Late November. Tonight I’m sitting in on rehearsal of Many Hats Collaboration’s Truth and Beauty. All I know of the project is that Jessica Wallenfels is involved in its creation, which means the piece will involve movement and the human form manifest in a beautiful complexity, if my memories of Mutt and Restroom serve me right. Jessica is joined by former classmates Betsy Cross and Elizabeth Klinger from D’ell Arte and Joe Spencer from CalArts “a hundred years ago.” We’re in a second-story bare officey space in Brooklyn overlooking Powell Blvd.
How it all began – Jessica and Betsy knew they wanted to “move together,” which they began doing in 2007, meanwhile trading music and books in search of source material for a project.
Jessica – Then [Betsy] got me Truth and Beauty and we both read it and we were like, “Oh my god don’t you just love this book?!” And it made us cry so much and it’s about this two-woman friendship. It was weird because neither of us was, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do this project.” It was just like, “Look at this thing we’ve found. It’s insanely beautiful. Let’s try to do something on it.” We did a lot of movement, research, and emotional work for movement on it, but we couldn’t quite take it further to the next step of getting it into a script. Enter Elizabeth Klinger. Elizabeth tore up the script and made this awesome adaptation. And the adaptation is no mean feat because a bunch of physical theatre artists turning a memoir into theatre, “Whoa, how do we do this?” That alone was a huge step forward for us.
And we’ve been working on this like projection idea that has been incorporated and then deincorporated and then scaled back. Because the novel has so many locations, we were thinking of projection basically as the set, to suggest where we are because we have no budget for this. We spent a lot of time dramaturging the film that would go along with this. Projections that give us where we are in place or things that are really hard to do onstage, you know, moods or shifts or major life events that happen and we can’t do because there’s too many people in it or something like that. Now we’ve got to a place where we’re going to have five or six occurrences of projection, possibly. But the researching the film script, so to speak, really informed what we wanted the theatre event to be and what it wanted to impart. Every time we were coming up with a projection we’d ask ourselves what are we trying to do with this, do to the audience with this, and then we would get further with what the theatre piece actually was. And it’s hard because the structure of the novel – it’s these two writers [Lucy Grealy and Ann Patchett] – and then one of them, the one that I play [Lucy] is definitely on a destructive path … It’s a story we know well in terms of how fame and pressure and things like that can make people self-destruct. So how do we tell that in a new way? Also, the memoir isn’t built with a traditional rising action, climax, dénouement, you know, it kind of goes more like this [makes a spiraling downward gesture] and so how do we structure that structure while remaining true to the story but making it a theatrical event that’s going to be interesting for a live audience?
We just got into this space a month ago and we’ve really been jamming and turning out four scenes a night. Actually staging it. Because we didn’t have a space for a long time, we didn’t know where we would be performing it, and so we had no idea about configuration and also the chairs, the idea of the chairs as our set, that didn’t come for a long time. That came like six weeks ago, so once those major pieces started to fall into place, then it’s like we’ve been booming.
I won’t see the projections tonight but I do see The Chairs. Within the corner section of the space taped off into a stage is an eclectic collection of at least nine chairs, some paired, some solitary.
Elizabeth: Their first apartment together is this green [narrow, 70s-style marbleized] chair that one of them comes with into the apartment with. This other wooden chair is the other chair that the girl enters the apartment with. So they’re both their kitchen chairs that sat around the kitchen table in this apartment and told all their sex stories and got to know each other and really fell in love over the chairs.
Jessica – It’s really interesting because their friendship crosses so many boundaries of what normal people expect out of their friends or where they stop their friends, and these women did not have these boundaries at all. So that’s one of the things that makes their friendship just extraordinary is that it is like a marriage. At one point Ann describes to her boyfriend that she’s like married, as if Lucy is her wife but they’re totally hetero.
Elizabeth – The one you asked about [an off-white short back chair with tan spots like a giraffe], that’s Lucy’s chair. That’s the chair that’s her apartment, her life-on-her-own chair, when they’re apart. And Jessica’s decided it’s probably her work chair because it’s really hard for her to ever work and so the chair’s super-uncomfortable, so probably perpetuates her distaste to sit down and work.
Elizabeth – The next chair [a bland, beige soft-seated, square chair] is our clinical chair for the abortion and the doctors’ offices and the hospitals. It serves the place of all the clinical sets basically. The other two chairs [round, red-felted seats with copper-colored curlicue backs], they’re the ice cream shop but then they also serve the purpose of a few other locations, like a canoe.
