Wednesday, March 26, 2014


We are our stories.
Memory is a protein.
Who are you?
Familial. Genetic. Early Onset. Alzheimer’s.

“What phrases stuck out for you tonight?” asked Jenni Werner, Geva’s Dramaturg and facilitator of the onstage Talkback discussion. A couple dozen audience members stayed behind after a performance of “Informed Consent” to chat with the Production Team. I have watched the show twice now, and as a Geva Cohort, I have attended rehearsals once a week and seen the show take shape. Above are the phrases which stuck out for me, after Sunday’s show. They are different from the phrases that came to mind other times throughout the process. Early on, these phrases resonated strongly:
We are from the Canyon.
The Genetic Scientist.
Not “strictly”. 
Not if you don’t have permission.
 It’s a Princess Party...

 But, when I watched the Sunday matinee, the morning after Opening night, I sat front row center in the balcony to see the full, final run of the play, as it is set to run for the next few weeks. All changes are made, the kinks worked out, the unnecessary script lines cut, the intermission put in and taken out, the pacing and light cues settled on, all the fine-tuning done. I watched the matinee and felt as if I had not seen the play in that way before.

The pieces came together and struck me in a new way. Jack Warner conceded in his recent review that, despite the overuse of the term, this play truly is “thought-provoking”. It is a play about an awful lot of things. Native rights. Scientific research. Genetics. Identity. Alzheimer’s. Family stories. Cultural History.
I walked out of the theatre this time moved by Deb Laufer’s words, and Jessie Wortman’s portrayal of Gillian in particular, and the issues about identity and memory in people affected by dementia.  The chorus echoes the question “Who are you?” and I could not shake those voices. My mother developed Lewy’s Bodies Dementia in her late seventies. Its symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s, but include Parkinson-like tremors and shuffling, and a much faster rate of progression than Alzheimer’s. My mother died three years after her diagnosis. Any individual or family member afflicted with dementia knows all too well the quandary of “who are you?” As dementia progresses, this question is answered in many different ways. A person’s identity becomes smaller, perhaps simpler. As a family member, I asked myself corollary questions like “Who do you think I am?” or “who am I to you?” This play touches on the idea that identity is interrelated to connection, and complicated just like belief and truth are.

My mother would have loved this play. She loved provocative theatre and stark sets. Sure, she loved musicals too, and remembered the Broadway songs well up to the end, but for drama, she preferred shows that wrestled with big issues and pushed you a little out of your comfort zone. When I was in high school, she took me to see Equus and acted in The Lottery. She’d have liked this set of brown corrugated walls and alternating colored light boxes. She loved the Southwest too and took several trips to learn about Navajo and Hopi cultures.  And the humor she would have appreciated; it’s not good drama if you can’t laugh along the way, and she loved to laugh heartily.
Another cohort wrote about her own personal connections to this play, regarding the issues of genetic testing. She also observed that it sometimes takes time for connections to rise to the surface. As I mull over various scenes of “Informed Consent,” I have no doubt that I will be struck by some other phrases, some other connection. There is an awful lot in this play.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Not good enough

Informed Consent is not written or performed in a typical linear fashion. The plot is not what propels the play from beginning to end, but rather it is a couple of themes, the sense of searching for answers, and a troupe of voices suggesting stories which carry the audience through the hour and a half experience. There is a plot, and in fact there are a couple interwoven storylines that reveal themselves, but watching this play is much more of an immersion experience.
To pull it off, the production team responsible for lights, set, props, costumes and sound have had  requests from the director that are perhaps more esoteric than usual. There is a lot of mood setting and suggestions of things rather than representational or literal effects. At one tech rehearsal I went to as a cohort, the production team and cast spent almost 30 minutes working out lights and staging for a brief monologue by the character Gillian. First time through, it wasn't right. I agreed. I was not really focused on her statements, even though none of the other actors were speaking or moving. She looked emotionally involved but it didn't really feel like a very emotional moment. Even so, I was surprised that it needed to be fixed. I figured it was good enough. But no, settling for good enough is not what this theatre is about.
What did the Director ask the Lighting Designer for? "Make her feel small and alone."
How did the Lighting guy respond? "Right, right! Give me a minute."
Thank goodness a professional knew what to do with that!
Ten minutes later, they ran the scene again. Background lights dimmed, colors changed and softened around Gillian, the other actors were now in shadows. I was transported to a lonely place watching Gillian stand alone on a lecture stage, groping for words and understanding. Mission Accomplished.
It has been a full, fruitful and fascinating tech week for this play. Tonight I will watch the last Preview performance. Just yesterday they decided to do away with the intermission!  I feel nervous, so I can only imagine how everyone working in it feels. No changes after this. Opening night is this Saturday night. Break a leg!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Layers and voices

Today, cohorts of Geva's upcoming show Informed Consent had the opportunity to participate in a recording session in advance of the tech rehearsals this weekend. Despite blizzard warnings, the actors and production staff made it in and a few intrepid cohorts. The first assignment was to record individual family stories, which will be edited and excerpted and layered over one another to create a short, short audio clip of sentence fragments. The recorded stories ranged from one sentence "I don't know my family history" to an engaging retelling of a shoot-out in Uraguay; lots of European immigrant stories, with some Jamaican, Puerto Rican, and long-time American farmers thrown in. The sounds of the voices alone were inspiring, with male and female, British, Texan, Arabic, and Spanish accents included. Each speaker was also asked to say the word "and" and the phrase "Who are you?" My head is swirling with wonder at how this will be put to use. I do have a sense that the fragments will make a strong whole, the bits of stories will make a narrative about family and identity. And all this work for what will probably end up being 20 seconds of the show, in the background.
      We also got to sing! I have not had a chance to see this scene in the rehearsal, although I have read other Cohorts' posts about it. We recorded the chanting for the blood ritual, where he Havasupi reclaim what is theirs and honor their origin. Today we were led by the fine voice of Tina Fabrique and the spontaneous, helpful conducting of Jessica Wortham Newman. We spent 90 minutes overall to make the recordings, including just waiting a few minutes while the large snowplow outside finished rumbling around the parking lot.
I drove home, as the snow and wind increased, thinking about how much energy and thought goes into the tiny pieces. The playwright Deb Laufer has paid so much attention to each word and strand of each story and character. The director Sean Daniels works out snippets at a time of blocking or intonation or gestures with the actors. Now the sound features take center stage. By the end of the week, set pieces, prop placements and lighting will be the focus. And each tiny part of this production carries its own weight and purpose in creating a whole experience for the audience, who largely come in from their Rochester lives unaware of how much care and intention has been given to what they are about to see.