In a Sunday rehearsal for How to Get Into Buildings, I witness a storm of collaborative efforts. It’s clear that no matter how it found ambulation, this production would be a powerhouse. Between playwright Trish Harnetiaux and director Katherine Brook, there is an enviable sense of order and muscle in the operation; they would make a big, apt, and compelling world out of whatever places and pieces they had. “We’re both strong-minded,” Harnetiaux says—“efficient but not assholes.”
For their upcoming premiere of How to Get Into Buildings at the Brick in Williamsburg, Brook and Harnetiaux had been ready to find their own funding and strategize their way into rehearsal spaces. These are, of course, common tasks for off-Broadway and downtown artists creating exploratory (or even experimental) work; Brook and Harnetiaux were not charged with anything startling. They knew that the production would materialize, and they were both accustomed to and well suited for the standard scavenging that accompanies a new play’s journey to its feet. They had planned—as they normally would—to embrace the labor. But several months before the process, New Georges stepped in to co-produce, suddenly making the artists’ work simpler and more creatively focused. “New Georges has been incredible,” Harnetiaux says. “It’s been great not to be gathering props when there’s a scene to rewrite—I could really focus on the text.” Brook echoes: “The support gives me the space to just be a director.”
Harnetiaux and Brook are quick to attribute the ease of this particular process to the support of New Georges; both artists have a relationship with the theater and are excited to be in collaboration on this project. Producing Artistic Director Susan Bernfield says, “It makes me as happy as it makes them.” While Bernfield asserts that the production would have survived without intervention, she describes it as “a great confluence of circumstances, and from my perspective a total no-brainer; serving our artists is so important to us.”
How to Get Into Buildings defies tweet-able description. And though Harnetiaux and Brook’s approach is meticulous and straight-faced, what spins out in process is hilarity. In the first scene I get to watch during their rehearsal, U2 shrieks faintly from Ethan’s headphones as he enters (played by Jess Barbagallo) and says, “Guess how many cats I have?” This and other eruptions of humor are somehow physically minute, and the space the performers occupy feels elastic. Ethan walks downstage, sits on someone’s lap, and recites the names of his seventeen cats. Guffaws—even in a rehearsal space where this moment isn’t new—abound.
Jess Barbagallo first encountered How to Get Into Buildings in 2012, when Harnetiaux was developing it at the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab. He’s been working with the playwright and the script since: “I felt in my gut like it was the funniest writing I have ever heard of Trish’s,” he says. On playing this singular brand of humor, he says, “It’s absurdist, which is an easy way to put it, but it’s working completely out of an improv idiom, which makes it hard to play! How do you keep that energy and keep each moment fresh?”
In the rehearsal room, it does seem like there is a casual—almost improvisational—sense of what’s sidesplitting. But none of the performers are working out of an accidental or muse-driven ethic. The cast is filled with respected downtown performers: Jacob A. Ware, Tina Shepard, Stephanie Weeks, Mike Iveson, Kristine Haruna Lee, and Barbagallo. Like Brook and Harnetiaux, they bring a sense of detail-orientation and prowess—a bemusing formula for what makes this seemingly spontaneous humor crackle. “I feel like I sort of look toward Jacob to lead the charge,” says Barbagallo. “He came in pretty prepared, and he is tremendously specific. I appreciate the craftsmanship he has applied to building character, which allows him to very earnestly invest in the weird syntax and make it his own.” Of his own performance, Barbagallo explains: “I’m coming from some place of trying to just see how present I can be in the moment.”
It’s working, and it’s funny. Several seconds after delivering his cat name list, Ethan becomes the waiter at a “hipster diner” where Daphne and Nick (played by Stephanie Weeks and Mike Iveson) manage to passive-aggressively peruse giant menus:
I’m afraid to say. We are…out of the fish. It was…Snapper. In case you…were wondering. Red Snapper.
That’s okay. Whatever.
Well, okay… Correction. I was afraid to say “we are out of the fish.” But—
it seems you’re taking it well, so I’m a little less, a little less afraid. I’ll be slightly less intimidated, and less afraid, telling my next table. Thank you. I thank you for that. A learning curve, that’s what I just went through, or around, it is a curve and all, or…I know—let me take this little moment to say that is a very, very nice scarf. The purples and rose hues and such. I believe my mother had a scarf like that…
Oh god. Wait…
I’m sorry…I’m having this terrible memory of that scarf now…
After this moment, the waiter (Barbagallo) shuffles brusquely away, then turns on a dime and smiles. This tiny, sharp bit of choreography is not part of the blocking—he is simply unsure of where to go next. Everyone paying attention breaks a low chuckle. When the actors go back through the scene, Brook directs him to repeat what he’s just done. It’s still funny. Some arrangement of precision and openness has created a moment that seems inherent to the text—simultaneously off-the-cuff and precise.
