As part of Gina Femia’s new blog and podcast series, The Project Project, I was interviewed about the development and process of creating The Unfelt Wonder.
Picture this. You’re the director. Your friend, collaborator, and former boss Angela Santillo takes you to a diner in midtown Manhattan after work one day and says “Remember that ten-minute solo show I did years ago at that theater in Chinatown?” (you do). “Do you want to help me develop it into a full-length one-act piece?”
You say yes. Maybe it’s the fond memories you have of that original performance, or the power of the metaphor of the untouched woman for the way you feel about your life at the moment. Maybe it’s the fact that Angela’s writing has a grace and poetry to it that few others playwrights can access, or the way her work is intensely personal without ever being confessional, the way you understand it through your gut rather than through your head. Maybe it’s the epic fish tank directly to your left, or the mediocre mezze plate in front of you. It doesn’t matter. You’re in.
What follows are months of conversations and rewrites. Angela sends you a script. You read it. You meet over wine in the cafe at the Signature between shows, or at Pony Bar on 10th Ave in the late evening after a long week of day jobs and interviews and rehearsals, and you chat about what works, or what doesn’t. Angela pitches ideas, and you listen, and you say “that sounds or awesome,” or “OK, but what about this instead.” You write things in your notebook and on your script. Then you talk about your lives, and then go home, only to repeat the process the following week.
The thing about directing a solo show is that it is intensely collaborative, extremely personal, and weirdly lonely at times. It’s just you and your playwright/performer, talking about a script that either does or does not exist, or exists in part. This isn’t unique to the solo show – that’s often how you develop a play with a writer – but what’s odd is that when you finally get into the rehearsal room, it’s still just the two of you. Which is incredible – I mean, the sense of ownership you have over a solo show you direct is something that I think is hard to appreciate. You’ve been there, providing your artistic eye, your sense of staging and theatricality, your editing abilities, the things that make you a director, to that script, just like the writer provides the words. A solo show is not a single person’s property. It sounds weird and sort of narcissistic to say “yeah, that’s my solo show, too,” but it’s true. It’s how you feel. If you’re me. Which right now, you are.
After about four months, you finalize the script. And then you start to film. That’s right! You thought you were a single medium kind of gal, but here you are, flip cam in hand, traipsing around the city following Angela-in-make-up-and-costume, filming scenes to be projected on the walls of the Dixon Place Lounge. Why? Because it’s awesome! Because doing a solo show in a low-stakes situation means you can try shit out that you’ve always wanted to try out (like the over-laying of video and voice to augment live performance). Because you, in a moment of directorial brilliance, suggested that the audience should experience the play the way that Wonder experiences her life – inside a single room, with only streamed media to hint at what the world outside is like – and now you have to deliver.
And frankly, being a fan of site-specificity and sort of a weird person in general, there are few things you’d rather do on a Thursday night than sit on the sidewalk outside of an underground bar and film Angela in smeared make-up, or camp out on a rainy Saturday afternoon on 54th Street near the Hudson Parkway with big signs and ignore passersby who are trying to avoid your crazy.
But in the end, with the performance approaching, you realize that this project, in its own weird and wonderful way, has set an example for how you want to continue to work. Purposefully, directly, involved in the process of creation over a long period of time. The Dixon Place performance will happen, and even after almost six months, it’s only the beginning. This is just the first iteration in what this piece could become when it ceases to be just the two of you, as you open up this incredible strange little world you’ve created together, and invite an audience in.
I have a long history with foolsFURY, from previous Company Manager and Producer to current Associate Artist. My role as an associate thus far has been primarily that of an actor so I’m excited to work with director Ben Yalom and the gang as a playwright this time around.
And it’s the first time I have to skype in for rehearsals. (As they will be in SF and I will be in my NYC apartment.) Hooray for technology.
First, a definition:
Earthquake weather: The strange natural occurrences/behaviors that occur before a quake.
Faulted is the Los Angeles play I was destined to write one someday.
