Performance Date: 04.25.10
Performance Space 122
Geez, how did they do this?
That was the recurring thought I had while watching Gin and It unfold it’s beautiful and complicated dance last Sunday eve. And not just because so much of the set-transforming, projection-catching choreography felt like watching one magic trick after another. No, the thought spawned from my insider’s brain which couldn’t help wondering how the hell they developed and rehearsed this piece.
But let me back up.
Conceptually, Gin and It – which lives in a liminal space between theater and performance installation – finds it’s genesis in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope, in which the famous director creates the illusion of filming the entire movie using a single, continuous shot. To pull off the stunt, particularly at that time, required a highly choreographed behind-the-scenes ballet. Grips and prop masters had to dismantle sections of the single-room set to make way for the huge camera as it followed the action, and then reassemble the set and props (in exactly the same way) in time for the shot to swing back the other direction -- all while staying out of the camera and sound operators’ way. Not an easy feat.
Gin and It in some ways replicates this feat in live performance -- and describing exactly how will be another feat altogether, but here goes. As Hitchcock’s film is projected on stage, a cast of four “grips” conduct their own “backstage” ballet, catching the projection on various surfaces that are continuously moved and manipulated throughout the piece. Frequently, the film is caught on mesh screens that permit the audience to see both the projected actor and the live actor (who is holding the screen) simultaneously. It's a clever and spooky effect that is amplified when the grips synchronize their movements with those of the projected actor. Other times, the film is projected onto set pieces that are transformed both physically (by the crew) and seemingly (by the effect of the projection) from box to dining table to piano to armchair. As if all this were not enough, layered onto the entire dance is a tense narrative that develops amongst the grips as they work together, a narrative expressed chiefly in gesture and attitude, but supplemented by the occasional whispered conversation or “backstage” order that is called out with particular subtext. Whew.
Hopefully I’ve described the piece well enough that you can imagine how this highly technical and subtextually nuanced show made my theater brain pretty much explode. How do you develop and rehearse something like this? And I haven’t even mentioned how the projected images were sometimes sliced up into smaller pieces to fit onto various-sized screens, or how there’s this whole thematic thing about closeted homosexuality that is being echoed about. Furthermore, the technical, textual, and subtextual pieces intertwine quite intricately, and of course the whole thing is very meta-meta-meta, very deconstructed-reconstructed. It’s like someone took a macramé dress, unraveled it, and reknit it into a portrait of a macramé dress. And then someone else videotapes it and projects it onto yarn which somebody else crochets into a hat. I mean, how do you do that? (No really, how do you do that?)
Now I have an inside track – I know the lovely Keith Justin Foster, who plays one of the grips – so I can eventually satisfy my curiosity. But I’ll tell you how I imagine it was done. I imagine it was done bit and by bit, piece by piece, a la Sondheim putting it together.
I imagine they started with the technical, with a rough idea of where the projections would go and on what surfaces. And then as they rehearsed the technical, they added the textual, i.e. the cues the grips call out to one another as they work together to hit their marks. And then I imagine in the tedium of rehearsing the technical-plus-textual to a point of precision, the subtextual was born. I imagine the actors got tense or silly with one another. They joked and grimaced and flirted, as actors in rehearsal do, and from these real-life inspirations, they found what eventually became the on-stage narrative of the piece. And I imagine it was an iterative process. I know for a fact it was a long process, an extended series of rehearsal periods and workshops, but it’s not just for this reason that I imagine it was iterative. I imagine it was iterative because that’s the only way I know to build something this intricate and layered.
This is the repeated learning of my time as an artist on this earth. Art takes time. It takes iteration. Revision. It takes doing and doing again, all the while remaining open to the variation of each attempt so that it may inspire new and unexpected directions. The hardest part of this process is that your destination remains unknown – and that in itself is enough to coax an artist off the road. But if you stick to it, you find that when you arrive, you are exactly where you are supposed to be.
So who knows, I could be wrong about how it all went down. Maybe Gin and It was actually born whole, like Athena out of Zeus’s head, fully armed and ready to rumble. I suppose it’s possible. But I’m not sure even an Olympian could imagine the totality of the Gin and It experience. There are five performances left, New Yorkers. Go see it and tell me what you think.