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World Builders: Dramaturgical Notes

Posted on November 16, 2015 in Season 12

“Why do the doctors get to choose which happiness I keep? Why do they get to decide which sort of happiness I feel?” — Max

“I have never struggled with not caring, only with other people thinking that I should.” – Anonymous post from Actually Schizoid

We began rehearsals for World Builders armed with diagnoses and traits from the DSM-5, prepared to understand and portray personality disorders to a psychiatric T. As we delved into Johnna Adams’ vibrant, heart-wrenchingly honest story, however, we discovered that clinical definitions of Max and Whitney’s Schizoid Personality Disorder (SPD) only paint a surface-level picture of these characters’ complex inner lives.

From a clinical perspective, SPD is one of 10 personality disorders described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. SPD is a Cluster A disorder (“odd/eccentric”), characterized by up to nine different traits, but generally “by a pervasive pattern of social detachment and a restricted range of emotional expression.” Although the extent to which individuals with SPD interact with the outside world varies case-to-case, many prefer living within their controlled, often fantastical and wildly imaginative, worlds; this trait seems unhealthy, abnormal, and intimidating to many outsiders —despite studies showing that “normal” individuals spend more than 30 percent of their own waking hours daydreaming themselves.

Although Max and Whitney have been hospitalized for and clinically diagnosed with SPD, their individual journeys constantly teeter from official DSM definitions. As we excavated the text more closely, we realized that a clinical perspective could not offer the nuanced tools we needed to truly understand this story.

We decided instead to investigate the human, day-to-day world of SPD. We combed through 24 pages of posts on Actually Schizoid, a tumblr blog dedicated to real-life stories of SPD and one of the Internet’s most comprehensive glimpses into this world, and discovered that this personality type is as malleable and complex as any other psychiatric diagnosis. The farther we dove into the blog, the more we realized that many individuals have no desire to treat their SPD; in fact, many are perfectly at-ease with their inner worlds and even consider their clinically abnormal personality to be an asset rather than a mental illness.

What makes Adams’ play so honest is not its adherence to modern psychiatry’s definition of SPD; rather, it is the nuance of her characters—both of whom adhere to and contradict standard notions definitions of SPD throughout the play—and the questions that their journey within the world of mental health reveal. The idea of a “disordered” personality in and of itself raises enormous questions: What constitutes a personality? Who defines “normal” and “abnormal,” and who has the right to deem whether a “disordered” personality needs treatment?

This is not to say that World Builders is rallying against modern psychiatry or demanding that psychiatric patients have full control over their treatment. Rather, Adams asks us to see ourselves in Max and Whitney as they grapple with their own definitions of normalcy and happiness, challenging our own preconceived notions about mental illness and offering a rare glimpse into these characters’ colorful and often-misunderstood worlds. 

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World Builders: Building Character

Posted on November 11, 2015 in DC Theatre

“It’s the closest thing I have to a heart.”

We continue Season 12 at Forum with World Builders: a love story by Johnna Adams. As this season's Directing Intern, I was fortunate enough to assist director Amber McGinnis Jackson on this production. I took part in the incredible journey of bringing this play about people who feel everything and nothing at once to Woolly Mammoth’s Melton Rehearsal Hall, where it is playing through November 21. Daniel Corey and Laura Harris star as Max and Whitney.

The core question that the team asked as we began table work was how to synthesize the fascinating and thorough research that our dramaturg, Maegan Clearwood, had collected about Schizoid Personality Disorder (SPD) with the reality of Max and Whitney as Adams wrote them on the page. As Whitney recites early on in the play, individuals with SPD are “obsessively introspective, addicted to building an elaborate fantasy life, and indifferent to social norms.” These traits certainly check out with the Max and Whitney that we experience in Act I, the Max and Whitney who have freshly arrived to a drug trial designed to kill their worlds. They are awkward, abrasive, and unsure of how to connect with each other. The only reason Whitney seeks a connection with Max, the catalyst for our story, is for personal benefit—if her world dies, at least Max will be able to carry on the memory of it.