These two [broad, wooden, curved back chairs] are our pub chairs, like our bar. Ann gets a divorce and goes back home and lives with her mom and she gets a job waiting tables at TGIFridays and writes at night in her mom’s guest room. That’s [a seafoam green, hard plastic school chair] our classroom chair. That’s like when they’re teachers together, when they first start teaching out of college, and that’s also their chair for academic success, academic achievement as they go on. That is still the prize that they hold the highest esteem where they started and where they’re always reaching for. And there’s so much struggle for success with these two women.
Jessica – And they both do become famous, which is another extraordinary thing about their friendship is they’re struggling writers who make it. And the odds of that is pretty incredible.
Elizabeth – And this chair [a dark multi-colored squashy sofa corner seat] is Ann’s mom’s. So when Ann’s living with her mom in her guest room, this is the chair that she finds comfort in, and then it becomes later something she takes with her through life into her own home [and] it becomes Ann’s chair. So Ann’s and Lucy’s chairs are very different.
theresa – What am I going to get to see tonight?
Jessica – Tonight we’re working on some scenes from Act 2 where Lucy is just starting to get a little bit of success. She’s in a writing residency [Yaddo] but she’s much more concerned with who she’s fucking or not fucking, and Ann’s trying to comfort her and steer her correctly. And there’s another scene where Ann has a boyfriend who’s a poet who’s in direct competition with Lucy because Lucy is a poet at this point in her life. She writes a book later that is actually the story of her cancer [Autobiography of a Face]. She got this rare form of cancer when she was 10 and they irradiated the tissue to get rid of the cancer, and then for the rest of her life she’s not able to have a normal face because the bone keeps melting and she has 35 surgeries during her lifetime to try and fix her face so she can be normal and be pretty and be attractive and none of them work because it just keeps melting away. So that’s part of Lucy’s problem with men. What I was trying to say is that the book that she writes, that makes her famous, is the story of her face, which is not really the story she’s ever wanted to tell. She’s wanted to be a writer on her own terms or her own story…
Betsy – But that’s the only thing she was ever famous for.
Jessica – But it’s also a really great book.
Betsy – Yeah, and I think she was also ashamed of that as she was proud of it.
Elizabeth – Lucy never wanted to write that way. She was very identity heavy for herself – she identified, “I’m a poet. This is what I am, not this.”
Jessica – But when men are concerned, it’s total all out competition between Lucy and Ann, especially if the guy is a writer, which he has been at different points in Ann’s life. And then [Lucy] gets jealous. She gets really really jealous on lots of levels. We’re in the middle of the story, where they’re just starting to get some notoriety.
* * *
Scene 1 – Chaste Cuddling at Yaddo. The chairs are cleared away, leaving a bare stage and only Ann’s mother’s chair, the corner-end sofa seat, downstage right. Ann (Betsy) sits in the chair. Lucy (Jessica) is crumpled on the floor nearby. The Painter (Joe) stands in the corner upstage left.
1. Yaddo, where Lucy gets a call from Ann, which, in the days before cells phones, was a really big deal. The phone rings. Lucy remains crumpled on the floor, then Joe announces it’s for her. She bolts up, face electrified, grabs the other end of the phone from Ann. The phone cord is comically vast, at least 15 feet long. Lucy stands and, phone in hand, prances across the stage towards Joe then remains by his side, wiggling and giggling just like a 6-year-old with a crush. She fawns by his side as she talks on the phone to Ann. Joe indulgently beams down at her.
Ann narrates: Yaddo is adult summer camp with lots of sexual intrigue and Lucy is playing a dangerous game with a nameless Painter (Joe) she’s met there. Lucy obsesses over him but the relationship is doomed from the beginning. The Painter will sleep naked with Lucy, but he has a girlfriend so won’t have sex with her… because he’s good and true to his girl back home. Lucy explains this to Ann matter-of-course, as if it makes perfect sense that someone should walk all over her heart with no strings attached. Ann’s rightful indignation on Lucy’s behalf has no effect. Ann settles for begging Lucy to at least eat, but Lucy giggles self-consciously and worries she’ll drool it over herself. There’s something frantic in Lucy’s devotion to the Painter. Then the Painter leaves and Lucy is dejected.
The scene ends and Elizabeth points out that Jessica forgot to wear her mask. “Oh yeah – I thought I felt too cute.” Jessica straps a piece of flesh-colored plastic across her mouth, leaving her teeth bared. Mental flash to Silence of the Lambs. I understand Lucy’s fear of drooling out her food.
