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Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.
This week, Stages editor Mark Blankenship geeks out (via Gchat) with Jason Schlafstein, Producing Artistic Director of Flying V theatre in Washington, D.C.
Today’s Topic: What’s your favorite single moment in the theatre?
Mark Blankenship: So Jason… ever since we met at a Triple Playevent in D.C., we’ve been talking about various type of theatre we love, and it seemed obvious that we needed to officially geek out here.
Before we begin, can you give the folks at home a little background on what you do in our nation’s capitol?
Jason Schlafstein: Absolutely. In addition to being a freelance director, I’m also the Producing Artistic Director of Flying V, a theatre company I co-founded three years ago. We like to call ourselves “pop-savvy theatre,” with a real focus on modern mythologies and contemporary work with a quirky and idealistic charm. We do primarily original work, whether it’s a traditional script from one of our writers or a piece devised as an ensemble.
Mark: I like it. And when you put it that way, it makes sense to me that you get excited about the work of a company like the Neo-Futurists.
Jason: Seeing the Neo-Futurists for the first time was absolutely and genuinely life changing, in a way that sounds hyperbolic but is absolutely true.
Mark: Hey… I live for hyperbole. It’s literally the most important thing in my life.
Jason: I see what you did there
Mark: No need to applaud. Your hushed awe says everything.
So anyway… what was it about the Neo-Futurists that affected you?
Jason: I was working as an intern at Woolly Mammoth Theatre here in D.C., and the Neos were brought in to do Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. I saw the show at least 5 or 6 times over the course of the run. I’ve found that I’m really attracted to vignette-style theatre, or theatrical anthologies, so the collection of short pieces in super specific bursts really attracted me.
Mark: Right. And for people who don’t know, that’s their definitive show. Every week, they put on a series of new, short plays, and the audience helps decide the order in which those plays are performed.
Jason: And they focus on truth and honesty in their performance style and writing style. And they find super concise theatrical metaphors to hinge around these highly personal ideas. That really spoke to me.
Mark: That phrase —”focus on truth and honesty”—sums up what I like about their work. The actors in the company never pretend to be someone else. They never try to “realistically” inhabit a fictional character. But by not trying to act realistically,they tease out these startling, beautiful things. Their work keeps insisting that you can find something VERY real when you stop trying to “be real.”
Jason: It’s fantastic to see a group of performers be so open and vulnerable and dedicated to honesty and yet never sacrifice theatricality. Sometimes it feels like we’re taught that “truth” and “naturalism” go hand in hand.
Mark: Is there a particular vignette of theirs that sticks out for you?
Jason: Yeah, actually. Eliza Burmester did a piece called Ung-Cha. It was a totally physical piece with her heart beating and hiccuping, and she was doing all the sound and movement to create the illusion that her heart was moving all over her body. Until she hiccuped it out, and it was pulsing in her hands. She moved it around, fascinated by it, until she realized she would die without getting it back in. And scrambled to do so. It had a HUGE effect on me, and that piece combined with the Mother Mother album Oh My Heart have combined to create an idea for a longform piece that I hope to execute one day.
Mark: I love that. I hope you DO execute it. What you described, for me, also brings up the theatrical power of a specific, simple image. Obviously, we’ve all had meaningful experiences with very complex shows and/or very realistic shows. But when a piece of theatre is that distilled, it can really pierce my skin.
Mark: There’s something so breathtaking about a small, perfectly crafted moment.
Jason: I talk a lot about how great theatre earns moments, and moments are what lead to a genuine lasting impact.
Mark: Right, and if the entire SHOW is just a moment, you can cut to the core of what theatre does.
Jason: All killer, no filler, as it were.
Mark: May I reflect on the show that taught me how meaningful a single, distilled theatrical moment can be?
Jason: Oh yes, please.
Mark: So when I was in grad school, the students programmed the weekly shows at this cabaret-style theatre we had on campus. One week, there was this dance-and-movement show, and all the “playwrights” or “devisers” or whatever you want to call them were creating short dances. But this one group took a different route. They played this lovely piece of music, and at the beginning, we saw this woman lying on the floor, looking at the ceiling, and pointing up. One by one, all these other people came out, saw what she was doing, and eventually lay down next to her. By the end, you had this whole line of people on their backs, pointing at the sky. And in the last moment, they all put their free hands on the thigh the person next to them.
And that part where they moved their hands onto the neighbor’s thigh was the tiniest thing in a piece that lasted roughly 3 minutes. But it was also this unforgettable distillation of what being part of a community can feel like… the sense of agreement, of trust, of mutual concern. I have never forgotten it, and I find myself hungry for moments like that every time I see a show.
Jason: That sounds really elegant. That kind of focused, hyper-specific detail work is my favorite thing. It takes a piece to another level. And when you’re working in a shorter form, you get more time to dive into that kind of precision.
Mark: Like haiku, I guess.
Jason: Have you seen other larger, professional companies create pieces with that kind of clean, hyper-precision?
Mark: Oh, sure. Earlier this year, the Roundabout Theatre here in New York produced a revival of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, which is an Expressionistic play from the 1920s about a woman who is driven mad by the inhumane forces of society. And in this big Broadway house, this show was basically nothing but delicately crafted moments. During the scene changes, you would see flashes of other characters—characters we never even knew anything about—doing one thing that distilled their place in society. Like… a businessman would hustle across the stage just so, and there was something about the way he folded his newspaper that told you he was angry. All those little touches created the cumulative effect of “the machine of society.”
Jason: In a lot of ways we’re talking about iconography.
Mark: I’d say that’s a good word for it. And it seems so obvious, in a way. But not every show delivers it.
Jason: No, but when you find one that can latch onto it really well, it’s incredibly powerful. Because these are symbols we all identify with, so it’s a very common language, and thus a common experience. But at the same time, everyone in the audience has a different personal or emotional connection to these signifiers or what they represent. So you get this amazing tension of an entire audience in complete, unified intellectual understanding… but experiencing a multitude of personal responses. Which is badass. And to create that tension with a gesture! That’s precision.
Mark: Totally! We’re all feeling something, even if it’s not the same thing, and it’s all because that woman adjusted her hat at just the right moment or that guy over there removed his glasses just so.
Now it’s your turn! What’s your favorite single moment in the theatre? Geek out with us in the comments!