Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Lessons from Elevators

-On very short plays in very small spaces

In early February (seems like last week) we workshopped three elevator plays by Greg MacArthur, Jason Chinn and Melissa Thingelstad and presented workshop productions at Workshop West’s Canoe Festival thanks to the support of Workshop West Theatre.

We dubbed this part of the process fro the NATIONAL ELEVATOR PROJECT the “incubator phase”. It was an opportunity to test both the aesthetics and practicalities of making theatre in elevators and share what we’ve learned with the network of theatre artists from across the country who are part of the project.

In addition to the three plays that were part of the February phase of the project, we have had the opportunity to workshop early drafts of a few additional pieces as I travel across the country on other business. In February I workshopped Catherine Banks' play “The Tip of Things” in Halifax. We also workshopped Ken William’s play "The Righteous Woman" in early May.

I found the process of developing, rehearsing and performing all three plays both fascinating and surprising -things I always hope theatre will be.  I've attached some of my thoughts on plays in Elevators here... as a resource as you embark on your own writing and development processes.

I think we can all agree that in most cases longer development/rehearsal processes yield richer more credible work.  I think most professional theatre artists would happily opt for more time to develop their work than there are often funds to pay for.  So one of our initial questions going into the Incubator Phase of the National Elevator Project was: “How long will we need to develop and rehearse these works?” It would be easy to say: “Oh each play is only five minutes, we can knock it off in an afternoon.” And we considered that —though not for very long. And in truth it might have proved to be true if we where producing a series of skits. But we have arranged for the commission of 16 plays by serious Canadian playwrights about life altering events, conflicts, and discoveries. These are plays about moments of transformation. The minutes in our lives that change us inexorably. And what we’ve found is that each work has demanded a development /rehearsal process that was somewhat more significant than we had anticipated.

One of the qualities of Theatre Yes’s ‘off-site’ work (and so this project) is that the productions are grounded in strong text, which is painstakingly rehearsed and explored. Sometimes I’ve seen ‘site-specific’ work where the texts and theatrical execution take a back seat to the novelty of the space that is the starring act. Sometimes it seems that excitement about location can become the focus of ‘site-specific’ work. Theatre Yes is interested in great texts as the foundation of fully realized theatrical events which find life in unconventional spaces. Theatre spaces where the audience is in close proximity to the performers allow us to explore the potential of the theatrical reality that when we see a play, any play, we are in the same physical room as the actors.

Back to the National Elevator Project (and time)...  We’ve found that each short play lives inside of a unique and fully envisioned world created by the playwright. As such each play requires more workshop, table work and rehearsal time than we had anticipated. In almost every case we found the four-hours of rehearsal time wasn’t enough to thoroughly investigate the text. Further, we found that in every case we were short on rehearsal/tech time scheduled 4 hours and were rushing to be ready for an audiences to arrive.

Actors found that they wanted to be extra secure in what they were doing because the quarters are so close. In an elevator every detail becomes magnified in the small space so specifics are more important than ever. And we all know that that just takes time.

"An elevator will take whatever you're doing and amplify it (a lot). Maybe that's obvious - it took me by surprise anyway. The intimacy of the space makes every detail discernible."

~ Jason Chinn, playwright

In every case we needed to test the work in an elevator to figure out how the movement through the building and in the space would work. Ie where do the actors come from? Are they discovered on the elevator? How does the audience enter? If the elevator stops at a particular floor who calls it when? How are entrances of performers and technical elements cued (we used cell phones and text messages to communicate with volunteers on various floors ).

At the end of the “Incubator Phase” the lesson was: Even a very short play is still a complete work and as such it takes discussion and investigation to find ones way into the world of the play. The time it takes to do this is partially, but not critically, related to the length of a play. As we move forward we are planning for more workshop time, more rehearsal time and more on-site time (tech time).


