Monday, November 9, 2015

Brian Cook in "I Hate This"

"I Hate This" at Hartwick College
Friday I took a day off work to drive seven hours to Oneonta, New York. Once I got out of the car I spent less time than that being out and about before retiring to my hotel for the night. I certainly didn't get seven hours of sleep before rising to drive the seven hours back home.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. I'd do it again.

Recap: Brian Cook asked to produce I Hate This for his senior thesis at Hartwick College. In addition to his normal course load, he's spent all semester eating, breathing and sleeping our story.

When a college senior says he wants to direct your solo performance for this thesis production, you say yes. Because this is about their education, not my opportunity. If a young man considers several different hour-long monodramas for men, and decides what he really wants to do is present the worst year in one father's life, you have to assume that was a decision he did not take lightly.

For the most part my hands were entirely off. I left in invitation open for questions, but figured it was best I didn't press it. Brian was creating a play, not working to recreate reality. We never even spoke on the phone, which was probably a good thing, he could decide who this "David" would be based on the words I had written.

I dearly wish I could have seen the production in Manchester last fall. At least then there was a review providing at least one person's impression of what was presented. I wouldn't expect that for a one weekend college production in a small town. Witnessing this performance could be a validation of my work, and I had to see that.

Brian staged the production in a black box space in Bresee Hall. The audience was seated on two sides, facing each other - an alley configuration (also: traverse or corridor) with about twenty-five seats on each side. Friday night was sold out, not technically "sold" because admission was free, but they took reservations and several students had to be turned away.

Speaking of students, this was one of the more bizarre elements of my experience. I've never performed I Hate This for so many young people. But then, the youth of my interlocutor made this relationship between subject and audience much less odd than if I had been playing it for them.

His engagement with the audience was delightful. One of the most significant differences between Brian's interpretation and my own is the visible depth of feeling. My performance has been called "near-dispassionate" which is something you would never accuse Brian of being. It is true, I hold my audience at arms length, but Brian moved into the house to deliver the memorial, he sat next to an audience member to play mother, took someone by the hand to lead them about the stage like my niece leading me into her room to play market. He handed out pieces of red, handmade paper.

I may someday be stealing these ideas.

During the final moments of the play, when it is not unusual to hear a few sniffles, we the audience could see each other, weeping. We were all together, in the birthing room. I wish Toni could have been there. In a way we were no longer alone.


How to make a hospital room into The Cloisters in 5 seconds.

Our original production design, created by director Tom Cullinan, included a stool, step ladder with paint-splattered dropcloth, a rocking chair, a small table with phone (and coffee cup with water) and a screen at the rear of the proscenium stage for the slides - which in 2003 were cast from an honest-to-God slide projector.

The bed was a rectangular light which came in when necessary and went away when it was not.

The intimacy of Brian's production, and the alley staging made it possible for there to be a bed - though not an actual sized bed, one that was built for the production, a clever optical illusion. Bits of paper lined the floor and ran up the wall to a blank spaces where the slides were cast to match the other writing. Paper also grew up from the floor to wrap around the base of the rocking chair, the bed, the table.

Each projected caption was accompanied by the sound of a pencil scratching, which was necessary to draw the audience's attention to the wall. When slides changed right behind me, the audience saw that happen, here there needed to be a sound cue or most would miss them, their eyes away from the wall on Brian.

After the performance a number of theater students gathered at Roots Brewing Co. (wait, I asked, can you people drink?) and I had the chance to talk to Brian and his colleagues about their work, this production, and share my stories about the production history. I also got to meet Nathan, who designed and composed sound and music as well as the poster and promotional video, his stage manager and assistant director Joanna, who Brian praised as critical to keep the production and himself together.

Beers at Roots Brewing Co.
One thing which has become apparent, especially watching a much younger man tell this story, are those elements which have become fixed in time. He was very good at properly representing this, in the old school cordless phone with built-in answering machine (not voice mail) and even down his his wardrobe, which he called very late 1990s-2000, like something you'd see on a late-era episode of Friends.

It's become a period piece. To the audience, which as I have described is a generation younger than I, watching the year progress, month by month (April 2001 ... May 2001) we are all moving toward a fixed point in history which unlike another other significant moment in history has no other name apart from the date upon which it happened.

These students were in second grade on 9/11, and I told them the story about one in my writing group objected to making that part of the narrative. This was in mid-2002 and it was the event was so raw. He found it jarring to move suddenly from such a personal world into the larger one. Some fourteen years later these audience members thought it was a very strong image, contrasting intimate grief onto a global event. With distance, perhaps, it now even more effective than before.

Driving home felt much faster than driving there, into the unknown. I had an open mind about the production going in, and was greatly impressed by what I experienced. But there was the emotional anxiety, the apprehension of watching something I so completely possess managed by another, especially one so young, and presumably unfamiliar with the particular feelings involved; pregnancy and childbirth and death.

I should not have worried. We are theater artists and this is what we do, interpreting tales which have been passed to us. As playwrights there is a time to let go of your work and trust that you wrote it down it correctly. And if you're lucky, as I feel I am, someone talented and impassioned enough, someone like Brian, will choose to tell your story.

Special thanks to Ken Golden, Director of Theatre Arts at Hartwick College, who was a warm and welcoming host during my brief stay, and a man who has made a tremendous, positive impact on the team of young theater artists I met there. We will pad thai again.

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