Playwright Joe Forbrich blogs: This is Really Happening

This is really happening.  We had our first production meeting, a two and a half hour gathering of the design team (sets, lights, sound, costumes, props, movement and music) as well as the producer, co-producer, stage manager, director, and me, the playwright.  They represent all colors of the theatrical spectrum, from Broadway to recent college grad, from Juilliard to corporate America, from off-off Broadway to the Metropolitan Opera.  We have not cast the show yet.  That will most likely be after the holidays.

No one is doing this for the money.  Some are giving up more lucrative employment to be a part of this team.  All are doing it for the love of telling a story.  This initial meeting was about that.  How do we tell it with a unified voice?

There is a massive amount of props in this play.  Harpoons, barrels, whales, sharks, killer whales, flying fish, cutting spades, trypots, axes, sextants, navigators, compasses, binnacles, comets, lanterns, knives, etc.  Not to mention a whaleship and three whaleboats.  What the hell was I thinking?  Given our resources, we would be overwhelmed by their procurement alone, not to mention trying to shoehorn them into a show without being, or looking, weighed down by them.

In keeping with the conceit of necessity being the mother of invention, and with the idea of the commonality of the theatre and the sea, as well as the common pursuit of oil in all its forms, one of its end products being plastic with all its functionality, universality, repurposability, and stubborn refusal to disintegrate and return to dust and reenter the circle of life like the rest of us, what if, in our use of props, we keep to the convention of endowing whatever one might find laying around or leaning against the back walls of a theatre, with whatever creative use we might find for, say, a ladder, or a five gallon plastic bucket, or a paint roller on a stick, or six foot piece of 3/4 pvc?  Those items alone could possibly take care of a mast, an oil barrel, a cutting spade, a harpoon, an oar, and a million other things we decide they ought to be.  If we are indeed going to assemble a ship before the eyes of the audience using raw materials that did not occur to them when these materials are first viewed in their disparate parts, why not extend this convention all the way down the line?  Whatever we collectively decide and believe in the first few minutes of the show will be decided and collectively believed by the audience.

Especially if we are consistent and playful and creative about it.  This allows for lots of inclusive invention and discovery by our cast and crew, and brings us back to the basics of what theatre is about---telling an honest story, under imaginary circumstances.

This doesn't necessarily rule out using certain more authentic props, such as perhaps a pistol or a real harpoon---but we could look at every such prop as we would a lifeboat---absolutely necessary for survival.  Or we could look at it like those black and white photos that were once popular, the ones with a little girl walking in a crowd, and only her purse is a bright red.  Why is the purse red?  Why do we have a real harpoon?  What if we kept the whole show dry, no real water and no real gore or blood, until the climax when someone finally cuts into a human body and eats it?  Or when rescue finally comes?  What if that was our own splash of red in an otherwise "black and white", i.e. non-realistic design concept?

Using raw construction materials communicates the concept of no bullshit theater, as well as the elegy to the working man that this play is, whether he works in the oil business or the theatre or in the world.

This was the jumping-off point for our initial discussion, where the concern was raised that the use of plastic and other petroleum products might end up looking cheap, or lazy, as opposed to inventive.  And that we may be trying to hit the audience over the head with at least one of our messages, man's ancient and eternal quest for oil and at what cost.  And that plastic might be too incongruous for an early nineteenth century environment.

In the end we all acknowledged that everything was a matter of degree, and that we would all trust our collective sense of taste to keep each other honest.  We are a now a crew as much as any ship ever was, and the show will live and die by the actions of our team.  Our next meeting will be a line-by-line hammering out of the script with the director, playwright, and set designer, whose markings on paper in the form of a scenic design will be a blueprint for the rest of us, much like my initial markings in the form of this script.  Page to stage is the magic of theater, my comrades, and the magic of being human as well.

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.  -Goethe

One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is the intermixing of different genres.  -Goethe

The true, prescriptive artist strives after artistic truth; the lawless artist, following blind instinct, after an appearance of naturalness. The one leads to the highest peaks of art, the other to its lowest depths.  -Goethe