Beat the Clock

Rediscovering the Danger in Theatre Under the Gun

illustration by Robert Faires

I could spend hours agonizing about a lead sentence or I could just put one down to fill up the page and hope that I have time to change it. Right now, time is of the essence. Something I never seem to have the right amount of, either too much or too little and never when I need it. Four hours seems like a lifetime, a heartbeat, and a much-needed thrill. That's really what theatre is all about for me, the thrill of a live performance. No chance for another take if you flub a line or trip over the furniture, no possibility to scream "Redo!" when Sandy piddles on Annie's leg or one of the orphans yaks on Daddy Warbucks. It is live. Vital. Unfolding before your eyes, always with the possibility of missing a step and falling on your face.

Which is something that I, personally, seem to be missing lately. More than a year has passed since my last show and I suppose I just need another hit. But there aren't many opportunities to fly with no safety net when you are a writer. No one sits in breathless anticipation while you work, watching while you create little worlds in your own head or struggle to explain the meaning of some esoteric bit of life in a disordered universe. Add to that the endless entities that every word passes through before ink ever touches paper: the eagle eyes of editor Robert, who is quite willing to question every thought, every possible nuance, in an effort to milk every last bit of sense out of it; the hands of the poor proofers, who make sure all the "i"s are dotted; and my own head, as I attempt to make sure that I really said what I meant.

To be honest, it drives me crazy sometimes. I've always been a mental adrenaline junkie, ready to climb an intellectual tower without stabilizing the ladder beforehand. It's the thrill of the chase, not its path, that is exciting to me, and it doesn't matter whether the chase is after a wonderful book or a vital act of theatre. Let's just go on the journey without belaboring all the scenery along the way. Pick me up, whisk me away on a fresh path where anything can and will happen.

This may be why I love Salvage Vanguard Theater. Before this goes further, let me mention that I love a lot of companies in this town, and you will all get cards in February. Specifically, what I love about Salvage Vanguard is its willingness to take a calculated risk to achieve very specific results. Artistic director Jason Neulander and company are trying to figure out what makes the car that is theatre actually go somewhere and how much you can strip away before the whole thing ends up on blocks. Salvage Vanguard wants to distill the form to its essence, a dangerous drink for a world full of bloated productions that get too wrapped up in big lights and sets and sound to remain dangerous and exciting.

(At this point, I had mentally planned to include a "nut graf," the paragraph that would explain what this whole piece is about and why a reader should bother to read it. Unfortunately, I feel the need to talk about a conversation with Erik Ehn. For those of you who need more of a landmark, a nut graf will follow.)

Last fall, I had the chance to interview Erik Ehn, a playwright I had never heard of until I ended up involved in the Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre production Enfants Perdus. Like any good writer, I read everything about Ehn that I could get my hands on -- other interviews, most of his plays -- and came to the stunning revelation that the man was really on to a new thought. His plays are like punk with musicians who are fairly close to being able to play their instruments, a great antidote to disco, with its bloated sounds that keep being produced because they make a lot of money.

Ehn's work thrives in small spaces off crusts of bread, partially because they have to and partially because they want to. His plays are about truth and belief. To act in his plays, actors have to be honest about who they are, not hide behind the character or technique, while they have to honestly believe the situation they are in, no matter how improbable. During the interview, Ehn articulated a thought that was a watershed for me: The wall comes down because the actor honestly believes that it will, not because the technician pushes the button; a peanut shell can be a rowboat if the actor believes that it is. Of course, a lot of this springs from the fact that most small companies can't afford a real rowboat or fancy falling walls and must learn how to make do with what they have. But Ehn thinks of it as reveling in a feast of scraps, rather than a situation to constantly fight and deride.

That written, here's the nut graf: It's fairly simple, really, to get to that point honestly; you just have to remove all the things that stand between the actor or director or audience and the text. This is exactly what Salvage Vanguard and friends are doing December 12 and 13 at Little City Downtown. They're presenting a show called The Best Salvage Vanguard Holiday Ever, a collection of 10 new plays with a festive theme. Neulander calls it a "quick and dirty" evening of shows developed from a process in which teams were forced to "create a piece with severe limitations and see what happens with it."

Salvage Vanguard created the process, which actually had some structure behind it. First, it found 10 playwrights who were willing to write a short play -- no longer than five minutes -- based on a predetermined theme. Then, on October 23, the participating writers, including Ehn, Kirk Lynn, Dan Dietz, Lisa D'Amour, and Julia Edwards, were all given the theme, holiday, and a week to pen their plays. Scripts came in by Halloween. On November 17, Neulander held a meeting in which the scripts were doled out to production teams along with the rest of the rules. Each team was allowed no more than four hours of rehearsal, which couldn't start before December 1. There would be no budget, and directors would have to find their own rehearsal spaces. All the pieces would be performed at Little City, therefore they could have no lights other than the ones already there, no set other than the architecture in the space.

