There has been a lot of confusion about what The Cleverest Thief and Selections from Gone Missing is. Throughout this blog, we’ve shared our process and tried to give background about our project. But, I am remiss to say, that maybe after 10+ blog posts, readers are still unsure what this performance is.
I’d like to rectify this.
The Cleverest Thief and Selections from Gone Missing is a BYU main stage production of two plays in one night: Gone Missing and The Cleverest Thief.
Gone Missing is a devised play (see other blog post) created by the Civilians in 2003. The members of the company went out into New York to interview people about things they’ve lost. The company then took these interviews and created monologues and songs to create a play they called Gone Missing.
The Cleverest Thief is a play created and written by BYU students using interviews of members of our community in Provo. Like Gone Missing, it has great monologues and songs.
So basically The Cleverest Thief and Selections from Gone Missing is a night of one acts. One about loss in Provo, one about loss in New York. Both incredibly enjoyable.
When you play around ten characters in a show, it presents a unique acting challenge. In Gone Missing and The Cleverest Thief, I play an old Russian woman, a hip social worker with a checkered past, and a BYU student with an affinity for both makeup and histrionics, among other characters.
Ali as the Russian Woman in “Gone Missing.”
Another unique aspect of this show is that oftentimes, since interviews form the text of our show, we interacted with the people we were playing, so instead of working internally, I worked from the outside in. That sounds confusing, so here’s an example: when Michelle Williams played Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, she started with Marilyn’s voice and physicality to capture the essence of such an iconic woman before she did typical “actor homework”– discovering objectives, creating a backstory, etc. When I was creating my character who we affectionately refer to as “Makeup Bag Girl”, I started out with things like the particular way she holds her hands, how she goes up on her toes when she wants to emphasize something, and her sharp, excited voice. Then, I discovered things about her by inhabiting that physicality and voice.
Working from the outside in is not typical Stanislavskian acting, but then, this is not a typical play. I’m so excited to be a part of a show that considers the things that can be uniquely accomplished through the medium of live theatre.
Gone Missing is a non-traditional play. Instead of following a linear structure, where events build on top of each other to a climax, the play has what theater practitioners call a mosaic structure. Like a mosaic creates a picture out of miscellaneous fragments of glass and tile, the play is composed of bits and pieces of stories from lots of different characters. This allows the audience to explore a theme or see all sides of an issue. The problem with this is that sometimes, it is hard to find one story or character to hold on to.
Our Terry (Sarah Porter) and Palinurus (James Lyon) in rehearsal.
The way the Civilians accommodated for this in Gone Missing was by creating a backbone, or a fictionalized reoccurring discussion between a radio host and her guest. This radio show is based on the NPR program, “Fresh Air,” hosted by Teri Gross, in which she interviews interesting people about various subjects. This sets up a perfect platform to discuss the thematic issues of loss and tie the somewhat unconnected script together.
Terry’s guest in Gone Missing is named Palinurus, after the helmsman/guide of Aneas’ ship in Virgil’s Aenid. In the Aenid, the gods tell Aneas that Palinurus is the only man who can get them from Troy safely. One night Palinurus falls asleep at the helm and falls into the ocean, paying the vain Neptune’s sacrificial price and ensuring safe passage to Italy. He fulfilled the prophesy, but probably not in the way he was expecting.
An interesting choice of character that plays deeply with the ideas outlined in Gone Missing about loss.
If you are interested in tuning in to hear the real Terry, “Fresh Air” is broadcast weekdays at 12:00 noon (Eastern Time) and can also be found online at http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.
An essential part of The Civilians’ process is the inclusion of media. The Civilians outline their mission as “…tackling complex and under-explored subjects, enabling artists to enrich their processes through in-depth interaction with their topics, diversifying artistic voices and audiences, and integrating theater with new media.” Since we are following their process we are looking for a fun new way to include media into our production as well.
The way we approached the set testifies to how we are striving to incorporate media. Our set designer, Noah Kershisnik, is actually a production designer. We have stolen this title from the world of film where a production designer is responsible for the look of the whole world not just one set. Noah has been working with all of us along the way interviewing and gathering story material as well as coming up with ideas for mediated moments and the physical look of the set. Although previously involved in theatrical productions, this is the first play he has designed. Because our play relies so heavily on media, our director, Prof. Lindsay Adamson Livingston, wanted to bring a person with theatrical as well as cinematic sensibilities to design the show.
The front view of the stage.
The stage will be set up in the Margetts in a proscenium-esque setting. However we will try to avoid the movie theater vibe by having screens on the sides of the theater (above the audience on the left and right) as well as in the front.
The aerial view of the stage with the screens.
We also plan to have blocks, a piano, and even people act as projection surfaces.
