So, the two-weekend workshop of The Helen Project all the way back in May got some really sweet press, which I never posted here. D’oh! How silly is that? Pretty silly, yes? What should I do about it? Oh, I could go ahead and post those quotes now? Okay! Also, how did the workshop go, and what happened with the two different editions? Oh, I’d better lay that out too, because the second weekend was bananas, and taught me the kind of “valuable lesson” one might hear in voiceover at the end of an afterschool special!
“Cohen and Tasker masterfully juxtapose the recorded text of Helen with sensory and emotional detail that never made it into the histories.” –Setsu Uzume, Art Animal
“There’s something that feels resonant and right about representing Helen through fragments. She’s a figure who’s almost never looked at straight on as a character in her own right, but always seen through others’ eyes for what she represents.” –Sam Hurwitt, KQED Arts
“The “first edition” seen Saturday was rough but provocative. A whole new set of material is promised for a second outing this weekend.”-Robert Hurwitt, SFGate
Rough-but-provocative is pretty much an ideal critical response to a workshop production of a new play, so I’m pretty happy with that… and with all of the responses above, really. Critics mostly attended our “First Edition,” which was a fairly traditional proscenium-style production; we arranged the kaleidoscopic monologues into an evening of performance, and then Amy Clare Tasker directed our incredible cast as though the fragmentary and decentralized text was a legit canonical script, with a beginning, middle, and end.
It went… fine, actually. It had amazing moments of acting, some beautiful things happened in rehearsal, and the show mostly made sense, which was sort of a miracle, since we were shaping the piece out of textual snippets that were pretty difficult to distill into even a somewhat coherent evening. Audiences were supportive; they told us congratulations, then went home. The weekend went fine, but I couldn’t help feeling that it wasn’t as exciting as the project could be. For our “Second Edition,” two weeks later, we blew the piece to shreds in a total artpocalypse, and discovered a new format in the wreckage.
While building the interactive online edition of Helen, some of the ideas Amy and I had been talking about vaguely began to coalesce into something more concrete. A desire to have an active audience. A desire to clearly share the fact that any given arrangement of the fragmentary text was not inevitable, not set, not canonizable. A desire to show the fragmentary format as intellectual framework, maybe even to show it off as an asset.
But how does one do that? What’s an elegant way to strip the carcass bare, and share the conceptual bones of the project directly, without it feeling dramatically sparse and boring? How can we do that and still entertain, still earn the right to an audience’s time?
What we decided on was to create an interactive performance installation. Helens would be stationed around the space (one fixing her hairdo at the mirror, one sprawled on the bed flipping through a magazine, etc.), and when one wanted to perform, she would hold up two pieces of paper, each showing the audience a single word or simple phrase. “Yes Or No,” “Fire,” “Again.” Depending on which paper an audience member chose, that Helen would perform a monologue related to the chosen subject. Sometimes one Helen spoke at a time, sometimes the room exploded with voices from all directions. Audiences would wander, discover, make choices, be surprised.
Sort of like a living wax museum, or like a performance arcade.
Each Helen performer chose their own set of monologues from our pool of texts, so the actors completely co-created the experience with us. Amy wrangled what happened where, and we worked as a group to make rules that would best serve the evening.
The responses from the test audience at our invited dress rehearsal for the installation told us we’d found the way to share this material. Suddenly people weren’t all congratulating us and going home, some people were staying. Some people were asking when we were going to do it again, requesting that we send them the script to look at, suggesting that we find a way to perform this for students who are reading The Illiad and deserve a counterpoint in perspectives, telling us they wanted to have lunch with us and chat about the show. Some people were even telling us it was astonishing, it was gorgeous, unlike anything they’d ever seen, and that “there needs to be more theater like this.” Suddenly we had to ask people to please leave the theater space so our intrepid stage manager could get home before midnight, because people didn’t want to go home, they wanted to stay, they wanted to keep talking. Which was a big change from the first weekend.
I’m not sure what else can or should happen with The Helen Project specifically, (especially now that my co-creator Amy has moved to London so we’d be collaborating across an ocean), but I do know it taught me a lot about the kind of work I want to make.
The lesson for me was this: follow the instinct to include your audience completely in what you’re creating and why. Don’t be coy, don’t hide your process, don’t hide your methods. Let the audience know what you’re doing. Let them in. As far in as you possibly can.
Letting the audience in is not the most revolutionary idea… but it’s not the least revolutionary one, either. – Xoxo, Megan