Monthly Archives: November 2010

A HOUSE OF GOLD Wrap-Up: Your Reactions and Ours

What we heard from you about House of Gold:

What did House of Gold accomplish? It was Helen Hayes recommended; American University assigned one of their classes to write a paper about the play; a group of students from Virginia’s Governor’s School for the Arts told us it “gave them hope” for American theatre’s future; it drew visitors from Yale Repertory Theatre, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, and the National Arts Centre of Canada; and three weeks into its run, the play was still generating buzz in the press (inspiring such articles as TBD’s “Portrayals of JonBenét Ramsey that are weirder than Woolly Mammoth’s House of Gold” and an article on “racial stunt casting” in City Paper). The guest speakers at our discussions included Natalie Hopkinson of The Root, Ann Friedman of The American Prospect, and James Fitzgerald, a criminal profiler and forensic linguist who gave our patrons a slideshow presentation about the FBI analysis of the Ramsey ransom note.

Most importantly, it kept DC talking: we had more substantive conversations with our patrons than we’d had since Clybourne Park.  And whereas the dialogue around Clybourne almost exclusively focused on the themes of that (fairly realistic) play, the dialogue around House of Gold mainly focused on its unconventional style. Hearing directly from our patrons about the impact of our artistic choices helps us test our assumptions and refine our skills as theatre artists. We think we have a pretty good understanding of how to produce a conventional play—now we’re interested in learning how to produce the next wave in theatrical innovation.

 

Here are three of the big insights that your questions illuminated:

Why wasn’t it more clear?

Many patrons mentioned that the play frustrated their expectations about a clear plot and character development. To me, this suggests two things. First, that in the theatre—unlike in film, music videos, and dance—we expect events to unfold with a realistic logic. We expect characters to match our ideas of realistic behavior; and we expect their actions to unfold in an order that matches our realistic sense of time. “Realism” appeared as a theatrical style in the late nineteenth century; since then, Expressionism, Absurdism, Post-Modernism, and other styles have followed. But the vast majority of American theatre still recalls the realism of the turn of the last century, and many contemporary playwrights still write excellent plays in this style. However, Woolly Mammoth’s mission is to explore the new frontiers of theatrical innovation. Indeed, this is the reason many patrons say they find our work exciting and unique.

So perhaps we at Woolly can do a more thorough job of communicating with our patrons about the style that each of our plays explores. For example, we rely on movie trailers to set up the tone of a film. Some people love the deeply unrealistic and mind-bending movies of David Lynch; but if you expect a logical and clear story, you’ll certainly be disappointed. Woolly provides emails, blogs, podcasts, and playbill notes to build context for our plays. But we can always do more to communicate with our patrons about how far each of our plays departs from realism, and why.

What light did it shed on the mystery?

We’ve had hundreds of conversations with patrons about the themes they perceive in House of Gold.  I’ve heard several eloquent interpretations: the play shows that we all hide behind facades; that we project our own desires and expectations onto each other; that we’re simultaneously drawn to and repelled by famous crimes; and that crimes become famous precisely because we create a hungry audience for them.  But I’ve also heard patrons press us about whether House of Gold contributes new insight into the (still unsolved) Ramsey case.  Most folks recognize that the play is not a whodunit.  But Woolly audiences are sharp, and they demand big intellectual arguments from most of our plays.

Personally, I find this script rich with powerful ideas. To me, House of Gold suggests that—even if one unknown individual is responsible for this crime—the adult world bears collective responsibility for child exploitation. At the end of the play, the woman sends a weeping JonBenét out to the pageant in a stained dress. The woman says, “This is the thing they want to see.” And she’s right: we’re fascinated by the violation and ruin of this little girl—if she had grown up happily, we wouldn’t bother to watch.  Even more tragically, the play suggests that we adults have allowed child exploitation to thrive to such an extent that we’re not real adults at all.  Perhaps, as JonBenét says, “Grownups are like unicorns.  There’s no such thing.”  It’s a provocative and uncomfortable notion, although one might argue that it’s not new.