"Yes it's site-specific theatre - but oh-so-much-more. There's something dangerous that's happening here - close quarters, intimate and wholly theatrical.  These aren't just plays transferred into an elevator, these artists are working to re-define the theatrical space and in doing so are bending time"  
~ Dave Horak, MacEwan Theatre Arts Instructor/ Edmonton Actors Theatre Artistic Director

I’ve heard tell of musings that the National Elevator Project might be perceived as “gimmicky”.  I suppose this would be because the central notion, writing for and performing in non-theatre spaces, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Tripe, caviar, poutine and lima beans all have fans and detractors. Like almost everyone else in pro theatre, we’re interested in engaging audiences in our work. I love everything about traditional theatres. Really. Everything. I love walking into the building, working in the building, I love the first moment I sit down in the seats, the programs, a proscenium stage, the sound, lights and the magic they can create. (I’ve also come to love the smell of latex paint.) I could go on... Most times when I go to the theatre, I know exactly what my experience will be in bold strokes. I’ll come in. Sit in a seat (which I hope is comfortable). I watch actors from a distance. I leave and share my thoughts/feeling about the experience with others. It is comfortable and familiar and dear to me.

BUT I’m also interested in the unfamiliar. I’m interested in exploring what theatre can be if it is to exist as a credible and serious art form in nooks and crannies of our communities, in public spaces, in our everyday lives. And frankly since I was a kid, I’ve dreamed plays in all kinds of places: gardens, cars, interesting abandoned buildings, hotel rooms, parking garages and so forth. I’m lucky and grateful that I’ve been able to explore this at Theatre Yes. And I hope that this investigation will engage audiences in the possibilities of serious theatre performed in surprising spaces they might not have thought possible.

The corner stone of the NATIONAL ELEVATOR PROJECT is that the plays are written specifically to be performed in elevators. Confined spaces that move. The playwrights are to control the length of the elevator ride from within the play. That is they are to design the play in such a way that it will be five minutes in length.

Each writer who has submitted an early bird draft has addressed this in a different way. In each case, we have tested either in workshop or workshop production how the work ‘plays’ in an actually moving elevator. We have found this to be en essential part of each workshop process because it is where the technicalities of sculpting an experience in the space can be investigated.

What we have found is that action seems to need to slow down in an elevator because of the close proximity of the audience. A scene that an audience can absorb easily from 20 feet needs to play with deliberate space inserted in such a confined space so that the audience can take in all the information. It is easy for people to miss things. They might be looking at the person to their right while the person on the left has an important reaction. If we are not careful of that the audience will miss something. Performances need to be very specifically sculpted if the goal is for the audience to all leave with the same general information/experience. We've found that the audiences focus needs to be guided with considerable attention paid to where people will look and why. If the decision is that we want each audience member to understand the event differently when they leave (I’m thinking Sleep No More) this might be less important. But it is still a consideration. Close quarters mean a different rhythm and energy is required.

"At the end of the piece, many audience members said they would like to ride again, since it felt like it went so fast and they felt they couldn't absorb it all in one ride"
~ Holly Cinnamon, Actor

The smaller the space the more of a challenge it is to control the focus. Every actor gesture becomes magnified. It is a bit like an extreme close up in film. This means that clarifying each moment is essential. Melissa Thingelstad’s piece had a large movement component. (Think modern dance in an elevator with the audience interspersed with the performers.)  Melissa's piece needed to be sculpted for the space in a way we had not anticipated before we got into an elevator to work it. Because the movement was happening around the audience in very, very close quarters it required us to invent a unique aesthetic approach to deliver the story.

Larger elevators are easier to “play”.  Where the audience has more distance from the performers the issues of following narrative are not as significant.

Elevators won’t move until called.  Neither of us had thought much about it until this project. This means that deciding when the button is pushed becomes an important tool in controlling the length of the ride. We will be obtaining permission to use elevators where we can ensure that there will be no calls during the performance. (Other than the ones we make.) This is an important tool for controlling the length of the ride.  Old elevators can take forever to go one floor. Newer ones can take seconds to go 15 floors. “When is the button pushed?” Can be a more useful question than how long does it take for the elevator to travel.