Brook describes the humor of How to Get Into Buildings as “like reading Sky Mall, the Christmas issue, after you’ve been given a free mini bottle of whiskey to go with your ginger ale, and not because your flight was delayed, but because you hit it off with the flight attendant.”
This pleasurably bonkers sensibility is—of course—not the work or effect of the performers alone. At this rehearsal, Chris Giarmo, composer and sound designer, tries sound cues. At first it’s the tinny U2-through-Ethan’s-headphones track; Giarmo has chosen “Mysterious Ways,” which Brook is concerned might be “too good.” During the next scene at the diner, the script calls for “terrible muzak.” Giarmo plays a track he’s composed and edited and suggests making the experience more unsettling by moving the sound’s source throughout the scene. “What if it comes in through different speakers? What if it’s changing and they can’t tell where it’s coming from?” Brook nods.
The atmospheric irritation of the muzak underscores Daphne and Nick’s brunch menu decision-making. Nick is considering waffles, which makes Daphne irate. He’d made an ordeal out of his omelet the last time they were here. Actors Iveson and Weeks believably seethe.
While this moment is hilarious and absurd, it also holds something piquantly relatable; it’s in Harnetiaux’s writing, in the cooperation of the ensemble, and in the design. There’s a horrifying truth to this interaction—an unbearable sense of our tiny abuses toward and from our loved ones. Is it funny? Yes—but concurrently painful.
When I ask Harnetiaux about the sad eeriness to the piece, she says, “I’m really glad to hear that you think it’s got some grim parts, because what would a love story be without them? Hopefully the structure helped me show the sadness and terror involved.” As for the structure, the playwright has a model at the top of the script:
The structure is inspired by an Exploded View.
EXPLODED VIEW = n. An illustration or diagram of a construction that shows its parts separately but in positions that indicate their proper relationships to the whole.
For Example: here’s an example of an exploded view of a bicycle. But don’t be confused, this play is not about a bicycle, this is just an example of something in exploded view form.
The humor and gruesomeness of the concept of exploded view pervade all elements of the process. Harnetiaux says that she’d seen an art exhibit by Cornelia Parker “where she packed a shed full of domestic items like dolls and pillows and spoons.” Parker then went to the Banbury Army School of Ammunition, were they were glad to help her blow it up. She then hung all the parts—household objects and shed remnants—in the exact way that they were arranged a millisecond after detonation, preserving and controlling the effect of explosion. Harnetiaux says, “I tried to copy her, but in a play that’s not about a shed at all but is about love.”
Harnetiaux’s concept and consequent structural diagram were at least part of what initially won Susan Bernfield of New Georges. “The script was actually my first introduction to Trish,” says Bernfield. “I found it super inventive and energetic and really the kind of thing (and writer thinking) that’s up our alley. Frankly, she had me at the diagram explaining exploded view on the first page!”
In this innovative play that magnifies exploded parts, a lot of what visual artist Parker intended is proving to be effective live. In a transcription of an interview at the Tate modern, Parker is quoted as saying, “exploded view is the kind of diagram you get in technical manuals to describe how a car works or a bike or a lawnmower—a very pragmatic laying out of stuff. And so that’s what I was trying to do—to organize something that was totally beyond our control.”
The meticulousness of Parker’s 1991 art installation is mirrored in Harnetiaux’s and Brook’s process. The suspended pieces—these brief moments or scenes—illuminate relationships in a way that a more traditional narrative cannot. But in this whirlwind of a presentation, precision is indispensable. The deftness of both playwright and director and the happy merger of their sensibilities, the expert cast, and the astute designers all make the chaos of this conceptual explosion not just palatable but thrilling. With the support of New Georges, the artists involved are able to brave this world with rare focus. Here, they can separate and articulate meaningful, painful, romantic human parts. The bloody and dusty details of these pieces come to jarring exposure in How to Get Into Buildings; we are allowed to realize they’re hilarious.
How to Get Into Buildings by Trish Harnetiaux, directed by Katherine Brook, runs December 3 – 19 at the Brick Theater (579 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn). Designed by Chris Giarmo, Normandy Sherwood, and Josh Smith with Katherine Brook. Choreography: David Neumann. Production Manager: Rob Signom. Assistant Director: Leigh Walter.
Liza Birkenmeier is a playwright. She is a member of Ars Nova’s Play Group, a New Georges Affiliated Artist, and is currently an Artist-in-Residence at University Settlement in Manhattan. She has also written for The Rumpus.