This month, two new exciting productions, Sound House by Stephanie Fleischmann and This is the Color Described by the Time conceived and directed by Lily Whitsitt, radically reimagine theater making, with symphonic results. Despite having been developed independently from one another, both productions, in a kind of serendipitous harmony, re-discover sound as the primary element for performative expression. Sound House, directed by Debbie Saivetz, explores how sound defines space, both literally and figuratively. While This is the Color Described by the Time, adapted from Mexico by Gertrude Stein, with sound design by Ben Williams, creates a multi-layered sonic and visual experience by giving audience members headphones to wear while they watch the play. The two pieces will be presented in repertory by the adventurous company New Georges at The Flea Theater.
New Georges Artistic Director Susan Bernfield saw both pieces in early incarnations and envisioned the potential for the two works being presented together, in conversation with one another. “What we love about both pieces is that they embody what we do here at New Georges, which is to say that they are making the play all the way through.” At the core of both Sound House and This is the Color Described by the Time is a deep commitment to collaboration and experimentation. Within both artistic teams, the way that the play is made necessarily determines the content, which is in flux. This approach, Bernfield explains, means that “design elements are generative.” Both productions make sound the driving influence.
Sound House is partly inspired by the life and legacy of Daphne Oram, a pioneer of the electronic music movement of the early 1960s. Playwright Stephanie Fleischmann was initially turned on to Oram by a composer friend but soon discovered Oram's near complete disappearance from cultural memory. This struck a chord with Fleischmann, who had become intrigued by the notion of invisibility while writing a character, Constance, whom she had ultimately cut from another play. Fleischmann began in-depth research on Oram, eventually traveling to the archive in England dedicated to her. Fleischmann explains, “I just found myself compelled by this odd lady [Oram] who lived in an octagonal house with a leaky roof.”
Oram herself was an experimental artist who is credited with creating the first completely electronic score for the BBC, along with composing for All That Fall, a one-act radio play by the famed theatrical innovator Samuel Beckett. After leaving the BBC, Oram founded her own recording studio that she dubbed the Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition, where she transformed shapes etched onto 35 mm film into sounds by a process she originated.
Fleischmann is not unlike her subject. Her self-described state of mind in 2013, when she began her research on Oram, echoes that of the British inventor: "What I was really interested in was an experimentation with form. What are the limits of what a play can be? How can I explore prose in a performative mode?" Fleischmann’s thoughtful curiosity led her to an unlikely decision. She put her excised character, Constance, described as “mousey,” in the same play as Daphne Oram, their “stories bumping against each other,” revealing one another.
This character once cut from a play, juxtaposed with Daphne Oram, a woman whose artistic achievements had been largely been forgotten by history, together began to tell a story larger than both of them—an ongoing story of invisibility common to women as they age. Fleischmann remarks that “Constance’s struggle with invisibility triggers her quest to find her mission in life, her purpose.” Through the course of the performance, Constance discovers that Daphne, according to director Saivetz, is “living in the same stage space.” The result is a haunting and enigmatic meditation on how we fill our time “bumping” against a yearning to be seen. "The notion that there are so many women who aren’t recognized, who weren't able to be noticed for their work, reverberates for Constance,” explains Fleischmann. This realization is particularly resonant at a time when the #MeToo movement in tandem with discussions of gender parity in the workplace remind us all how the contributions of women have been thwarted for generations. Let the reverberations continue to sound.
Fleischmann and Saivetz create a multi-dimensional world where sound becomes a conduit between them, made possible by what Saivetz describes as a “horizontal collaboration” where “sound designers [Brandon Wolcott and Tyler Kieffer] are live mixing in the room, informing [the actors’s] own discovery process.” Fleischmann observes that “whole worlds can be conjured with sound,” and it acts as a catalyst for the actors to make emotional leaps. “The movement, the sound, and the text all carry equal weight with the storytelling,” says Saivetz.
Fleischmann’s earlier work Eloise and Ray, also produced by New Georges (in 2000), experimented with video as a primary element, and, according to Bernfield, helped define New Georges's aesthetic. Bernfield says, “Reconvening with Stephanie felt right. She is a playwright that is always thinking about design. She is a theoretician. She is pushing us forward with sound as she did with video on Eloise & Ray.”
Like Sound House, This is the Color Described by the Time puts an experimental woman artist at the foreground, but Gertrude Stein’s sonic flights emanate from words on a page rather than shapes on film. Director Lily Whitsitt and sound designer/actor Ben Williams respond to Stein's text finding an expression for the way that words sound off when read.
Williams explains, “We attempt to put you in Gertrude’s head while she is writing”—an admittedly ambitious proposition. The audience wears headphones which are intended to, at times, approximate the internal echo chamber of the written/read word. Even this conceit changes within the piece, allowing the artists a quantum-like ability to explore as free radicals. “The process here is very true to the idea of experimental theater where you try a bunch of stuff out and see what happens,” says Williams, who does double duty playing the character of Thornton Wilder as he fires audio cues and live mixes actors on microphones.
Whitsitt, artistic director of Door 10 (with whom she created this piece), began work on Mexico, the Stein text she adapts from, two years ago. She acknowledges that she is “drawn to texts that are really challenging, almost impossible, and I don't even know how they exist as theater when I start. In the case of Mexico, I had no idea how it would exist as a play or a performance.” Yet, the text stayed in her mind and she made several attempts to find her way in, but early on “a lot of our experiments felt flat.”
Inspired by the Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff, Whitsitt thought perhaps headphones could be used as a way to “drop into a different consciousness, a very different state than you ever get to be in in the theater.” Actors were mic’d, and this added a new dimension to the obscure text. Whitsitt describes how: "[Stein’s] language that before was interesting, but more poetic on the page, an experiment in language,” with the headphone suddenly transformed into “a thought, a memory or a daydream. All of the language felt like a transcript of Stein's consciousness and that really sent my imagination and our team [at Door 10’s] imagination going.”
This Is the Color Described by the Time takes place during World War II, when Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas continued to live in France under the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government, a troubling fact considering Stein and Toklas were both Jewish. Stein herself translated speeches by Marshal Philippe Pétain, a vociferous anti-semite, and shared a close friendship with Vichy official Bernard Faÿ. Whitsitt suggests that the friendship is “why they stayed safe, he really protected them.” Even though Mexico was written at an earlier point in Stein’s life, Whitsitt and her collaborators chose this often overlooked part of Stein’s life when she exhibited fascist sympathies, as it may reveal something of our own time. “With what is happening in our country politically, it's just a reminder of how important the conversations and relationships are between politics and art.” Stein's extensive art collection was never seized by the Nazis.
The headphones in Whitsitt’s piece are able to carve out a more intimate experience, because as Fleischmann observes, “sound creates spaces” both imagined and real. Sound has the power to transport audiences through time and across distances and stir powerful realms within.
Presenting these works in repertory may face some technical obstacles for the producers, but audiences receive the added benefit of seeing two challenging works that re-imagine the way that we experience theater. It is encouraging to remember that the theater can be a place to listen, again, as if for the first time.
Sound House by Stephanie Fleischmann, directed by Debbie Saivetz, and This is the Color Described by the Time, conceived and directed by Lily Whitsitt, runs February 14 – March 4 at The Flea Theater (20 Thomas Street, Manhattan), produced by New Georges. For tickets and further info: www.newgeorges.org.
Andi Stover is a Brooklyn based writer/director and the Literary Manager for the Department of Theatre and Dance at Montclair State University. She is a founding member of LiveFeedNYC, a site specific performance company set to premiere a new work, Erasing Monika, at LaMama ETC in 2019.