Most elevators have keys. Every key does a different thing. In most cases it allows you to manually keep the door open until you want to close it. We’ll be getting keys for any elevators we use. The idea is that we can make the elevator do what we want it to.  Of course that will vary somewhat from elevator to elevator.

Older elevators have more options for manual control. We worked in a great elevator courtesy of Edmonton’s Harcourt House Gallery, that had a manual stop feature and in which we could turn the light off. Yes! We did take advantage of that elevator for the workshop...

Of course we don’t have unlimited resources for obtaining elevators; but we are wily about getting what we want and we’ll do our best to find elevators that lift (so to speak) each play. From the point of view of writing, controlling the length of the ride most likely means that some scenes may take place outside of the elevator. If there is a specific ambience for the elevator of a building you are looking for be sure to let us know via the stage directions.

"I think it's important to be specific in terms of the kind of elevator you want to work in in terms of size, length of ride, etc. [...] take into account the space not just on the elevator but also the atmosphere outside and around the elevator. What will the audience's experience be just before and after."
~ Greg MacArthur, playwright


Elevator plays are intense. We found that there were audience members who were so taken aback by the intensity of the experience of being that close to the actors that they reported they “couldn’t hear” what was being said and were unable to follow the story. This is to say at times they were over stimulated and couldn’t absorb the play. Some audience members could not/would not look at the actors though they were listening intently. Now, this might be an effect we see in some moments of some plays… or not. It can be a bit off putting to actors, but it is likely unavoidable. We like intense experiences at Theatre Yes and I’m not fussed by this type of reaction. It is a phenomenon that can be used to sculpt the overall experience we are creating for the audience. When do we want audiences to be pushed to not being able to look or listen? What would the function of this reaction be? How could we use it to the greatest possible effect? How do we coax people into comfort when that is important for the story?

"It was great, compact fun and the audience seemed suitably uncomfortable..."
~ Greg MacArthur, playwright

Another reality of elevator plays is that the audience does not know what the rules for watching the play are. It is an experience that is unlike any theatrical experience they have had. There are no seats.  There is no stage.  They don’t know what to do.

We’ve found that audiences confronted with events that they don’t know the rules of are very cautious. They take few risks and explore spaces very, very tentatively.  The idea that they have to make an unguided choice is not a part of most theatre experiences. We’ve found they’ve been respectful to a fault of the performers and the performance. They want to be told what to do.  

"... My character felt like the spokesperson for the audience."
~ Laura Raboud, Actor

So in elevators audiences don’t know where to go or what to do unless they have clear clues, in other words are told how to respond. They worry: “Do I push the button?” “When the door opens do I go in?” “If I push one button, (say to open the door to start the play) “do I press another to go up?” “Do I talk back?”  “Should I respond to an actor if they ask me a question and I'm less than a foot away?" and on…

In Greg MacArthur’s play two characters in hazmat suits load audience members onto an elevator while having a banal conversation about the technicalities of their jobs. As the audience is loaded on the elevator they are talked about, but never addressed. As they travel upwards it becomes clear to them that they are human cargo, considered non-human for some reason only the characters know. As the play progresses the audience gradually comes to know that they are being exported as human livestock. MacArthur’s play places them in a role that is very clear. They come to understand with increasing horror that they are considered to be subhuman and that they are to do what they are told.

It will be important for each play to make a contract with the audience. To let them know what the rules are.  The audience is present and so very much a part of each performance. The work seems strongest when we don’t ignore the proximity of the audience but rather embrace it as an essential reality of each piece.

Audiences were amazed at how full each experience was even in workshop production. They had intense and unique experiences, which they felt, were quite unforgettable. Some commented that 5 minutes was all I could take in such a small space. They were also amazed at how complete each theatrical journey could be in such a short time.

It’s all pretty fascinating. We are pumped. Looking forward to your questions and comments.

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