A few days after the meeting, I met with editor Robert to pitch a piece about the project and to clarify my own thoughts about why the whole concept struck a chord with me. We talked about Ehn. We talked about stripping cars and the idea of hospitality. Then Robert put on that thinking look and didn't talk while I amused myself with one of those magnetic toy/sculpture things. When he came back to earth, he reeled off a list of rules for my piece about the Salvage Vanguard project: 2,000 words that can include information from notes, with a beginning, middle, and end, all written in four hours. On Tuesday, December 2, I was to send it through e-mail, Robert would do editor stuff to it on Wednesday, and the city would see it Thursday.

While it may seem odd, these rules just didn't fall out of nowhere. For the past couple of weeks, we'd been having discussions about writing about the arts. To me, the Chronicle is in a unique and enviable position because its writers have the freedom to take some risks, to talk about personal interactions with art that are really what makes it worth reading about. Yes, you need to know the nuts and bolts of how the work was created, but, as a reader, I also really want to know what the piece made you think and feel, which is the point of participating in the arts in the first place. Those personal emotions or ideas are all you have left once the curtain comes down, and it is those facets of the experience that are ultimately the most valuable, whether it's simple catharsis or a life-altering blow to your psyche.

Given that series of discussions, this seemed like the perfect process to apply it to. Strip all the refining steps away and get to the heart of the story, the crux of the idea you are trying to convey. This departure from the norm can be dangerous and is certainly scary as hell. I'm about two-thirds of the way through and am terrified that I won't make it to the end with both my point and my nerves intact. I'm sure Robert is having second thoughts about this whole little exercise and wondering if I will drop the ball. There is no pre-ordained structure on which to rely.

"There are more possibilities for eruptions and conflict because it's much harder to cover up who you really are when you are not really familiar with the script," director, actor, and writer Joseph Meissner said. "I think this process is terrific. I'd much rather see something like this than a fully finished piece because this is so much more dangerous."

The rehearsal that I dropped in on was slightly surreal. Director Katie Pearl and actor Amy Dickson spent the first five minutes -- I became the time-keeper because I was the only one with a watch -- exploring Little City, testing surfaces to see if they were weight-bearing, turning the lights on and off, and rapping the walls to see what kind of noises they made. Next came a read-through and Dickson's voice rose above the Body Count crowd who had gathered before the walk to the Capitol. "It's all going to happen so fast," said Pearl, and I wasn't sure if she was referring to the rehearsal process or the script, which is a rambling monologue called pEACe on eaRTH.

Line by line, Pearl and Dickson worked through the script, asking questions of one another. Who is the character talking to? Who is the audience? What does the audience expect and should you give it to them? And, the classic: What is your objective? Pearl also mentioned more practical concerns: How will we light you? Where will you be? How do you keep the acting sincere and honest while keeping the piece visually interesting? Then, the hour is gone. Three left to figure out what needs to happen to make this theatre.

"It's the way I like to work," said Pearl after the rehearsal, "particularly because it's not happening in a theatre. The danger is not negative but welcome." Pearl and Dickson looked tired and exhilarated. For both, there is a thrill in exploiting all that this new space has to offer, that each play will use it in a new way. Part of the thrill lies in the playwright's not filling in all the gaps, being forced to write the scripts as quickly as possible, leaving room in the rough edges for interpretation and play. I leave Little City lusting after their long-sleeved T-shirts and thinking coffee-fueled thoughts about something Pearl said. She has a rule of thumb that she mentioned to Dickson before we left: Whatever happens is what is supposed to happen, as long as there is a solid background.

My husband, who was in town around Thanksgiving, asked who would be watching to make sure I didn't cheat and take more than my allotted four hours to write. That's not the point, I snapped. It's not a contest, it's about the danger of doing something that is dangerous and thrilling to shake you out of your expectations, your boredom with them, and give you the chance to discover the essence of what you are trying to do. It's about making the peanut shell into a rowboat. He looked at me then, having heard this particular rant before, and said that he understood.

The Best Salvage Vanguard Holiday Ever runs Dec 12 & 13, Fri & Sat, 9pm, at Little City Espresso Bar & Cafe, 916 Congress. Call 912-0331 for info.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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