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By LAURA HEDLI
Note: Following Hurricane Sandy AliceGraceAnon will re-open on Saturday, November 3, with a special "re-opening party" following the performance.
It's almost always cheaper to produce small-cast plays that use a single, unchanging set, and with theatre economics getting trickier, companies are increasingly attracted to "tiny" material. The problem, of course, is that playwrights might curtail their imaginations to write small, and that could choke some wonderful work.
That's why New Georges created the Germ Project, which last year commissioned four playwrights to create "unproduceable" shows, filled with ideas that might seem unmanageable on a tight budget. The purpose was to encourage unfettered playwriting and then find a way to stage it.
And now, one of those unproduceable plays is being produced after all. Kara Lee Corthron's AliceGraceAnon is running through November 9 at Brooklyn's Irondale Center. It features art installations, a live band, projectile starbursts, a treadmill, and a multi-tiered set that gets used like a game of Chutes and Ladders. The cast even boasts a 10-person chorus, which Corthron calls the "spectacle brigade."
So how do you keep all these moving parts moving forward?
At its core, AliceGraceAnon combines three loosely connected subjects that have interested Corthron for years. As a child, she grew up listening to 60s rock, especially favoring the psychedelic stuff, like Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." Then, before heading to high school, she read Go Ask Alice, a cautionary (fictional) druggie diary whose title was inspired by the Jefferson Airplane song. When she was in her 20s, she picked up Lewis Carroll's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and she was captivated by the bizarreness and poetry that eventually inspired the Jefferson Airplane song.
Corthron recalls, "At some point, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be fun to combine all of that?' And then I thought, 'Nah, that would be kind of a huge mess. I don't think I can do it. And then this came about and I thought, 'Well, maybe this is the chance to try it.'"
The play, which focuses on identity and desire, follows three protagonists: Grace Slick, one of the lead singers of Jefferson Airplane; the anonymous girl at the center of <em>Go Ask Alice</em>; and Alice Liddell, who was Carroll's controversial muse.
"I liked doing it in this way because I got to write three individual, but united journeys," Corthron says. "There's usually just one focal point, and then everything you see is through that person's eyes, and it gets a little bit narrow. I liked seeing it through three very different girls."
When she began writing, Corthron decided to work in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. (It was horrible. She doesn't recommend it.) Later she switched to Word, where she had three columns, one for each heroine. Adding new pages was a constant struggle, as was switching between Macs and PCs. "I think it's good to be imaginative, but I don't think we have the systems for it yet. Maybe I should work on that," says Corthron, laughing.
Director Kara-Lynn Vaeni says she and Corthron initially focused on the three lead women. When they did a 20-minute presentation last summer, there were only five cast members, which made it easier to concentrate on the journeys of the central trio. However, with the addition of additional characters, not to mention the spectacle brigade and a live band, Corthron and Vaeni have had to take a broader view of the show.
"This time, we never sat down and tracked through each character's journey," says Vaeni. "It was more like script dramaturgy as influenced by the needs of staging," For instance, the addition of two male actors to play various roles like Paul Kantner, Grace Slick's boyfriend, helped expand the scope of the play. "When we then had actual adult men playing these roles, they were like, 'Well, why do I say that?' And we were like, 'Because we need Grace to say her next thing,'" Vaeni recalls. "Thank God they were there, or else their parts would be completely undeveloped. It forced us to think about, 'What does Lewis Carroll want? What does the caterpillar want? And what does Paul actually want, other than to drive Grace on her journey?'"
With no budget to hire a formal dramaturg, everyone---actors and designers included---helped with asking questions. In fact, one of the designers developed a glossary on the New Georges website that gives information on key players, places, and things relating to the play. Still, Corthron and Vaeni made sure the research didn't prevent them from thinking theatrically. They wanted space for these characters to collide in the fantasy-scape they were creating.
"I'm not a person who will drown myself in research because then I will never write anything," says Corthron. "I very much wanted it not to be a bio-pic of Grace Slick. This is not, 'This is exactly Alice Liddell, this is exactly storybook Alice.' I wanted it to be a fun amalgamation of these people, but with truth in it."
Laura Hedli is a writer based in New York City
Photo by Jim Baldassare