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Getting Senseless in "A Small Fire"

Date: Jan 14, 2011


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How do you create a woman who can't see, smell, taste, or hear? That may sound like a Zen riddle, but it's being answered at Playwrights Horizons until January 30.

In Adam Bock's A Small Fire, a brash construction worker named Emily Bridges finds herself inexplicably deprived of one sense after another until all that remains is her sense of touch and her husband, who become her eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Her condition becomes a metaphor for anyone readjusting to the world.

But a metaphor isn't a person. An actor has to make these ideas feel human.

Michelle Pawk prepared as much as she could, researching blindness and developing Emily's physical life, but even still, there were things she didn't anticipate until she was actually performing the show.

In several scenes, for instance, Emily sits on stage while her husband John and her adult daughter Jenny sort through bills or discuss Emily's condition. But Emily doesn't know what's happening. She's wrapped in the shroud of a completely different world, just a few inches away.

To make this situation believable, Pawk needs a dual consciousness. On one hand, her "actress" brain has to know what's going on. "Even though I'm deaf and blind, I still have to hear a cue," she says. "You have to have that going through your head. You have to be listening and waiting, and you have to be focused."

But on the other hand, Pawk's "performer brain" has to make choices that are appropriate for the character. She can't smile when her husband makes a joke, but she can't just sit there, either. The actress has to activate Emily's isolation. "My internal monologue is always going, she says."It's just different from what's going on onstage."

Bock's writing strikes a similar balance between practical necessity and artistic flourish, and like Pawk, he couldn't find it in advance. He needed to see the play to understand how actors change Emily's impact on the show.

Take the scene where Emily and John come home from Jenny's wedding. Bock's script merely says ,"John takes her and undresses her after the wedding," but during a workshop of the play, that moment became a long and intimate collaboration between two actors. "Now that's one of my favorite scenes in the play, but I couldn't have imagined it like that," Bock says.

This underscores why Emily is so intriguing. She forces attention away from words and onto bodies and space. Dealing with her means getting close, using your hands, shutting your mouth. For Bock, who's also a mentor in TDF's Open Doors program, she suggests a larger lesson about playwriting, too. "The thing I've had to learn over the years is to leave room for the bodies, not to do everything with the language," he says. "Now I think that if it really works perfectly on the page, then it may not be a great play. That's not a new thought, obviously, but it's hard to remember that. It's the silence <i>and</i> the speech, and the body and the movement that make the play.


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor