Saturday, April 4, 2009

Theatre and Film, or, E-Motion

It’s the end of a long week, during which I’ve been rather consumed by various other writing projects. But I did want to post something here—in haste, alas—to urge local readers of this blog (are there any?) to attend Electric Company Theatre’s special presentation of Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge, at the Vancouver Playhouse until the 18th of this month. The play was a hit in 2006, as part of a co-production between ECT, the PuSh Festival, and Theatre at UBC. It’s since been completely retooled, featuring a revised script by Kevin Kerr, direction by Kim Collier, choreography by Crystal Pite, and scenography by Robert Gardiner. Andrew Wheeler stars as Muybridge, and the always wonderful and eminently watchable Jonathon Young, a co-founder, along with Kerr and Collier, of ECT, appears in a variety of key roles, including Muybridge’s colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, the painter Thomas Eakins, and the man who cuckolds and is eventually killed by Muybridge, Henry Larkyns.

This last detail gives you a sense of the structure of the play, which weaves the story of Muybridge’s pioneering photographic investigations into animal locomotion—which began, at the behest of industrialist and California Governor Leland Stanford, as a way of settling a bet about whether all four hooves of a racehorse ever come off the ground at the same time (they do), and which eventually resulted in him completing an exhaustive catalogue of animal (including human) movement at U Penn—with the scandal of his earlier personal life in San Francisco that he is trying to leave behind. There he met and married the much younger, and previously divorced, Flora, whose subsequent affair with Larkyns (and, it’s suggested, Muybridge’s discovery that the son he thought his—the magnificently named Florado Helios—is actually his rival’s), prompted Muybridge to shoot and kill him. At the ensuing trial, Muybridge entered a plea of insanity, though in the end the jury acquitted him, labeling his crime justifiable homicide. However, Muybridge remained haunted by Flora (who died shortly thereafter) for the rest of his life, as well as by his decision to place Florado in an orphanage. The biography certainly contains a wealth of dramatic material, but at points in this production (which could be streamlined and faster-paced in sections) it felt that, as both psychological motivation and dramaturgical counterpoint, it overwhelmed the scenes of Muybridge’s photographic experiments that comprise the other half of the play.

This is where all of the collaborators in the piece are really allowed to take imaginative flight, with the process by which Muybridge used multiple cameras to “stop time” and “instantly” capture a range of movements—as well as how he “stage managed” the subjects who made those movements—wonderfully evoked in Pite’s movement sequences and especially Gardiner’s stunning projections and lighting decisions (I’m assuming Gardiner was in charge of these decisions, as no separate lighting designer is listed in the program). Here we have not just photography, but early cinema, come to life on the stage. (There’s a magnificent scene, for example, in which Muybridge demonstrates his invention of the zoopraxiscope, an early device for projecting “motion” pictures that predates the invention of celluloid film, to his young assistant, Blanche. It lasts but a flash, but it takes your breath away.) And we have it come to life in a way that reveals the beauty of all human and animal forms, the nudity that was an essential component of Muybridge’s published plates of male and female locomotion here rendered in a way that is the exact opposite of gratuitous. It is, rather, completely warranted.

Still, a part of me wished that Muybridge’s influence on the development of the new medium of film had been emphasized a bit more in the play. Not to detract in any way from the amazing theatricality and visuality of the piece as it currently exists. Rather, I say this for purely selfish reasons. I will be teaching a course in the fall that will deal partly with the relationship between film and theatre (including the use of film and video in contemporary theatre), and have programmed Studies in Motion as part of the syllabus. Not having seen the play, I had perhaps “projected” a bit too much of my own thinking in connection with the course’s various topics onto the play. That said, I still intend to teach the play, and hope that I can coax some of its creators into the classroom to discuss its development. Here, for those who might be interested, is the course description as I’ve currently conceived it:

Filmed Theatre, Theatre and Film, Film in Theatre

Since its invention, film has had a special relationship to theatre. The historical, theoretical, performative, and technological dimensions of that relationship are the subjects of this course. First, we will look at early international cinema, noting the extent to which it borrowed from theatre not only in terms of narrative content, but also in terms of aesthetic form, incorporating proscenium framing, pictorialist staging, and vaudeville attractions into its mise-en-scène. We will also discuss how advances in film technology (including the mobile camera, rear-screen projection, montage editing, and the introduction of sound) gradually altered the aesthetic and ideological relationship between film and theatre. We will then apply these preliminary findings, as well as readings by critics and artists like André Bazin, Walter Benjamin, Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, Tom Gunning, Stanley Kauffmann, and Susan Sontag, to two cross-media case studies: a discussion of Samuel Beckett’s sole contribution to the cinema, Film (1966), starring Buster Keaton, alongside his contemporaneous theatrical short, Play, in a filmed version directed by Anthony Minghella; and a review of the historical trade between Broadway and Hollywood via the genre of the musical. Sticking momentarily with this narrower national focus, we will next examine the stage-to-screen collaborations and stage-versus-screen excoriations and exculpations of three giants of theatre and film in 1950s America: Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Miller. Closely analyzing A Streetcar Named Desire, The Crucible, and On the Waterfront, we will raise questions of authorship/auteurship, liveness and mediation, spectatorship and audience formation; we will also discuss style’s connection to politics via the new Muscovite acting “method” exported from New York to LA by Marlon Brando, and the taint of communism that inevitably followed. Finally, we will conclude by investigating how different avant-garde and experimental theatre companies such as The Wooster Group, Forced Entertainment, and Vancouver’s own Electric Company Theatre have increasingly sought to incorporate film, video, and new media technologies into their dramaturgy. This will coincide with the local staging of a new work by one of the masters of this kind of intermediality, Robert Lepage.

And here is a promotional clip for Studies in Motion. Walk, run, or ride to the Playhouse to see it.


No comments: