Charles Mee

This production of the paired pieces, Night and Day, strives to accomplish the challenge set forth by its author in the above quote. The text itself is the departure point for this venture. It provides a framework for inventiveness and a perfect opportunity for collaboration. The plays themselves are a collage of material from dramatic and “real world” sources. The resulting production is a blend of theatre, dance, and performance art: the theatrical and the actual. The design elements reflect this and work together with each other and with the performers to give the viewers a tangible experience of it, from the very moment that they enter the theatre and find it spatially transformed.

As with all of Charles Mee’s plays, these pieces are politically charged at both the public and personal levels. There is a politics of war as well as a politics of love; of space and of the body.

 

There is an inherent musical quality to the piece. Without linear narrative and with only a semblance of character, it affects the audience the way music does. Forty “sections” spread across the two acts are filled with movement, dance, physical activity, dense textual passages, monologue, dialogue, silence, and stillness. Rather than knowing “what happened” or “what it was about” the audience is left with the experience of a series of feelings that run the gamut of human emotions. These are conveyed in rhythm, tempo, volume, color, and texture.

But it is weather that perhaps provides the most appropriate metaphor for these works. Act I, Night, is pervaded by the chill, the decay, and the increasingly long stretches of darkness of fall and winter. Act II, Day, is the return of light and the celebratory joy of spring and summer. These are respective metaphors of the places in the human heart: sorrow, grief, hatred, violence and love, hope, and kindness.

These all rush by in the paired pieces. We experience them as we do the weather. There is often no warning or explanation. Sometimes we sense a change coming and at others, it takes us by surprise. Sometimes we can sit and watch it from the porch and at others we are swept away by its fury and its beauty.

The text, the sounds, the images of Night roll over us like breaking waves of thunder. It is like being in the ancestral cemetery behind Thyestes’ palace, where dark storm clouds always hang overhead and winds howl through no matter the time of day or year.

Day bathes us in warmth. It is the pastoral world of ancient Greece with billowy clouds drifting lazily by. It is the summery world of Proust, strolling past flowers and the glint of the sun looked at through the cracks between the fingers of an upheld hand.

In terms of human experience, we “weather” the storms of hardship and chaos awaiting the clearing of the sky and the return of nourishing rain and sunlight, knowing that, like the seasons, the oscillating rhythms of darkness and light will always begin again.

The Project

A production of Night and Day, two texts by Charles L. Mee.

The production blurs and straddles the lines between theatre, dance, and performance art.

Both the text and its realization blend the theatrical with the “actual.”

Integration of all design elements with an athletic, post-­‐Brechtian style of performance.

Housed in a re-­‐configured proscenium theatre.

The Text

The two scripts by Charles Mee can be more accurately called “texts” than traditional “plays.” No overarching plotlines exist and they are essentially void of character. Many stage directions include multiple-­‐choice decisions to be made.

Phrases such as “she does a beautiful solo” or “he does something violent here” suggest but do not dictate action.

Likewise, his descriptions suggest mood, atmosphere, temperature, color, etc. while not providing detail. They invoke, inspire, and challenge rather than prescribe and constrain.

These texts are “blueprints for performance” which must be interpreted by the artists who come together to give them three-­‐dimensional space and temporal life.

Thematically, Mee includes the range of human experience from war, violence and despair to love, longing, and hope. He confesses to agree with Aristotle that “human beings are social animals” and that everything we do, whether in public or private, is therefore politically charged. The politics of nations, of households, of gender, race, beliefs, of food, of history, education, of love… are all to be included.

Rather than “written,” the dialogue in Mee’s works is often appropriated and either re-­‐worked or included verbatim. Formerly a historian with a dozen scholarly titles to his credit, Mee knows how to do his research and calls upon his interpreters to do the same. He includes primary and secondary sources, both theatrical and from the “real” world.

Night is loosely based on the Roman revenge tragedy, Thyestes, by Seneca. It includes excerpts from that play as well as phone and dinner conversations, and first hand accounts of war veterans and victims of WW I, WW II, Bosnia, Afghanistan.

Day is inspired by the story of Daphnis and Chloe as told by the poet, Longus. It also includes long passages from Proust, the transcript of an interview with Albert Camus’ daughter, and anonymous Internet confessionals about love, sex, relationships, and personal fantasies and failures.

Structurally, the two pieces comprise Act One and Act Two of an evening length piece. Each is approximately 50 minutes. Both acts are comprised of twenty “sections” in which different “events” happen. They are not divided discreetly into “scenes” by blackouts or shifts. Rather, the space is constantly being transformed by the performers and by design elements to give it the feel of a turning, changing kaleidoscope. Sometimes this happens slowly and softly and sometimes suddenly and violently with the effect of a thunderbolt striking.

For those looking for clear-­‐cut causalities this can be disconcerting. Oftentimes the only connective logic is simply that one thing stops and another thing starts. Many times there are multiple events overlapping each other, giving the effect of simultaneity.

There is no list of roles beyond things such as “Lady with light bulb head”, “Guy with gas can”, “several naked bathers”, etc.

