Photo credit: Cast of Scenes From the Bathhouse.  Photo By Luca Ragogna.

By an ensemble member, Adrian Marchuk.

April 24, 2013

“When The Cat Leaves, The Mice Sing And Dance Around”

Theatre is the world’s most collaborative art form.   Unlike painting or a sculpting, where an artist works in solitude from inspiration to finished creation, the act of birthing a piece of theatre involves the coordination and cooperation of many different artists:  writers, directors, designers, stage managers, composers, actors, and many more.

This is why, when theatre is being produced, most often it helps to have a few fixed points:  a classic script like Romeo & Juliet, a tremendous score like Fiddler on the Roof, the inimitable choreography of Jerome Robbins in West Side Story.    With these touchstones in place, we have something to guide us when differing art forms, personalities, and artistic visions inevitably collide – usually violently.   Does that brilliant bit of staging contradict the script or enhance it?   Does the brilliant costume design undermine the musical intentions of the score or illuminate them?

So what happens when theatre artists work without a net?    When twelve artists of wildly different backgrounds start to work on a show with no script, no score, and only a set of short stories by a relatively obscure Russian satirist as their starting point?    What happens when the usual constraints of theatre production – the boundaries usually set by the authors’ or director’s vision – are taken off?

Aleksandar Lukac, our brilliant director, accidentally phrased it well when he tried to recall the wording of the old aphorism about how mice behave when the cat is absent.    Like the mice, we have no rules on us, and there is a lot of chaos as a result.   Discussion.   Argument.   Reading stories aloud.   Acting stories out on our feet.   Discussion of relevant influences from theatre history and pop culture.   Improvised scenes.  Improvised songs.  Entire storylines created, developed, thrown out, then resurrected and reworked before being thrown out again.

Eventually, certain ideas come up again and again, almost like recurring dreams.    Themes emerge.   Patterns start to form.   We start to decide what kind of story we are telling, and how we are going to tell it.   Slowly but surely, the necessary and fruitful chaos settles into the hard work of writing, staging, cutting, rewriting, restaging, and redesigning.   Above all, we try to remain open to possibility.    Does that scene work better as a song?   Can we combine these two scenes into one?   Or maybe it just needs to be thrown out so we can make room for something better.

The best part of working in this challengingly diverse and maddeningly collaborative art form is that when you have the right combination of storytellers, their passions and talents begin to feed each other, rather than compete.    A simple design concept elegantly conveys the ragged world we are trying to evoke while also solving a staging conundrum.  Music and lyrics effortlessly fuse the worlds of 1930’s Russia with modern musical theatre.  An actor’s intuition and skill bring a scene to life while the director makes it part of a cohesive whole.

And out of the chaos, a new piece of theatre is being born.

Adrian Marchuk