Academic journal article TheatreForum

Actually Feeling It: Staging Ken Urban's the Awake

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Actually Feeling It: Staging Ken Urban's the Awake

Article excerpt

Ken Urban, playwright

I started the play by keeping track of my dreams. For a month, each morning I woke up and wrote down as much as I could about that night's dreams. From that handwritten material, I found the three stories of Nate, Malcolm and Gabrielle. I set myself the goal of writing a monologue play, but discovered I didn't find that format as theatrical as the stories I was telling. That's when the ensemble appeared. Writing this was a physical act. I would write long scenes or monologues quickly, then cut them up into sections. I was trying to get out of my head, find a new way of working. The first draft of the play was a scroll of speeches and scenes held together with tape. It took up the length of the living room. I had no idea what it was. I put it away because I thought it was too strange. But I kept going back to it, adding and subtracting. The story reminded me of those Russian nesting dolls, each scene would reveal another layer, grow more intimate.

Adam Fitzgerald, director

The first time I read the play, I was baffled, but also intrigued. Then I heard it out loud. I was incredibly moved. Hearing the words spoken by the actors provided all the clarity I needed. I knew I had to direct this play.

Ken

It is definitely a play that I "heard" before I "saw." It's a challenging read, but when you listen to it, it comes alive.

Adam

That's pretty rare in a new play. Most plays you read and you can imagine exactly how it would look on stage.

Ken

I wanted to stay faithful to the experience of a dream. After a reading of the play in London, a few producers thought it would be better as a film. A designer told me a production would require a huge set. That depressed me to no end. I always saw it being staged simply. Smartly, yes, but simply. That's why, for a time, I called it "a radio play for the stage," but that probably just complicated things.

Adam

Staging was definitely a process of subtraction. We did a week-long workshop, which taught us so much. By the start of rehearsals for the production, we cut all the props. After the first read-through, I cut all the set pieces. Six actors, four chairs, minimalist costumes: that was it. Minus one exit for Malcolm's mother, the actors were onstage the entire show.

David Arsenault, Set Designer

When I first read the play, I noticed how quickly and seamlessly one scene floated into another, and therefore we needed to move quickly in and out of various realities. We needed to go beyond traditional scenic methods, but we also had a lot of room to play because of how poetic and non-specific the text was. The larger challenge was to create an environment that could not only house these dreamers, but also amplify their dreams the same way the language did. I wanted the audience to be conscious of each other, which is how we ended up with the tennis court style seating. The audience became the scenery. When I started thinking about the floor, I realized I didn't want one. That's how I ended up with mirror. Mirror is fascinating material. It doesn't really exist - you don't see "mirror." You see a reflection. You can't take a photo of mirror. You take a photo of a reflection. It also served the practical purpose of letting us bounce projections off of the floor to surround the characters in their dreams. Ultimately, it also captured the symbolism of the play.

Ken

Those images of seeing and being seen are throughout the play. No doubt, I was inspired by Beckett in that regard. Though in this play, it is perhaps more about our culture of surveillance than an existential question about subjectivity, though you can't really separate the two.

Christian Fredrickson, sound designer

I wanted to be involved in rehearsals from the beginning for a number of reasons. First, the actors were going to need to build some of the sound vocabulary into their rhythms right from the start. I used sound to punctuate the quick changes. …

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