Ultimately, I think the most innovative question that House of Gold asks is “What if?”  What if a young murder victim could look back on the world that destroyed her?  What might she see?  What might she say?  And what might have been added to her short life if she’d had a true friend?  The purely fictional invention of Jasper—and all that he suggests about appearance, honesty, and self-esteem—is the play’s most creative element.

I believe these ideas are fresh and compelling, and maybe other people perceived different ones. And maybe there were other ways of staging the play that could’ve drawn them out with more impact. As we look back on the production with our writer, director, and designers, we’ll be considering all of these questions.

Why didn’t the ages and races of the actors match the characters?

Speaking of Jasper, the third most common question we heard from patrons was about age, race, and casting. Greg Moss’ script only specifies the age and race of Jasper and the Apollonian Boys who bully him—the other characters may be cast any way the director chooses. Jasper, of course, appropriates the persona of an African American man. The other kids point out that he’s a young white boy, but he clings to his mask as a way to escape the indignities of his lonely suburban childhood. By casting an adult African American actress as JonBenét, director Sarah Benson introduced several new layers of meaning to the play. First, she made it immediately clear that this is not a realistic portrait of the Ramsey case, but rather a set of imaginative musings made from a critical distance. Second, she creates a complex subtext to the scenes in which JonBenét and Jasper discuss appearance: at one point, she says to him, “I don’t talk the way I look?  Well, neither do you.”

Many patrons were fascinated by these complex conceptual layers. But a few pressed us to pin down the way they should interpret these choices: were they supposed to believe that the actress playing JonBenét was six years old? That she was white? What age and race should they assign to Jasper? How much should age and race affect the way we judged their behavior? I believe the play’s excitement lies in these very questions, and I hesitate to prescribe a “right” way of answering them. It is this self-awareness—the act of asking, “why do I see this person this way?”—that the play seeks to provoke.

We here at Woolly Mammoth are immensely grateful to have patrons who engage with us on this level. Your questions have challenged us to be rigorous about our artistic choices. And you’ve given this play a rich life by testing and sharing its ideas.  In discussions, online, in bars and in the newspapers, you’ve folded them into the cultural discourse of our city. That tells us that House of Gold has made an impression on the way our community experiences art. That’s a vital step in the ongoing experiment that is Woolly Mammoth. I’d consider it a small but important success.

 

~Miriam Weisfeld, Production Dramaturg and Director of Artistic Development

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A Note from Kaaron Briscoe About HOUSE OF GOLD

I came to DC in May for a workshop reading of House of Gold. That was the first time that I would meet most of the actors that I would spend two months with. I had the natural first-day-of-school jitters, but found that they were completely unnecessary. The reading went off without a hitch, and I was back in New York by that night.

Soon after I got an email from my cast-mate Michael Russotto welcoming me to Woolly. I still think it was one of the nicest things anyone has done for me. That one email took away my nervousness about coming here, and replaced them with excitement.

Our first rehearsal day was supposed to be the designer presentations followed by a reading of the play. I was surprised by all the people who came to see it. I’ve usually seen theatre staff and designers at these Meet and Greets. At this meeting there was not only theater staff, but also Woolly’s patrons, board, and frequent theatre goers. It was amazing to see that how much of a community there is at Woolly. The Cohens, patrons of Woolly for the past 30 years, gave Randy Blair and me a ride back to our apartments that night (along with a mini-tour of DC).

At some point into the rehearsal process I started to feel antsy. I love to cook, and baking relaxes me. I mentioned this to Taryn Colberg-Staples. She and Jenn Sheetz went through the green room cabinets and prop storage pulling aside all kinds of bakeware for me. Michael, forever welcoming, let me borrow his rolling pin while I’m here. That rolling pin made a very relaxing lattice crust apple pie.

The past few weeks have involved people coming up to introduce themselves in the halls, cupcakes by Emily Townley; political discussions with Mitchell Hébert; posting weird pictures with Ben Allen-Kingsland, Will Hayes Cromartie, Andrew Lincoln, and Randy; as well as planning the Joe Lonely and Jon Bénet show with James Flanagan.

