Directors Jessica Silsby Brater of Polybe + Seats, and Kara Feely of Object Collection both premiere new shows this fall—very different productions, both with highly specific approaches to acting and theatrical space. Brater is directing the 19th-century French melodrama Alice, or the Scottish Gravediggers, which is based on a historical case of body snatching for the purposes of medical experimentation. The show, just in time for Halloween, is the culmination of a year-long residency at the Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Feely’s project, Automatic Writing, is a staging of a composition made in a recording studio by American composer Robert Ashley, from 1979, which will be presented November 4th and 5th at the Incubator Arts Project as part of a week-long retrospective of his music.
In this conversation, the two directors exchange ideas about emotion onstage, theater spaces—both conventional and unusual—and updating historical works for the present day.
Kara Feely: What made you decide to install Alice at the Old Stone House? How are you installing it?
Jessica Silsby Brater: Most of the play takes place in an inn, and the Old Stone House looks just the way I had imagined the place might look. I’m interested in producing work in nontraditional theater spaces because it presents possibilities for collaborating with the space, as if it is another character or another performer. I like inviting audiences to come to a place they haven’t been to before or to see the space differently because of the performance.
You’ve worked a lot at Incubator Arts—how will you be using the space this time?
Feely: The piece has four musical “characters,” or parts, so we’re isolating four areas of the stage for these performers to inhabit. There’s no narrative to the piece, though, so it is like four disparate islands contributing to a dense sound environment.
A theater is a theater, ultimately, but I like working in theaters. There’s a kind of a “contract” that is agreed upon. I like the distance it allows people. But maybe that’s also necessary for us, since our pieces are a bit of an assault on the senses.
You’ve staged pieces outside of theaters in some incredible locations ... I still think about that barge in Red Hook! How does it affect your methods in working with your actors and designers?
Brater: I still think about the Waterfront Museum, too. It was nice to spend all that time bobbing on the water. In this case, because we are working in residency, the designers and actors and I get to collaborate with the space itself. The Old Stone House is a pre-Revolutionary War building, so the architecture is very specific. The spaces where we have worked—the barge, the Old Stone House, the gallery Brooklyn Fire Proof—tend to inspire visual approaches that are particular to the combination of that location and the material we bring into it.
These spaces also enforce limitations, which can be frustrating, but are ultimately good for the work.
Feely: I’m interested to see how you stage a melodrama in this situation, since these plays were traditionally fairly proscenium-specific, yes?
Brater: Exactly. Melodrama was an escape. The designs were spectacular and invited the audience to be sucked into the action wholly, sort of like blockbuster movies and TV shows today. We are trying to see how the formal strategies of melodrama—ones that support heightened emotion and sentimentality—can work in a contemporary setting. We want to go at that extreme theatricality honestly, but we don’t expect that the audience is going to react the way they would have in the 19th century. Our performance space is small and the audience can see one another and will be in close proximity to the performers. So the trick is the balance between giving the audience permission to experience extreme emotions and to be able to simultaneously or intermittently look at what the form is doing.
And you are undertaking the staging of something that has only existed as an audio recording, right? It’s the opposite of melodrama, in a way. What attracted you to create a live version of this?
Feely: Robert Ashley used to perform it prior to making the recording, but it hasn’t been done live since the ’70s. Travis and I wanted to update the piece if we were going to perform it, and treat the recording as a kind of composition that we could interpret rather than recreate ... so for example switching the genders and languages up a bit, using computers instead of analog, and seeing where that takes us. But also using lights, scenic elements, and objects to give it a visual dynamic.
It’s a nice challenge for me to create an environment that is conducive to listening to the music, that doesn’t distract but enriches it. It’s also quite a challenge for the main vocalist (Fulya Peker) since it involves using involuntary speech in performance and getting into that headspace. The blending of theatrical and musical techniques for vocal performance is something O.C. is pretty invested in.
