Balm in Brooklyn: A Case Study
The site: A 15,000-square-foot fluorescent-lit windowless warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront, formerly occupied by Snapple, in Industry City, Sunset Park, Brooklyn. A hermetically sealed world with a single direct point of access to the outdoors—a 4-by-3-foot smoking balcony where sea-breezes fly, and faces glow in the watery light that comes scudding off New York Harbor.
The project: Balm in Gilead by Lanford Wilson, tackled in the context of a four-day retreat in the block-long warehouse, using the full expanse of the space to create not just the NYC diner that is the setting for the groundbreaking first play by the late-great playwright, but the street where it lives as well. An intervention with the space, consisting of three days of load-in (designer Deb O’s total environment included a kitchen and chandelier-lit green room), four days of rehearsal, dinners served at a candlelit table set for 70, and a one-time only run-through (June 5, 2011) for an audience of over 300. Wilson’s fever dream of an ode to the addicts, prostitutes, and outcasts that frequented his iconic greasy spoon first lit up La MaMa in 1965, and was revived by Steppenwolf at Circle Rep in 1984, directed by John Malkovich with a cast of 25, including Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, Terry Kinney, and Laurie Metcalf (whose daughter, Zoe Perry, plays Darlene in the warehouse, the same role Metcalf played 27 years earlier). Balm, in Brooklyn, was initiated well before Wilson’s death on March 24th of this year. Suddenly losing Wilson along the way transformed the project, on some level, into the best kind of wake.
The dreamer (producer and co-director): Playwright Beau Willimon (Farragut North) has been haunted by the indelible music of Balm in Gilead ever since he read the play as a teenager in St. Louis: a playwright paying tribute to another playwright. Willimon is seeking to return to what ignited his passion for writing in the first place, and in doing so, thanks to a little good fortune on the West Coast, he is giving back to the community, and the work, that continues to feed him as an artist.
His cohorts: Directors Alex Harvey, Melissa Kievman and Brian Mertes, in collaboration with designers Deb O (set/environment), Brandon Wolcott (sound) and Aaron Meicht (sound and music direction), Cait O’Connor, a cadre of lighting designers including Ben Krall, Carl Faber, Nicholas Houfek, Austin R. Smith, and Ben Stanton, choreographers Jesse J. Perez & Brendan Spieth, chef Gustavo Fernandez, and a cast of 25: Jolly Abraham, Josh Adams, Kate Arrington, Mia Barron, Ismael Cruz-Cordova, Patch Darragh, Emily Donahoe, Dana Eskelson, Andy Grotelueschen, Hugo Medina, Scott Parkinson, Zoe Perry, Richard Prioleau, Gayle Rankin, Armando Riesco, Ray Rizzo, Mauricio Salgado, Peter Scanavino, Ted Schneider, Michael Shannon, Jonathan Mark Sherman, Chris Sullivan, Henry Vick, Tobie Windham, and Elvy Yost.
The approach: Inspired by Chekhov at Lake Lucille, in which directors Melissa Kievman and Brian Mertes host a company of some of New York’s finest actors, designers, and musicians at their old stone house on Rockland County’s Lake Lucille for a week-long retreat each August. During this time artists recharge their creative juices while exploring a Chekhov play in the Kievman-Mertes yard and its surround (a wholly Chekhovian environment), pitching tents on neighbors’ lawns, feasting nightly at a table set for 60 at the water’s edge, and jumping into the lake whenever the spirit moves them.
The question: What happens when you transpose that process to a gritty urban environment, sans nature, shorten it substantially, grapple with a very different kind of text—i.e., rapid-fire polyphonies, a hyperreal feel, an unsettling circular structure—and (most of) the company goes home each night?
The experience: “Ineffable,” according to actor Josh Adams, who came all the way from San Francisco to play Fick: “Meaning, it was an experience that cannot be expressed in words.”