I am approximately 250 miles away from my home, my husband, and my Kitchen-Aid mixer; but Woolly’s community has made it possible for me to find a home away from home. I really appreciate that.

~ Kaaron Briscoe, House of Gold cast member Nov. 2010

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WOOLLY MAMMOTH BREAKS PROGRAM MOLD!

In the brainstorming that surrounded our current production of House of Gold, Director of Marketing and Communciations Alli Houseworth—who oversees the programs—and I really wanted to take the sensationalism and exploitation that is addressed in the play have it translate into the collateral materials that would support the production.  One of the biggest items for patron consumption is the program and we proposed “why not make it a tabloid?”  The tabloids took the JonBenét Ramsey story and milked it for all it was worth.  Ironically, shortly after our finished program went to press, The Globe ran a cover story on the JonBenét murder “solved”  only reinforcing our point.

There is nothing quite so exciting, yet terrifying at the same time, as creating something completely new. Up until this point, during the past year (plus a few months) that I had worked at Woolly, all of our show programs were pretty much the same thing: eight and a half by eleven sheets of paper, folded in half, and stapled together to create a booklet.  The tabloid format would give us bigger, yet less, pages to work with and required a completely different look than what we had previously done.  The first step was to contact our printers, SVEC Conway, and make sure this format was do-able.  Communicating over email and even the phone isn’t the same as face-to-face, but we eventually ended up on the same page (at least we thought so at the time, more on that later.)

My first attempt at the layout was a complete bust.  Alli said, and rightfully so, that it looked just like our normal programs but bigger.  There was no edginess, no grit, nothing scandalous about it.  It was really hard to break out of the established mold of what a Woolly program should look like.  In my defense, it helps to do a layout when you have all of your materials (eg. ads, text, images, etc.) which is why deadlines are very important.  Make your designer happy: get things in on time to them.  Once I received all the materials I needed, I took a weekend, sat down at my computer, and researched the Weekly World News.

I have my college friend, Linka, to thank for introducing me to the…creativity that is the Weekly World News. If we wanted the program to be sensational and on the edge of absurd, this was the resource to turn to.  Every now and then, when at the grocery store stocking up on college kitchen essentials, she’d pick up a copy for our entertainment.  Weekly World News is probably best known for its series of Bat Boy stories, which was then made in to a popular musical, or which presidential candidate the aliens are endorsing this election season.  It’s grainy, black and white photos, with all-caps headlines ending in exclamation points was the direction that Woolly’s program needed to go in.  Ten hours later, I had achieved brilliance.

Ok, maybe not brilliance, but the program I had laid out was pretty much spot on what Alli and I had conceived in our initial discussions.  There were horribly Photoshopped, grainy, black and white photos.  There were lots of all-caps headlines ending in exclamation points.  There were starbursts, arrows, and circles calling out Radio Woolly, our blog, and other fun information.  We also made a conscious decision about what should appear in color for emphasis and what would stay black and white and were able to fit in a fun fake ad for our amusement.  The required information was still there: donors were listed, sponsors had their logos, bios and headshots appeared, ads were placed, but they were done as close to the spirit and style of a supermarket tabloid as we could get them.

The in-house proofs made the rounds resulting in minor tweaks and edits and was then sent off to SVEC for an actual proof.  This is where we discovered that just because you think you have an understanding, there’s a good reason steps such as printer’s proofs exist.  The first round of proofs back from SVEC and they looked great…but were on the same paper as our normal programs, an 80# white gloss and matte paper.  Not like a tabloid at all.  I contacted the printers and said we had wanted newsprint.  Bobby Firestein, the President of SVEC Conway and our contact for this project, explained that the only places in town that print newsprint are Gannett and The Washington Post because you need special machines for newsprint.  Major learning moment. (At some point soon, some of the Woolly staff will be making a field trip out to SVEC’s offices in Silver Spring, MD, to see and get a better understanding of the printing process, a need highlighted by this process and because they are awesome and do a great deal of our printing. There will definitely be photo documentation of our field trip on our Facebook Page. )  Bobby then worked with us to find a lighter weight, recycled paper that was closer to the color and feel of newsprint, then had their in-house designer use Photoshop to throw newspaper texture taken from another publication into the background of our file to get us closer to the grayish tint of newsprint. Bobby even offered to have the programs wrinkled as they were packing them which we passed on. We figured our patrons would help us out on that front. All of this happened with a deadline looming over our heads.

