Saturday, May 15, 2021

I Hate This: Recording

Westfield Insurance Studio Theatre
I have become my mother.

When I Hate This was first produced at Cleveland Public Theatre in 2003, my mother chose not to watch. If you are familiar with the Levin Theatre space at CPT, you know that the seating is on risers. Mom offered to hold month-old baby Zelda, so that Toni could watch the performance. Mom walked back and forth, behind that tall bank of seats, listening, keeping the baby lulled asleep.

She said later that she preferred it. She didn’t want to watch. At first, I thought it was because I had hurt her feelings with the production, but that wasn’t it. She did want to see me in pain.

This entire week, sitting in the dark recesses of the Westfield Insurance Studio Theatre, watching James tell my story, there were moments when I found myself not watching. Not merely looking at my phone, but closing my eyes. Looking down. I did not want to see myself, my wife, in pain.

Most of the time, however, I was enjoying myself a great deal. Just sitting there, watching these professionals do their work. Because what they’re making is a movie. Julie the stage manager, Angie the sound designer, Ananias the cinematographer, Chennelle the director, James the actor, the entire Playhouse Square surround team. Collaborating, creating video and sound.

One of the advantages of this process is that they can record scenes out of order, to save time. And to record several takes of each shot. In between, Chennelle may or may not give James notes. They have a secret language together, a code. I don’t know what they’re talking about, but it works.

Ananias & James
How old were these two in 2001? Eleven? Twelve?

The laughter in the house brings me joy. When discoveries are made, when mistakes are made. It appears to fuel James’s spirit in performance. This is not a play about feeling grief. I mean, it is, but it is more about dealing with grief, reacting to it. Trying to say the right thing, maybe getting it wrong. Human frailty.

This is also an opportunity to get it better than I have in the past. It’s a performance, not a documentary. This means that everything presented is a choice, my choice. Chennelle has helped me make better choices. Some of my original performance decisions make me cringe. A few were racially insenstive. A nurse. A child in a toy store.

And there were elements of casual cruelty, revenge. And she would ask, what purpose does this serve? If I had no answer, then out it went. She is nicer to my parents than I was.

The process of filming all of the scenes, out of sequence, took five evenings. My job in attendance, as I saw it, was to correct misstatements during performance -- but only when I felt it was absolutely necessary. James might drop a phrase in one take, and I would think ... does it matter? Usually not. I’d let it go.

Once, at the end of the rocking chair scene, he used the word baby once instead of child. That I corrected. But performance notes? No. Not my business. Chennelle and James had worked so carefully on a consistency of style, of mood, most of all of character, it didn’t make sense for me to interject.

Chennelle & James
Watching James perform the birthing scene, I was overcome with emotion. You might think, of course you were, why wouldn’t you be? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because of the words. I could recite the scene in my sleep. This version of that event, I have it memorized better than perhaps any passage of text that I know. And I have seen others perform the same piece and enjoyed witnessing it, but not been affected.

But in this peculiar situation, he’s so like me, but not me. He looks like me, only smaller. But he’s different enough that I saw the scene in a whole new way, and I thought I could truly see myself the way others might see me. And what happened. And how I felt. And that made me cry.

The biggest revelation was watching James perform the “Blame” scene, which was always the hardest scene for me to perform. People ask if it’s difficult for me to play this most tragic moment of my own life and I say no, because I enjoy telling the story. But this scene is hard, because I don’t like who I am in it.

However, James shows that in the proper hands it is a dynamite monologue. I’d even recommend it for people to use for auditions.

So. Now his work is, as they say, in the can. Next up … editing!

Playhouse Square will premiere "I Hate This (a play without the baby)" in Summer 2021. Details to come.

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