It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in my native Southern California but I’m still a SoCal girl in more ways than I would like to admit. To me, Los Angeles was never a glossy palm tree beach place with perfectly tanned people in bikinis. It was a place of track homes, newly designed shopping malls, nonexistent winters and beaches I only went to at night cause that’s when PCH is amazing. It was June bugs in the pool, coyotes in the backyard, In and Out with friends, cursing the goddamn 405 and watering lawns at night cause when wasn’t there a drought? And then there were earthquakes.
I remember the 1994 Northridge quake. It happened in the wee hours of the morning. It lasted a long time , you could feel the floor roll and it had that unnerving surround sound rumble peppered with car alarms and the sound of silverware banging against each other. Our no-power house became a convening place for family that had to flee Northridge, as my cousins’ apartment building collapsed (almost on them) and my grandmother’s neighborhood had gas line explosions.
Our house was stuffed full of energized kids, shaken adults and conversations in the kitchen about earthquake weather. People said there was hardly any traffic on the freeway the night before. My aunt remembered that the Ralph’s parking lot the night before had no one in it. (And I’m sure someone recalled their family pet going crazy before it happened. Animal behavior is often an element of “earthquake weather.”) There seemed to be a consensus that the night before the quake had been nothing but silence.
Unless you live in earthquake country, you don’t know about earthquake weather. So I took what I love and know about my hometown, researched the science and folklore of earthquakes and wrote Faulted. Funny, dark and an experiment in suspense, the play is about the next one to hit Los Angeles. There’s a Stevie Nicks dressed earth empath, a bad ass villain named San Andreas and other walking, talking, In and Out eating fault lines.
In and Out…this play has a lot of food from In and Out. Goddamn I miss In and Out.
If you are in the Bay Area this week, check it out!
Things I learned from the first day of filming for my solo show
The Unfelt Wonder
When performing your monologue in a bar as your director films you with a flip cam, do converse with meddling bystanders in character. Even if that character is a who-caring, loud badass.
When chasing your director down the West End as she films you performing, do be as loud as you can be in order to scare doormen. Do not stay long enough for them to call the cops.
When chasing your director down the West End, let her know when it is safe to cross the street as she is walking backwards and cannot see. But do so in character.
When following your acting instincts during an impromptu diner performance, do throw a french fry at your director’s eye as she films you. But again, do so in character.
Do ask a million times if the footage is okay but do not watch yourself….yet.
Do film on a Thursday. No one expects crazy public acting on Thursdays.
Do bring Adele Thurston with you. She is a wonderful assistant camera chick. And she will give you good limping advice.
Try to do everything in one take.
Go home. Drink water. Wash all the cat eye make-up off your face.
And of course, you must see my Upper West Side performance in it’s edited glory as part of my solo show at Dixon Place on June 4th.
Writer of above mentioned play performing at the above mentioned location/time
She Asked: Why make this a solo show?
He Said: The New York dating scene is an epically lonely, fraught, and chaotic shitstorm. Online dating sites purportedly provide a refuge from these problems by allowing people to present themselves any way they choose and screen others without wasting valuable time or emotional energy. But in many ways online dating only exacerbates these conditions, spawning abstracted eidolons who interact through disconnected and confusing virtual encounters. For many, this only increases isolation and self-referential eccentricities. The solo form can aptly capture the paradoxical humor and sadness of virtual dating: the audience knows that by definition the single performer will never find anyone but himself no matter how hard he tries. And yet his painful striving can be fascinating to watch and in some ways enlightening. I think we learn a great deal about ourselves through weathering the storms of romance and love, whether in person or online.
She asked: This devising process has been like…
He Said: Butter! Well, it’s definitely come easy. Many of these characters suggested themselves from a very early stage of the process, and once we found the organizing principles and plot their interactions snapped together with similar ease. Angela and I communicate very well and although we have different opinions about dating and the subject matter in general, our ideas and crazy suggestions have played very well together. It’s been a very fruitful and fast process.
She asked: What has been the most surprising part of this process, thus far?