2. This time, Lucy slinks on all fours with playful sensuality to Joe, who mirrors her. They meet and roll against and over each other like puppies. They nuzzle. Playful as these movements are, now that Jessica is wearing the mask, Lucy’s vulnerability is almost crushing; Joe becomes a man bent on a taking advantage of Lucy’s desperation for sex, love, and comfort. And Lucy, self-conscious of her face, will take whatever she can get. This is disquietingly familiar.
Elizabeth admires the playfulness of Jessica and Joe on the floor and hones in definite moments in the text where Lucy does and does not face him. She probably doesn’t look at Joe when she talks about drooling, or anything else that makes her unattractive. Elizabeth encourages them to find the holds in the scene rather than continual movement.
3. They spend time choreographing the series of movements around the idea of “chaste cuddling.” Jessica and Joe lay on the floor back-to-back, then curl into spooning. “Can you make that more chaste?” Joe pulls his arm from around Jessica’s waist and props it up on his hip. [Jessica/Lucy – “I thought he was going to put it on my boobie, then he doesn’t.”] We burst out laughing. Joe moves his pelvis away from Jessica and she slides her body downstage so her butt is at his knees. [“Boner killer.”] It’s ridiculous, but so is the Painter’s relationship with Lucy. Jessica curls her head down from under his arm, and Joe rolls to face away from her. Then he rises and walks away. End scene. Lucy’s heartbreak. She falls back, spread-eagle on the floor.
Chaste cuddling: I envision two marble statues.
4. Elizabeth continues to choreograph sexual intrigue; aligning movement with text. Here is where the Painter nibbles Lucy’s tummy and the sexual stakes are raised; here is where Lucy turns her face away from him. The text and movement are woven together.
The scene is run one last time. The stakes are higher, the action more interesting. From a cute girl toying with a crush, Lucy has transformed into a woman so insecure and frantic for affection she’ll starve her body and self-respect, for the touch of a man’s hand.
Scene 2 – Lucy Grealy comes to glory.
1. Picking up from the previous scene, Lucy is spread-eagle on the floor. Ann remains in the squishy chair and narrates the next phase of their parallel careers. Lucy climbs higher to success, with an autobiographical essay about her face published in Harpers, a residency, and a book contract. Lucy rises, face blank, eyes empty and cast towards the lights. She picks up the green chair of academic success and carries it above her head as she steps with deliberation in a half-arc from SR to SL, stopping center stage. The emotional distress of a moment ago is gone, replaced by cold, driven intellect of success and self-abnegation.
Ann stands, and for the first time this evening I get a glimpse into her life as something more than Lucy’s pillow. She narrates her far less glamorous life, teaching for a semester in Kentucky. She approaches Lucy, lies back, then props the green chair of success against her feet, holding the two back chair legs with her hands. Lucy hops onto the chair and Ann extends her legs upwards, pushing Lucy into the air. The metaphor of her supporting Lucy and her career is literalized.
Betsy’s extension is effortless. I’m concerned about her balance and strength but Betsy’s worried about her lines; the chair wobbles only when she turns her head to the side to refer to her script – then she loses sight of Jessica’s movements and can’t counter her weight. For now, Elizabeth determines, the issue is blocking and safety, not so much the lines. Joe enters, this time as Mark Levine, the Poet who becomes Ann’s lover. He reaches out and removes Betsy’s hands from the chair legs… and Jessica remains perfectly balanced on her perch. It’s gorgeous, both in the world of the play – a symbol of Lucy’s reliance on Ann’s strength, the fragility of Lucy’s success – and in the actual here and now – Betsy and Jessica’s trust for each other as performers.
Elizabeth is excited how easily Joe was able to remove Betsy’s hands and focus from the chair. This is the metaphor she wants – Mark pulling Ann away from Lucy. But, she suggests, what if at the top of the scene, Ann brings the chair of success to Lucy? Granting Lucy the success she herself once had. Emphasizing even more how entangled their successes are with each other, how entangled Lucy’s sense of the personal success is mixed with Ann.
2. The scene begins again. Lucy is spread-eagle on the floor on her back. As Ann speaks, Jessica tries something similar to a shoulder stand with a half-twist. [It doesn’t work this time but she’ll play with it throughout the evening.] Ann picks up the chair and the women approach each other. While it’s apparent in the dialogue how much Ann gives to Lucy emotionally, the act of her handing off this chair of their success exposes even more her generosity. I feel its weight.