Somehow the programs went to print only a few days later than we had scheduled and they made it to the theatre with plenty of time to spare, looking fantastic. How do we know they look fantastic? Our Assistant to the General Manager, Paul Kappel, tweeted “overheard @WoollyMammothTC tonight: ‘these programs are brilliant!’” When The Second City came to visit during the Rallies for Fear and Sanity, they gave them a look-see and liked them a lot. That’s a huge compliment coming masters of satire and very funny people. The programs are also fantastic because they present the information we need to communicate to our audience in a creative and engaging manner. Sitting in the lobby in bright orange newspaper boxes, you can’t miss them. Come see House of Gold and pick up the latest edition of Woolly World News. As for the rest of the Season, who knows what we’ll come up with? With this inaugural effort a solid success, program layout will continue be exciting, hopefully slightly less intimidating, and Woolly will continue to challenge itself and defy convention.

~Kate Ahern Loveric, Graphic Design & Web Manager

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Understanding HOUSE OF GOLD…some advice from Howard Shalwitz

So many people have come up to me during the previews of House of Gold to discuss the show, and it’s no surprise. Greg Moss’ devilish script, combined with Sarah Benson’s eye-popping multi-media production, yields a rich but complex theatre going experience. Knowing this in advance, Woolly has made a special offer which you may have seen in our tabloid-style playbill–you can come back to see House of Gold a second time for free, with promotional code 1036. I invite you to take advantage of this rare opportunity.  Woolly Mammoth’s mission is to produce plays that explore “the edges of theatrical style and the human experience.”  House of Gold allows us to partner with our patrons to explore just where those edges lie.

As compared with, let’s say, Sara Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play, House of Gold is not trying to create a real world for us to lose ourselves in as audience members. By subverting our expectations for a linear narrative, and by constantly reminding us that we are in a theatrical environment, the play keeps making room for us to supply meanings of our own.  I keep thinking about our season’s theme, “a striptease of your subconscious,” and the way House of Gold functions like a Rorschach test for what’s inside our own brains.  During the play, we don’t see anything really horrible happen to JonBenet.  But because we know she was murdered, we see every character as a suspect, and our minds fill in all sorts of perversions at every turn.  The innocence of JonBenet’s relationship with Jasper serves as a sweet counterpoint to the grotesque adult characters, each of whom attempts to make her into an embodiment of his or her own unfulfilled desires.

I am enormously proud of this production, and once again amazed by how our Woolly audiences are rising to the challenge presented by one of American’s boldest and most ambitious young playwrights.  There will be many opportunities for dialogue around House of Gold, including post-show conversations after every remaining performance through November 28.  Please visit Woolly’s website for more details, and make your voice heard by e-mailing discussions@woollymammoth.net.  You can read more of my personal reflections about the show on Woolly’s blog: www.woollymammothblog.com.  I keep learning more and more about the play with every chance to talk about it, and look forward to your insights as part of our collective inquiry about House of Gold.

~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director

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Talk to Me.

So I’m sitting in the window of the Woolly lobby, third performance of House of Gold, on the phone with my mom waiting for the show to get out. About 20 minutes before anyone should be walking out of the theatre, a woman comes out, goes up to our house manager and ever so politely explains that she is dissatisfied with the play. I tell my mom I’ll call her back, go over, introduce myself, and ask if maybe I can help – and so begins one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in my time here at Woolly.