He Said: I’ve helped create a lot of devised work over the years so perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked, but I’m struck by the rich, deep, compelling and original characters that have emerged from our random and patchwork sources. Tiny bits of text, impressions from profiles of people we’ve never met, and heady literary and scientific theory has – through Angela’s hard work and talent – coalesced into a fascinating and believable cast of characters.
She asked: In one sentence, define what OkCupid is.
He Said: The desperate, curious, and perverse meet in a whirlwind of self-absorption, plummeting standards, and artless sexual innuendo. But it sort of works.
She asked: Which character in the play would you go on a date with?
He Said: … none of them? Okay, fine. Bang has self-awareness, but I don’t want to date a version of myself. Hank has a soul but no self-love. Ozy’s probably terrible in bed, Peg would be prohibitively expensive to feed, and I probably wouldn’t meet Butter’s dating standards. So I suppose I would date Jefferson, because he’s well-dressed and -informed and I’ll always know what’s coming on the horizon when I’m around him.
He asked: OkCupid seems such a bizarre, artificially way to find love. What do you think makes it so popular?
She Said: It is convenient. You can be as busy as you want and all you have to do is pick up a device and see who is out there. An instant way of feeling connected to something more than your daily grind.
He asked: How has drawing from personal emails, physically-based improvisation, and other sources affected the language of the play?
She Said: Huge. I wanted this piece to personify the words found on OkCupid. People have very different writing styles, from romantic verbosity to never-ending disconnected thoughts. Once I was recognized the different patterns, the characters were created around those benchmarks.
He asked: How would you describe your own OkCupid persona? Would you like to meet her if she wasn’t you?
She Said: I think my profile makes me look like an average girl with a smart ass after taste. I would meet me. Who doesn’t want to meet me?
He asked: What’s the strangest OkCupid interaction you’ve ever had – online or in real life?
She Said: This guy, we had a good first date but it came out that I was a writer from the West. He asked me if I was tired. I told him I am perpetually tired. He then went on to tell me that ten years ago a psychic told him one day in New York City he would meet a tired writer from the West and that ever since then, he was waiting to meet “her.”
Needless to say I didn’t go on that second date. He didn’t take the rejection well. Later on, I randomly came across his website (he was a painter) and discovered he painted me, in retaliation I suppose. The woman in the portrait had my face, my body, an looked evil and a robotic arm.
He asked: How do you think entropy and chaos affect dating in the City for better and worse?
She Said: I think this city is exhausting and insane and that either pushes you to want to meet someone ASAP or makes you feel totally burned out and hopeless. I think if anything, the chaos of our day-to-day lives reminds us that it is important to find connection, that there has to be more than your to-do list or that list is going to take over your life. And suck your soul out and deprive your family of grandchildren. Spoken like a true Italian right there.
THIS WILL NOT BE MULTIMEDIA=FAMOUS LAST WORDS
When Lillian Meredith and I began to collaborate on the second iteration of my one-woman show, The Unfelt Wonder, I told her, “This cannot be multimedia. Multimedia is a cop out. This has to be about performance.”
The play is dark comedy about the life-long experiment of a woman (Wonder) who has been denied physical touch. With a mutual interest in immersive theater, Lillian decided the entire play should happen within the confines of Wonder’s living laboratory, aka her home.
Given those constraints, I looked at the draft and not only redefined the settings of the monologues but also the means in which Wonder would logically be able to observe them. One thing lead to another and after some late nights of crazy tea drinking, I have created a multimedia show.
In order to not eat as much crow, I have taken on the challenge to do the audio design and (perhaps) film editing for the show. If it is going to be multimedia, why not do it myself for our upcoming workshop performance at Dixon Place? It would still be one performer doing everything thus it is mega solo, right?
I hate eating crow.
Good news is, I heart sound design.
How to Pan This Goddamn Sound Cue
Origins of the Heat Death Universe
There is something fascinating and infuriating about online dating. And I will be the first to admit, I am no good at it.
In my few attempts to find “love” on OkCupid, I found myself in awe of the ways people described themselves. Whether they were honest, sarcastic, or clearly only after one thing, I would sit back in my frustration and think, “What if these people are really what they say? What if these people are just what they write about?”
