One of the best/worst reasons to be a playwright? Your work can be happening while you are 5,362 miles away.
Last night, five women who I may never meet performed a workshop that I couldn’t see at a theater I’ve never been inside of. It’s something I’ve been working on this week, and for the past four years — the first writing session was something like a six-hour-binge-collaboration in 2010.
I’ve been working on The Helen Project with director/writer/deviser Amy Clare Tasker on and off for approx. thirty zillion centuries… and it’s never the same collaboration twice.
The idea for the show started as a playful afternoon chat between friends on a sunny park lawn. Our day together ended with late-night sushi and laptops, the text of an opening monologue, and a weirdly charged sense of giddy urgency that’s propelled it forward as we drafted, edited, shaped, re-shaped… and now Amy (born to an English mother and an American father, so she has U.S. and U.K. roots,) has moved across the world, from San Francisco to London, and is pursuing opportunities for the piece there, finding some definite traction and amazing new artists who have become part of making and re-making the piece for development outlets and showcases. You can read my Helen Project overview, and Amy has a really cool Helen process blog that tracks its journey in more detail. We’ve built performance installations, an online experience, there’s been a one-woman short version, a five-woman evening at multiple festivals…
It’s wonderful, and totally bittersweet, to work like this.
Amy has been busting her groove thang in pitches, in applications, and in the rehearsal room, while I’ve been at home in California, glowing with excitement in front of her emails, and pinging back deeply constructive thoughts like “Heck yeah, that sounds like a great decision.” and “Aw, sweet, go for it.” Total Einstein-level stuff. Really earning my Genius Scouts Merit Badge here.
For this latest iteration of Helen, I designed a series of five dialogue-based soundscapes. It’s the most hands-on I’ve been with the project in a while… in an across-the-world, disembodied and synthetic way.
When I was on tour performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, Amy popped over to Scotland to see some theater, and to see me. Side by side in front of an iPad, sitting on the bed in my rental flat, we watched the video of the latest developmental performance of Helen that she’d staged in London. We brainstormed, and planned, and over shortbread and port, we thought together about the next performance, which was set for October.
The script for Helen is psychologically dense, and since pretty early on, we have been striving to create interludes in the show that feel very different– less like character-driven moments, and more like a series of choral odes… but not group or ensemble events; we already had a non-speaking body, a solo movement performer whose visual story went winding through and around the rest of the piece, and it was like… let’s take that farther, let’s leverage that choice to mean even more than it does.
So, we agreed to team up, but how? We originally wrote this project side by side, sometimes literally swapping notebooks mid-draft to collaborate on different sections of the text, brainstorming and pacing– but this would have to be different. Here’s what we did:
Amy recorded Anna Martine, one of her London actors, reading a series of found texts referencing Helen, from Homer to Marlowe to mid-century movie trailers to modern tabloids. Amy uploaded it all, I downloaded it, and remixed the tracks into something new, creating a set of digital “odes,” rhythmic soundscapes of curated language, with mountains of distortion and clarity… Amy brought them into the rehearsal room with a performer and a movement director, and this week, she folded those moments into the most recent festival performance of Helen, and shared it all with an audience in London while I slept, across the sea and across a couple time zones, in Oakland, California.
Working with the sound files in Audacity (a fantastic free open-source audio editor, which I can’t recommend highly enough) felt like the most appropriate possible way for me to be on the team; curating existing texts, shaping information, sharing a kind of abstracted heartbeat of language, but not language to be embodied– was this writing? Was this co-writing? I think it was writing, because I was using my sense of language, pacing, and tone to create an architecture for moments that would occur onstage. Maybe it’s sound design, but it’s definitely sound design from a writer’s perspective.
I’m about 5,362 miles away from London today… and it’s gonna be awesome to see the video of this show, (which I will get to do soon)… but it is one of the weirder aspects of being a playwright, to know that your brain is part of a performance in a room somewhere, when your body is not even in the same country.