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An actor’s mystery, a puzzle of a play

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Imagine this: theater production where you are given a script moments before you are thrust on stage, alone. There are few props to hide behind, only a table and two cups of water, and the performance requires that you act out whatever the script commands. It sounds like a scenario from the worst of dreams, but it’s not. It’s the description of an experimental piece of theater that will be performed in Yellow Springs.

The play is called “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” and the entirety of the piece is shrouded in mystery. The script is bound and sealed until the actor gets on stage, and the play has no costumes or director. The actor doesn’t know what he or she is getting into beforehand, and neither does the audience.

The Yellow Springs Theater Company has undertaken the production for exactly these reasons, its leaders say. The company will stage at least nine performances of WRRR, the first time the work has been performed in the Miami Valley. The opening performance will be at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 4 at Westminster Hall in the First Presbyterian Church in Yellow Springs.

“This is a global piece, and a chance for the community to be part of the global theater community,” said Lorrie Sparrow, one of the founders of YSTC.

The play was written by a man prohibited from leaving his country because he conscientiously objected to its obligatory years of military service. (The producers asked that specifics of the playwright’s background be kept quiet, though if inquiring readers want to know, they can read the fliers posted around town or simply go online.) An actor told Sparrow about the play and its unusual circumstances, and Sparrow said she dropped everything to get it performed in Yellow Springs. All that is known of the play is that it (presumably) involves a rabbit. Is it an allegory? Is it a fable? Is it a commentary on the situation the author has found himself in?
“We don’t know if this has to do with [the author’s] political views or if it works on a much deeper metaphysical level. We simply don’t know,” said Lorrie Sparrow, one of the founders of YSTC and a producer of WRRR. “We heard it might be funny, though.”

One of the reasons not much is known about the play is because actors are told to cordon themselves off from any information that may give away parts of the play. Part of the experience of WRRR is seeing an actor’s relationship to the script as the actor reads and performs it at the same time, for the first time. Sparrow said that actors would be cheating themselves if they learn about what they’re getting themselves into beforehand.
“It’s totally outside my comfort zone,” said Jeanna GunderKline, a prospective actor. “I have a terrifying, fascinating curiosity. I love the opportunity to have different acting experiences.”

Adding to the unconventionality of WRRR is the element of audience participation. Sparrow referenced the recent actions of Tony Award-winning Patti LuPone, who was so appalled that an audience member was texting during a play that she stopped acting mid-performance and took the phone from the audience member. In WRRR, however, audience members are encouraged to use their phones during the performance to take pictures, email and comment on the author’s blog to share their feelings about the piece with the author in real time.

“This is a way to communicate and have dialogue and create art in a new way that supports 21st century technology. And I think it’s fascinating,” said Sparrow. “It’s a live social experiment.”

Sparrow said that once someone has seen WRRR, they’ll want to see it again. Each performance will be so unique that it is like its own piece. She plans to do one of the performances herself.

The same goes for actors, said Ed Knapp, one of the co-founders of YSTC. At the end of an actor’s single performance, actors have said that if they could just do it one more time, the performance would be perfect. But that’s the point, Ed said. In the first read-through, the playwright’s voice is most evident because an actor hasn’t yet been able to be fully immersed in the role. There is some of the actor’s personality present, especially as the play goes on, but the fluctuating presence of voice is what makes each performance so unique and WRRR so interesting, he said.

Although the piece presents unique challenges for Sparrow and Knapp, the boundary-pushing production of WRRR is something the YSTC courts.

“We want to present new works that challenge and galvanize the community,” Sparrow said. “Our audiences are smart audiences.”

The WRRR workshops
Anyone interested in performing in WRRR is required to take two workshops on how to do a cold reading. The first workshops were this past week, and will happen again Wednesday and Thursday this week, from 7–9 p.m. in room A105 at Antioch Midwest. Lorrie Sparrow is the instructor.

Ten people showed up for last Thursday’s workshop. Many had acted before, a number in YSTC productions, but their past gigs generally included things like scripts, props and directors. Even seasoned actors felt a little trepidation about doing a WRRR performance.

“You should be a little nervous about it,” Sparrow said. “It takes cojones — I don’t know any other word for it.”
Some of the participants were fledgling actors, some were conservatory trained, and one person had walked in to drop something off but ended up staying for the workshops. Ed noted that despite the different levels of acting experience, all of the participants are invested in the idea behind WRRR. He looked fondly over the class. “It’s a synthesis of experience,” he said, “This is what theater should be.”

In order to get used to the feel of reading a brand new script, participants were required to read from a variety of non-dramatic texts in front of the class, like the summary paragraph from the back of a book and the transcript of a Congressman’s convoluted testimony about the Iran-Contra affair. While the pieces weren’t written for the stage, Sparrow said, anything could be read aloud with flair. She advised the class that they should train their eyes to see and utilize punctuation. “Let punctuation be the road signs that guide you,” she said.
The readings started off a little stuttered or overly theatrical. But once the actors realized that they could gesture and move around, they soon got into their grooves.

That’s the beauty of cold reading, Sparrow explained. When it comes to a new, likely frightening text, the actor can own it.

“You’re never wrong — if you’re connecting with the piece and you’re projecting this connection, you’re doing it right,” she said. “The performance is uniquely you.”

Knapp noted the growing enthusiasm of the actors, and referenced how one of the actors had filled out an informational sheet at the start of the workshop. In response to one question that asked how sure the actor was that he or she wanted to do the show, one person had written ‘probably’ at the beginning, but by the end of the workshop, ‘probably’ had been crossed out and replaced with an enthusiastically encircled ‘YES!!’
A full schedule of performances will be published in next week’s paper.


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