This particularly eloquent patron tells me that she’s been attending Woolly shows for a while, but she just didn’t like this one. When I ask her to elaborate, she focuses on the fact that she “didn’t get it” and felt very lost. Her first specific reference is to the scene with JonBenét and the Man, where he tells her about “his first.” She asks how old JonBenét is supposed to be, and feels that it was very inappropriate for him to use foul words and tell his six-year-old daughter about the crude way he had sex for the first time. She says that makes her uncomfortable. I admit to her that it made me a little uncomfortable too, and ask her why she thought the playwright might want the audience to feel that way. She thinks for a little bit, and says she assumes it is to make a point about father-daughter relations, but that it was still inappropriate for a young girl. Then she repeats “I just don’t get it” and I say that I think she is actually getting it fine – the inappropriateness is on purpose, and that the play does want to examine how we place expectations on children, and the bizarrely repressed way we treat them. She nods and makes sounds of assent, but returns to this question of how old JonBenét is supposed to be in this play. I ask if it helps to see age as immaterial to the play, which is dealing not with JonBenét herself but with society’s obsessive projection of her that is really unrelated to the little girl who died. She says that does help.

Flash to Sunday night – I’m at another theatre with a friend of mine who saw House of Gold last week. We’re waiting for the play to start and I’m grilling him on what he thought of Woolly’s show. “Not my cup of tea” is the opening response, but as I keep asking he finally comes out with it: “just how old was that girl supposed to be?!” I get excited and bombard him with more questions. He explains that if she’s really five, then some of the innocent moments with Jasper are lovely, but if she’s as adult as the actress or as the other characters treat her, those moments are lost. I’m not sure that I agree, and say that I love that the only person she CAN be innocent with—be herself with—is Jasper…

Back to Wednesday: I prompt our audience member to tell me more about her experience, and she starts talking about Jasper. She is stuck on his age, too, and says that in his initial scene she thought he was probably around 12, but then he creates this friendship with a six-year-old and plays her his favorite song which is “all about pussy.” She really wants to know what the point of that relationship was, and how the Richard Pryor could be appropriate, especially when JonBenét seems so child-like? And moreover, why would Jasper like that? I say that she has pinpointed one of the key things about the play: this separation between the way the children look and who they are or the way they talk. I suggest that maybe both of these kids are trying to be something else—what they want to be—because they are unhappy with what they are. Jasper is an overweight marginalized child who focuses on wanting to be a sexually powerful, aggressive black man and JonBenét is forced to be too adult too fast, so she allows herself to be very child-like around Jasper, which I said I felt was part of Kaaron’s (who plays JonBenét) portrayal. I mention the article that inspired the playwright, and I can see this makes my conversation partner think. She says she’ll go home and read the program.

Now it’s Friday night on the metro. “I read the program,” says the woman I’ve struck up a conversation with, based on overhearing her say the name “JonBenét Ramsey” to her friend. “And I still have problems with Porkchop.” I want to know more—I ask why— and she very readily explains to me that black comedians and black athletes are overdone as role models. “Why not an astronaut?” she demands. I say I honestly don’t know, because I’ve never thought about this before. I come up with the half-formed idea that the boxer is necessary for the violence to happen, but she is unappeased. “I get that,” she says, but goes back to the article she read about in the program. If that is the basis for the play, she tells me, then she thinks all the stereotypes make House of Gold “propagandistic.” I’ve never heard that word used about the play before, and I’m fascinated. I think about what this woman said all the way home, until I realize that for me, the play wouldn’t really work any other way. Everyone is a symbol, everyone is a little stereotyped because they are society distilled into caricatures. As a friend of mine said last night, the characters in House of Gold “are archetypes of people responding to JonBenét.” And so, in my head, Jasper can’t idolize a black astronaut, because he’s never seen a black person before except on TV—Jasper is doing the best he can with a limited number of options.

Wednesday, one last time. The conversation is winding down because the show is about to get out, but I have to ask, “what moment made you leave?” The patron says the autopsy scene. She says it was upsetting and that she thought JonBenét was finally dead, but then JonBenét is just sleeping, and the patron underlines that she didn’t understand the structure. I ask if it helps to think of the structure like that of a nightmare, and she says yes. She thinks about it and says “but whose nightmare?” to which I respond “whose do you think it is?” She says “it couldn’t be JonBenét’s because she is too young for this kind of nightmare” and goes on to postulate “maybe the parents’?” to which I respond with agreement. I ask if maybe the parents are symbolic of the popular imagination’s collective nightmare surrounding JonBenét—that what we come up with as theories surrounding her death, the sheer number of them and obsessive quality, might be sicker than the actual event.