Lucy is propped aloft on her chair of glory. This time, when Mark takes Ann’s hands away from the chair, Lucy hangs down backwards, her upside-down face gazing at us. Then Mark carries her and the chair them both across the stage to SR. When he puts the chair and Lucy down, Lucy is facing the wall, her back to Ann. Of course Lucy would protest this. She has her chair of glory but it isn’t enough; she needs Ann too. She turns to face Ann – Mark is still between them but US – and they argue about Mark, his poetry, and Ann’s betrayal in dating a poet. It’s a verbal tennis match, with Mark in the middle. But Lucy wins Ann’s attention back to herself, as I sense she always does – she asks if Ann loves her more. Ann does, though not without pointing out the exclusivity of Lucy’s definition when there are, in fact, many types of love.
Elizabeth asks, “What the hell do we do with Mark Levine?” It gets awkward with the two women arguing around him and he remains silent. How do they make him feel like a character and not just a body? He feels superfluous by the time Lucy asks Ann if Ann loves her more than Mark. Should he stay or go? Betsy suggests keeping him in the scene – he’s a significant relationship for Ann. Betsy’s interested in the linear status play – the three of them in a line, Mark physically between them. The scene is run again and after Mark puts down Lucy and the chair, he deliberately blocks Lucy’s ability to see Ann, in essence creating his own little world with Ann.
They play for some time with the visual of Ann and Mark easing into their relationship, all the while Lucy and Ann arguing about the relationship. And with Mark between them physically, it’s evident how much Lucy’s power is weakened. Slowly Ann and Mark fold into sitting, hesitantly their hands tickle up each others’ arms. I see the hesitancy of Ann exploring a love and self outside of Lucy. Mark reaches his hands under Ann’s arms and lifts her in a swift diagonal so her knees are on his shoulders as Ann comes closer to Lucy. When she admits that she loves Lucy more, Ann is severed from Mark and slides over the back of Lucy’s chair. As someone who continually walks into doorjambs, I’m amazed by Betsy’s easy grace.
“But does this movement work?” someone asks. After all, Mark rips Lucy and Ann apart, but the movement on stage brings the women together. They try again. After the lift, Ann’s forward momentum pushes Lucy off the chair, onto the floor. Lucy huddles with her arms around her legs. And now it’s just Lucy and Ann again, Mark is third place in the line as Ann tells Lucy of course she loves Lucy more than Mark. Mark exits.
3. Having Ann back to herself isn’t enough for Lucy. Ann moves back to the squishy corner chair that is her mom’s house and Lucy picks up her chair of success and marches to the opposite side of the stage. She pouts about not having a boyfriend. She marches back to Ann, still with her chair of glory, complaining that she can’t write, she doesn’t have a book published. Lucy doesn’t – she can’t – stop moving. She tantrums, about to crawl out of her skin; I expect at any moment for her to start screaming, as the real question is, Why isn’t your love enough for me? It oozes from every pore. Ann, resting in her soft chair, must be exhausted, trying to hold Lucy together, yet she comforts her, rises and again, lifts Lucy onto her chair of glory. And 2 to 3 hours later, she tells us, We do it all again. While Lucy talks about being lonely, I think how lonely Ann must be, spending her life dealing with Lucy’s demands like a child.
4. Elizabeth wants more natural movement during this last section. So now, after Mark leaves, Ann and Lucy stay in the chairs, Lucy bemoaning her struggles. The stage picture is so quiet. I miss the movement, but Lucy’s dependence on Ann’s support is clearer. Whereas before Lucy was running around with her chair of success, now she deserts it and doesn’t return to it until Ann encourages her to write. Then Ann lifts Lucy onto the chair…and the cycle begins again.
* * *
Everyone checks in at the end of the night and Elizabeth makes me, rehearsal trespasser, speak up. What happened tonight was the integration of text and movement to empower a story, and how this happened was through specificity. Taking the impulse of the body and shaping it so that its actions became a story in itself, a story that at times moved with and supported the text and, at other times, moved against the characters’ language and told the unspoken story.
Ultimately, those two scenes amounted to approximately ten minutes of the play. For me, ten lonely minutes about friendship. Beauty. Women and love. Women and art. Women in art. Lonely because creating art, especially writing, is lonely; done well, it is the darkest and brightest of ourselves; then having expended our all, we’re left staring into the expanse of our faceless audience, looking for the one to return us to ourselves. Looking for the one who will love us enough to temporarily assuage the searing self-doubt and hatred that arises from seeing in the mirror that which we can never escape.
Truth and Beauty runs Jan. 22-23, & 28-30 at 8:30pm @ Shaking the Tree, 1407 SE Stark St.
see also: www.facebook.com/manyhatscollaboration