Fresh Eyes on FEATHERS AND TEETH, 2nd Installment
This week, Elizabeth and Anthony joined us in rehearsals to watch scene work for FEATHERS AND TEETH. Rehearsals have moved along swiftly and much was accomplished in the first week and a half. The show is completely blocked, the actors have learned their lines, and the work is now all about the details. Timing, shifts of intention, clarifying objectives – each small change (and some large ones) helps shape the play. Elizabeth and Anthony were able to observe the fine-grained work that is happening.
ELIZABETH E. TAVARES
Feathers And Teeth: Hotdogs, Grandmas, and Nazis
“Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: ‘Here are our monsters,’ without immediately turning the monsters into pets.”
– Jacques Derrida, Some Statements and Truisms
When I walked into rehearsal of FEATHERS AND TEETH on Thursday, I was met by two children feeding oversized hotdogs and yellowed paperbacks to a black campfire pot. The work of solving the material needs of the play were well underway. Exciting for me was getting to see how the mise-en-scene is starting to take shape—how the objects that define the 1970s kitchen of our collective imaginations not only work to build out the world of the play, but also inform the ghostliness of this story. A plastic, red, Energizer Ever-Ready flashlight in the hands of Hugo, a grammar-school-aged German immigrant, is used to fight off invisible nipping beasties, to amplify the terror of his storytelling by bathing his chin in light, and to replace a microphone in order to impress Chris, the girl next door. While the red flashlight seemed to be unraveling new meaning by the moment, the iconic mustard-yellow kitchen stove was proving an impediment to the adult characters and their ability to make blocking decisions. Just as kitchens seemed to stymie assumptions about wifely agency in the ‘70s, so too did this stove seem to be unproductively negotiating the domestic dynamics of the room.
As compelling as watching the world of objects come alive for the world of the play was the contribution of sound. Lucky me, I got to observe the proceedings while sitting next to Nelda Reyes, who will be acting as the onstage Foley artist, creating the voices of the monsters live. Listening to her test out different slurps, purrs, and whistles, I realized I was beginning to believe in these unnamable things, these monsters made, impossibly, of feathers and teeth and shells. Ghost stories only work when you can get your listener to believe there is a chance of threat. The oversized hotdogs being consumed by an ostensibly empty pot coupled with Reyes’ chirps were the first suggestions of the world of the play coming to life—its monsters still as yet tame, but beginning to roil. The sound team plans on using a special software patch called Dehumanizer (initially devised for video games) to amplify and distort Reyes’ voice. While thrilled at the thought of the new application, part of me wonders if the wisp of the familiar, the touch of the human in Reyes’ voice might be lost in that vocal metamorphosis. Will the digitized sound of the devil—the Teufel, which Hugo’s grandmother dubbed the Nazi’s—too fully disguise those notes of the familiar? It was, after all, German philosophy that gave us the word “uncanny” for that sensation of when the familiar seems suddenly so foreign and strange.
On that strangeness, I was struck, as the actors and directors debated pacing and blocking choices, by the fact that they could all easily agree on where the line between creepy and grotesque, between compelling and unsettling, was. While certainly this play seems interested in questions of kinship and betrayal, the stuff of its historical moment leads me to wonder: to what degree do we all agree on what is monstrous? And how did we come to share the same anxiety over the eerie sway of a foot? Or a child’s unblinking stare upwards through downturned brows?
"Feel it, the paradise of the inside of the mouth."
I'm sitting in on week two of rehearsals for FEATHERS & TEETH and I'm busy tasting that delicious sentence. I don't know for sure that I'm still supposed to be here - Dámaso has left for a meeting, as has Luan, the actors are getting fitted for costumes, and I'm sitting four feet away from teenage lead actress Agatha as she meets with a dialect coach, Mary McDonald-Lewis. Mary Mac isn't the type of person who walks into a room as much as she floats into it, and I could easily see her playing a gallerist on Sex and the City or a high-society type in Downtown Abbey in addition to her regular voice work. She's meeting with Agatha to coach her on projection, pacing, and using voice to command authority - even quietly.
After noting to Agatha that she's using her head voice, that her diaphragm is supported, and her throat is open and her chakras are aligned, she explains that "we emit energy and that energy reaches out and touches the audience. We tend to think our voice, our instrument, is going to do whatever we want," instead of working to care for it and train it for specific tasks. I am fascinated. I feel like a creep as I furiously jot down notes. She continues, "We can use our instrument to get people to do what we want. When we mess with our voice, we're messing with interchangeable resonance." I imagine Mary Mac using her mastery of voice for evil in a Cronenbergian fashion, calling upon the interchangeable resonance to scramble feeble minds. This - the meeting with the dialect coach, not the dialect coach going rogue - is where the magic happens. It's the tiny bits of magic that makes the big magic possible.
It's only been a week since Day One and there's a set now, at least a makeshift one, including a gigantic range in this half-imaginary kitchen the actors rehearse in. Everyone is off book, with the occasional "line?" request. Scenes are getting blocked and character motivations are hammered into the actors by Dámaso with Luan's occasional dramaturgical nudges.
"All right, sex is happening upstairs," the stage manager says to cue a scene. Agatha sets her head on a tape player like it's a pillow while the production assistant cues Pink Floyd's Breathe. Chris, Agatha's character, loves Pink Floyd and classic rock - as do I, and so I begin cascading away on imaginary nostalgia, thinking about the '70s Chris lives in versus the '70s of Carol, her soon-to-be-stepmother. Chris lives in the '70s that just witnessed the bliss and acid-crest-collapse of '60s - the dark side of student protests gone wrong, Vietnam, and drugs shutting down your mind rather than expanding it. Carol is very much the televised, Mrs. Brady '70s that felt Woodward and Bernstein were muckraking reporters. While a horror play, FEATHERS AND TEETH is also a period piece as well a satire, and it has to evoke these two very different depictions of the 70s in order to tear it apart. And today we're here to see how that can all be built into an actress born well into the 00's.
In this scene Chris tries to speak with her deceased mother. Part of this communication includes lighting a candle with a match. Luan notes that Agatha should make some kind of gesture as she lights the candle, for the sake of ritual accuracy. "Did you used to do séances in the '70s?" Dámaso asks Luan. "Well, yes," she says, as if this fascinating tidbit is nothing, "but it's also to signal to the audience the beginning of the ritual, that she's summoning someone."
And this - besides Luan's hinted occult history - is where I get excited. I'm really easily entertained by obvious epiphanies, like when you stop and realize that the word "kneeling" appropriately contains the word "knee" in it. I'm realizing now that all the work being done right now in this practice room above or to the side or somewhere near the theatre itself is designed with a double purpose. Every line the actors say, every angle that they say it from, even where they stand in relation to that enormous range, is being worked to 1) make the actors relate to the lines they say and the emotions they're meant to convey, so that they can become true for them, and 2) to figure out the best way to then convey these truths to the audience so that they too can experience them. That's really all there is to theatre, or illusion, or synthesis, but to me in this moment it's a quiet if not obvious epiphany.
"We emit energy and that energy reaches out and touches the audience." In my mind, Mary Mac's words are now transposed with Luan lighting candles and bending theatre audiences to her will. That's what this is, whether it's Shakespeare or the Brady Bunch or a horror play that I at first thought would be a Burtonesque romp through the '70s. It's interchangeable resonance. It's the witchcraft of empathy.