Last week, I had the good fortune to mount a small, vibrant solo play I’ve been working on over the last year. Born out of the 2013 One Coast Collaboration, WOMAN AT THE WELL began as a collaboration between playwright Martyna Majok, director Aimee Bruneau and myself, under the producing guidance of Michael Place. We set out to create a solo show that explored autism as a human circumstance, rather than as an “issue.” Through several days of conversations and several robust drafts by Martyna, we did a reading of a play about a precise, curious woman waiting at a bar for a man who never arrives. Her patience stretches to reveal a story of grief, misunderstanding, connection and ultimately, some resolve about love and death and goodbyes. It is a beautiful world to step inside of for an hour.
This recent production was staged at the HERE Arts Center in New York City as a part of the Downtown Urban Theatre Festival. I flew in on a Saturday and worked with Michael Place (as a director) for the few days before the curtain rose on Friday. It was a challenging, exhilarating experience. I stayed with Micky in Bushwick and we basically spent six days talking, rehearsing, dancing, dreaming, watching Game of Thrones, playing sweet sad music, and discovering the nuances of the play’s journey. The entire time we were working together, Micky had sharp insights into the script and was more interested in sharing the excellent idea behind a moment rather than prescribing a delivery or effect. This was an inspiring way to work with a director, as we kept unfolding the petals back from small moment after small moment, until each discovery daisy-chained to the next bright realization. I did not expect this blink of a rehearsal process to be so rewarding, but you never can tell what will be reaped from a few focused, playful hours between good friends and seasoned collaborators.
This was a glad bookend to a process that was sometimes challenging for everyone involved. Martyna and I collaborated in long distances to keep the play breathing (she based in NYC and I in Seattle). This is the first time I have worked with a playwright in this capacity. I am accustomed to writing/building/revising my own solo work but was eager to find out what the process could be with a collaborator. I learned to be generous with my ideas and discerning about compromise. It is so easy to get my way when the only one I’m working with is myself; collaborating with a writer and director make the process less streamlined but undoubtedly richer. Each year, I spend weeks teaching my acting students about collaboration, especially in a generative process, and each year they teach me new things. I got the chance to apply their wisdom in my work with Martyna and Micky. All three of us have different working styles – I like to overprepare and frontload the work and Micky and Martyna work confidently on faith and diligence. They are more trusting where I am explicit. Martyna can write a marathon in a short time but I work better with long bouts of marination. Again I got to recall that collaboration is about making space and time for everyone in the ensemble to do their best work and then bravely recognizing the most brilliant idea in the room when it rises up. It is about trust — not trust that everything will turn out how you want it to, but that everything will turn out as it should, which is often better than anyone could have planned. This process was a delicious, hardy reminder of that.
By far the most fascinating part of this process was the interaction with an audience. That may sound obvious but is not always the case in my experience. Sometimes the process is so tasty that the run melts like a weak after-dinner mint. Not here. Breathing through this performance of WOMAN AT THE WELL felt like a pioneering moment in my solo work. One choice Micky, Martyna and I made early on was to not soften the character’s relationship to people. We had set out to explore a woman on the autistic spectrum and I had the honor of recalling my brother Adam as the character surfaced. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as a small kid and I had the awesome luck to know him as he grew up and navigated his condition and interactions. For this character, I got to channel the way his hands moved like articulate paddles, how his eyes would squint with mischief and open wide with wonder, his sincere, wide open curiosity about people and his often-inappropriate responses to the world around him. As these qualities took root in my body, I had to abandon many of my actor “tricks” that too often guide my relationship to an audience during a solo performance. I could not charm, empathize or manipulate the audience into liking me. This character is smart but guileless. Rather, I had to be clear, open and direct. This created a strange, almost abrupt relationship to the audience as the play began. I could feel them. They were not sure what to make of her. Whether they liked her or not. Whether she was trustworthy or erratic. To feel that distance from the audience and then to trust the character anyway, to let her talk and move and reveal herself in her own time, that felt like a true leap of faith. And as her story continued to unfold around me, inside me, between the audience and me, I could feel them soften toward her. I could sense them beginning to understand her strange mannerisms and honest curtness. They leaned into her and, as they did, she was able to discover more and more of her story. It was a delicate, awesome experience, like feeling the sun warm up the earth.