Humana Festival Wrap-Up

Just before our next episode drops, it's time to reflect a bit on that time when I drove down to Louisville and saw six plays in the blink of an eye.  

Actors Theatre devotes considerable amount of time and effort into making the Festival a seamless, easy experience. They take care of you. Someone else noted that my location was wrong on my badge on Twitter and they were on it, directing me to the lovely people in guest services. Actors Theatre keep people on the same ticket package together to help foster conversation. They have social events arranged for people to mingle. They make it very easy to purchase the scripts to these plays. Actors Theatre of Louisville puts on an awesome festival.

I attended Industry Weekend I hoping to meet people, maybe cast some pod with folk. That did not happen. It was actually a pretty lonesome experience. There was a stretch there where I didn't say a word to another human being that didn't involve asking for food or the bill. I don't eat much, so that didn't happen very often either. That's not on Actors Theatre or anything. I just need to be better at striking up conversations with stone cold strangers. My experience would have been a whole lot better if I had been there with someone or known anyone at all. Humana Festival is a lot of theatre is a very compressed amount of time and I recommend it to anyone. Would I do it again? Not by myself, no. Watching plays is like consuming any other cultural good: you want to talk about what you just saw. Consuming 6 plays in three days was crazy, but I don't think I did the plays any justice. There needs to be a conversation around a piece to make it come alive and that requires, uh, at least two people. Maybe some podcast listeners will manage the trip next year and we can have a special edition of Exit the Stage Door? Something to think about.

This would not be a good wrap-up if didn't rank the plays, right? No. You're right, I don't have to do anything that reductive. I hope for the best for each of these plays, which all have really great stories to tell. Several of them are just crazy and it would be amazing to see them in a different theater with different capabilities. I Will Be Gone in particular could benefit from having some more room to play. I enjoy the floating model and the doors and windows in the floor, but you could definitely present the ghost town and the various locations of the play in more detail in a different theater. You're very lucky in Philly, because I Promised Myself to Live Faster should have more life thanks to those awesome people at Pig Iron Theatre Company. That's a great cabaret show, the more intimate the space, the better. The Roommate is going to be in a city near you, no doubt, we'll be able to talk about that one soon, I think. The Glory of the World is a crazy show, just a fascinating experience. I would love to see it in a smaller theatre or to have the madness get mixed into the audience somehow. And poor, poor Dot. A set with sightlines for every audience member will help (not sharing the stage will enable that). This show feels like it needs some work, but I think it's earned a shot at that with a new production somewhere. It doesn't get my blood pumping, but I am curious.

Ok, it's time to go back to toting around a few microphones and a laptop and introducing myself to strangers. Odd how that seems easier than making small talk with industry professionals during half hour. But anyway, we've got a great run of shows coming up, good people making good conversation. Peace. Out.

Humana Festival: Day 3, The One With the Intermission

Five of the six plays I attended during Humana Festival did not have intermissions. That was grand. I love it when my stories are uninterrupted (well, the ones delivered by a non-digital platform that I don't control, anyway). The final play of my festival, Dot, by Colman Domingo was the exception. In this case, the intermission was a matter of practical necessity. It took a large crew, augmented as always by the apprentices (pour one out for those apprentices, when you don't see them on stage in a show, they are almost certainly backstage in a different theater) . . . Where was I? Silly parenthetical. Anyway, it took about ten minutes for the crew to take us from Dot's kitchen and dining room, to her living room and, well, a different dining room. The scene shift was truly impressive, involving rolling walls away and replacing them with entirely different walls, moving a wood veneer wall like a pocket door, and many other theatrical parlor tricks. It was great.

I'm tempted to indulge in some hyperbole and claim that it was the best part of the play, but that would be wrong of me. Dot is a play about one, rather dysfunctional, west Philly family grappling with the mental deterioration of their mother, the eponymous Dot. The play stands out right away because it is about a black family in a black neighborhood. The history of American theatre is littered with family dramas like this, nearly all of them focusing on white people, often in Westchester or Orange County. It is pretty refreshing to see this subject tackled for and by African-Americans.

That having been said, this play did not work for me, mostly because it wasn't as focused on Dot and her struggles as I would have liked it to be. It meanders from child to child to Kazakh asylum seeker (curiously named Fidel, which doesn't strike me as particularly Turkic) to white girl family friend. The diffuse focus of the play made it difficult for me to concentrate on Dot's plight. It also spins its wheels explaining dementia to the audience in at least two ways that I did not find helpful. The opening of the play is strong, with an exasperated daughter dealing with a seemingly normal and docile Dot. But when Dot goes off to the bathroom, after an episode of memory loss, we get a long explanation of what it's like to deal with her, as if the good folks in the audience have not grasped the issue so vividly demonstrated on stage moments ago.

That moment of explanation is at least in the flow of the story. In the second act, there is a long sequence devoted to a role-playing game clearly invented by a family therapist to help family members "walk in the shoes" of their afflicted relative. The game forces a person to wear glasses to simulate glaucoma, headphones blasting with noise, gravel filled shoes, and gloves with fingers taped to simulate the experience of being old and suffering from something like dementia. That game method might work for someone who actually has to wear those things, but I did not find it useful for my understanding Dot's experience. I'm watching a play about a woman with dementia, which means that someone is already engaging in role play to show us what it is like to have dementia as an objective experience that we witness: that's what the actress playing Dot is doing. And now we have an actor playing a man who has to pretend to have dementia, but with props? It doesn't bring the audience into the subjective experience (which could have been done with lights and sound; that will be left to another production to attempt). And it is hardly the only way to bring Dot's son to the point where he can empathize with Dot. Lots of people manage that feat without the props.

The role-playing game leads to a panic attack, some lashing out, a moment of catharsis, and a lot of raised voices. Then almost everyone leaves the room. This act break ends with a great line from one of the daughters "We are ok, a bit raw and bleeding, but we'll survive." That's not the line, it's a weak approximation of the line, but you get the idea. Except that there's another twenty minutes left of the play, most of which deals with things that are not related to Dot. They deal almost exclusively with Dot's writer son and his husband and their respective mid-life crises. But the play is called Dot. They don't even talk about how seeing Dot like this makes them confront their mortality. The play lost me permanently at this point. It didn't end with this beautifully ambiguous moment after everyone had experienced crisis and damage and shown love and good intentions but no one had a solution (you know, real life). Instead the play carried on toward what I can only call the sit-com ending: everybody learned a lesson and they all the do the good thing they have been resisting since the play started.

There were people sniffling all around me as the lights come up at the end of the show. Dot connected with them. I think there is a great play about mortality, memory, and family in there somewhere. I understand their tears. But to me, Dot is a bit like the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota. You can see the shape of the image to come. But there's a lot of dynamite that needs to be applied to that mountain before it's truly done.