Bone Orchard, the company that created the extended Film Festival show The Stubborn Illusion of Time, which has its last two performances at The Brick this upcoming Thursday and Friday. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it – it’s a fresh and exciting piece that uses the space in new and interesting ways, and it will haunt you after you see it.
JEFF: So my first question is essentially: how did the project get started? I know that Stubborn Illusion sort of rose from the ashes of a previous piece, and I'd love to know how that one came to be, and what brought you to the point of deciding to reinvent it.
ANNA JONES (director): We began a series of workshops in November with a large group of actors investigating the idea of The Immediate Present and how to put it on stage, taking New York, photography and the news as our three primary themes. We did a lot of exploring through many different exercises, improvs, installations, and presented a sketch of them at Nouriel Roubini's loft in Tribeca in December. David Dixon who is a good friend of Laura's, saw the piece there, and invited us to do something similar in his building, an old coffin factory, in Williamsburg (near Graham Avenue).
We were thrilled to be invited to rehearse and perform in such an amazing building, and on top that, for free... so really David and his building began us on a new path. As we explored it, we found we wanted to work in response to its atmosphere and its spaces - from the ramp that coffins used to be carried down to a waiting room area to stairs leading up and down to the loading dock.
We started investigating three new characters in relationship to that space who remain in this piece, The Stubborn Illusion of Time (Rudolf, an East German janitor hiding out there from the world; Francis, a 100 year old spirit whose parents owned the factory and who died in a coffin making accident(!) and Gregor, a Belarussian homeless man) and they co-existed with three characters brought over from our investigations into the news and photography (a photographer, loosely modeled on Diane Arbus who also remains in this piece; a soldier suffering from traumatic shock and a pedophile trying to discover his identity): so these characters became spirits who were dead and trying to move through their lives in order to understand who they were, what their lives were and how to get to a next stage of death... out of the limbo the coffin factory represented. So we took an audience through the building, happening upon the scenes as we got to them - they were installed in each nook and cranny of the building...
Anyway, this was all very exciting and when we finished, David told us about the Film/Theatre festival at The Brick (he curated the film branch) and encouraged us to apply with the film of the piece that he had directed the shoot of with two camera guys. So we decided to make a new piece of theatre continuing from the previous one that was made out of the ashes of that one (its film, its characters, its place) and I think you can really feel the silt of that in this piece. its become even more about being stuck in time - hence the title, the idea that past, present and future for these people is somehow indistinguishable. the film really adds to that and it was something that we wanted to explore formally and from the point of view of these characters.
JEFF: So what aspects of The Immediate Present did you need to shed on its journey to The Brick, and why?
ANNA: Well the first thing is that we lost two actors along the way for different reasons so two characters were left on the screen but not on the stage. The opening of the piece with Eddy's character, Rudolf, shedding the spirits of the two now departed spirits reflects our saying farewell to them. Of course, we also lost the traveling aspect of The Immediate Present.
JEFF: Right, of course. Reflecting that loss, what did you have to create anew in order to accommodate the new space?
ANNA: We had to create new situations and new explorations of the remaining relationships and situations in a proscenium space, also integrating the film from the last piece… we improvised, discussed, played and worked and came up with what you see now in The Stubborn Illusion of Time. It became even more about time – moments repeating, getting stuck in time, trying to move through time, moving back in time, etc.
JEFF: And how was all of this reflected in your collaborative process?
ANNA: We spent a lot of time early on discussing what the new piece would be. We had a mixture of formal ideas (wanting to play with how theatre could mimic film and wanting to mess with time) and relationship or character arc ideas (e.g. Gregor and Rudolf switching places at the end of the piece, based off the idea of Persephone going back to the living world from the Underworld for a period of time after a deal was struck!)… We improvised sections out of these conversations, tried out specific ideas different people would bring in (from text to visual) and then concentrated on threading them together into a whole piece. We had more time pressure working on this piece so we did less open playing and movement work and more specific trying out of ideas to take the material we already had into a new place.
JEFF: How has the show continued to evolve since you've been at The Brick? Has audience response and the very act of performing the show regularly wrought any additional changes?