In the rehearsal room, the actors created posters with lists of traits from textbooks, online sources, and beyond. Jackson encouraged them to use the traits as a base line for character development, but to also be ready to explore far beyond. It was important to keep in mind that these traits were defined by doctors and psychiatrists, not actual human beings who are identified as SPD. A Tumblr page that Clearwood dug up, “Actually Schizoid,” did feature the stories of individuals with SPD from all around the world. What we discovered was that their stories were intensely specific. Many stories contradicted the doctors’ general opinions of SPD, which was no surprise to anyone. How could anyone define something so ephemeral?

The aspect left completely to the imagination of the actors was the visual interpretation of the worlds inside the characters’ heads. Their worlds are drastically different, which serves to highlight the individual nature of SPD. Both worlds are visually arresting and completely unique. Jackson encouraged Harris and Corey to find images that were reminiscent of their individual worlds. We hung these on the wall alongside the research posters, creating an enveloping environment that blends the known and the unknown.


The traits that Harris and Corey created for Whitney and Max were constantly evolving. What started as a childlike, hand on neck twisting gesture from Corey transformed over the rehearsal process into a tendency to pick at his hair. Harris discovered the power of Whitney’s voice to intimidate and convince Max of her needs. In the end, deftly guided by Jackson, they created two vastly different humans with one thing in common: rich, complex fantasy worlds. If you encountered Max on the street, and then Whitney five minutes later, you’d never guess that they would be diagnosed with the same thing—what doctors generically term “Schizoid Personality Disorder.”

Whitney at one point says, “[My world is] the closest thing she has to a heart. I don’t know who I’ll be if the pills work. Someone without a heart.” This line, to me, is the basis of character creation for these two. They know that they are different. They don’t desire to be like everyone else—like anyone else. These are people who are not only comfortable with but also proud of their uniqueness. The overarching question of the play, of course, is whether outsiders should be allowed to decide what kind of happiness a person should have. Because, by the end of our story, Max and Whitney can have a different kind of happiness, a typical kind of happiness. Harris and Corey slowly deteriorate their physical traits over the course of the story, resulting in two people who you would never guess have anything “wrong” with them if you passed them on the street—let alone that they are on medication for the same reason.  


Rebecca Wahls, Directing Intern

Rebecca Wahls is a DC-based director and actor with a BFA in Performance for the Stage and Screen from George Mason University ('15). She is a proud Artistic Associate, Teaching Artist, and Touring Company Member with Acting for Young People in Fairfax, Virginia. At Mason, she directed Dido, Queen of Carthage (sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research), Woyzeck, and many ten minute plays. Locally, she has assistant directed for Constellation Theatre Company and GALA Hispanic Theatre. She has also appeared in several plays at Mason and in the Capital Fringe Festival.



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Boxed: Preface to a Postmodern Minstrel Show

Posted on June 8, 2015 in Season 11

I remember the first negro musical I ever saw.
[…] it burst upon us as a glad and stunning surprise.

                      —Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Director Psalmayene 24 calls Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment a “postmodern minstrel show,” which both acknowledges society’s penchant for declaring status beyond things and aptly frames the experience of this production. Postmodernism announces a break from modernism in its embrace of juxtaposed styles and moods, including unapologetically mixing realistic and nonrealistic elements as well as forms of high and low art. It is bound to poststructuralism in its rejection of fixed meaning in advocacy of ongoing negotiations with what has gone before, what has not come, what is unseen but still present, what is deferred, and what is unavailable. In addition, postmodern stages a resistance to the Obama-era fantastically quixotic term post-racial, which describes a utopia that is yet to be. 

