Monday, May 19, 2014

Works in Progress: Searching for Sebald with Katie Fleming

Name: Katie Fleming

What is your role in Searching for Sebald?:
I am a member of The Deconstructive Theatre Project and the Props Designer of our upcoming show, Searching for Sebald.

Tell us a little about Deconstructive Theatre Project?: We are a group of artists who gather to experiment with and perform work that integrates text, music, image, and action. This is a special group of people for me. In my line of work the title of Properties Designer is rare, it is usually Props Master and you’re working within the Scenic Designer’s vision rather than along side them.  It’s fitting though, for our projects, because so much of the storytelling is in the objects and so much of what you see in the final product is found in the room rather than imagined, then built. I enjoy devising these shots with the company and appreciate that props has an artistic voice in the room. DTP also invites audience to step into our process with dtpE, Deconstructive Theatre Experience, which hosts events to engage audience with whatever ideas and themes we’re incorporating into the upcoming show.  For The Orpheus Variations we did an event about the life of an object observed. Which, as you can imagine, was particularly exciting to me as a props person.

How is the creation process going so far?: It’s really cracklin’. In the spring we gathered to talk about Sebald, his novel, and our experiences of the book. All very interesting but not very hands-on. This phase of development is more on our feet, it's been a very valuable few months. Our ensemble members work to prepare performance sequences depicting assigned sections of the novel.  They collaborate with designers to solidify their ideas, then teach their sequence to the ensemble. We all participate in executing and trouble-shooting the ideas in the room. Then we discuss.  It feels like members borrow what they find compelling from previous sections and start to establish an expansive vocabulary of the show that our director, Adam, gets to adopt and develop as we move into our next phase of production. The room has been really focused and joyful.

What is the developmental process like for you as an artist?: This phase of rehearsal is very important to me because the visual tone of the piece is sort of on the laboratory table, it’s being experimented with and developed.  In a Deconstructive Theatre Project show there is often a lot going on onstage.  There are multiple images being projected above the stage and, invariably, performers scurrying around building the next shot, doing foley, and reading text. I’m looking for visual ways to bring both clarity and awe.  I love when audience members search the stage for how a shot was built but we also want to provide a cohesive visual so basic information, such as where the character is in space and time, are perceptible. The way we do this is particularly unique, I think, because rather than creating a world the audience can step into, we build slices of reality on tables or in miniatures that the camera captures.  And when seen in sequence the observer recognizes a thread.  This is different from a lot of pieces I do that are ‘immersive’.  The work DTP makes is not labeled ‘immersive’ but I think it poses one answer to the question, how do we bring the audience out of their seats and into a live experience?  Design wise we’re not concerned about the audience feeling the textures of the world, more in experiencing them. As an audience member your experience is anything but passive.

What is it like working with mixed media? What are some challenges, benefits, risks etc.?:
You know when you’re trying to edit a film and you dream of having an unlimited number of takes for each shot? Well, it seems to me that is essentially what we have the opportunity to do.  Sometimes it’s arduous, but this is a satisfying time for us because we get to sort of mix and edit the show live, building it in fragments then take a step back to rework everything carefully.  We’re not limited by what we did last rehearsal; it’s constantly shifting and growing.  For me, it’s a unique way to work with technology in performance. We find new things everyday and I know Mark and Sean, our projection and analog film designers, have a lot up their sleeves. But we know that no amount of innovation or technical proficiency can overcome a weak story. We take care to never default to a cool visual unless it serves the main idea.  

