Here's a peek inside the mind of a director (enter if you dare) as I figure out how to take The Tree Play from page to stage. Below are some of the -- let's be generous -- sketches I've -- let's be realistic -- scrawled as part of my thinking out loud with pencil and paper. I've included descriptions so you'll understand what I'm trying to convey in my crude drawings.
SPOILER ALERT!!! If you want to see the play with completely fresh eyes -- unadulterated by my explanations below -- skip the bits preceded by "Spoiler Alert!!!," or just stop reading right here (do please, however, consider making a donation to help support the play -- thanks!).
This is the first drawing (above) that I did back in June, 2011. You'll find this squiggle in the initial draft of The Tree Play, a hastily scribbled half-dozen pages of notebook paper that I'll share in a later post.
Two things stand out in the drawing. First, my cliched concept of the tree and how actors might portray it (in the play three actors work together to create the title character, the Tree). There they are with their arms outstretched -- look, look! They have branches. Ugh. How literal! Well, it's still early in the process and I gotta start somewhere!
The single figure downstage left of the Tree is the character of the Girl, pretending to be a tree. That's the other thing: At first I imagined this play would be produced in a proscenium theatre. Hence, "downstage." The wavy lines upstage are some sort of rainforest backdrop. That soon gave way to the ideas in the sketch below.
I quickly determined two things once I'd written the play. First, the actors portraying the Tree don't stand with their arms outstretched, pretending they have branches. They are, as I noted at the time, "solid" in their stance, more tree trunk than canopy. No more cliched "arm-branches."
And now we're looking at a performance shape that is ovular -- an irregular oval in which the play happens, surrounded by the audience. The little circles (some are numbered) indicate places where other actor-trees might be, to form a forest through which we watch the play. I'm starting to think about ways to immerse the audience into the world of the play.
That idea of watching the play from among the trees is what the drawing above tries to capture. Inside the oval are the large Tree and the SPOILER ALERT!!! New Tree. Between them hangs the hammock the Father lies on as the lights go down at the end.
The little matchstick figures around the perimeter are the audience, standing and watching. Yes, I seriously considered making the audience stand for the duration. Anyone who's ever worked worked with me knows I'd risk major audience discomfort if it served the concept!
What drew me to this particular configuration -- and torturing the audience for a 45-minute play -- is indicated by the larger figures in the background. I was mulling over the idea that we'd aim the lighting from the ground up -- through the spectators, using the bodies of the audience to cast huge, tree-like shadows on the walls around the space. We'd add another layer of forest, created by the people coming to see the play. This would reinforce the idea that "We Are The Trees," the central concept for this production.
Fortunately for you, assuming you're coming to the performances that is (have I mentioned the play runs August 6 - 8 at the Ground Floor Theatre?), I came up with a better, less audience-torturing idea. I know, I know -- I've grown soft in my dotage.
That said, I didn't completely ditch the up-lights idea. The drawing above is of the Girl, aloft in the Tree, lit from below -- you can see the nose of a lighting instrument poking out of the left side of the page and the three-line beam of light casting deep shadows on the Girl. Lighting the Girl when she's sitting in the Tree from below heightens (no pun intended) the dramatic effect of the moment. I think the squiggle at the bottom of the drawing is SPOILER ALERT!!! the Journalist after he's been murdered.
I love showing people the drawing above because their first reaction is usually: "?" At first it just looks like a confusion of lines and circular shapes. Yes, yes, all my drawings demonstrate that aesthetic. Then they see: It's me beginning coming to terms with how characters enter and exit the playing area -- where they start and where they wind up. The biggish, dark circular thing up-center left is the Tree (it looks like a potato, or a softball, with little toothpicks sticking out of it). And you can see the Girl's position below and slightly to the right of center (she's the little circular blob with a left-heading arrow passing just above). Where characters enter and exit says a great deal about who they are, where they came from and what sort of change is in store for them.
This drawing takes the entrances-and-exits sketch above a little further. When I saw the Ground Floor Theatre -- the venue for the production -- for the first time it was still under construction. It was painted black and there were no seating risers in the room. It was just a huge empty shell of a space and it was perfect. This drawing attempts to put the play into that big empty space. The Tree is clearly marked in the center of the oval, and there's a sense of how the audience is seated around the playing area (noted by percentages: how many people are sitting in which areas). "Tx" marks where other characters stand; they play SPOILER ALERT!!! a chorus of forest, communicating as echoes of the Tree through movement and sound. You'll see that the chorus surrounds the audience -- we've put the patrons in among the trees, deep inside the forest.
The drawing above is me trying to figure out how the Girl climbs the Tree. First I thought: ladders. But that didn't last long. Next I thought: a knotted rope like you find in PE gymnasiums that looks vine-like and is attached to the ceiling. That's what's going on in this sketch. We are not doing this either. Or not exactly.
Note the date: 10/28/14: The production designs are well underway -- in my head anyway -- despite the fact that I didn't have a design team until early February. The sketch was made little over a year following the reading we did at Casa Polgar in September 2013, a mere three years after I wrote the first draft of the play (cough, cough; yes this production is a long time coming).
Along with the knotted rope idea came a possible solution for SPOILER ALERT!!! how to hang the hammock at play's end so the Father could lie down in it. The Tree stands on the left, the New Tree on the right and the hammock attaches to knotted rope vines at either end.
We're not doing that either. Just another example of me working through possible solutions. I think we hit on a good one -- you'll see...
This last image is from a meeting with choreographer Toni Bravo last Friday (May 15, if you're keeping score at home). You'll recognize the oval playing area with the Tree inside, left of center (noted by the three little triangles and the arrowed lines spiraling around them). And now there's a spot the Girl keeps coming back to (the circle with the "A" in it).
As Toni and I talked SPOILER ALERT!!! I added some of the traffic patterns we want the performers to follow (the arrowed lines). Look carefully and you might see some of the actors' names among our perimeter forest chorus.
How much of this will wind up in the final version? Probably a lot, considering these ideas have been cooking for a long time and the creative team likes the direction the play is taking.
Still, I suspect we'll continue to make discoveries as we rehearse. Discoveries that affect the ensemble's movement and gestures and patterns, which will demand new attempts to figure things out with pencil and paper in rudimentary squiggles and doodles.
Let's be generous and call them sketches.
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