The play offers a meditation on black stereotypes by way of the minstrel show in the first half and well—you’ll see—in the second half. Lee intended for the play “to walk the line between stock forms of black entertainment and some unidentifiable weirdness to the point where the audience wasn't sure what they were watching or how they were supposed to respond.” By using the minstrel show as an anchor, the play exposes the extent to which black figures in contemporary entertainment are haints (or ghosts) of blackface characters of the 19th and early 20th century.

In its traditional form, the minstrel show has three parts. The first section features songs, upbeat dancing, and variety entertainments. The second part, called the olio, is punctuated by a comedic yet affectedly critical stump speech. The third section, known as the afterpiece, consists of a one-act play that typically shows an idealized South wherein newly-freed slaves sing of yearnings to return to good ole’ massa and to the simple pleasures of plantation life. Structurally, The Shipment duplicates the minstrel format while upending conventional (black) narratives and revising its content for today.

If, over the course of the play, you find yourself uncomfortable, paranoid, or watchful of everyone, stay with it; it’s working. If not, stay with it, and later interrogate what it means that your sense of comfort remained intact.  

Otis Ramsey-Zoe,The Shipment dramaturg

Lecturer of Theatre Arts, Howard University; Associate Artistic Director, banished? productions; Series Editor, NoPassport Press’s Dreaming the America series; Freelance Dramaturg; OpenForum Facilitator.





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Up Down Up Down. String: The Puppet Masters of Passion Play

Posted on April 15, 2015 in Passion Play
Ben Cunis choreographed the movement in Passion Play, and plays John the Fisherman/Eric/J. He is an actor, director, writer and choreographer known for his work as an Artistic Associate with Synetic Theater. His work there and elsewhere earned him six Helen Hayes Award nominations in 2015 alone, two of which he took home (Outstanding Choreography in a Play for both the HELEN and HAYES categories). Patti Kalil is a Forum Season 11 Ensemble Member and the puppet and properties designer for Passion Play. When she's not designing puppets and props, she's designing sets and managing stages. She is the co-founder and co-artistic director for Pointless Theatre, which won the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company in 2014. I reached them both by email to talk about their passions for puppetry and movement, and how those passions play out on stage at Forum.

QN: Tell us about your previous puppetry experience - how have those experiences informed your work on Passion Play?

PK: I have been a puppet designer for the past 5 years, but had previously trained in props design. For my BA in Theatre, I concentrated in set design and stage management. Puppetry did not enter my life until my junior year at the University of Maryland. At the time, UMD had a Henson Grant [as in, Jim Henson] that brought in professional puppeteers to teach a winter course once a year. I took Steven Kaplan's class, where I was introduced to shadow puppetry and to my artistic partner in crime, Matt Reckeweg, who a year later co-founded Pointless Theatre with me. We realized in that class that puppetry was a brilliant combination of painting, sculpture, design, and engaging movement. It was a challenging, endless area of study that seemed to bring the most variety of options to explore storytelling. For the past five years, with Pointless, we have been able to find a group of people that can indulge in this study of form and style, and in the childish yet provocative imagination puppetry can offer. This collaborative mentality very much informed my work on Passion Play. I've work with Michael Dove many times and there is a sense of common vocabulary we establish to talk through ideas. He had a clear image of what those fish represented in the script, and it was my job to visualize and construct them accordingly. Puppetry is uniquely dependent on performers to bring them to life. The best puppetry has to take into account performance as much as it does aesthetics. 
BC: We've done a good bit of stylized puppet work at Synetic over the years, though it's not our main focus. I had the pleasure of working on Imagination's BFG a while last year [their remount is playing now] and got to witness some very effective puppet work, while having to engineer a lot of "human puppeteering" (actor manipulation of other actors). The most influential work has to have been my work with Synetic -- a lot of learning about how lines and shapes interact with symbols and bodies and minds onstage to create meaning. [Ben's work on BFG earned him one of his six 2015 HHA nominations, that one for Outstanding Choreography in a Play in the HAYES category.]
QN: The most prominent puppets in Passion Play appear first in the stage direction: "He closes his eyes, and big beautiful fish puppets walk toward him as if in a parade." What went through your mind the first time you read that? How did your impression of that moment change in rehearsal?
BC: It didn't change much, though the switch from a school of living fish to a parade of dead fish was a small switch for my mind. To me, it was always about not just the fish themselves but how their presence places us underwater, trying to get a sense of switching Pontius from a stage to a sea floor. 

