"Insecurity is an unavoidable part of life,” says Anna Gutto, whose new play opens April 17th at the 3LD Art & Technology Center in downtown Manhattan. “The question is whether we face these insecurities and unmask their true nature, or whether we run away.”
In the appropriately titled IN SECURITY, Gutto, who wrote and stars in the piece, blends live performance, video, and film to hold up a mirror to the neuroses and the fears that many a young urban professional can relate to.
“Maybe this happens to you,” Says Gutto. “I know it happens to me: I lie in bed and I’m trying to make up my mind about important decisions in my life. Where do I want to live? What do I want to do? Who do I want to be with? I guess that, in asking myself these questions, I assume I am the only person who can answer these questions for myself.
“And yet inevitably, the people in my life soon start invading my thoughts, like so many talking heads; my mentor, my ex-boyfriend, my boss, that random mean kid in the eighth grade, my parents, my lover…”
This kind of mental invasion is precisely what she has set to stage, collaborating with visual artists to pluck the characters from her protagonist’s head and send them batting around it like so many wise or evil flies.
I first met Gutto two years ago, when the play was in its initial genesis. Gutto had a first draft that showed great potential both in terms of narrative premise and thematic focus. Ever since I first moved to New York as a recent college grad, I found I was increasingly attracted to stories that explored the “work vs. love” type of dilemmas, not only because I often had trouble juggling the contradictory demands of my own work and love lives, but because so many other New Yorkers appeared uniquely competent at screwing it up as well. And so, naturally, like so many other unmarried city dwellers, I find it reassuring, educational, and entertaining, when story characters try to juggle the same, seemingly contradictory priorities.
Are they, in fact, contradictory? IN SECURITY treats the question with refreshing honesty. Side-stepping the romantic comedy form (which typically features two characters who, we hope, will get together in the end, when they finally figure out that their partner’s love is more important than anything else that was bothering them), this play is focused exclusively on only one of the characters in this potential love story.
Meet Dr. Lona Waverton, a young hospital surgeon who seems especially competent at multitasking—which is a good thing, given that she’s just about to get married. But just as she is trying to leave the office for her big nuptial adventure, an incident snowballs into a major crisis that conspires to throw her professional and personal lives into major conflict.
What surprised me about Gutto’s story was less the question of whether this conflict would be resolved than where it would play itself out. The challenge facing the play’s director, Alexis Poledouris, was to recreate the world of this story, which occurs only partially in what we might call our common objective reality. The real battleground is in fact inside the mind of the play’s protagonist.
In order to help us get “inside” the protagonist’s head, the play’s creative team (Poledouris, set designer Dragny Kleiva and dramaturg Oda Radoor) sought the help of Ann Oren, an innovative video installation artist from Israel (now based in Brooklyn), whose animation-based art projections have earned her invitations to exhibit in Paris, L.A., New York (PS122) and Tokyo, among other locations. The result is visually unique, although to give you an idea, the previews I saw reminded me a bit of the lean visual style of animated motion pictures like Persepolis. Imagine the interaction between a live actor and such a partially animated background. The idea is to help us visualize the ongoing conflict between Lona’s conscious and subconscious desires, using multiple media to convey intimate sensory perceptions.
Prominent rear projection screens allow prop details to be projected onto the set, and as the people in Lona’s life come in and out of her mind, the projected props morph into “puppets” of those characters, using video with a combination of live action and animation. The set is a vessel to Lona’s mind—the more chaotic her mind gets, the more intrusive the characters become. As we witness the gradual distortion of the protagonist’s perception of time and space, we effectively get into her head, and Lord knows strange things happen inside people’s heads—especially in times of crisis.
And yet, the technique is effective. In time, we begin to understand that the ultimate challenge facing Lona has more to do with accepting herself than being accepted by others. Could it be that the real challenge of adulthood is the exact reverse of the one we trained for a children (i.e. the struggle to “fit in”)? As a male I was surprised, and surprisingly moved, by the extent to which I ended up identifying with Lona’s struggle and, ultimately, with the elixir she finds at the end of her inner journey.
The final agile, integrated feel and form of the play certainly reflects Gutto’s process. She took a leap of faith from the start, entrusting the development process itself to guide her through consecutive re-writes. As I observed, I was skeptical—most classic storytelling manuals specifically warn against such an approach, typically postulating that form should indeed follow function. But Gutto didn’t name her theater company the “Unbound Collective” for nothing. Following her vision, she felt it was critical to integrate all aspects of the production into the crafting of the story itself from the earliest possible stage. In essence, the writing and the staging evolved in symbiosis, to the point where it became difficult to determine whether form followed function or vice versa.
After two years of gradual development, Gutto and her visual collaborators went to Norway for an intensive full- time development retreat during the summer of 2008. By their autumn finish, it became clear that the development process had achieved its main goal, namely to maximize the use of sound and image to transport the audience into the mind of the protagonist—a feat rarely achieved in the theatrical realm, where audiences often depend exclusively on dialogue and movement to interpret any given character’s inner emotional state, allowing the audience to see through the proverbial “mask” that is traditionally associated with stage performance. By now I was hooked, and when the team asked me to come on as a co-producer, I was happy to officially tag myself onto a journey that I had been identifying with from the start.
After its premiere performances in New York, the production plans to tour nationally and internationally. IN SECURITY represents the fifth production of the Unbound Collective, which is now in its sixth year of operation. “We focus on the raw, the unique, the sometimes humorous, and always emotionally compelling dilemmas that define human life.” That is how Gutto defines the wider objective of the collective production venture. The upcoming performance of IN SECURITY promises not to disappoint on that score. If poor Dr. Lona Waverton knew what she was in for, she might have done well to call in sick. Yet for those among us who can no longer run from the stressful questions life occasionally throws our way, welcome to Lona’s world. Our generation will have to grow into adulthood some day. And it’s about time we have an artistic contribution that helps us figure out what the hell that means.
Michael Soussan, now a participating producer on the show, is a New York based journalist and the author of Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy (Nation Books).