Fresh Eyes on FEATHERS AND TEETH, 4th Installation
It’s tech time for FEATHERS AND TEETH, time to add the lights, sound, costumes and special effects. For this show, technical elements are even more important than usual to the storytelling. Besides the design establishing the era of the play, revealing qualities of the characters, and shaping how we see and hear the action, for FEATHERS AND TEETH a central character (the little beast) wasn’t actually present until now. In the rehearsal hall, everyone had to imagine the beast. But now, thanks to the creativity of our designers and expertise of our production staff, the beast is alive.
Anthony Hudson and Elizabeth E. Tavares share their Fresh Eyes observations on this part of the process.
FEATHERS AND TEETH is in the tail end of tech and I’m feeling like a millennial asshole as I sit on my phone in the theatre. That said, I’m not on Facebook. I’m taking notes. OK, maybe Facebook is open in the background. And maybe I’m texting my boyfriend too. I say to him:
I've been here an hour and so far I've seen them run the same two minute opening of one scene 800 times. It should be mind numbing but it's fascinating watching them try and force all the intricate components to fit together.
Rehearsals, blocking, running lines – they all serve to strengthen muscle memory (as well as memory-memory) for the actors. In the same way, tech seeks to build sound, lighting, video, and prop cues into the muscle memory of whoever will be running them, even the equipment itself. Getting the timing just right – where is the note set, how is it lit on fire, how soon should a sound person kill the sound of a smoke alarm in conjunction with its battery coming out onstage – it’s all part of training the muscles of the show.
"That was early," Carol Ann says when the smoke alarm mutes before Agatha pulls out the battery. Re-run the sequence. Set a new note on fire. And repeat. It’s an incredible, meditative, and only-sometimes-or-often-mind-numbing exercise to watch and wonder over. In this sequence Agatha sets a note on fire, drops it in the sink, pulls out a chair, takes down the smoke alarm, hangs up on a phone call, turns on the sink, and then freezes at the sound of baby monsters chirping from inside a pot. It’s not even a minute-long sequence and it relies on approximately 12 million different sound, lighting, and blocking cues to make it happen – and it all offers a study in how minutely do you need to fine-tune a sequence to make it feel as chaotic and naturally occurring as possible?
All the components are here – the set, the actors, the sound, the video, the costumes, the fire, the pot, even the monsters inside. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the script is alive. It’s alive! And the moments, the stories on the page, are becoming real.
I find myself tearing up when Chris listens to a tape recording of her mother in their kitchen, supported by projected animation playing out her memories and stories. The set itself drops us directly into Chris’ world, taking us back to a very real place and time that never existed. The refrigerator alone places me back in my grandmother’s kitchen. In a long moment of set-up between cues, Carol Ann stares at the set and dreamily says out loud, “My mother had that blender. I got one like it at Goodwill but I never use it as much as I want to."
In this fleshed-out environment, rather than just interrupting a moment of rehearsal, now the director stops time and physically walks into the scene – into this other dimension – to make adjustments. The excitement is undeniable, even as you watch the same minute tweak to the same cue run over and over and over until it’s just right. It reminds me of Toddlers in Tiaras – of watching a pageant mom train her son or daughter how to smile, how to wave, and to learn all the right dance moves, then watching said mom dance along from the audience in unison with their baby.
Part of me feels the latent pageant mom lurking just on the edge of my psyche. Every now and then I want to draw from my lifelong love affair with horror and offer some notes – this is the kind of face you make when you see a monster, this is exactly when you should look up just as the ominous music spikes. But mostly, there’s a part of me that wants to stop time and step into the world of the show itself. I want to stop and warn Chris of what’s to come – not Agatha, but our protagonist Chris herself. I know what happens at the end of the play. I wish I could interfere, appearing like a soothsayer to offer warnings and drive our heroine closer to the ending I want.
I wish I could help her, but I can’t. I just have to watch Chris live it over and over again, stepping closer and closer to the edge of existence where her story climaxes, the page ends, and the lights come up in the theatre. I’m nervous to see what happens in that moment when the show opens next weekend and the nightmares become real. And yet I can’t wait to jump in and be part of this dream, to be embedded in its ephemeral world, tightened and cued and run to the edge of perfection. I'll be there rooting for Chris, regardless of how her dream ends – or how unsettled we'll feel when we wake from this vivid nightmare that for a moment convinced us our reality is not our own.
ELIZABETH E. TAVARES
Feathers & Teeth: The Girl in the Fable
“While I see many hoof marks going in, I see none coming out. It is easier to get into the enemy’s toils than out again.”
— from Æsop’s The Lion, the Fox, and the Beasts
At a tech rehearsal of FEATHERS AND TEETH this week, I realized, with the help of a curly-haired pup named Teddy at my feet, that this show is a beast fable. One of the oldest storytelling forms we have, the beast fable is a short narrative where animals are used to illuminate a moral claim or feature of the human condition. We know their lessons by heart: don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched; slow and steady wins the race; don’t cry over spilt milk. The fables we associate with Æsop and Ovid contain the quality of the ordinary alongside hints of violence—or, at the least, transformations unwanted.
A horror story about an “endangered species” finding its way into a Brady Bunch kitchen is perhaps more James Thurber than Hans Christian Andersen, but it still seems after the same kinds of questions. The actual questions being asked in the first major tech rehearsal were along other lines, including “Is the blood edible?” and “Is the Chinese food edible?” and “Can I have blood on my sleeves?” I was impressed by the NASA-level bay of artists (reminding me of the technical complexity of this show), the patience of the actors with the stop-and-go process of getting pot cues and Bluetooth signals in order, and how the costume, set, and makeup design was giving the performances something of the Burtonesque promised on the first day. The subtle design exaggerations, such as Carol’s (Sara Hennessy) eye makeup, which gave her a big-eyed look of a Margaret Keane painting or housewife on uppers, permeate the show with a sense of the uncanny. Something isn’t quite right here but you cannot tell who is the animal, who is the monster, in this story.
What is becoming clear in this penultimate week of preparation is that this is a story of formation—a bildungsroman as the Grimms might have it. It is a fable about a young girl, Christine (Agatha Day Olson), her beasts, and a coming-of-age dreamt not of. This was the first rehearsal where we got to hear the Dehumanizer patch over the Foley artist’s (Nelda Reyes) interpretation of the creature sounds. They sound so eerily like the whimpers of Christine missing her mother. As the team broke for dinner, I walked out wondering: Is grief monstrous? Creepy, even? Is that a moral for this ghost story?