PK: I imagined giant silver fish that flopped around the stage, morbidly gliding. What happened next is that we began to quickly embrace the DIY aesthetic written into Passion Play. There was a clear use of the "meta-theatre" experience that Ruhl incorporates into the script. The outer layer of the story revolves around a troupe of actors putting on a show, the Biblical passion play. Those actors play characters within their characters. The scenery is the visceral environment of a working theatre. Tools are out, and paint cans cover the scaffolding. Costumes and props are repurposed and materials like canvas, metal and wood are presented as exposed raw materials that progress the story and heighten relationships between characters. For these reasons the fish were made out of canvas - to mimic the materials on Gabriel's wings and the sails on boats. They have a large red slit on their bellies and are sometimes carried as carcasses, almost reminiscent of coffins. They have just enough movement in their satin fins to glisten and suggest a ghostly swim. This conceptual change came out of a need for compromise between the fantasy world of giant dead fish puppets and the other more grounded elements of the show.
QN: Why do you think Sarah Ruhl has included these puppets at all? How do you think the act of puppetry intersects with the many other themes in Passion Play?
BC: I think the obvious answer would lead us towards some discussion of religion and its potential to manipulate people, but I don't think this is it entirely. I think it has more to do with how we carry symbols and ideas within us, to the point where they take on a life of their own.  
PK: Relationships between the characters in Passion Play are strung together by a politically and socially induced hierarchy of power and manipulation, though. The introduction of monarchs and fascist leaders, or jealous bickering cousins are all examples of characters who crave control in the each other's lives and their own. There is something about religion, and the concept of faith in general that makes people feel powerless and vulnerable. You are taught to trust blindly, and that even suffering is all part of God's plan. 
I think there is a reason why the character who plays Pontius Pilate is the one who most wants and is (in his mind) able to manipulate things as erratic as the winds or sails on a boat. Within puppetry exists that theme of power and control, and I see the use of puppetry in Passion Play as a device to really elevate the emotional inner struggles for Pontius, specifically. In Act 1 he kills fish all day, and dreams of them haunting him. In Act 2, though we don't see it, they seem to follow him as he runs through the bloody trenches of WW2. In Act 3, as a traumatized veteran, he stretches to find something to grasp onto when his faith is gone. He finds comfort in the wind and dreams of sailboats surrounded by glistening fish because they symbolize, in a sense, him coming to terms with his trauma, and embracing his ghosts as comforting shadows he interacts with. The fish puppets in particular have always symbolized, to me, life and death. They are narratively intertwined with fantastical religious imagery like walking on water, imagery that often reminds us of our mortality and divine power. Translating these moments into puppetry makes sense, because with puppetry who can get away with anything. There are no physical or metaphorical limits on how to animate these sequences. Puppetry allows for the heightening of visual imagination, defying traditional sense of scale, proportion and movement. 
QN: Patti, you've built a lot of puppets since the birth of Pointless Theatre - what is your favorite puppet you've ever built, and why?
PK: Its hard to pick favorites with puppets I've built, because they are like children. If you pick one, the others get jealous. With that said, I have favorites for different reasons. Minnie, the protagonist from Pointless's production of an original jazz-puppet-spectacle Minnie the Moocher, was one of my favorites to watch in performance. Sometimes puppets can be beautifully sculpted, but if they don't do justice movement-wise to the story, in a way its a failed attempt as a designer. This show was one long musical number, an hour-long dance, where the puppets needed to run around and get a bit wild. Minnie was a half-puppet, half-human, in the sense that she had a head and upper body that was strapped onto the performer's neck hanging like a giant necklace. She had legs. The legs of the performer were the complimentary puppet legs. We had the puppeteer wear the same color purple leggings as the puppet's skin was painted, and they had matching 1920's bob haircuts, dresses and make-up. At times, during the show, you couldn't tell they were the performer's legs because they blended so perfectly in the blocking. And other times, there was a clear distinction between puppeteer and object. There was something fascinating that happened visually with this kind of range, and that style of puppetry became an optical illusion for audiences that heightened her character's emotional rollercoaster within the show. 
QN: Ben, your work with Synetic often involves highly physical, non-verbal storytelling and sometimes includes beautifully elaborate shadow puppetry. How did that kind of work inform your fish-ography in Passion Play?
BC: Oddly, it's more similar to using weapons and tools onstage. A weapon is an extension of the body, and delivers force for a specific purpose in a way the body can't alone. A good swordsman uses the blade as an extension of the self. The object becomes infused. When I've done work with puppets, it is this infusion, but to a greater degree. There are worlds of possibilities with this, but at the basic level I think it is about the infusion of personal energy into the object to the point that it takes on a life of its own. All stylized work has this transformative quality -- you can turn your body into a chair, or turn a chair into a person, it's all related. 
But an outside eye is necessary, whether it comes from a performer or a choreographer, especially as you're creating, because infusion isn't something you can just do or feel...if you want to share it with other people in an understandable way. This is where technique comes in (as well as sanity). 
Shadow puppetry is extremely technical, because the relations of the image to the screen and the light source and the audience must all be accounted for in order to make an understandable image. This puppetry is different -- there is nothing hidden about the puppeteers, so the image of puppeteers itself is a part of the performance. 

