Performance Date: 9.21.09
Classic Stage Company
Classic Stage Company
Several weeks ago my friend Peter invited me to see him in a workshop of a play-in-development currently being called The Harvard Project. He described it as the culmination of five and a half weeks of exploration, during which the artists involved focused very much on process, and not on product. I believe he intended it as a disclaimer, but in fact it made me even more eager to go.
I love process. I’m a process fiend. To me, how a play got made – or a painting, or a vaccine, or a business strategy – is often more fascinating than the final product. When the final product is amazing, my thirst to know how it was made is even greater. And when the end result isn’t so great, knowing what went into the process, what someone was trying to accomplish and how, makes the whole experience much more satisfying overall.
As it turned out, seeing The Harvard Project was satisfying on both the product and process levels. For a piece that purportedly had zero script at the beginning of the rehearsal period (save for transcripts from the historical event on which the play was based), the result was remarkably confident and clean. There were good performances, beautiful images, funny and moving moments, and a set that had intention and character. In many ways, it hardly seemed like a workshop version at all.
And yet I felt like I got to see a good amount of process too. I guess that sounds like a bad thing. One imagines a well-meaning friend discreetly squeezing one’s hand at a party and whispering, “Your process is showing.” But that’s not how I mean it at all. For a play at this stage in development – with a script all of five and a half weeks old and minimal design elements – you expect to see some threads from the canvas peeking through the paint. Some gears carefully turning behind the illusion. To me that’s a good thing. To me that’s the reason you go see a play in development. Those are the goodies on the plate.
By way of example, there were two or three points in the play where the action broke from straightforward, narrative scenes into more deconstructed sections that included both abstract movement and text. In one such moment, three men face forward, delivering simultaneous monologues which repeat in bits and snatches, and during which one man repeatedly crashes backward from his chair as if being punched. In another such moment, the cast performs a wordless choreography of gesture, each at varying times brushing lint from his trousers, or painfully pulling a string from their throats out their mouths. I found both these moments compelling because they felt very near to the kinds of improvisations I’ve partaken in as an actor during rehearsal, to the improvisations I imagine did take place in this cast’s rehearsals. Maybe that makes them moments of your process in showing, but I enjoyed them all the same. It made me feel near to the piece, gave me great affection for it. Not unlike the way you might feel meeting an infant just days after its birth. I don’t know if these process-originated moments will find their way into the eventual finished product of The Harvard Project, or even if they deserve to, but in this incarnation of the piece, they provided an immediacy that really stood out.