Plank is receiving some very nice press. The designers and actors who have worked hard and used their incredible talents to put together the show that you see at the Calderwood Pavilion most definitely deserve their names noted. There are always a couple of people, though, who work tirelessly and without whom the show would never go on, but are never noted in the theater reviews because their work is very much behind the scenes. There are two very important people who have worked on Plank—Stage Manager Sarah Schneider and Technical Director Steve McGonagle—along with the members of the cast who brought their choreography skills to bear, without whom the show never would have reached the production values for which it’s being noted.
The stage manager is always the first person in the theater and the last to leave. Sarah actually came to Plank late when the stage manager we originally hired went MIA (it happens) so she had the extra burden of coming in when the production was already in motion. Like all stage managers, Sarah seemingly has a thousand things to do at once, and only a highly focused individual with real knowledge of the theater can pull off what she does. She also doesn’t feel the need to laugh at my jokes, proving that she’s not a suck up, which has led me to ask her advice about things before acting upon them. That’s how much trust we put into the stage manager at Alley Cat Theater.
When JiYoung Han came in with her set design, the responsibility of building the impressive set that reaches 19 feet at its highest point fell to Technical Director Steve McGonagle. Because of the size of the set, Steve built the panels in a pasture on a sheep farm in Bolton, Massachusetts under some beautiful, spreading trees. The panels’ foundation is made of sheep fencing, naturally, covered in window screen covered in a kind of skim coat. Objects that represented a dying earth, keeping with the play’s main theme of rebirth, were imbedded into the skim coat while it was still wet, including a couple of actual sheep bones. The back of the set that our patrons see when they arrive in the space is hung with a handmade fishing net made in Italy that Steve found on Craigslist. Steve also is our prop master, making the plank, which had to be both lightweight and durable, the copy of Moby Dick, the lunchbox, and the money that Potpee throws into the ocean.
Finally, one of the primary theatrical elements in Plank is movement, and during auditions Director Megan Schy Gleeson particularly was looking for actors who also had a background in dance and/or movement. Actors Sydney Grant and Adam Lokken are both choreographers, and Actor Fray Cordero is part of the first graduating class in Contemporary Theater at the Conservatory. For all three actors, movement is a language they speak fluently; instead of speaking it audibly they speak it physically. The movement you see in Plank is a result of a devised theater process where the entire ensemble worked collaboratively with the director to build the choreography.
Plank runs until Saturday, September 16th. Tickets can be found at BostonTheaterScene.com. Reduced priced tickets can be found at Bostix. And we also offer half-price student tickets.
Plank has been open for a week, and there is one observation I've been making with bemusement and even sadness. It is how theater-goers are programmed to attend a theater production.
Every night I watch patrons enter the space and skirt the playing area--what others might call the stage--on their way to their seats by following an invisible line that is drawn by the first row and two “rocks” that actually are hiding two lighting instruments. The patrons are clearly thinking, I’m not allowed to cross that line and walk on the “stage”—the sacred place where only actors are “allowed.”
But there is nothing stopping anyone from going onto the playing area; it's all in their heads. There's nothing stopping anyone from taking a closer look at the details in JiYoung Han’s gorgeous set and immersing themselves in the underwater light of the preshow, i.e. entering the world of the play. I would encourage anyone to do that.
Plank and Alley Cat Theater is also about breaking down the barriers and expectations that I feel traditional theater (and even ourselves) have set up to limit our theater experiences. The first part of the play is based on movement and magical realism, two elements I would bet most American audiences aren’t accustomed to. Long pauses are built into the script allowing the audience to experience what Potpee is experiencing. (It takes a bit of time to read Moby Dick and you might be surprised to see what can happen.) If you’ve been trained by popular culture to expect snappy dialogue, repartee, and quips, you're going to be disappointed or even angry because they are just not there. I think instead what you'll hear is interesting conversation. And in the second part of the play, if you’ve come to expect scenes of a certain length ending with a kicker line (again, a major influence of especially television) you just won’t find it. Not only did that little geometric diagram, length x width x height break apart for Potpee on the Ocean, but your notion of dramatic structure might--and maybe it should--break apart.
I hope you do come see Plank. And when you do, try to jettison as much of your expectations for theater as you can before entering the space. Let your expectations wash off your plank the same way everything was washed off Potpee’s plank. Walk across the set to your seat. Put away your notion of time and story-telling in the theater. Don’t try to control the theater in the way that Potpee first tries to control her plank, but instead, like Potpee, give into the plank and let it take you on your own journey.
Alley Cat Theater
Alley Cat Theater produces new work that is intelligent, compelling, and thoughtful, telling stories by pushing the boundaries of the theater.