Late fall of last year, I was trying OkCupid again while performing with Benjamin Stuber in foolFURY’s premiere production of Sheila Callaghan’s Port Out Starboard Home. During that run, I wrote the fated Facebook status that started it all. (As seen above.)
Benj is an amazing performer to work with. I wanted to collaborate with him on something and we had talked briefly about solo shows. During the last week of performances of Port Out, Starboard Home, we were stretching on the LaMama stage and I said, “You want to do a devised solo show?” He said, “Um, yes.” The next day he said he wanted to do the online dating idea I had posted about. The rest, they say…is a scary intense leap down the rabbit hole of OkCupid.
Cue scary music.
Creating Our Universe
Devising a one-man show was uncharted territory for both of us. We both had devised pieces in ensembles but to remain in the roles of performer and playwright while creating side by side was an interesting challenge.
When it comes to writing, I am always mindful of what makes my plays theatrical. I want my work to have a reason to be on stage as opposed to say television or film. The thing I knew from the beginning was I had to write a piece that rested on what was most theatrical about Benj as a performer: his extreme physical theater skills.
The other thing I knew was this piece had to be rooted in OkCupid at every turn. Nothing that went on the page could come initially from us, everything from character creation to plot had to be inspired directly from text and images found on people’s profiles.
We set up our dropbox and stuffed it full of screen grabs of text and pics from OkCupid. I would filter through those and send Benj a list of questions based on each jpeg. I would ask things like, “What music you think is playing in the background of this pic?” or “How do they order their favorite Mexican dish” or “What is the song that reminds them most of their ex?”
In addition to those first impressions, we had many long emails and coffee meetings where we shared our own OkCupid horror stories, various theories and philosophies about intimacy and what it was like to date in a maddening city like New York. From issues of loneliness to the pressures of never-ending busyness, those thematic discussions merged with his response to certain screen grabs led to the creation of 8 characters.
Since we didn’t want to miss out on all the fun, we also picked apart our own online dating profiles. Which of course had gems of ridiculousness in them. Eager to join the theatrical shaming of online dating, we created a Benj/Angela hybrid character. So that left the cast list at 9.
And then there was the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics
I knew from the beginning that this piece wouldn’t be an obvious spoof on OkCupid. (So many of us live it and to see it outright on stage…my dating wounds are too fresh for that.)
Staying committed to our OkCupid inspiration roots, I became fascinated by this man who spends time thinking about The Heat Death of the Universe AND burritos (among other things).
So I flew into research mode, figuring out what exactly heat death was and what it had to do with our universe. (I already knew about burritos. I am from California. And as to not confuse you, burritos didn’t end up playing a huge role in this piece.)
I spent hours watching YouTube lectures from MIT, trying to get to a point where I could share with Benj, in my own words, what heat death of the universe was.
Many hysterical emails and confusing conversations later, I found our plot, rooted in ideas of entropy and chaotic systems. Two ideas that were relevant to what it felt like to date online.
I had to make the idea active so I turned it into a super epic weather system, rooted in mind blowing chaos, which would threaten the well being of all the characters.
Bum bum BUM!
On Yo Feet!
Throughout the drafting process, we had a handful of studio rehearsals so Benj could play with the characters and also share with me more of his abilities and interests as a performer.
It will be exciting to see the madness we created on it’s feet. It is a solo show of endurance to be sure. Or as Benj said, “A real fucker here, an evil little gem.”
I can’t wait to keep working on this thing. If you around NYC on May 28th, come by Dixon Place and check it out!
Afterwards, we can all get a drink and exchange online dating horror stories. We all have them. Let’s show off our sweet sweet battle scars.
Unless people know an artist, they have no idea what artist’s do.
This notion has become my latest obsession. When talking to non-theater people in my life, conversation is tricky and usually ends with me feeling crazy and frankly sad. Sad in a way that seems stupid but despite my better judgement, sits in my gut like a dumbbell.