Opening night, Friday again, my dad and I are talking to Kaaron. “It’s like a sermon,” my father says about the closing monologue. Kaaron is surprised by that thought, as am I. “It’s a sermon that this little girl unfortunately has to give, but doesn’t even know she’s giving,” explains my dad. I love this idea, at the same time as we all agree that the play is so hard to watch for the very fact that no little girl should have to give that kind of sermon to adults. And on the metro, the other person I’m talking to tells me that he has kids, and that the Dad scene and the Detective scene upset him because “No adult should ever need a child. Children don’t know that, but no adult should ever need advice or comfort from a kid.”

As you can tell, that conversation that began on Wednesday night hasn’t really ended yet. My understanding and my thinking about this play have been shaped by interactions with audience members who both like and dislike House of Gold. So please—talk to me. Talk to us. Whether it be in person, via email, or on the phone – tell us what you thought.

Woolly Mammoth’s mission statement begins with the call to ignite an explosive engagement between theatre artists and the community. YOU are the community—we can’t fulfill our mission without you—so I ask of every audience member that goes to see House of Gold: engage.

~Maura Krause, Literary Assistant

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What We Talk About When We Talk About…You.

Hey, friends. I’m here to tell you about a fun new initiative we’re experimenting with for House of Gold called Woolly About Town. If you follow Woolly on Facebook and/or Twitter you might know a little something about this already…but before I get into specifics, let me back up a bit.

Starting with the 8pm show next Wednesday night, there will be some kind of post-show discussion—an Expert Dialogue, Audience Exchange, or Mammoth Forum—after every single performance of House of Gold. The sheer number of organized opportunities for dialogue we’re offering around this show is unprecedented in the company’s history, and Connectivity Director Rachel Grossman and I have been working diligently with the Literary Department for the last several weeks to nail down some exciting special guests to catalyze conversation. Each discussion, designed to deepen the audience’s experience by providing a public forum for grappling with the provocative questions raised by this rich, complicated play, will also be integrated into our marketing and sales strategy as what we sometimes call a “value add.” Rather than just an unexpected cherry on top of your Woolly sundae that you only learn about from a sign in the lobby ten minutes before showtime, the idea is that each discussion be seen as an integral part of the experience you’re signing up for when you buy a ticket in the first place—an added value that tips the scales in favor of that initial decision to engage with us.

Value. Value is an interesting word. How do you measure value in your everyday life? Do you think of value primarily in terms of dollars and cents? Ethical principles? Intellectual stimulation? Physical stimulation? (Sorry, wrong show.) Assuming you value theatre, what is it about theatre that you most value? Assuming that you value Woolly Mammoth, what is it about Woolly that you most value? How does a Woolly experience add value to the value inherent for you in the experience of theatre? And finally, how can we add even MORE value to the Woolly experience?

Obviously, there are no single answers to these questions—we take a lot of pride at Woolly in the heterogeneity of our audience, and are extremely wary of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to our work in the Connectivity department. Nonetheless, we are always pushing ourselves to find more ways to organically and holistically add value to the experience of seeing a play at Woolly, and one potential vehicle for added value is a concept we like to call Audience Design.

Live theatre is a necessarily ephemeral thing; it does not exist without an audience. Consequently, I am a true-blue believer that we ought to think of the audience as a collaborator in our work, rather than as an afterthought to it. This is the impulse behind the notion of Audience Design: that the story being told on a stage is, for better or worse, fundamentally shaped and re-shaped every night by the particular mélange of hearts and minds collected together to receive and respond. We would never try to designate a single demographic group as the only “correct” audience for a play, but when you’re looking for butts to put in seats, it is worthwhile—even imperative—to take the time to find out whom those particular butts belong to. While you can’t (and probably shouldn’t try to) have the same degree of control over this sort of design as, for example, a lighting designer has over the focus of his lamps, intentionality makes a world of difference when you set out to find some new butts whose owners might not know yet just how much value they stand to add to the experience of our work—not only for the artists onstage but for all the other butts as well.

