Monthly Archives: January 2011

January 31, 2011
#4—Frankenstein & Friends

Friends—

This week, the beginning of our storyboard. As with our previous staging of The Tempest we’ve found that planning the production much as one does with a film—is essential. Things will change radically as we go into rehearsal, but in the meantime we have to start building the puppets and the stage structures, and you can’t do that without thinking things through very thoroughly, trying to solve staging problems as you go along.

So this is just the first rough draft of text and staging: what’s being said, what do we see?

•••
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1. THE SEA

LOW SEA SOUND.
01 – VIDEO IMAGE OF MARY SHELLEY, WRITING WITH A QUILL PEN AS SHE SPEAKS.

VOICE OF MARY: It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me—

Hands appear above/behind her, with various objects: a hypodermic, a hammer, a knife, an egg-beater.

—that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes…

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02 – OMINOUS MUSIC, BUILDING. As she speaks, a FIGURE with a rubber “Frankenstein” mask staggers forward, UR to DR. Suddenly, with live voice:

MARY: No!!!

The Figure stops, looks at her, confused.

That’s not the way it was. Never.

03 – Figure slowly removes the rubber mask, revealing the VICTOR puppet.

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VICTOR: Never. Never never never.

Mary disappears.

VIDEO: SEA IMAGES/SEGUE TO BLIZZARD/ICE.

VICTOR: This is what I told him. I told the Captain.

04 – Victor tilts to lie on DR Diagonal, arm extended L. SEA CAPTAIN appears behind him. [3rd wheels in Toy Theatre grooves.] SAILORS appear as two-dimensional cutouts LC. Their arms rise in union with Sea Captain’s gestures. He searches with a telescope.

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VICTOR: When I went north, and I walked for many weeks, and I was in the Arctic—
CAPTAIN: North!
VICTOR: Ice moving under me, and the ice broke, and I was adrift—
CAPTAIN: North!
VICTOR: There was a ship and I called out to the ship, and then I collapsed and they cared for me.
And the Captain said “What are you doing here?” and I said “What are you doing here?” And he said—
CAPTAIN: I am on my quest!
VICTOR: And I said “God help you.”

VIDEO: NORTHERN LIGHTS, DANCING.

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I told him my story. He was amazed.

05 – Sailors off. Captain horrified, staggers UL, looking at Victor reaching to him. Captain off.

After that, they made it into a movie. But this is how it happened.

TO BLACK. AUDIO BRIDGE.

2. CHILDHOOD

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06 – TWO PUPPETEERS in Skull Masks appear, DC tilted posture. [They wear these during preceding scene, but with a black scrim over the face which is pulled back to reveal the mask; it can be replaced at any time we want them to disappear.]

07 – They produce three stick puppets representing the child Victor, Elizabeth and Clerval, fingers for arms, loose shirts dangling from the heads. Skulls stay visible.
The Children play. Freeze. Clerval speaks:

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CLERVAL: This is my friend Victor. And Elizabeth, she’s Victor’s cousin. Her mother’s dead. I’m Henry. Hi.

We play a lot. We play family.
08- Tableau.

We play kings and queens.

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09- Tableau.
We play doctor, and we make a monster.
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10- They sculpt a live hand as Clerval’s.
He chases them about, catches Victor.
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11- Tableau.
Elizabeth breaks out.
ELIZABETH: Then I got sick. And Victor’s mother nursed me.
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12- MOTHER DOLL appears, nurses the puppet Elizabeth.
“Poor Elizabeth. You’ll get well. Drink your soup.”
But then she got sick and died.
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13- Mime of illness. Mother lies down, tries to rise. Victor is frantic to revive her. Then the Mother is up-ended. Sand pours out, leaving a limp rag. Victor realizes that it’s real.

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VICTOR: Mama?
14- No response. He shakes it.
Mama?

Horror.

Mama!!!

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Embracing her. Freeze.

CLERVAL: After that, he was way different.

Full-size Victor appears. TO BLACK.

•••

And life gallops apace. Last week we saw a gorgeous solo performance by Eliot Fintushel doing an evening of Walt Whitman poems, with an array of gestural action and weird musical instruments. This coming week, it’s another show, this time with veteran artist Fred Curchack in a new piece. Wonderful to see a couple of genuinely topflight performers back-to-back.

And finished the first draft of Salvage, a new screenplay. Will be doing an hour’s Skype conversation with our collaborator Arturo Castillo this Friday.

Built a rolling table for Frankenstein and now on the casting stage of the first Victor Frankenstein head—there’ll be about three. Winds up with a startling similarity to the young Bertolt Brecht—perhaps influenced by just reading a 720pp biography of him, a problematic individual, to say the least. As am I, though probably a bit more honest.

