Monday, May 12, 2014

Q & A with Katharine Noon—Director of “The Bargain & the Butterfly”

In June, The Ghost Road Company brings The Bargain and the Butterfly to Studio SCR. Combining science and fantasy, this haunting new play explores the delicate intersection of genius and madness. The Ghost Road Company is a theatre ensemble dedicated to the creation of new work for the stage, through a collaborative process. In this interview, learn more about their unique approach and how it led to the development of The Bargain and the Butterfly from the show's director, Katherine Noon.

Katherine Noon
The Bargain and the Butterfly was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, "The Artist of the Beautiful." What specifically led to the play's creation? How was it decided that this would be the next Ghost Road production?
Initially it started with artistic burn out! Ghost Road had just come off a large project and I had nothing left creatively. I wondered what it was about with regard to some people who seemed to have endless creative energy and were prolific in their output. I began to research psychology and neurology and kept coming up with the very narrow border that divides madness from genius. I know this is territory that has been well-trod, but I did find one interesting bit of information about a new discovery concerning a variant on a gene. People with this variant have an equal chance of being a genius or being schizophrenic. This led me to think about genetics and the imminent ability of parents to choose genetic traits for their unborn children. And I wondered, if it was possible, would anyone choose for their child to be a genius with the knowledge that they were risking schizophrenia?

About this time I came across Hawthorne's short story, "The Artist of the Beautiful;" a story about a young clock maker and his desire to make a perfect clockwork butterfly that would possess perpetual motion and, by all accounts, a soul. Achieving this would require "spiritualizing the machinery." The price he paid for "bettering" nature was that the mechanism required a part of his own life force in order for it to be imbued with life. I began to draw connections between the research into neurology and the short story with the ideas of invention, genius and giving life to the lifeless even if it means that destruction lies in wait. I would add that there are also connections to be made with "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley in both Hawthorne's story and The Bargain and the Butterfly.

How did the Ghost Road Company adapt the story into a play in terms of the the story, the characters, and the scenic design?
Everything we do is collaboratively created. The leader of the process, in this case me, brings their ideas and research to the group. The most important things that I can bring to the process are the questions I am asking in the development process. The company uses various, techniques to create new work including improvisation, group writing and physically based methods for creating story and character. Because the creation of space is integral to making the work, the company is always creating and re-creating the world of the piece throughout the workshop process. Certain things begin to repeat and those are the elements that stick. When we did an initial showing of the unfinished piece, the basic scenic ideas existed in that presentation. The final set by Maureen Weiss was a more designed and polished version of the original vision. Our sound designer, Cricket Myers, added a new layer to the world by underscoring the piece with an abstract soundscape. This had the effect of bringing the audiences into the interior world of the characters. If we had our way we would always work with designers as part of the development process, but often that is not possible due to schedules, financial constraints, etc. There were thematic elements that interested us in the Hawthorne short story such as spiritualized machinery, literally giving part of yourself to a creation, and diminishing one's uniqueness in order to "fit in."

The main character in the short story is a young man named Owen. In our version, we made the central character a woman named Annie. Instead of a perpetual motion butterfly, Annie is trying to give her comatose twin brother, Owen, his soul. They are twins: two sides of the same person. As the performance unfolds, lines become blurred and one is unsure if what is being experienced is real or a figment of Annie's imagination. In the original story there is an absence of a mother for both the characters of Annie and Owen. The idea of an absent mother became integral because it felt as if she hung over the world like a specter. It is her past actions that sets this world in motion. Other strong elements throughout the creation process were the ideas of genetic manipulation, obsession and consuming knowledge—an idea we make quite literal in the piece.