When I say I do theater, some people tell me it’s nice that I have a hobby. When I go home to Los Angeles, some relatives say things like the sarcastic “It must be nice to live your dreams” or the always pleasant “When do you think you will grow up?” When I complain about arts funding, many don’t know there’s a problem with arts funding. Etc. etc. etc.
I want people to know what it means to be a theater artist. The nuts and bolts of it. Where does work start? What struggles do artists face from that small nugget of an idea to performance before a live audience? And for that matter, why make work for the stage? My profession may be part dreaming but it’s also a hell of a lot of work.
Hello, my name is Angela and I am a theater artist. Come into my office.
Right away you can tell two things:
I am a Mac gal. PCs have crashed too many times and many scripts have been lost in the aftermath. I know all too well the horrible gut drop caused by the sudden black screen abyss associated with laptop suicide.
I have a coffee/water problem But the plus side is clearly I love the environment.
Now, this is not just a desk, this is my office. I spend HOURS here. Just…hours.
And how can you tell this desk belongs to an artist? Well…
WAYS YOU CAN TELL THIS DESK BELONGS TO A THEATER ARTIST
My desk showcases props from past shows
At the end of each performance run, there seems to be a treasure trove of items that are not the best quality but oddly sentimental and therefore, need a home. See that white coffee cup? Prop from the first show I wrote that performed in ’05. That stupid IKEA cup has been with me longer than any man, we’ve lived in five apartments together, we are in a very serious beverage relationship. And see that white bulldog?From the production of my play Spark in February. It was placed behind the sex window. You don’t need to know what the means but the dog is a bobble head. So yes…
Theater momentos are transformed
That beer bottle full of ivy, that beer stein stuffed with flowers, both pieces were acquired doing theater related activities. And clearly I am creative because they are being used as plant holders, a bohemian way to disguise the fact that I don’t want to invest in vases.
Flyers, theater swag and more
See that flyer? See that foolsFURY water bottle? I support the arts cause I am the arts.
A bag of binder clips
This is the first way you can tell you are in the presence of a writer. Scripts eat up trees and 80 pages later, Mama needs some clips. I have a special radar for binder clips, if there is one hanging around I will slip it in my pocket faster than you can say “fastener.” Just call me Binder Clip Klepto.
Evidence I have done The Artist’s Way
What is The Artist’s Way you may ask? It is a creative self-help book you turn to when your creative life becomes a great hollow piece of nothing. Where you see no color, you wonder why you didn’t become a doctor, all words look stale, all art seems pointless, you are producing nothing but sawdust. You are not blocked, blocked is too nice of a word. I prefer to say I am buried or, more to the point, that I am losing my goddamn mind.
So one chapter in the The Artist’s Way says you have to include something on your desk that makes you smile, makes you feel creative. See that pink feather pen? It is totally sparking my creativity as we speak.
Long form post-it notes
Cause I have to-do lists. The items from my writing list include:
- Make his body fall apart piece by piece
- Paper airplanes? As a way to connect to the audience? Research.
- Things you can’t do in rubber gloves. List.
My arsenal of writing tools
iPod, eyeglasses, candles, headphones and hair ties. If I don’t have these things, creativity will get clogged, stop cold before it starts. I won’t be able to read the screen, my hair will get in my face, the NYC sirens outside will distract me and there will be a void of magical ambiance. And then I will get pissy and that will throw me into an existential crisis. And I am an artist, I wonder what the hell I am doing way too much anyway.
Research material is taking over my life
I need books, I need music, I need to grab from life to inform the stories I write. So that Tale of Two Cities is sitting in the corner is there cause I am really pissed at the economy and I live in a city where the division of me and the wealthy is like a cast iron skillet slabbing you across the face. And the fiscal cliff…don’t get me started on the fiscal cliff. The Social Animal is there cause I am writing a new piece on online dating. I don’t know what makes me more angry, Congress or OkCupid.
This is where the magic happens
The frustrating, amazing, tired, confusing, “say what?!” magic. This is where stories start. They don’t hop out of the printer. They take nights, hours, months, years before they get anywhere. Of course, not shown is my printer. It is way to the left and currently needs more ink and paper. Which reminds me, I need to make a Staples to-do list…