QN: Final question - who/what is your favorite puppet of all time, and why?
PK: Hmm, that's a very difficult question. I'm not sure I have one. The muppets will always be a childhood favorite, but recently I also have begun to appreciate the more experimental puppetry that has been flourishing the past few years. Not to sound cliche, I would even include Disney's Lion King in the latter category. I saw that show when I was ten and was blown away by the puppet engineering, the mask work and make-up. The most impressive to me were the giraffes on stilts and the way the performers had to walk and crouch to make the animal silhouette. Amazing. 
BC: Yoda. There's never been a wiser puppet. And no, the animated version doesn't count. 

Quill Nebeker is a Season 11 Directing & Production Intern with Forum Theatre, and an assistant director on Passion Play. Look out for his work as a director in the 2015 Source 10-Minute Play Festival.
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Passionate for Passion: Falling in Love with Sarah Ruhl’s PASSION PLAY

Posted on April 6, 2015 in Passion Play
It’s no secret to many of my friends and colleagues that I have very mixed feelings about how Sarah Ruhl's scripts are executed in production. Over the years, one of my great frustrations has been that the scrips read so beautifully, but it isn't always translated into interesting action on a stage. Ruhl’s style has always reminded me of the music of Claude Debussy: sensory, beautiful in an understated way, emotional, wistful, and pensive. Lovely to listen to and soak in, but after 2 + hours, can leave me feeling a bit restless unless it's handled properly.
When I first read Passion Play, it absolutely floored me. I wept, I laughed, and devoured the stories and characters. However, I couldn’t get rid of some nagging questions: This is almost 4 hours of Sarah Ruhl. How on earth is Michael going to stage this?  Will audiences be able to stay invested the whole time? Is it too poetic, too heady, too intricate? It reads well, but will it perform well? Does enough happen?
As an assistant director for Passion Play, I was in the fascinating position of being able to watch this production come together, bit by bit. Due to the complex nature of the script, Michael started the rehearsal process with several days of table work—sitting the cast around a table and working through the play, discussing and analyzing themes, big questions, characters, etc. I was very struck by something during the table work process.  Normally, by the end of a day or two, most of the big questions about the themes of the play or holes in the plot or characterizations are settled, and everyone feels like they are more or less on the same page. At the end of three days of table work on Passion Play, while many important things had been discussed and agreed upon, I think we all had more questions than we came in with. And everyone was fascinated by a different part of the show—everyone took something different away from the script.  Everyone had a different favorite scene or moment or a different “big question.” It’s rare for a show to simultaneously bring such a large group together, but still inspire such a diverse batch of questions and reactions.
Over the next few weeks, we worked through the play scene by scene, sketching out movement, delving into characters, and creating fluid transitions between the pieces. As we took apart this epic play and re-assembled it, I found myself forgetting all of the doubts I originally had about Ruhl’s style, and just becoming completely engrossed in the characters and their struggles.  I fell in love with this play in the same way some great romances happen: almost imperceptibly, slowly, in stages, until you suddenly find yourself telling anyone and everyone who listen about it. The first time we ran the show from beginning to end was a challenge for the actors and far from perfect—you try remembering almost 4 hours of lines and movement and see how well you do!—but had an undeniable magic and electricity that left me speechless.