How has the play evolved from where it started to where it's at right now?
I would say more than anything our audiences have shaped this piece. There is room in the work to take away from it your own ideas about what is happening on stage. It is this feedback as to what characters and ideas resonate for audiences that have had a great influence on the work. When I was first cobbling together the workshop material for a preliminary public presentation, the piece felt like disparate vignettes that were heading in the right direction. Feedback from the audience at that point solidified what we knew and helped us clarify our goals moving forward toward completing the work. The ending was the most difficult thing to come up with. We did not actually have an ending until a couple of weeks before we premiered the show in Los Angeles. The other major element, of course, is the creativity and input of the company. There are many tough rehearsals where things may not be working, but the company sticks with the process and, we all wade through the mire together in order to figure out a solution. It can be challenging to exist in a surreal world and still make sense of the journey each character takes. The hours spent working through the details with the ensemble contributed greatly to creating cohesion and a dynamic arc for each story line.

What were the most challenging obstacles to adapt the piece for the stage, as well as perform it?
Time and space are the two indispensable things required in order to engage in ensemble-devised work. Unfortunately, those are the two things hardest to come by. When an actor engages in this work, they are committing a large portion of their lives to a single project. It takes a special person who is willing to settle into this process. Space is integral to creation. Because we are a transient company, we often do not have the luxury of creating in the same space day in and day out. This piece was particularly difficult because we would get established in one place and then need to move with all our materials in tow. Economics plays a big part in this and renting a space for long periods of time can be prohibitive.

As far as the piece itself, I think one of the most challenging aspects was pushing the work into a more physical direction. Our work in the past has been dominated by language and we wanted to find a physical vocabulary to support the language. We spent time in Poland in a residency with Stadium Teatralne, a company in Warsaw, and that exposure really helped to move us in that direction. Shifting gears from the verbal to the physical forced me to see the process differently because it caused me to work in a less familiar way. Another challenge was finding ways for the scientific inspiration and the Hawthorne story to merge. This meant treating both things like a jumping off point. I don't consider this an adaptation but a new piece. And because it was not technically an adaptation, there was a lot more room to create but less of a structure to hang the ideas on.

What was the response like during the Los Angeles performances?
The response has been very positive. They come away intrigued and surprised by the world they encounter in the piece. The most gratifying thing of all is what the show sparks in each individual and how it touches them personally. It is exciting to see the play work on many levels: personal, universal, literal and metaphoric.

For the Los Angeles performances, we scheduled the shows in an unconventional way. Instead of spreading performances over 4 to 6 weeks, we did 12 performances in 14 days. I believe this added urgency and created the feeling of a special event. The vibe in the audience was that they were all in on a secret together.

What prompted the idea to tour the show in Poland?
We have been going to Poland for several years; we have a relationship with Joanna Klass and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw. Joanna has been instrumental in connecting us with Polish Theatre artists, such as Studium Teatralne. We have also, under the auspices of the Mickiewicz Institute and the Polish Ministry of Culture, done staged readings of Polish plays in Los Angeles. We performed one of those plays at the Korczac Festival in Warsaw at the same time we took The Bargain & the Butterfly to Poland. All our experiences with Polish theatre have been building to the time where we would be able to take our own work there.

Poland has a very deep theatrical tradition that is an integral part of its social, political and cultural dialogue. The Bargain & the Butterfly resonated differently for Polish audiences than it did for Los Angeles audiences. I would say it was felt more deeply on both a personal and cultural level, and because of our work with Studium Teatralne, the Polish audience recognized the influences from their theatrical aesthetic. The audience was almost entirely Polish but there was no loss of understanding or nuance even though there is a good deal of poetic language in the piece. I think what was most gratifying for Ghost Road was that the piece held its own with other Polish theatrical works.

What are GRC's future plans for the play?
We are currently in discussions to take the show to the Ko Festival in Amherst, Mass., and Irondale Theatre in Brooklyn. The trip to Irondale would also include an exchange of development methods and training with the Irondale Ensemble. In addition, we are applying to a number of national and international festivals with the play. We are also currently in development workshops for our newest piece based on the Oedipus story.

Anything else you would like to be quoted on, this is your moment.
Two things I always try to remind myself of as I embark on something new:
  • If it doesn't scare you at least a little, then it probably isn't worth doing.
  • Never wait to do something until you're ready. You will never be ready.
See The Ghost Road Company's The Bargain and the Butterfly in Studio SCR, June 12-15. Get your tickets today!

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