—CB

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#3—Frankenstein & Friends

Usually, the scenic design—whether I’m doing it or working with a designer—is about the last thing that gets finalized. And yet I have enormous anxieties until I have a clear sense of the visual field of the action. In a sense, a play is a dream, and even the most bizarre dreams are generally planted—though it may shift radically—in an environment so specific its edges may cut.

So with Frankenstein, I’ve been spinning my wheels. There are lots of technical considerations: The seats will be set on a wide angle, so the downstage verticals of the set frame (we’re using our 10x8X8 aluminum frame that supports both set and lighting) can’t block the view of the rear projection screen at the back. We need side and rear masking for entrances. We need a rolling table to support the toy-theatre images, the corpses, etc., and some way to get it on and off stage. We need a low “playboard” in front to anchor the reality of the puppets. We need enough simplicity to allow for touring.

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But what’s the essential visual metaphor? The swooping, stained sailcloth of The Tempest made a powerful statement both of movement and of stasis & decay. For a time I was playing with the idea of acrylic mirrors—large, sterile plastics that reflect Victor back onto himself, us back onto ourselves. The weight and fragility of the material, easily scratchable, would make it a nightmare for touring—we’d done something similar years ago for The Shadow Saver—but finally it felt too clinical, too high-test high-tech. It’s not a piece about the wonders and dangers of modern science; it’s about a young man, appalled at the idea of death, whose invention is cobbled together in the garage or basement.

We had a huge plastic tarp that we’d taken on our one trip to Burning Man. Heavy, slightly textured, grimly industrial. That was the basis of the set fabric, hung flat in not-quite-symmetrical rectangles. We tested it for fire resistance; it seems to work ok. At S.C.R.A.P., a San Francisco outfit that recycles old crap for art projects, I bought a sack full of—well, it’s black rubber sheeting that some sort of decorative shapes have been stamped out, animals or flowers, maybe. I’m exploring ways of affixing this to the tarp fabric as texture—dark gray on a lighter and shinier gray. Things created, things missing.

Another element also derived from salvage. In our little community, there’s a “FreeCycle” website whereon people offer things for free. We’ve gotten doors, computers, rugs, etc., and also dumped a few good-riddances. Someone advertised what amounted to five large garbage bags of foam rubber, a puppeteer’s godsend. But after picking it up, I was disappointed to find that it was in 18″ squares, an inch and a half thick, and all blue.

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Oddly, there was something about the blueness—I don’t know why—that called to mind an performance-art installation I’d seen long ago focused on a Coleridge poem: small sculpted figures crawling along a walkway, dangling from the ceiling, etc. That image had found its way into one of our unpublished novels. Now, suddenly, I saw blue figures crawling along the pipes of our aluminum frame, frantic to get somewhere. The color gave life to the dismal hangings. I had serious doubts about my skills as a foam-rubber sculptor, but I had plenty of material to practice on, and after a while they started to look adequately human.

For a while, I had thought of using words or word fragments lettered on the set, as we did with Tempest, perhaps the magic spells that Victor tries unsuccessfully in his creation of life. But in starting to play with the blue figures, I started to see more of a focus on the human figure. This crystallized in a discussion with Hob, our toy-theatre designer, who was concerned that his figures might be too much out of style with the other puppetry. Part of the solution, I felt, was to use enlarged outline shapes based on these two-dimensional figures—spray-painted reverse silhouettes—on the flat panel hangings. That’s only roughly indicated on the model. The same motif will be used on a black scrim hung in front of the rear projection screen, disappearing when there’s a projection but at other times bringing the rear of the stage into more organic relation to the rest of it.

And the red fabric emerging from a crack between two levels of the front masking? Well, Frankenstein is about death and birth. So that’s for shock value.

So now we’re just starting the build. The aluminum frame is up, and Elizabeth has some engineering adaptation to do, some of the “sticks” being re-drilled for different locations. I’m building the rolling platform, and we’re about to start the cutting on our 18×24 ft. tarp. For me, cutting into anything is high anxiety—there’s no turning back. I feel a lot more confident with words or potter’s clay.

Next week I’ll post some of our story-board.

•••

The rest of life gallops apace. We’re about to finish the first draft of a new screenplay with our friend Arturo Castillo, and the characters are really finding a life of their own, I think. We continue work on our memoir, scheduled for August publication. We’re pleased to be invited to perform Hands Up at the FURY Factory Festival in San Francisco in June. And I’m about to start the sculpting on Victor.