Another round of magic happened during technical rehearsals.  For those readers who do not work in the theatre, “tech” is an experience loved by some and dreaded by some: long days of testing lighting cues, sound effects, costume changes, and transitions—frequently going back to fix problems or timing concerns.  I will readily confess that patience is not always one of my greatest virtues (although I’m working on it!).  I like to move, I like to be actively working through things, I tend to think through things kinesthetically, and when I’m directing my own projects, my favorite part of the process is in the rehearsal room with actors—my least favorite part is tech. During the technical rehearsals for Passion Play, however, I was absolutely transfixed. So many ideas and locations and effects had cropped up in production meetings and rehearsals—and to imagine them hypothetically in a rehearsal room was one thing.  To actually see them was entirely different.  The technical team had invested the same kind of scene-by-scene commitment to the play that Michael and the actors had, and the result was stunning—a journey through a dizzying number of scenes, all with lush imaginative looks.  (A special shout-out must be made to Andrew Cissna, whose lighting design is one of my favorite parts of this production.)
The cast of Passion Play is extraordinary—a true dream team of local talent. In all honesty, I would probably enjoy watching this cast read the phone book. As an assistant director and the fight director on this production, I watched all the dress rehearsals and previews. I was at opening, and watched an evening performance the week after we opened. I have always been delighted to watch this exceptional cast continue to grow and discover this epic cycle of stories.  However, my favorite thing about sitting in on performances of Passion Play has been watching the audience.  Night after night, I watch audiences experience this story for the very first time.  I watch them lean in, I watch them cry, I watch them gasp, I watch their wonder. I watch them fall in love, and take a journey.  
My own journey during this show was from one of skepticism to one of amazement and appreciation. In the end, this epic show was tackled deftly and skillfully by Michael and this kick-butt ensemble of actors and designers by focusing on the smaller, human moments that make up this play. It is not by focusing on the big picture, or the daunting scope of a timeline, or worrying about the runtime that you succeed in tackling a show like Passion Play—it is by devoting yourself utterly to a collection of smaller moments. As artists, I think it is easily for us to become overwhelmed by the big picture, the big questions, the seemingly unanswerable challenges that keep us up at night. Sometimes these questions can only be tackled head-on, but in the case of Passion Play, they were answered and developed by meticulously answering the smaller ones first.  And when we all stepped back, after weeks of rehearsal, the result was staggeringly beautiful. 


Megan Behm, Directing & Producting Intern (@mmbehm)
Megan is a director and actor who has worked at the Folger Theatre, GALA Hispanic Theatre, the Source Festival, Studio Theatre 2ndStage, Lean & Hungry Theater, the Washington Rogues, the Maryland Shakespeare Festival, The Inkwell, Encore Stage & Studio, the American Shakespeare Center, and the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, among others. Megan is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a proud native of the DC area.  
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