Surreality Check, Part 2: Building a Lookingglass Wonderland

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Lindsey Noel Whiting goes down the rabbit hole in Lookingglass Alice (photo: Lookingglass Theatre)
Lookingglass Alice
Lindsey Noel Whiting goes down the rabbit hole in Lookingglass Alice. (Photo: Lookingglass Theatre.)

In my last post, I asked why current plays nearly always opt for realistic plots that take place in the real world of our daily lives. I spoke with Emmi Hilger, director of Chicago’s magical realism festival, Something Incredibly Marvelous Happens, and she emphasized the importance of imagination in fostering empathy and our ability to connect with others’ experiences. She demonstrated how creating a theatrical world doesn’t always require extensive resources, and that high-quality fanciful or nonrealistic work can be produced on the storefront level.

For this second post, we look at a larger venue, Chicago’s Tony-winning Lookingglass Theater Company, for an interview with David Catlin. Catlin is an Ensemble Member and former artistic director of Lookingglass, and he is the adapter and director of their current production, Lookingglass Alice — a surreal, acrobatic, highly technical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland produced in association with The Actors Gymnasium. Alice embodies some of the best features of playwriting for an unrealistic setting. Not only does it tell its story through a combination of visual spectacle and the fun, intellectual rigor of Carroll’s dexterous wordplay, but it grounds these extraordinary events in a psychological realism that prevents the world from ever becoming distant or incomprehensible. With Alice as our guide, we confront the plot of the play as she does, her practical Victorian sensibilities and childlike openness constantly at odds as she attempts to make sense of each new scenario. While alienation can be a useful tool in theater, were it employed it Alice, either intentionally or — as happens in lesser unrealistic plays — by accident, it would lock the audience out. It would constrict the play into something to be watched and enjoyed passively, a conceptual exercise, rather an active invitation to feel and imagine. With a psychologically real undercurrent to its fantasy, however, Alice is as relatable as any realistic play, and provides adult audiences with just enough reality to let them comfortably step further and further beyond it.

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To learn more about the process of creating this difficult work, I asked Catlin about his approaches to theater, both creative and technical.

David Catlin
David Catlin (photo: Northwestern University)

SEAN DOUGLASS: I’ll start with the question I’ve been using to guide this two-part series: Why do you think prominent nonmusical plays almost always have realistic plots set in the “real world”?

DAVID CATLIN: I can’t speak for how or why middle-to-large-sized theaters tend toward realistic plays when not producing musicals. Maybe the musicals they program provide enough fantastical or nonrealistic storytelling for their audiences. Maybe those artistic directors are balancing the fantasy of the musical with the realism of a traditional play.  Perhaps most playwrights are interested in words and the real human interactions of life that confound us, that give us pause, that we want to celebrate, or that are in need of deeper investigation.

There is also an economic consideration. A traditional realistic play often has fewer locations, a set that might change only at intermission if at all, and a smaller cast of actors. That is likely driven to some degree by the economics of what middle-to-large theaters are able to produce. Sometimes the smaller theaters have lower overhead and feel a different financial pressure.

In addition to language, fantastical theater might employ a broader spectrum of storytelling. Story may be communicated through metaphor, through visual elements, through physical transformation, and object work. This kind of theater may require a broader set of performer skills than needed for a traditional play– actors might need skills in circus, puppetry, movement, playing music, acrobatics, etc.

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SD: You’ve mentioned the broad range of storytelling tools that can be used in nonrealistic theater, and are of course on display in Lookingglass Alice. Could you talk about how Lookingglass approaches these different elements of storytelling?  And how does this impact the design?

DC: For Lookingglass, our style of theater puts added pressure on our design elements. Because we often draw from literary sources, our stories can occur over many locations, through a wide span of time, and involve many characters. Our scenic gestures tend to be metaphoric and flexible and demand an active, willing suspension of disbelief from our audiences. Design choices need to engage the audiences’ imaginations with just enough to create the various locations and specific details of each place without making transitions unwieldy. Ideally those choices are serving and striking a deeper purpose— on psychological, emotional, or metaphoric level. When incorporating aerial staging, an added layer of design considerations must be accounted for. Lighting positions compete for rigging positions in the grid. The areas now needing to be lit are increased, affecting the number (or type) of lighting instruments required.

Also, because our theater is quite intimate, the audience is very close and can see every seam and joint and hem. This proximity demands excellent craftsmanship from our stitchers and builders and prop masters. Being a physical company, our actors will often use our sets and costumes and props in more dynamic ways. There is often the presumption that if there is a piece of scenery, one of our actors might climb on it or swing from it. Hardware alone needs to be rated to bear dynamic loads and is considerably (understandably) more expensive. The costumes, props, and sets must be durable for issues of safety and durability.

SD: These many involving elements definitely create a different kind of theatrical event than one would normally encounter with a realistic story. What kind of impact are you ultimately hoping to have on your audiences?

DC: I believe that theater is an opportunity to explore what is to be human and to experience that investigation in a live communal forum. I believe that traditional theater — a mostly auditory, language-based event — can be a tremendous way to experience a story. But as humans we experience the world in other ways, too —  kinesthetically, viscerally, and through metaphor. I am interested in trying to make theater that seeks to engage more of each member of our audience. At Lookingglass we are drawn to what seems impossible to stage, perhaps because theater is a place where the impossible can happen. How thrilling it is when an audience can share that moment of communal imaginative engagement, that communal willing suspension-of-disbelief. That moment when we can all see what isn’t tangibly there; when we are transported to impossible places; and we experience vivid moments of transcendent dream-like wonder.

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Sean Douglass
Sean Douglass is the Managing Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, as well as an author, playwright and dramaturg. He is the Company Dramaturg for Something Marvelous, Chicago's annual magical realism festival, and has previously worked at Northlight Theatre and Chicago Dramatists. His plays have been produced or developed at UW-Madison, The Vermont College of Fine Arts, The Chicago Fringe Festival, Luminous Theatre of Milwaukee, Something Marvelous, Chicago Dramatists and Stagecloud. He also hosts the CFR's podcast The Scene.