I am coming up for air and have an urge to contain the experience of creating A Terrific Fire before it ends. The time that exists after it’s over will stretch in front of me like the ocean and the desert combined, but this moment is finite. I will try to write it down.
Roblin and Aram arrived in Providence on a Sunday night at the end of February. Monday morning we went into the studio with a team of people who had signed on to our project: a playwright, a director, a stage manager, a lighting designer, a technical director, an intern/video artist. As a group we usually do everything by ourselves and no one is in charge. We asked for all this help and even as we approached people to collaborate they would say “and what will it be like” and we would say “we don’t really know, but let’s find out together.” We knew we had the right people because they all said “okay.”
Everyday straight for the next 18 days we worked from 10am until 2am in the studio and in meetings. While we had piles of material from a year of creation, it needed to be exploded. Sometimes it felt like we had tricked everyone into thinking the play was more finished than it really was. Adara would reference a scene in the phase II video in some funny minutia and I would think “I doubt that scene even exists anymore.” Sometimes I looked at the roomful people watching us battle with our own material and wonder what the hell is so great about devising anyway. A smart playwright could just write us a story.
These good-intentioned new people had all these questions: what does it mean when this happens? Why does this happen? It was exhausting and liberating, and partly why we invited them. We don’t always like answering those questions. We like playing in characters and letting the characters make decisions. However, we knew what we were building was potentially so big that the audience needed more bread crumbs to follow, and so we tried to solve the puzzle. For a few sad days we all thought we’d actually created a very boring and linear play. D’Arcy wondered if she’d ruined our fragmented style. Then we put it in front of audiences and realized we’d been in the fog of war. Absurdity still reigned and people still laughed while wondering exactly why it was so funny.
But I am getting too far ahead. I want to remember the weekend that we moved into the theatre and we put the play itself on hold to build its physical universe. Walls of a study open and a snowy forest and a dilapidated shack are revealed. The audience is moved all over the space and so every inch of the theatre is a curated space, full of specific objects and identity. Teams of people came and painted and drilled and carried. Friends who just wanted to help joined the people who we’d hired. We ordered pizza for everyone which felt like a tiny nothing compared to the joyous labor community created by building a world in a black box. At the beginning of the weekend I felt nervous about abandoning creation time at that specific moment and I remember Aram saying “no, building the set will help us build the play.” He was right of course. Once we saw those universes we could more clearly see the play we were making, proving once again that ideas live differently in everyone’s mind but once you put something in space, everyone sees it and can talk about it from a place of mutual understanding. The wall is there. The wall is not there. The wall is green.
When the set was mostly up we returned to the action. Here’s really where it all blurs, which is too bad because it’s also the moment that we went from wondering about things to setting things in motion. People kept asking us why and we kept making up answers and trying them on and then rejecting them or dealing with them and then at night there was painting and more ideas for the space and the sound cues to fix and Andres made more videos of us and Amy needed to tech the show but we told her it would just keep changing and did I learn Adara’s lines well enough and what if I learn the scene but Aram doesn’t isthereanypointinanyofthat? All the while an audience is coming soon which doesn’t really worry us but maybe sometimes it worries some people and every time someone tells me they are worried and scared I reflexively make a sign over my heart that says you keep that doubt out of my play-space and then worry that I am not being respectful to my collaborators and think hard about honoring emotions that I find tedious.
First preview. This is where I come back to remembering. Because the play was very different at that first preview than it is today, one week later. After we put something in front of an audience we make massive changes. We like it. The day after our first preview we came in exhausted because the night before we decided to paint the white snow line along half of the stage and up the wall and then went to Wes’ Rib House to drink beer and eat nachos and meat and imagine our play as a German fairy tale. We had not gone to sleep until 3am and then had an 11am rehearsal. We told D’Arcy we were going to change it all and she said she would walk. She said that what we had was an under-rehearsed show, not a show that needed changing. The first battle. The first moment of wondering who was in charge here and if we had hired her for this very reason. Maybe she was right.
We get excited about making changes because it somehow liberates us from our boring present. But maybe this is the laziness of devisers that other “rehearsal-script-bound” play-makers see. Instead of justifying things we don’t rigorously create, we dump them. But of course the other side of the coin says, hey, we are the ones making this thing. It’s not Shakespeare, no one’s done this play before, we don’t know how it goes. There is no time to be precious when we can be inventive. We agreed on changing a few things for clarity’s sake, and not dumping the entire thing. However, in the Rubic’s Cube of play creation, once you move one idea the whole piece moves. We spent six hours following that movement and then presented a new show on Saturday night. Sunday we came in and continued.
Monday was the worst day. I had marveled up until that point that we had not had a day off in two weeks, we’d all been working like crazy and yet no one had complained or really gotten grumpy. We’d had artistic debates, but no real blow-outs. I guess that’s what Monday was for. In retrospect I think we should have taken it off, but it was also the day before Jed and I had to go back to our day jobs (we’d taken two weeks off to build the play) and there was a lot of pressure to find the extra whatever-it-was that was still missing from the show. The morning was good. D’Arcy worked smaller moments that needed cleaning while other people finished painting trim around the space. We took lunch and had a bigger over-arching talk about the show. Two distinct proposals came into the space to solve one of the major issues audiences seemed to be having. D’Arcy went to teach a class and we fell into a version of hell.
Three hours of talking out a strange if-this-then-this type of proposal. Jed and Aram yelled at each other. Roblin got very quiet. I blacked out a lot of it because every time I would try to cut through I felt like I was drowning. One thing we all believe is that too much talking without being on your feet trying proposals is equal to artistic death. Our last full day in the space together and we committed the ultimate sin.
Like everything though, this also passed and shifted. It took a couple of days but we made friends again, with the piece and with each other. We still haven’t taken a full day off. Aram said the other day when he had the morning off that he “doesn’t know what to do out there.” It’s true. We have all been so singularly focused that being in the world now feels strange. What are people doing? Random things, productive and not. In the theatre we are all this animal working towards something common. There is something so comforting in that unity of vision.
We keep making small changes to the piece. We all know that it is not “done” per say, though it’s at a point where audiences have a good time and many of them may even be fooled into thinking it’s a full piece. We have reached that place where in order to take another leap forward we need some time and some distance. It’s a great place to be for a company like ours. Typically time and distance are what we have in spades, which means that when we are together we move fast, dig deep, and rarely come up for air. It’s a recipe for madness that we all subscribe to.
People see our work and ask who wrote it. Did we all write it? How did you make that? Truthfully, I don’t know. But maybe reading this gives a little insight into what happened this time.