The conversation (excerpted from rehearsal, as well as collected in the form of interviews, during the four-day process):
Part 1: Succumbing to the Space
ALEX HARVEY (director): When we engage in these convergences, I’m always struck by what happens when you step outside. Andy Grotelueschen [Company member] said to me, “If somebody walked in here and they saw this happening, and they walked out of the room and came back next Tuesday to find the place empty, they would think they had seen a group of ghosts.” I was just so moved by what happens, stepping away from the group and looking at it from the outside. I heard the buzzing of bees, this sort of hive, this melding of the material that we use and the experience of building. So as I was listening to this buzzing hive of all of you with pride and terror and love, I started thinking of the music of it—the way in which all of this buzzing and all of the play’s counterpoint and the music of us working and eating, and working and eating and the repetitions of us doing the play over and over again—the ways in which it will slowly change the air in here and the negative space between you. All I ask is that every now and then, you sneak out and feel it and notice it, because that will be just as important to you as being inside it, actually seeing how you are changing the air in here.
BEAU WILLIMON (project originator): We started from scratch. The lights didn’t work. We brought in power. There was nothing here. Now, on Thursday night [Day 2] we’re less than 72 hours from this whole thing being done, and we have major issues in this room that pose challenges that most theaters don’t have, where sound and lights have all been figured out in advance. But that’s one of the advantages of this room—we aren’t limited by that, we aren’t fitting the play into a pre-existing place. Still, there are realities to this space that we have to contend with, and sound is a huge concern of ours out of respect for Lanford’s play, which is beautifully written. We say to ourselves, “How do we solve that, what are we willing to let go?”
DEB O (environmental designer): The environment is creating the play.
BRIAN MERTES (director): We’re invoking the story as opposed to putting on a show. Conjuring a story. One of the first images is a kind of haunting of the space. We’re trying to perform some magic in a way.
ALEX: My obsession with the play comes from thinking that it starts as a play and slowly, over time, becomes a mind, especially after this weird work that I’m doing now with theater and neuroscience at UCSD. The porousness, the dissipation of barriers between so many things we usually consider separate—contemporary consciousness studies puts the nail on the head re: what this piece is about. Slowly, inside and outside become the same thing, beginning and end become the same thing, cause and effect become the same thing. Looping happens in this very particular half corkscrew way, a half loop back and a half loop forward, which is exactly how the meta-representation of your body manifests inside your brain as opposed to your actual body—without really a beginning or an end. So it’s like what Grotowski would call “the organism” is coming from a complete porousness, where your lines might be coming from this person or that person. To me it’s kind of a de-evolution, which is what’s so weird, because mostly what we do is start from something very, very simple and it gets more and more complicated until we have this elegant structure. But this starts there, and turns into this thing that is almost just one mind alone, looping.
BRIAN: What we want to find as a group is the pulse and the breath of how this thing flies. What we just experienced [the first read-through] doesn’t feel far off from what this play actually does. It’s like falling into a rabbit hole. We’re kind of falling up into a rabbit hole. It doesn’t go down at the end of the play, it goes up. As it’s falling apart, it’s shedding itself, exposing itself. Radioactive. We’re seeing the seams, the fragments, the ligaments of the play. It’s very real. Lanford’s writing is so fucking human; it’s so real. He captured these people in time, a very particular time, in New York.
BEAU: So you start out with this big expansive experience, you may not hear everything, but you get the street life, you get the diner life, you see it, it’s like watching this café from another café across the street, and we feel like we can afford that for 30 minutes if we give people everything they need for the rest of it. Rather than trying to defeat the space, it’s like the ocean, swimming against a rip tide. You’re not going to beat the ocean. What we would have to do to compromise our initial idea or to mask walls is not worth it. Because then we’d just be creating a theater in here, and that’s not right. So we’re going to go with the current, and then once the riptide’s out, then we can swim where we need to swim.
MELISSA KIEVMAN (director): It’s like a family at a wedding. There is a ritual in place, but no one’s quite sure where to go.
BRIAN: Usually, you spend a whole rehearsal process trying to get back to that first impulse. Well, this is all about trying to get that first impulse to happen all the time. There’s no “staging” in a situation like this; we try to give the actors an environment. They come in prepped, bring in ideas, and we try to give them the space where it can happen. For me, it’s not about what we do on Sunday [the final day of the process]. This thing could ignite tomorrow, or Friday, or Saturday—it could actually light up and happen. We don’t know when, but there’s always the potential that it could, and we try to provide a place where that opportunity exists so that the actors can find it with each other. With this kind of work, every single moment feels like: “Wow, this is why this play was written. I understand it now. There it is!”
