Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Welcome Spring -- and Wallace Shawn

Spring takes a little faith when you've still got a foot of snow on the ground; I had to dig a space for my car on campus this morning. Good thing I put the shovel in the car yesterday.

More enjoyable was a chance to see Wallace Shawn at UAlbany yesterday, an event sponsored by the New York State Writer's Institute. I decided that the afternoon seminar might be the better of the two events, and I think I was right. No doubt the evening event was packed, because the recital hall was even in the middle of the afternoon.

After a too long introduction (though to be fair, he has quite a long list of accomplishments) by NYSWI Director Donald Faulkner, there was a sudden moment of awkward silence as he and Shawn each waited for the other to start. No surprise, everyone laughed. That happened a lot, as you might imagine (though if you don't know who Shawn is, which I find inconceivable, check here). Faulkner first asked about the last play he had been doing, The Fever. It had a difficult life and reception, beginning as a monologue performed at friends' houses largely because Shawn sought to remove that distancing effect of theater, such as when people see disturbing scenes and appreciate them only aesthetically. When he finaly decided to do it in a small theater, Shawn decided to hold a cocktail party on stage before the performance begins.

Mental note: next play, write a scene with champagne in it so I, too, can get free bubbly from a fine vintner! and what about some chocolate...?

Not surprisingly, one of the first questions from the audience was regarding My Dinner with Andre, where many of us first saw Shawn.** He spoke about the freewheeling process by which the basic script was developed, then the onerous process of editing down the conversation transcripts into "something with a beginning, middle, end and characters."

Shawn commented on the reception and difficulties of his play Aunt Dan and Lemon. In its first incarnation in London, there had been strong tensions within the cast -- and with him. He was eventually banned from rehearsals. But it went on to a strong reception, despite its worrisome topics, including a character enamored of Nazism. Shawn remarked somewhat ironically that he had yet to have someone come up to him after the play and say "Wow, weren't the Nazis great?" but he frequently had other people come up to him worried that that would happen (presumably with other, more stupid people).

Asked about how he got into acting, Shawn explained that it was all due to his ignorance about how to make a living (he mentions borrowing from friends for a long time, and said you might think there was shame involved in borrowing money from friends, "No.") As for choosing roles, "Well, let's not kid ourselves," he cautioned first, but usually he reads the whole script "and if it's not nauseating, I do it." You'd be surprised, he said, "a lot fit into the nauseating category, most are evil." Even if a film is not too good, it can be fun to make, as long as you don't pass out at the table reading from a truly awful script.

I think one of my grad students was going to the evening event; I'll have to ask how it was. I'll probably regret not going, ah well.

**My story (one last time, I've told this too many times): I went to see this at the Odeon, the first art house film theater I knew. In the unpromising location of the Frandor Mall, it was clearly a labor of love for the guys who ran it. When the audience for this film arrived, the manager came down to the front of the audience to let us know that there was a problem with the third reel. Although the picture was fine, there was no sound for about a minute or so. He unfolded a piece of paper with the dialogue from that section and read it out to us. You can only imagine how strange it sounded out of context: something about being buried alive! The film began and we all forgot about it until the reel started without sound and, naturally, everyone burst out laughing in the middle of the very intense scene. I just love that the theater staff were so fanatical about getting us the whole experience that they created a new one.

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