Friday, July 17, 2015

Station Eleven (book)

Reminiscent of The World Without Us
It is well-understood that watching emergency room dramas can be very frustrating for actual medical professionals. Lawyers are the first people who can tell you how unrealistic courtroom dramas are, and nobody has ever talked the way they do on The West Wing.

Writers have not only to write compelling stories, but they have the burden of accuracy. Even when writing a piece of historical fiction like The Great Globe Itself, I needed to know the facts before I could satirize them. Even when we are making things up there can be a desire to fact-check, but fact-checking only goes so far.

When writing TheVampyres I invited an actual goth rock band to a table reading, and they were entirely dismissive of the characters I had created. On the night in question, a certain local professional cartoonist and non-professional social critic also happened to be in attendance, and he thought their reaction was hilarious. He said, “No, actually, guys like you are exactly like that.”

So, uh. So there.

Fortunately for theater artists, no one really writes about our craft for popular media very much so there is little to be nitpick. One of the reasons the Canadian TV program Slings and Arrows is so popular among theater people is not for its accurate portrayal of “The Life” but more because we’re all squeally like -- “OMG, they’re talking about us!!!!!!’

Shortly after college my father recommended that I might be interested in Light Thickens by Ngaio Marsh, a mystery where the murder takes place during a production of Macbeth. At that point my professional experience was not very deep, but I was immediately put-off by the director, whose opening comments about each character, delivered to each actor sitting around for the first read-through, were, I felt, horribly prescriptive. Add to that several actors expressed their strong difference of opinion, right off the bat, and engaged in a heated debate with the director, who insisted on the correctness of his opinion.

Of course, there are directors who come forcefully at their company like this, right at the start, though I am hard pressed to imagine the kind of counter-argument emerging from the acting company in response, at least not at the first blinking read-through. It just struck me as terribly false.

Let's read this corpse.
When in the first season of Slings and Arrows the avante-garde Darren Nichols begins his first rehearsal of Hamlet by pronouncing, “This play is dead,” it is hilarious because this is a comedy, and his is an extreme character. An extreme character much like directors we have known or worked with, perhaps, but still. Suspension of belief works differently for comedy than drama.

Recently, my wife checked out Emily St. John Mandel’s recent novel Station Eleven from the library, for us each to read. I had actually taken the book to North Carolina and back but was absorbed in other reading and actually didn’t get to it until our final night on the road, the night of the women’s final against Japan.

Looking into a vast, bright and shimmering television screen, transmitting images of a game of football being played entirely by women nearly three thousand miles away – the actual game itself attended by over fifty thousand people, an unimaginable number to be all in one place – myself lying between clean sheets in a hotel buzzing with people resting in safety and comfort, without weapons, twinkling ice in my plastic cup, drinking impossibly sweet and cool soda pop, the room alive with electricity and light after nightfall, the internet magically passing around us and through us, well-fed with warm pizza and fresh, green salads brought right to our room first by way of a gasoline powered vehicle and then the elevator. After a long day driving in a car, one cooled by air that just poured out a vent in spite of the eighty plus degrees outside, with clean water in a bottle, still cool, recently filled from a tap, available to all, and watching an exciting game, I read one page of this new work and promptly fell into a comfortable sleep, without care.

Read the book? You get it. Anyway.

This tale follows a caravan of actors and musicians, The Traveling Symphony, who roam a post-apocalyptic wasteland, making their living by playing and performing the works of Shakespeare.

They’re talking about us!!!!!!

I was most tickled by the different philosophies expressed by company members of the troupe, and how even after the end of everything actors and artists will be having the exact same debates about Shakespeare.

One player is confident in the idea that Shakespeare transcends time, and that more recent scripts are ground deep in a past that make them no longer comprehensible - let alone relevant - and that their decision to perform only his works, to the exclusion of all other texts, is the best artistic decision to make.

Another artist privately believes quite the opposite, that the works of Shakespeare are far too limited in their scope of human experience and besides she hates Shakespeare but will keep her opinion to herself because (ta-da) she works for a Shakespearean theater company.

There is also that age-old debate regarding costumes. Shouldn't the actors dress as their audiences do, in the decades-old, well-worn everyday wear of the past century? The thinking goes that if you perform Shakespeare’s text in contemporary dress, you bring the work closer to your audience. I have heard this argument. I have made this argument.

Other characters believe theater is a unique occasion, an opportunity to be transported to a different time and place, to see something special. As such, when the opportunity presents itself to ransack a long-abandoned home or school, to forage for any useful supplies, a useless dress or a disregarded men’s suit – unnecessary for survival –  is to them a valuable treasure.

John Wood, Alex Kingston
RSC 1990
One note, however, near the very beginning of the book struck me as entirely wrong. Departing a rather eventful performance of King Lear, just prior to that thing which makes the rest of the book happen, our narrator makes note of the poster, high above the Toronto streets. An image not unfamiliar to those who have ever seen this play; the bereft, ageing king, cradling his dead, grown daughter Cordelia.

I was shocked just to read it. I mean, uh, spoiler alert, Cordelia dies at the end of King Lear. Most know this and if you didn’t, well, so does Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, Hamlet (and practically everyone he touches) as well as Julius Caesar, they all die.  Caesar doesn't even wait to the end, he die in the third act.

But which fictional marketing director gave the green light to putting that image on the poster? Your main promotional image is the great tragedy at the very end of the play?

As our marketing department at Great Lakes has been conceiving of the season image for our Fall 2015 production, I have had the opportunity to take in dozens of other images from professional productions dating back a few decades.

Most are a dark, static depiction of an old man. I saw John Wood play Lear in 1990, the graphic was of the king prancing in madness, with a laurel of flowers on his head. A few include the Fool. Others are abstract; when we saw Ian Holm play the role in 1997 the image was of an eclipse of the sun.

The GLT season image for King Lear will not be released for a month or so, but they did principal photography last week. Here is an intriguing preview:

Via Facebook. What will happen?

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