RAY RIZZO (actor): I come from the experience of making music. Relating a recording process to a theater process, you’re always hoping to capture something that no one realized was there to be caught. You want to try and get a first take. As a musician, I really thrive on the first or second take. Usually, if you’re on the third or fourth take, you’re not looking for the moment anymore, you’re looking for something different, which is equally valuable, but the feeling and the blissful quality of those first takes—not even that, the fact that it’s out of control, that you haven’t really figured it all out yet—is no longer there. I’m more comfortable in this situation than in other theater experiences I’ve had, where every single nuance of every minute gets to be accounted for in a completely different way. This is something where everyone has the responsibility to pull the best out of it that they can, and to connect. Alex said something last night that blew me away: “When the cast is listening, everybody is listening, everybody is hearing the play when the cast is listening.”
ALEX: Lanford’s use of commas is where he’s hiding character. What key is your character in? Acceleration and repetition. How are you going to pitch it? How will you timbre it? Where does that land in the panoply of sound? I’ve never worked on a play that requires the kind of listening this play requires. It’s that kind of listening that’s going to create the architecture.
BRIAN: What the play has done for me, being in NY, it has completely retuned my ear to New York. I move through this city in a totally different way: I hear a laugh down the street, I hear a horn, I hear heels on subway stairs, I hear conversations, I hear someone spilling out of a bar. I’ve fallen in love with this city all over again and I can’t believe we don’t live here. It’s, well, that’s a problem we’ve got to solve. We’ve got to be living in Brooklyn.
LUCAS PAPAELIAS (composer/musician): I got to troll around here at night and in the early morning and write a song [which opened and closed the event]. I had my amp out here and I was playing, just me in this room. It feels like we’re secluded in this amazing place. It’s so separate from everything else. That’s why I stayed here a couple nights in a row. For me that was a part of my process, having that time here in this space to just feel it out.
RAY: Rehearsing with the musicians was interesting because their concern was all about the chord changes and where they had to play together. But when it comes time for them to take a solo, no one’s talking about that at all. Because at that moment, musicians, they know what to do. The experience of this play is similar in a way. We have very few moments where we’re trying to really land as a unit, and in between there’s a lot of soloing going on, and you have to conjure that musician confidence to say, “I’ve got the material, I kind of know the environment I’m in, I’ve got the chord changes.” And you’ve got to know when does this mood move this way, and hopefully land where you’re supposed to.
GAYLE RANKIN (actor): We had this subway ride back home on Thursday and we were like “shit, what the fuck are we going to do?” It seemed insurmountable. Brian hit the nail on the head yesterday when he said he’d never had such an artistic conversation about a space and a play and how to make it work, and I’ve never been in a dialogue like this where there’s so much faith.
ZOE PERRY (actor): The initial anxiety burned off come the second day when we all got to be together, starting with that dance, and just experiencing this feeling of abandon where you realize that the anxiety is really just your own hang-up, and it’s not about that. This is about something else.
SCOTT PARKINSON (actor): Actually that’s what’s been great. Embracing what’s Dionysian about it. Just having all these people in a warehouse together for four days. It’s what I imagine making theater in the ’60s must have been like, just sort of living and breathing it together, things happening so much quicker because they have to happen quicker, and going with that impulse, whatever it is, not questioning it, just taking that leap. It’s nice to get back to something that’s so pure, that’s being done for the joy of doing the play and experiencing that with other people.
PATCH DARRAGH (actor): What I’m realizing from this, is that the power of community is stronger than any one individual.
Part 2: An Urban Lake?
BEAU: The question here is, what is Lake Lucille when you take the lake away and you do a different sort of text?
ELVY YOST: There is no nature here. I thought that would make me really nervous, but so far I’m okay, I think. Although last night there was an internal freak-out amongst a lot of us. And then we all went to our separate places and got whatever nature we needed, and now we’re okay. Kind of like a dip in the lake.