And that, my friends, brings me to Woolly About Town—a simple, practicable idea extracted from the glorious mess of intellectual and philosophical discourse that so defines the institutional culture ‘round these parts. Basically, we’ve been going around to local bars and sponsoring their Trivia Nights—offering free tickets to House of Gold for the winning teams, some Woolly swag for the runners-up, and even in some cases providing our own House of Gold-inspired trivia questions. Why, you ask? Because honestly, we just think that the people who dig trivia would dig our show—and in digging it, make it that much more diggable for the rest of us.

Check out the Woolly blog in a few weeks to find out if this project had any demonstrable results—and in the meantime, check out our Facebook page to see when Woolly is coming to a bar near you!

 

~Max Freedman, Connectivity Assistant

 

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Do you think HOUSE OF GOLD an example of postmodern theatre? Let Howard know!

I think—and I hope—that House of Gold will be a very new kind of theatre experience for many in Woolly’s growing audience. Watching the show take shape over the past few weeks, and talking with energized and quizzical audience members after the first preview on Monday, I found myself searching for new language to describe the show. In many ways it reminds me of some of the productions I’ve seen in Poland and Bulgaria over the past year—incorporating live video in the action, presenting characters in multiple time-frames, creating a complex layered experience rather than a simple linear narrative, etc.

Last week I came across a rather nifty overview of Postmodern Theatre on—ya gotta love it—Wikipedia. We’ve become accustomed to hearing the word “postmodern” in connection with art and architecture, but not so much in theatre:

“Postmodern theatre is a recent phenomenon in world theatre, coming as it does out of the postmodern philosophy that originated in Europe in the 1960s. Postmodern theatre emerged as a reaction against modernist theatre. Most postmodern productions are centered around highlighting the fallibility of definite truth, instead encouraging the audience to reach their own individual understanding. Essentially, thus, postmodern theatre raises questions rather than attempting to supply answers.”

I think this applies to House of Gold fairly well. Playwright Greg Moss is mining the brief life and the larger cultural phenomenon of JonBenet Ramsey to reflect on the way we relate to children in our society. He’s not telling us what to think, but raising a set of provocative questions in a way that is dazzlingly theatrical and somewhat open-ended.

Wikepedia goes on to list a set of “Postmodern Techniques” in theatre. I’ve had a good time analyzing how these techniques match up (or not) with Woolly’s production of House of Gold:

  1. The accepted norms of seeing and representing the world are challenged and disregarded, while experimental theatrical perceptions and representations are created.
  2. A diverse pastiche of different textualities and media forms are used, including the simultaneous use of multiple art or media forms, and there is the ‘theft’ of a heterogeneous group of artistic forms.
  3. Narrative need not be complete but can be broken, paradoxical and imagistic. There is a movement away from linearity to multiplicity (to inter-related ‘webs’ of storying), where acts and scenes give way to a series of peripatetic dramatic moments.
  4. Characters are fragmented, forming a collection of contrasting and parallel shards stemming from a central idea, theme or traditional character.
  5. Each new performance of a theatrical pieces is a new Gestalt, a unique spectacle, with no intent on methodically repeating a play.
  6. The audience is integral to the shared meaning making of the performance process and are included in the dialogue of the play.
  7. There is a rejection of the precepts of “High” and “Low” art. The production exists only in the viewers mind as what the viewer interprets, nothing more and nothing less.
  8. The rehearsal process in a theatrical production is driven more by shared meaning-making and improvisation, rather than the scripted text.
  9. The play steps back from reality to create its own self conscious atmosphere. This is sometimes referred to as meta-theatre.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about how these techniques relate to your personal experience of House of Gold.  While “postmodern theatre” may not be a perfect description of the play, you may find that it provides an illuminating lens. It certainly helped me to articulate some of the ways in which Greg Moss and director Sarah Benson are quite intentionally positioning themselves at the leading edge of American theatre.

~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director

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