Tell us a little about W.G. Sebald and “The Rings of Saturn”: I’ve heard people say they spend the first few minutes of a DTP show learning how to watch the show.  I spent the first chapters of Rings of Saturn learning how to read the novel.  That was one of the first connections I made that ensured me this was going to be a great show to build with DTP. The narrator is recounting a walk he recently took on a coast in England, but his mind is constantly shifting between where he is resting in the present, on the walk, what he thought about while on the walk, and what that reminds him of in the present. Some of the subjects are quite grim.  As a reader it was interesting to continue that chain by writing what I was thinking about in the margins. Our company members have different relationships with the book; some have read it many times and some were finishing it as we entered this phase of rehearsal. A few cast members have even read it in different languages.  It’s great because I think it is useful to both see the text on the surface and have a few ‘experts’ who point out tidbits or inconsistencies that Sebald and his translators planted for the reader. We all have our copies and bring them to rehearsal.  In some, every page is scribbled on and covered in post-its. Some are almost clean but diligently underlined.  My favorite thing about having the books in rehearsal is when they are used as objects. You might walk around and see one copy being filmed in a shot, one propping up the projector, and one steadying an uneven chair.  We reference these books all the time for their text but they also have a physical presence that’s neat.

How does W.G. Sebald and “The Rings of Saturn” inspire you as artist?: I’m used to approaching projects by working simultaneously on the micro and macro. As a props master I try to work the way an actor might work on a character; to consider and scale the history, interest, reasons behind every arrangement of objects so that it weaves into story and serves purpose. I felt, in reading the book, that Sebald was playing with these scales in a way I had not experienced in other literature.  The way he carries your mind with his or leaves you in the lurch. Shifting theme, time, and location really interested me visually and thematically. The other day in rehearsal we were throwing around the idea of nostalgia and how Sebald’s book isn't nostalgic in that he’s looking back fondly, yearning to relive the past, it’s more asking to look at both the beauty and travesties that have been as well as the beauty and travesties around you.  I think theatre is at it’s best when it walks this line. Doesn’t condemn, but shows things in new light. So I’m looking forward to how we can use how Sebald walks this line in developing our piece.

What is the importance/relationship of memory and the wandering mind to you as an artist?: Well I have a horrible memory.  So I’m always coming up with ways in my everyday life to save what I encounter, I take photos, make notes, rip articles from magazines, never delete emails.  I think that lead to a personal as well as a professional passion.  The relationship between the mind, memory, and a live experience is at the root of my interest in working in live theatre. Memory and a collective social memory have been at the heart of many projects I’ve pursued.

What is it like exploring neuroscience through creativity?: Time, memory, and identity. What else is there to explore? As a theatre maker, I think it’s healthy to ask in the process ‘how will the audience perceive this?’ I am very interested in how individuals similar or differ in the patterns our eyes make when viewing a painting, how past experiences shape preference, what information our brains hold and why. I first became interested in The Deconstructive Theatre Project through neuroscience. DTP was going deeper into this than other companies I was aware of, first by developing shows with themes of memory and time then by building a way of story telling that is based how the human mind perceives information.  We lay the path for your mind to go on, but it’s an active experience and you’re going to be drawing your own information and narrative. 

Why Searching for Sebald now?:
In general, in a world where social media chronicles our lives and we can alter social perceptions of ourselves I think the live experience is becoming more important.  A chance to be with yourself experiencing something in real time and being honest about where your mind is wandering and what affects you. The way I see it there are there are many reasons this is the right piece for DTP to tackle next. "Reading Rings of Saturn", I thought a lot about man’s ability to give reason. To look for the story, for the sense in it all.  I found I was willing to overlook inconsistencies in the text because I trusted the author was providing genuine information, I reasoned over the gaps.  Perhaps some of what Sebald is implying in his novel is that there may be no rhyme or reason.  Some children have bombs flying over their heads while others are home safe in bed. And isn’t it a huge odd world we live in. I think contemplating the history of human violence towards other humans is poignant for all of us today. Also, there’s a kind of wink in the novel about a connection between Sebald and the narrator, never named.  I really like this because in our work even when an ensemble member ‘represents a character’ in a shot they are still themselves in the room and may be holding the camera filming someone else moments later. We’ve very visually open about our process and the idea that we are all in the same room right now, creators and observers. Feels very fitting.

What can we expect to see in Searching for Sebald?: Searching for Sebald further explores DTPs interest in the relationships between performer, character, and plot being presented in real time in a room of spectators.  We explore more fully who we are in that room in that moment while relating to Sebald’s novel and hope that this will lead the audience to do the same.