Several days ago we drove down to Marin County to see an evening of short plays presented by Tamalpais High School’s extraordinary drama program. Two of our playlets from Rash Acts were on the bill—two of the most difficult ones, in fact—and we were very pleased to see their work. There’s always something surprising. And this week we’ll be talking via Skype with a drama class in Auburn, Alabama—a lot easier than driving. They use Rash Acts as a text.

Enough. More next week.

—Conrad Bishop

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January 24, 2011
#2—Frankenstein & Friends

The moment of dedication. Determined now to commit to a weekly blog on the evolution of our Frankenstein. Work began way back when, then Hands Up! intervened, growing from a minnow into a giant squid, and closed its tentacles around us. Frankenstein is now scheduled for October 2011, in collaboration with Sixth Street Playhouse. We’ll run there a month and hopefully tour, extending its life until we both need hip replacements and brain transplants.

The “and Friends” phrase refers to the fact that our creative work, whether in writing, staging, performing or just sitting at our fireplace feeling our souls grow, can’t be compartmentalized.

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Frankenstein will be performed by myself and my partner Elizabeth Fuller, along with a stage manager/puppet assistant we’ll hire. In two years, we’ve created three major puppet productions, and yet, except for Hands Up! the casts have been too large for touring, and most actors in this area have day jobs. Puppetry encourages an opulent imagination, you just need that one extra pair of hands, so every piece has expanded beyond itself. We were lucky in being able to give The Tempest a school tour to ten locations in our county, but for Frankenstein we want to reach further.

First question to ask: who are the puppeteers? In The Tempest, they were masked spirits of the island, slaves to Prospero, and Prospero himself, barefaced, operated his own Prospero puppet as the controlling visionary of the vision. I had thought of Victor and the Creature having the same dual personae as puppet and as actor. But gender is a central factor in this story, and having a male-female identity as puppeteers doesn’t fit.

The action is driven by Death. Victor’s fear of death, his combat with death, means that Death dictates every action, Death is the prime mover. And so the puppeteers will, when we’re seen, wear skull masks. I recall seeing Brueghel’s shocking painting in the Prado, “The Triumph of Death,” wherein the hundreds of tiny figures, soldiers and victims, are all skeletons, bedecked in armor or silks or homespun as their station dictates, but linked in Death’s triumph.

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I’ve finished skull half-masks, and when we want the puppeteers to fade into the background, we can pull black scrim veils over our masks. There may be a few places where our faces are seen: that’s yet to be discovered.

Right now:

• I’ve finished a first-draft script/scenario/storyboard that I’ll start posting next week.

• I’ve sculpted ten of the twenty-odd heads.

• We’ve had a first discussion with Hob, the San Francisco cartoonist who’ll be designing the two-dimensional “toy theatre” figures that represent the Creature’s encounter with civilization, and a session with Michael Nelson of Magical Moonshine Theatre, who’s done many toy-theatre stagings and will consult on the mechanics. Elizabeth has dug up the mini-disk music cues from the previous production and is starting to review them prior to undertaking revisions on the score.

• I’ve finished thumbnail sketches of the entire company of puppets—working out which style of puppet works for each character; the number of different costumes; heads and bodies; and a general sense of the costumes. These will change a lot as they’re refined, but they serve as a guide to the initial sculpting.

• I just finished the set model and a working prototype of the toy-theatre figures.

• We’ve contracted with Sixth Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa to co-produce the play on their second-stage season, opening Sept. 30 and running for five weeks. They’ll provide facilities, box office, and some subsidy, and it’ll be a perfect space for the show.

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Next week, I’ll post a photo of the set model and talk about its design.

•••

The rest of life continues.

Our memoir Co-Creation: Fifty Years in the Making is proceeding on schedule. Just finished a difficult decade, our years in Lancaster between 1977 and 1991, and launched on our decade in Philadelphia. We’re two-thirds of the way through the first draft of a new screenplay with our friend Arturo, working title Salvage. Talking weekly via Skype, then I hit the keyboard and we talk again. Just finished the outline of the final section, feeling very good about it. Meanwhile, we’re circulating our first joint screenplay Willing. So far it was a finalist in a contest, but no cigar. And we’re studying Spanish, struggling to get our half acre of Mama Gaia under control, and running in all directions.

And next week we go down to Mill Valley, where a high school is doing two of our short sketches from Rash Acts on a bill of one-acts directed by students. These have been done a lot around the country, and we try to see them whenever we can. Quality varies, obviously, but there’s always something new and surprising, even in pieces that we ourselves have performed hundreds of times. And they’ve chosen a couple of crazy, difficult pieces. Looking forward to it.

Peace & joy—
Conrad

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