The First Incarnation
Written by Scott Ransom
It was late 2005, and I was in my final year of Theatre Studies before taking up some postgraduate studies in Otago University. I had committed to putting a play on for the Alan Hall Lunchtime Theatre program called “Brain Damage” which was to start early in the new year… and I didn’t have the play ready.
I did have an idea that I figured would become a reality with time but every time I sat down to write it the idea seemed to languish and not write itself. Frustrated, I went for a walk around town, thinking about the story I wanted to tell.
Strolling the streets of Dunedin I thought about what I wanted to accomplish. I had an idea of a play being told in a medical ward with three patients named Red, Blue and Yellow. The patients would role-play a series of scenes, playing out the fantasies of each other’s lives only to have their worlds crushed by some maniacal Doctor who was inducing their illness to perpetuate their entrapment. It sounded like a good idea to me, an accessible comedy that was to be revealed at the end to the audience as not one… so why wasn’t it working?
On my walk I reflected on the idea and discovered that it was difficult to write because I’d be put in a place as a writer to explain to the audience what they had to think about it. That made me uncomfortable because I didn't exactly know what I wanted them to think, let alone what the play was about in the first place other than what I wanted to see.
My walk was interrupted as I discerned an old friend walking along the street on the opposite side of the road. Excited, as I hadn’t run into him for a number of years, I quickly ran across the road to say hello. The reception I got still haunts me today.
I asked him how he was. His response was to keep walking. A bit aghast I stopped him, and reminded him who I was, repeating my question and letting him know how happy I was to see him. He paused to look at me for a moment, a rigidness it his expressions, and he responded by telling me that he did not know me and went on his way.
This was a person who I had known since I was 7; we had lost touch about 4 years prior, so there was the possibility that he may not have recognised me had I walked right past him. But this was not the case. He looked at me, having heard me re-introduce myself, and told me that he did not know me.
Us losing touch was something I couldn’t really explain, it just happened with time. I remember him becoming less and less talkative during our times hanging out together. He would elude to problems he had, but get frustrated with me for not ‘getting it’, till eventually he stopped returning calls, stopped coming around… and eventually was not seen at all by folks. As he walked away I couldn’t help but wonder; ‘What the hell happened to you?’
A couple of days had passed, and I was having a restless night in my apartment. I was stressed by the commitment of having to put on this play, and was struggling to sleep. Eventually I reached a state where my imagination swept over me, I couldn’t tell you whether I was awake or asleep.
My thoughts rolled away from the play and towards my friend, trying to figure out what had happened. I thought about all the moments we had together, all the signs that something was wrong… eventually I became overwhelmed by it. I realised that for me it felt as though I didn't really know him, and what I knew was a barrier he had put up, barring access to his true self and leaving me to pick pieces of what I saw to discern my understanding of him and who he was.
I awoke, a bit giddy. In my sleep, I had made decisions.
I decided that for my play, I didn't so much want to tell a coherent story anymore. I decided that the method of telling the play would be my means of sharing a story, an experience or message. I decided that I wanted people to be placed in a situation where they would be surrounded by a series of events and after those events had taken place, they would themselves need to decide what had occurred, and why.
I wanted to share the experience I had. When I encountered my friend, I didn't know what was going on beneath the surface and could only hazard guesses about what had happened to him and our friendship. There was so much more happening simultaneously in front of me that I could not hear, see or understand. But the meaning I took from it all ultimately came from what I chose to pay attention to.
It was 3 am. Next to me was a pen and some paper. I reached for the lights and was met with a sleepy ‘no you don’t’ from my partner at the time trying to sleep next to me.
Grabbing the paper, I went into the bathroom, switched the lights on and sat down on the toilet to write. I didn’t stop for hours, save for the occasional power nap.
As I wrote, the play became more of an event; an event about the withdrawal I observed in my friend, and had observed in myself and other people I knew. The stories within the event were drawn personal experiences, and what incidents could have caused myself or others to withdraw the way my friend had.
The final product was 5 individual plays: Dead Man Talking, Down and Out, Still Ticking, The Third Withdrawal and What’s On Channel 3? These would make up the performance of ‘Brain Damage’.