But getting back to melodrama … it sounds as though you are looking at the material through one critical lens and one immersive one, and asking the audience to do the same. I think a lot about the use of emotion on stage with actors since my pieces are so fragmented and non-narrative. Emotions are basically ungrounded and disjointed—sometimes coming out of nowhere. There’s always such a push towards realism and “truth” on stage. Yet melodrama is almost like a kind of practiced hysteria. It’s interesting that acting, in general, has come so far away from this kind of stylization. How are your actors handling this?
Brater: The play is inspired by the case of Burke and Hare, who were tried in the 1820s for murdering people to provide bodies to doctors for anatomical dissection, and we have been researching this period in medical history. We’ve added some new material inspired by our findings, which has provided a sort of critical lens through which we are viewing the material.
We’ve been approaching the performance style using a turn-of-the-century acting manual called The Thespian Preceptor. It is a kind of recipe book for physically and vocally communicating a variety of emotional states. What is interesting is that, just like in cooking, no two people follow the recipe in the same way.
As it turns out, it is just as hard for our modern sensibilities to ride out a structure that supports the expression of extreme, or, as you say, sort of hysterical, emotions. That was the largest hurdle for the performers—allowing themselves to go there emotionally and to share that extreme emotion with the audience.
How do your performers approach the expression of the ungrounded or disjointed emotions you describe? And does the music support this? Is it at all about the interaction of musical and theatrical techniques that you were describing earlier?
Feely: I give them moment-to-moment scenarios to work with that ultimately don’t add up to anything. They have to get used to putting on emotions and dropping them like clothes. Ultimately they embody an attitude that conditions their relationship to the audience—something I learned from watching Richard Foreman’s rehearsals.
With music you are always in a “do a task” mode. I like to combine task-like performance modes with theatricality, or acting, side by side. So there is an inconsistent approach used by different performers simultaneously. But yes, it helps the actors to think of themselves as musicians sometimes, so they always have that removal and don’t get sucked into a kind of psychological universe.
Brater: Does it make a difference for you when you aren’t working with an O.C. musical composition?
Feely: I am working fairly instinctively for Automatic Writing—starting with the music and constructing the theater to situate it in. The piece will have a kind of mirage-like look to it: transient, stubborn, vibrant. But yes, it’s a pretty different method for us since usually I write and direct our pieces and they are collectively conceived, with music and theater on basically equal footing. It’s kind of nice to just be a director for a change.
Are your actors really “going there” emotionally, or does The Thespian Preceptor work like a series of physical commands?
Brater: The Thespian Preceptor work started as a series of commands, and we would see what emotions the physical and vocal motions would elicit. When we started pairing the recipes with moments in the script, it all started to come together.
It is important to me that the actors are honest about drawing on their own emotional resources to portray these extremes to the audience. I don’t want to make fun of the sensationalism—that’s what makes melodrama so enjoyable.
Feely: What do you think is beneficial about the kind of sentimentality you are working with in this play? I ask because it’s something I often try to steer clear of in my pieces. But I think that is because sentimentality is so often a “given” in theater and not questioned or examined as such.
Brater: Melodrama is about a kind of extreme sentimentality—emotions that are unrealistically huge and purely theatrical. I think it has become either a guilty pleasure, or it is ridiculed. Maybe both. But when I think about the way I usually see extreme emotions portrayed on stage as they relate to telling a story, it is either done in a very naturalistic way, or, often in experimental theater, the production makes fun of them.
In my opinion, it is important to feel something! To not always have to maintain a critical distance!
Feely: It’s nice to take irony out of the equation, and to take melodrama at face value, above and beyond its designation as pure camp.
Brater: Irony! That’s the word I was looking for!
I think that O.C. is very effective in presenting a range of thoughts and feelings that go beyond irony, which in my opinion is a little overused in the theater these days.
Feely: Yeah, I have no interest in irony, or camp.
Brater: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing your show. And I’m not saying that ironically.