Sunday, December 4, 2011

First Person: Jeremy Taylor and Tanner Harvey on Big Plans

A Theatrical Experiment
by Jeremy Taylor and Tanner Harvey
(photos courtesy of the company)

Every experiment needs a hypothesis. 

Ours went like this. If we open a show after only six days’ rehearsal, we’ll give our audience something more raw, more alive, and more exciting than what they’re used to seeing.

It’ll be anything but the safe, over-rehearsed presentations which have so become the norm in this biz.

That’s what our hypothesis said. And we looked at one other and weren’t convinced.

The hypothesis continued. If we rehearse during the days of the run, it hypothesized, then the show will evolve over the course of the week, making for a different show each night and a unique experience for each audience.

And so we thought about that.

And while we recognized that it was ridiculous, what our hypothesis was suggesting, we did quickly note that the idea would fit very nicely with our budget.  We had secured a small grant which would be but a drop in the bucket if we were looking at a longer, more typical rehearsal process, but would be just enough to pay our creative team quite handsomely if we were paying them for a very short period of time.

Which meant, basically, that even though we didn’t have enough money, we could do the show anyway. And we could stop worrying about money right then and there.

As ridiculous as it was, the proposal also seemed to fit very well with the play. Big Plans puts its audience at the centre of the action, implicating the viewers directly in the macabre proceedings and imposing a sense of responsibility on them. So if the audience started coming in long before we were ready, they’d be more like a fourth actor than an audience, playing a more active role in the show’s development than the usual passive one.

There was something to that, we had to admit.

Plus, the hypothesis whispered darkly, a dangerous smile across its face, doesn’t this put the audience’s experience decidedly first, and the business of theatre decidedly last? Isn’t that exactly what you wish happened more often in this industry?

So we didn’t argue any longer and instead got straight to work, hiring the best cast and designers we could possibly imagine, and began scrimping and saving and scrounging everywhere else. Surely we could cut corners on production expenses, the hypothesis suggested helpfully, without compromising production value.

Very quickly—and what other way can things happen, with only six days of rehearsal—we realized that this ridiculous idea was perhaps the best thing about the project we were working on.

It forced us to make quick decisions. It forced us to compromise with one another in an effort to get things done. It trained our focus completely on the project and away from our personal goals or the importance of our various careers. We didn’t have time to admire our work or bask in our own glory; we were too quickly on to the next thing. The constraints of the process gave the project an ephemeral feel—that we were working on something fleeting and impermanent, something which would be over just as soon as it had started.

It took the work out of the work and put the passion back in.

“Opening night” was, predictably, a gong show of calls for lines, corpsing, and missed technical cues. But nobody seemed to mind. During the remarkably candid feedback we got from audience members all week—which was way more honest than anything I’ve ever heard in post-show feedback—far more members of the audience reported feeling included in the theatrical experience by the show’s imperfections than feeling alienated by them.

And so we continued. And every night the show got a bit better. And every night the audience seemed to appreciate the roughness around the edges. And every night we sat down after the audience went home and figured out what to work on tomorrow. And every day we did just that. And every show was scary and new.

So, was our hypothesis correct? Did the experiment work? Only each individual audience member can answer that question with any authority. Do we think so? Yes. Did we get to do the show? Yes. Were we satisfied with the work? Yes. Did we all get paid? Yes. Did anybody eat anybody else? No. Would we do this ridiculous thing again? Yes. Do we recommend this ridiculous way of working to our fellows in the biz? Yes. We really do. Listen to your hypothesis when it’s trying to convince you to do things differently. Differently is what theatre needs.

BIG PLANS rehearsed from November 23 to December 3, with audiences starting on the 29th, at the Freestanding Room. And then it disappeared forever.

The script was based on the true story of the infamous Rotenburg Cannibal, who posted an ad on the internet looking for a “willing victim to be slaughtered and then consumed.”

It was written by Jeremy Taylor and directed by Tanner Harvey. It starred Andy Tirthardt, Karl Graboshas, and Leni Parker. Sound design was provided by Andy Trithardt. Production design and stage management were provided by Kaileigh Krysztofiak.

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