Set pieces we are using to project on.
We want to play with media, seeing people interact with the projections and using them to further the story.
Devising is a type of theater that creates a play by building theatrical moments, or little theatricalized scenes that we string together into a production. Instead of writing a script, we perform it and then record it. The script is the last thing to be created.
When creating a moment, the first thing you do (at least according to our process) is take an interview or a couple of interviews that share an idea, feeling, or theme and tie them together with a theatrical idea. For example, if an interview is about a girl who lost her sister to cancer, while she is speaking a hospital scene could be acted out in the background. Or, another different idea, pictures could be projected of her sister before she fell ill showing the nostalgia of the sister who was interviewed. It all depends on what you want to say, but it’s not a moment until it becomes something you can see on stage.
One of the defining aspects of the Civilians is their desire to incorporate media into productions. Their mission statement summarizes this by saying “The Civilians expands the scope of American theater and champions innovation by tackling complex and under-explored subjects, enabling artists to enrich their processes through in-depth interaction with their topics, diversifying artistic voices and audiences, and integrating theater with new media.” Many productions explore how theater can be enhanced by projection and actor and audience interaction with projected images. This idea of adding media to moments was a major aspect to consider as we started to create moments and present them to the class. How did we want to use media in our project? How much did we want to use it?
Here are two examples of student presentations on how we could use media for an interview about a girl who lost her Beanie Baby snail…
And an idea as to how an actor (Hannah’s finger) could interact with a projection on a screen…
One of the hardest things for any actor is creating a character. The actor has to be able to separate themselves and their mannerisms from the mannerisms of the person they are trying to portray. This is especially hard when trying to depict a real person that you have met and interviewed. In order to differentiate yourself from a character the easiest thing to do is to heighten their ticks (fiddling with a necklace, drumming fingers, running a hand through their hair, etc.) and try to match their vocal tone and posture.
Unfortunately, heightening these aspects of a person often come off as comical. Whenever is something is exaggerated, especially by some one who is an inexperienced actor or isn’t very perceptive to body language, it becomes a sort of mockery. That is not what we are striving for in Gone Missing and The Cleverest Thief.
In our production, nine actors will portray over sixty characters in the span of two hours. How will they differentiate themselves from the characters they are playing? How will they distinguish their different characters from each other? Can they accomplish an honest depiction of real people?
When the representative from The Civilians company (the group that devised/wrote Gone Missing), Emily Ackerman, workshopped with us she taught us some tricks. The first exercise she introduced involved status, or how a person carries themselves. A person of high status (social rank, energy, or happiness level) carries themselves with good posture and a spring in their step. As the status decreases people tend to carry themselves more curled in on themselves, as if protecting, with slumped shoulders and their gaze on the floor. Emily asked us to walk around the room and she’d say a number from 1 (low) to 10 (high) and we’d have to depict how a person of that status would look. She then asked us who a person of high status would be (we came up with celebrity, royalty, overconfident jock) and who a person of low status would be (we came up with street urchin, abused woman, someone who was depressed). Through this exercise we came up with a range of emotion that we could depict physically. We went through this process for ticks as well.
Finally Emily asked us to create a character with a defined status (from 1-10), distinct way of carrying themselves, and a defined tick (how strong it was 1-10). We then interacted with each other trying to see if we could guess the choices that our classmates made.
See if you can guess who the character is in this video. Who is it? What is their status? How does it reflect their age, gender, and how they feel about themselves? Do you believe that this character is a real person?
How do you start rehearsing on a play without a script?
Selections from Gone Missing and The Cleverest Thief opens this February in the Margetts theatre at BYU and although we’ve started rehearsals, we don’t yet have a script. Instead we are creating a story through a process called devising.
Gone Missing is a devised piece created by The Civilians, a New York based theatre troupe. Inspired by the attacks on 9/11, they wanted to create a story about loss and losing things. They went around their city (Manhattan) and asked whomever they could find, “What is an object you have lost?” They collected the stories, formed them into monologues, created characters and put them together into a larger piece of theatre full of song, film, and interesting anecdotes that bring new meaning into the idea of “loss.” Inspired by this piece our director, Professor Lindsay Adamson Livingston, decided that we should try this in our own community of Provo, UT.
Production photo from The Civillian’s “Gone Missing”
Recently, we were privileged to work with a representative from The Civilians, Emily Ackerman. She sent us out into Provo to interview people. We took the stories we found and presented them in our daily workshops. When we found stories we liked we matched them with stories of similar themes or characters to create a moment. As we continue, we will choose which moments will make it into the show, slowly piecing together our story.
We are aiming to have a first draft of the script in mid-October. But until then we get to go out and collect stories.