Architecture of the Space and the Experience of the Audience

The first thing the audience notices when they leave the lobby and enter the doors of the 450 seat Rodey Theatre is that things are “not as they should be.” The house is only dimly lit and the seats are empty. They perhaps wonder if they are in the wrong place. In the middle of the space, way down toward where the stage should be (it is not visible) is a twenty-­‐five foot high cube made of black plastic sheeting. It almost looks like a construction zone, but for the colored uplighting that architecturally defines it. As they make their way through the empty aisles and enter the cube from where the orchestra pit should be, they find that a smaller section of seating has been placed level with the stage and butted up against it. They are looking into a typical proscenium space with flies and wings but they have a much more intimate relationship to it (and to each other). They are in a “privileged position of feeling almost on stage with the performers, yet also at the peril of not being allowed to fall back into the anonymity and darkness that such a theatre typically provides. Especially for those who have been here before, it is a drastic re-­‐ configuration of this space: a physical reflection of the way Charles Mee “remakes” his texts and challenges viewers to see them from a different perspective.

From they moment the audience enters, there is activity onstage. Performers dressed in white cottons and linens are playing croquet as if on a Sunday afternoon in the countryside. Yet the lighting and the soundscape suggest something else entirely. It is as if this scene is taking place at twilight on a beach in that eerie calmness before an approaching typhoon. A time when the density and temperature of the air have shifted and the light has changed quality. Everyone knows what is coming, but the rains have not yet started to chase people off. As the surf rolls in and the wind stirs, this will continue for the next thirty or so minutes that the audience gathers and settles in and awaits curtain time. This, of course, alters the audience’s expectations of the temporal boundaries of the performance. Questions arise: Has it already begun? Did we enter too soon? Or too late? Are we supposed to be watching? How closely? This in turn affects the relationship to their companions and fellow spectators as they try to decipher the etiquette of this unusually liminal experience.

Theatricality and Reality

In the design of both Night and Day, the primary concern was to create not a “set” but a space for performance. Both acts require the kind of large open space that a dance piece requires. It is up to props, objects, lights, and performers to suggest any shifts of time and locale without ever leaving the here and now of the theatre. Just as Mee’s texts include both the theatrical and the “real,” so too must the design be a co-­‐existence of those two worlds. The space for Night is stripped all the way to the back wall of the theatre, whose bricks and conduits can be clearly seen, sculpted with architectural lighting. For both acts, the legs have been replaced by large sheets of crinkled paper, retaining some of the traditional dressing of the stage but with a new and more tactile experience of the alternate material. For act two, trees are dropped in to suggest an exterior. While having lifelike qualities of texture, they are also obviously made of sculpted paper and thus remain theatrical.

The performers flirt with character and personae while always remaining themselves. They fight, dance, and engage in real-­‐time actions such as cooking and eating food, and doing calisthenics and weightlifting. Their athletic execution of these activities results in very real sweat and breathlessness. The emotional terrain covered is no less daunting. The design elements support and interact with performers to achieve the overall effect.

Act I: Night

Autumn/winter: stark, barren, dark, bitter, interior, a black and white world.

Themes: Murder, revenge, betrayal, lust, gluttony, jealousy, war, cruelty, violence.

Actions: Eating, spewing, spitting, guzzling, fighting verbally, fighting physically, lustful dances, groping, falling down, smashing objects, breaking glass, food cooked on stage.

Scenery: black surround (black floor, black paper legs, back wall). Twelve foot long steel “banquet” table can be broken into two sections; pneumatic casters allow performers to quickly lock down or raise and move. The stage starts empty and sterile and by the end is cluttered with food and debris.

Lighting: Predominantly clear. Chiaroscuro of Baroque painting. Visible sources (overhead fluorescents, table lamps on floor). Light emitting from props and costumes (suitcases, umbrellas, “light bulb head,” LED strips on underside of banquet table).

Video: 50” monitor overhead, two 30” monitors on rolling stands. All black and white footage: performance art actions, footage of real violence, Jackass videos (blurring of “real” and performed), recreated “stag” movie.

Sound: music ranging from blues to punk, hardcore, and thrash metal. Dense sonic walls; overlays of percussion and guitars. Soundscapes of electronica, weather elements, screams, etc.

Props: steam, sizzle, and smell of cooking food.

Costumes: Black, grey, silver tones. Layered to allow easy stripping down to levels of nudity called for in text. Look of “real” contemporary clothing but specifically chosen with palate and shape in mind; fabrics and cuts to allow dance and movement.

Masks and accessories.

The lightness within: Hope, transcendence, respite: selective use of color, sacred organ music, opera.

http://vimeo.com/100838953

Act Two: Day

Late spring/summer: warm, colorful, languid, exterior.

Themes: Love, youth, hope, memory, reverie.

Actions: dancing, strolling, picnicking, bbq, reading, sewing, conversing, relaxing, reverie, sitting in outdoor cafe

Scenery: White floor with projected color and pattern, beige paper legs and background to lighten tone and catch color, earthiness. Trees of paper to give feeling of exterior. Later is added a vintage travel trailer, an iconic image of Americana.

Light: Color and pattern inspired by the Nabis painters (Vuillard, Serusier, Denis) wherein a forest floor may appear to be a carpet or a tapestry and where trees may be blue and grass orange. Clear sidelight picks out the costumes to keep them in white/tan tones against the colored background.

Costumes: Light, airy. White and light neutral palate (beiges, tans). Three layers. Accessories.

Sound: Recurring themes of Brazilian choro, waltz, soul, Satie, ambient and environmental.

The darkness within: Loss, uncertainty: shifting back to stark white light, shadows.

http://vimeo.com/100438216

 

Night and Day

by Charles L. Mee     Presented at Rodey Theatre in Albuquerque, NM April 25-­‐May 4, 2014

Direction and Design Concept by Bill Walters Scenery: Inseung Park

Lighting: William Liotta Costumes: Sidney Ponic

Props, furniture, and set pieces: David Torres, D. Ross Rauschkalb, Inseung Park Video: Mike Williams

Sound: B. Walters