My objective was to perform all five plays simultaneously, a play taking a corner each of the theatre space, with the fifth play in the middle. The audience would occupy the space between the middle play and those performed in the corners, bombarded by the events on all sides.
The performance became an experience about the a man called ‘Brain Damage’, who was the protagonist of the central play. He recited a 50-minute, ongoing monologue at the end of his self-imposed withdrawal. Surrounding this character were four plays, each representing different aspects of his subconscious that took on forms of either aspects of his own personality, or characters from his past, playing out there respective self-aware (or in some cases unaware) roles in the reinforcement Brain Damage resrufacing from his withdrawal.
The rehearsals for ‘Brain Damage’ took about 2 months. With the story now in place, it was time to rehearse with each group, to fully acquaint the with their roles.
In our first meeting I explained to the actors that all of the stories were connected, both visually, through the ideas that were being discussed, and the interaction of the various characters in their areas. I explained that our objective was not to ensure the audience understood what these connections were, but merely to give the audience the opportunity to observe these connections so they understood that each play was part of a greater whole.
We divided into 5 groups, and began our rehearsals, both as isolated plays and as a whole. I wanted the performance space and the actors to give to the audience the feeling of being inside a complicated experience, and like most complicated, strange experiences, the repercussions and meaning don't shine through until after the fact.
After an exercise, a character building or warm-up activity, or a run through, I provided my actors with a piece of paper and pen and asked them questions. Questions would range from ‘what did your character experience that time?’ or ‘what does your character want?’, as an example, and once asked, I would instruct my actors to draw this experience.
Gradually overtime, I melded groups together, to begin running through performances simultaneously until at long last we reached the point where we could run the five individual performances simultaneously. For the final week of rehearsals, we would do two run-throughs, one with every group participating, and a second with one group taking a break to experience the show as audience members.
After each group had their experience, we got together to discuss building the environment. We collected all of the pictures we had drawn together and hung them from the ceiling of the performance space, marking the boundaries between the performers and the audience. Additionally, we placed more pictures along the floor to mark the edges of each of the five performance spaces. We built small sets, with minimal lighting focused on each area. Our central performance had the protagonist on an arm chair resting on a pile of trash and videos, watching a television set broadcasting static. Stepping away from our creation, the performers and I observed the space. It had the feeling of a gallery, of a museum exhibit.
A bit apprehensive, though prepared, we were ready to share the experience with the audience.
2011 Wellington Performance
It was one of the most divisive shows I have been involved with: some audience members found the form of story telling frustrating, noisy, distracting, and inaccessible.Others found the it to be less about what was communicated through the dialogue, and more about how the experience made them feel.
Five years later, working with Bard Productions we chose to mount the show again in Bats Theatre, Wellington. Directing the show again I chose to replicate the rehearsal and set design process.
The show was met with similar reactions, and now being performed in a public forum it drew a wider audience. Performing the show a second time, it allowed me an opportunity to reflect on the experience I had back in 2005 in what experience or message I wanted to share with the audience.
In terms of ‘success’, I felt fulfilled at being able to stage the show again, and that were those who found meaning in the experience. In terms of a financial and critically acclaimed success, the show was not. Our show was about encouraging an audience to experience a specific feeling, by trapping them and bombarding them with the events of the 5 plays. This ensured they had the experience I wanted them to have, but the meaning they took from the experience could become defined by how they felt, and interacted with, that situation.
I realise in retrospect that by trapping an audience I did not encourage audience members to have their own unique experience in reaction to the events, but rather forced them to react to what I had prepared, leaving the rest to intellectual chance of the individuals once the experience was over.
Denying the opportunity to fully comprehend the events of each individual play was my attempt to create an environment where the audience would leave tying the pieces they observed in their own order to decide the meaning of the events, akin to the experience I had with my friend that night many years ago.
The show certainly demonstrated to me that this form of Theatre can be changed to successfully suit the message or goals of a show. It has left me excited about the new possibilities in live entertainment, to see how the environment and the method of delivery can change the way in which we interact with, and experience, an event.