Sunday, December 21, 2008

Directing and Designing Endgame

The relationship between directors and designers and Beckett can be terrifying. We are faced with artists who have tried and “failed” to create Beckett’s worlds. Reading Lois Oppenheim’s Directing Beckett is like witnessing some kind of scholarly WWF match of great minds who defend their work as well as (is some cases) quickly dismiss work of other artists like (poor, poor) JoAnne Akalaitis. One would think some of the artists in the pages of this book had violated some biblical code based on the reactions of some of the directors. Xerxes Mehta:

stage directions, which solicit the images, are the play and that a director or performer who adds to, subtracts from, or alters them in any appreciable way is not tinkering with interpretation but, rather, creating something different, not by Beckett. (pg. 184)

Akalaitis defends her work by saying, in response to what a director’s role is for the play:

You create the play. The script is the starting point. The script is dramatic literature. The script is not the play. The play is an event… I don’t think about interpreting or creating. I think that one does it. One does the play. There is this very silly reaction toward directors as auteurs- that, if you have a visual idea, if you do more than put a tree on a stage, you have violated the author’s intentions. Are directors ruining plays? It’s really a very false, a misguided, notion about what theatre is, because theatre is what happens on the stage. It’s about design and actors and director and audience. (pg. 137-138)

Akalaitis led a hugely criticized production of Endgame at the American Repertory Theatre that set the show in an “urban” setting that resembled an empty subway tunnel. Many directors and designers of Beckett considered this choice so irrational it should not be allowed to be seen by the public. Beckett himself said he wanted “nothing to do with it” and had his name removed from the production.

So what is our role? The Dead Pinocchio Theatre has established itself as an ensemble of artists who work together to create a vision for a play that ultimately belongs to the playwright. Endgame will be our first non-original work. It seems fitting to start with Beckett as we negotiate our relationship to an already established playwright with much respect and, ultimately, controversy surrounding him. If the playwright is the ultimate “owner” of the play, what is our job as directors and designers (and, later, actors)?

Former Albion College theatre professor Dr. Jennifer Chapman (to which we credit the story behind our name) said that by placing boundaries and restrictions on educational drama work, we increase the creativity of the activity. Perhaps this is true in our case with Beckett. Beckett tells us that Endgame is set in a “Bare interior. Grey light.” Wonderful. He does not specify what kind of grey. Is this dark grey? Light grey? What’s the difference? To a designer, how close a shade of grey is to black or white is rather significant. Beckett gives us a palette. It is our job as the artist to use the paints he gives us to paint the picture.

Our production of Endgame will be inspired by the images that have come of the areas surrounding Chernobyl in Ukraine. Most specifically from a town (Prypyat, Ukraine) that housed many of the workers of the power plant and their families. Some images are included here. They are hauntingly beautiful. There is something so truthful about these images for this play. The citizens of Prypyat had no other choice after the accident put to leave their homes and take nothing but themselves because of radiation poisoning. Their lives remain here in a kind of stasis of what once was. (“Once!”) Nothing can live here anymore. But yet, it still does. For some reason, some of the residents of the abandoned Prypyat have decided to return to their homes, living every day knowing they are saturated with deadly radiation that is killing them. But still, they remain. In their own endgame.

It is not our goal to take Endgame to Prypyat. I have no desire to be the next Akalaitis. (Though I whole-heartedly support her production for the record…) This is just one place where it seems that we can live. Our design can live here. Our actors can live here. (Or not live here, if you like.) How does this affect our design? This gray is a light gray. It is a sterile gray. The remnants of the world that was left behind may be scattered on our floor. Beckett has written for Clov to pick up and organize “things” on the floor but does not mention what they are. What is haunting about the stasis of this story and these images is that this world, in our play, is actually inhabited by people who are living the same kind of stasis.

My hope is that Beckett would approve.

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