DANA ESKELSON (actor): At the lake you’re isolated, in a safe place, you don’t have your regular life to deal with, there’s a great sense of comfort in that. Here, I still have to go home and change the cat litter and take out the mail, and I was worried that my brain would shut down, just being in the city. Brian and Melissa brought us to the lake, but here the people who have never been to the lake, I can guarantee you, they don’t need to go to there, they can feel it. Everyone who’s here feels it. And it’s beautiful to me to know the specificity of the lake, and to be here, where people who don’t know it are experiencing Lake Lucille in a warehouse in Brooklyn.
ANDY GROTELUESCHEN (actor): With Balm, we’re stacking and front-loading until the thing spills. Lake Lucille feels like a constant weeklong build. Everything is being built. But this, I don’t know—it’s significantly shorter and so much of this play has to do with the dynamics. The language is spatial. But it’s going to be chaos anyway, so you might as well go ahead and jump in. Still at least you can have some sense of “oh, maybe that is foreground.” Even if it isn’t foreground, it’s trying to understand as an actor to be in it but also to be outside of it so that you can give space for the listening part.
ALEX: By moving it you ask the question, is this model a way of working? Yes, it has a way of working. Then what do you do with that? It’s antithetical to what we’re taught, that long rehearsal is good.
TED SCHNEIDER: Putting a Chekhov play together in six days, outside, where all the natural elements can be used in some form “as they are,” is miraculously easier than putting this Wilson play together in three days in a dark, stuffy warehouse, where nearly all the elements had to become something more neutral than they were. The directors did a breathtaking job, and I would not recommend it.
JOLLY ABRAHAM (actor): There are no boundaries here.
HENRY VICK (actor): Everything that’s happening is here. It’s like a medieval kingdom. You have labor, you have everything you need—to cook, think, learn. It’s like a ship. And it’s living and breathing.
SCOTT: To have art everywhere, down to the cooks playing music for us at dinner, to be submerged in such a creative environment so immersively, is what we’ve all wanted since we were young and got turned on to the idea of being in the theater. We forget that sometimes, because we’re worried about paying the rent.
EMILY DONAHOE (actor): I really needed something to restore my belief a little bit, and this has done it.
MIA BARRON (actor): I was hanging out with Beau in the fall, and he said, “Why don’t we do this thing where we lock a bunch of actors in a space and we don’t let them out and we do Balm in Gilead,’ and I was like, ‘Sure, okay,’ and then he called the next week and said, ‘We’re doing it.’ Beau is the rare person who actually follows up on his vision and dreams, and he made this happen, and he’s here all day sweeping the floors along with everyone else. But I think the fact that Melissa and Brian formed the Chekhov project, and that Beau was inspired by that, seems to me the key to this whole thing—inspiring each other to make other works of art in the world. That’s my wish for all of us, is that we make this and let it live in us and we go out into the world and do it again.
BEAU: One of the great things about Lake Lucille is there’s a certain ritualistic aspect to the frame. I tend to operate better without ritual. Ritual within a discrete process is great, this ritual is great, but I try to keep myself off balance. Whatever the next thing is and whenever it is, it should be different from this, and I don’t know how, but not just for the sake of being different. It’s like I know what this is now. I could keep working this way forever and learn a lot more and make it more polished or refined, or I could say, “What if I take the tools I learned from this and do something tiny?”
ALEX: We came to a thought this morning about what might be one of the most fundamental elements of the play. The heart is a beating thing that just beats like this, on off, on off. Underneath, there’s this insistent, driving, flat pulse to keep beating. You think about a city—we have that here. Our revelation came when we heard Alex [Sovronsky] do two sound cues last night for Joe’s first cross. He did one where it was this even vibrato all the way across, and he did another with this little twist at the end. This play is about the even version all the way across. Brian was saying that in the city there are lights that flash on and off all night long, just like in The Great Gatsby, the green light across the bay that flashes on off, on off. And inside the play is actually something that’s oddly very even, very pulsing, very in and out, in, out, very simple, very straight.
BRIAN: A heart, all it wants to do is beat. And it’s so stupid that it doesn’t even know how to stop. That’s all it wants to do. And that’s the main lesson of its experience; to learn how to stop. Which is kind of the experience of this play. And this room. With all of us. That’s why I just felt a need for a stop. So that we can then move forward.