BRIAN FARISH (Actor): The piece is deeply reflective of the personalities of the performers. I know this is true for me at least. One of the beautiful aspects of working in the form (however ambiguous) we have chosen is that is something doesn't make visceral sense to the performer, we can change it and the performer has a say in exactly what it becomes. We often would create an event and say, "No, this is entirely wrong. Just completely off." And then try exactly the opposite, sometimes finding an incredible insight into who the characters could be. Anna is very gentle (VERY) in giving direction, but gives strokes exactly where necessary. The life of the characters on stage is exactly what we want it to be, its not as if we have to conform in any way to a script. So the events, the conflict between characters often arise from the mad workings of the performers' singular brains.
So each time I perform I can ask, "Who was I, Brian, when I wanted to do this moment in the piece? Is that the same tonight? What do i now love about this part of the piece?" And the answer changes as I change as a man from night to night. And so Gregor the character changes and grows as I do. This is the case with all good performance, even in intricately scripted and heavily directed work, it is just dominant in our work rather than secondary to "getting all the moments in tonight." I ususally don't care how Gregor ends up looking.
ROWEENA MACKAY (Dramaturg): Some audience members have described the show as "creepy" and "nightmarish." I never really thought of it that way, but now I'm wondering if we've created a horror play?! I've never heard of that genre of theatre ... film, yes. Anna & I saw Bayona's The Orphanage a few months ago and were scared out of our seats ...perhaps it had an influence on the work?!
We've even come up with a new catchy sound bite for the piece:
THE STUBBORN ILLUSION OF TIME: A MULTIMEDIA GHOST STORY ABOUT THE LIVING
... not bad eh?
An audience member also told me that he was reminded of a poem by James Dickey, that our play was like a "woolly baby."
ANNA: Performing every other weekend has allowed us to make changes to strengthen the overall arc and the tech of the show. We've been really fortunate to be part of such a strong team, working on it and wanting to make it better. We got a lot of feedback early on about different narratives the audience were getting, often ones we didn't realize we put there or could be read there. As Brian says, the process of working was very collaborative and so the piece reflects all these different minds, so in a sense, it is inevitable that the audience will read different interpretations of the show depending on what they see (also because there is a lot going on onstage). We varied in our opinions as to how much we wanted to listen to them, but we were all keen to keep crafting the piece and so we really got the opportunity to do that partly because The Brick was open to us being in the space at times outside of the show, which was incredibly helpful to that process – especially the technical part of it. The length of the run because of the extension has really allowed us to become more technically proficient and speedier, particularly because the actors, especially Laura and Eddy, do so much of the technical stuff onstage. It is quite amazing to see!
And yes, like Ro, I hadn't thought about the show being so creepy. I find it quite funny! It's been interesting to hear people describe it that way and I like the idea that we have created a horror play!! The tone of the play is really influenced by the design. On seeing rehearsals, Sharath (our sound designer) came back with quite a dark, shifting surreal palette… light parts too, but that really was interesting because he was creating that in response to what he saw of what we'd devised. Similarly with the lights, Burke (lighting artist) keeps the stage infused with mystery by playing with different types of lights than you'd usually see on a theatre stage, by using the projections as light sources and by other means too such as the flash of the camera; and in general, going for a watery, quite spectral atmosphere. Laura and I had been playing with ideas about playing with practical lights, flashes of cameras, and different objects, like plastic and newspapers, since we started workshopping in November and it's great to have them thought through, made new and integrated into Burke's imaginative response to the piece.
On top of that, the way the performers live inside the world onstage I think makes it creepy too as they really inhabit this strange space that we've all made. That's partly a result of becoming an ensemble and getting to know these characters in our last piece and having the same costumes to step back into which gives them that skin again. They live inside it very deeply and so that in a sense is quite odd when I think we're often used to seeing a less 'living' mode of performance, more performative really. That varies from show to show but I like the way it can feel so dropped in that you almost feel like a voyeur in the audience rather than an audience member. I love what you wrote, Brian, about the piece changing with you each night. That's fascinating to watch.
The arc of the show is getting stronger as we do it more. I would like to have the chance to continue with the piece elsewhere and see it grow even more and Roweena and I have talked about wanting to keep working on the text and the stories that are up there and I'm sure everyone has ideas about that, including our audiences…
JEFF: Thank you all for your thoughts – it’s been wonderful to have you at The Brick. Readers, buy your tickets today!