Academic journal article TheatreForum

The Voyeurism of Consent: An Introduction to a Human Interest Story (or the Gory Details and All)

Academic journal article TheatreForum

The Voyeurism of Consent: An Introduction to a Human Interest Story (or the Gory Details and All)

Article excerpt

THE WARNING

The VOICE OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM issues the following words of caution at the beginning of A Human Interest Story:

Warning: No attempt should be made to actually stage the following stage directions. The following stage directions should be spoken by...

The line usually draws a laugh, so I am not surprised when people who have read the play or have heard it in the context of a reading ask if I only mean it as a joke, or if the line genuinely reflects my intent. Suffice it to say that the EBS warning should be taken, at the very least, as strong advice to any future players.

It might seem paradoxical, then, when I say that I think of Human Interest first and foremost as a visual experience for the audience. However, this is only paradoxical if we limit our definition of visual theatre to evocative pictorial stage composition. But if we extend the idea of a visual theatre beyond physicalized images designed to exist within the boundaries of the stage into the murky, fertile realm of the audience's imagination, the paradox disappears. Human Interest, as visual theatre, lives in this realm: the onus of creating the theatrical image rests squarely on the audiences imaginative engagement with the spoken word. In a sense, by summoning from their own psyches images suggested by the play's language, the audience takes on the role of director and designer. I would even go as far to say that the audience goes beyond this theatrical role: the images they summon do not take place on a stage, but in real space; they are not inhabited by actors playing roles, but by actual people; they are not illuminated by lighting instruments, but fluorescent tubes, the glow of a television set, winter sunshine; they are not dressed in costumes, but wear real clothes. In short the audience's images do not exist as stage pictures; rather they exist as reality, as direct experience, as memory.

An anecdote, I think, will illustrate what I mean. Following the first public reading of the play, a young female audience member approached me. "Every time Robinson stuck the gun into his mouth, I had to turn my eyes away," she said. While she hadn't intended this entirely as a compliment, her comment was the source of great satisfaction: it was evidence that the hunch I operated from when I wrote the play was sound and, for at least her, disturbingly effective. After all, the image of the televised suicide, like all the images in the play, was not represented, but only described-yet, her response was visceral, physiological, as if she had witnessed the real thing.

As the Mother says in the prologue: "The imagination/in my opinion/is infinitely more cruel and unforgiving than reality."

This begs some questions: what is the rationale behind this formal choice? How does this choice relate to the dramatic content? And how might it play out theatrically? A look at the process of writing the play, as well as some of the impulses and ideas that inspired it, might provide some illumination.

HOW I WROTE THE PLAY

The circumstances in which I wrote Human Interest were unusual for me at the time and played a decisive role in shaping the form and content of the play.

In April 2001, I was invited to Seattle by Annex Theatre to participate in hothouse, an experimental new play development workshop. Annex invites four writers from around the country to spend two weeks creating new work in collaboration with a director and a miniensemble of actors. At the end of the two weeks, each team presents to a public audience the material generated over the course of the workshop in whatever form it happens to be in. While no restrictions are placed on working methods, use of allotted rehearsal time, subject matter, or length, the one sacred rule of hothouse is that writers are forbidden to bring any preexisting work-in-progress or to write any material prior to arriving in Seattle.

The idea of hothouse enticed me for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the danger in which it placed the writer. …

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