There's a point in Plank where Potpee is rescued from being adrift at sea. It's a big, loud scene, like a parade and a 21st century media event all rolled into one, and yesterday when we were rehearsing the scene the actors playing Mercedes and Thimble were improvising, running through the audience, that sort of thing, and then they pulled out their cell phones and began taking selfies with Potpee and tweeted, etc. (In a devised theater environment, it's a little hard to say exactly whose idea this was: It was probably one of those group-thought moments where Kira, Erika, and Sarah all collectively jumped on the idea at once.)
There has been a lot of discussion in the past week or so about cell phones in the theater. There was this guy who tried to plug his cell phone into an outlet in the set of Hand of God. Then Patti LuPone snatched a cell phone from an audience member who was texting and surfing throughout Show for Days. Social media went berserk. Of course it did, which is why Potpee loves her plank so much. There was discussion about this being the end of civilization as we know it. Progressives all were for how we're now doing theater for people who need to be connected 24/7 so we should just accept that. And then this came out, which frankly seems to be the most intelligent response so far.
Yes and no. Yes we have to accept that technology is a huge part of our world, but no, we don't want it to overwhelm or supplant the theatrical experience. We still want people to be engaged in what's happening on stage. I keep thinking of musicians being ignored in bars, or playing background in restaurants, and that is definitely not the direction I want my theater taking. Still, once Sarah and Erika started playing with their cell phones, it was an easy leap to start thinking of ways for the audience to join in, too, using technology to engage them further in the play.
We discussed this as a group, asking the actors how they felt about having to deal with the audience as an active participant of the play (they were totally stoked!) We considered what we would do if there was that one self-absorbed audience member who tried to hijack the show? We even considered if we should let the audience tweet during the entire show, wondering if that would keep them totally engaged in the show in order to keep up with their tweeting? In the end, we decided that during the rescue scene we would invite the audience to take pictures, selfies, tweet, post, whatever, making them part of the big rescue.
I feel so lucky to be working with Kira and the cast of Plank, people who are open to these kinds of ideas and are willing to roll with what's happening out in the world and inject it into our art. It's an experiment; we all acknowledged that it is, and what better place to experiment with something like this is with a small play in a fringe theater. Let's see how it goes with Plank, so we can see how we can make it work perhaps in a full-length play.
It's in the rehearsal room where all the magic happens, and it's my favorite place in the theater. It's that place like the sandbox or the playground where the outside world disappears and a child's imagination would just soar, and for those of us who never "grew up" we can continue with our childlike nature.
The playwright's job is to write whatever you want, whatever you can imagine, and don't worry how it's going to get done. So, in Plank, we have stage directions like these:
"A seagull alights on the plank. The seagull and POTPEE consider one another. The seagull flies off: Kaa-kaa."
"THIMBLE looks down in the water, around the plank. POTPEE surfaces with a roar like a breaching great white shark and grabs THIMBLE by the neck and drags him/her under. POTPEE resurfaces, spits a stream of water from her mouth, and remounts the plank. She paddles back out to sea."
Watching OUT LOUD Theatre's ensemble approach the script is just plain fun. And it's also part of a larger process. I suspect that Plank will someday be a full-length play because of the way the script already has grown from a ten-minute play to a 40-minute one-act, with no end in sight yet. And now, from conversations with the actors and Kira Hawkridge, the director, my imagination is opening up into other areas for exploration. It was Kira's idea to use actors for the Ocean. It's an easy leap from that suggestion (and this playwright being open to the suggestion) to the playwright adding these characters to the script and start imagining the details of the characters who make up the Ocean: Their names, personalities, and what they might say and do, again, based on conversations and experimentation in the rehearsal room.
I hope this gives you some insight into the process of developing the production that will be at the Providence Fringe Festival, and that we'll see you at the theater.
Patti Cassidy of Boston Play Cafe interviewed playwright and Alley Cat Theater's Artistic Director, John Greiner-Ferris, about Plank, Alley Cat Theater, and playwrights self-producing.
I was talking to someone the other day who had read the script to Plank and she commented that it was a very complicated play to stage. It isn't. That's the thing about it, it looks complicated, but it is so simple that I'm guessing that's why people think it's complicated.
The play is meant to be simple. When I first started writing it, I intentionally thought of the simplest thing I could, and wrote: A single plank of wood floats in the middle of the ocean. Daylight. Sparkling sunlight. After that I knew a character could only fall out of the sky or come up out of the ocean, and since falling out of the sky seemed a bit much even for me, I had Potpee burst out from under the water.
The play calls for a minimum of three actors, and the set consists of a plank of wood. That's it. And the script consists of more action than dialogue. How much simpler can you get?
You can have as many actors as you want or can afford or that will fit on your stage, but three is the minimum. And Potpee (the name means Person on the Plank) is played by a woman. You could put a plank of wood between two chairs, or construct a contraption consisting of springs and wire and I don't know what else, depending on the imagination, creativity, and talent of your designers. The script intentionally allows for an enormous amount of leeway when it comes to the actor's motivation, but there are also very definite clues to tell the creative team what is happening. For example, when Potpee writes the following poem on the plank after gazing at the night sky, it gives clues as to the location and time of the play:
Oh gallant hunter
Chasing bulls through the night.
Striding bold in spite of
Or is it because of
You have gained obvious strength since I last saw you
Carrying twins on your shoulders light
Faithful Sirius trots at your heel trusting
His Master's guidance on your heavenly journey
That will continue long after I've completed mine.
This tells us that if we are in the northern hemisphere, then it is winter because Orion is a winter constellation. But if it's winter, then we have to be fairly far south so Potpee doesn't die of exposure. The twins and the bull are the constellations Gemini and Taurus, so we know she has a clear view of that part of the sky.
Maybe what throws people is the incredible amount of latitude I give theater artists to develop their own play, and I know the script would attract a certain type of theater artist--one trained and steeped in devised theater--over a more traditional theater artist.
Alley Cat Theater
Alley Cat Theater produces new work that is intelligent, compelling, and thoughtful, telling stories by pushing the boundaries of the theater.