Photo Taking and Theater Making: REALLY at Abrons Arts Center

Photo courtesy of New York City Players

Photo courtesy of New York City Players

In the opening moment of Really, a play by Jackie Sibbles Drury and directed by Richard Maxwell which runs at Abrons Arts Center through April 2nd, the actor Kaneza Schaal manually loads film into a camera.  This analog act triggered a rush of sense recollection within me – I could almost feel the little grooves that you have to attach the slotted film to, and when Ms. Schaal closed the back of the camera body and advanced the film, the sound of it transported me back to my senior year of high school, 35mm camera in hand, just looking for someone or something to capture in frame, trying to fill my roll so that I could retreat into the art building where we had a dark room where I would ritualistically develop the results.   

I’m closing my eyes now, trying to remember the steps.  There is the acrid smell of the chemical that you pour over the film prior to its development. The fear of exposure, that if you handle the film wrong you’ll ruin your photos, something I did more than once – and then, once you’ve waited (how long, hours, days?) until the time is right, the unspooling of and gazing at the negative to see what has emerged.  Still, though, you can’t totally make out what you’ve ‘got’ until you retreat back to the dark room to utilize the enlarger, which allows you to actually make a print of the photo.  You wash the print in multiple chemical bathes, rinse it, and hang it to dry.

I was not a particularly accomplished photographer.  I never fully understood the balance between the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture settings, and even shooting with the rinky-dink 35mm cameras that our school loaned us, which were the point-and-shoot equivelant of the day (one fixed lens), I don’t think I ever really knew what I had captured inside that closed box.  There was a person I liked.  I must have spent two rolls of film adjusting and readjusting as I took a series of portraits, hoping that maybe one of them would be good enough – in tight focus with the background blurred the way we had been taught in class.  You know how in those up-close portraits of famous actors their stubble and wrinkles pop in an almost-exaggerated way?  That’s how I pictured my pictures.  They never turned out that way.

Returning to the play at hand – what Really does well, beyond the obvious (the play itself is well-written, the staging is clean, clinical, emotionally removed, essentially what you’d expect from a New York City Players production) is that it allows enough space for its viewer to simultaneously experience the event of the play and also to remember all those poses we’ve held over our own lifetime, a rush of pictorial history briefly welling up in our memories.  The play, while relatively short, has a good deal of negative space to fill and provides us with the mental stimulus to fill it.  We witness Ms. Schaal, playing the girlfriend, loading her camera at the top (and then once more, in the middle of the play, after she’s reached the end of her first roll), Elaine Davis, playing the mother, sitting awkwardly on a stool, talking and talking and talking with almost nothing to say so when she falls silent it’s an event, an opening that the girlfriend doesn’t exploit – she’s not much for conversation it seems, until the later half of the play when suddenly she spills open, her fears and hopes for the future overtaking the mother’s obsession for the present and ghostly past.  And then there’s Calvin, the possibly genius photographer, son of the mother, boyfriend to the girlfriend, and also recently dead.  It seems likely that he killed himself, and the mother to some extent blames the girlfriend for this, although it’s not directly stated.  Calvin, played by Tavish Miller, is physically present throughout the play, seamlessly integrated as a memory and spector.  Moments from the past impede on the present.  Sometimes there is a rumbling sound that vibrates the whole room, other times, he plays vinyl records in the corner (more analog!).  

All this ‘action’ plays more like an environment – I would argue that the audience is not entirely invested in ‘what happens’ to any of these three characters, nor are we asked to be.  I’m thinking of it now as a long exposure, in which the subject is asked not to move too much so that the lines don’t get blurry.  It’s the amount of light in the room that really matters, not the subject itself.  Eventually, if you expose the photo long enough, the light will overtake everything and the photo will turn white.  The light, here, is the ‘thought’ behind the writing.  Ms. Drury, without being too showy, speaks to us both through the mother and later the girlfriend, infusing their lives (and our experience) with evocative contradictions, challenges, and perceptions of imagery, some of it imagined, but somehow, magically, some of it real, pulled from our own memories and allowed to commingle with our internal experience of the play for a split second.  

Theatermaking and photo taking (the old fashioned kind, anyway) seem to share a number of characteristics.  First, there’s the framing – is this something you need to capture, or to explore?  Does it even fit in the frame?  There’s the adjustment of the light meters, the focus, the direction from which the picture is taken, the adjustments for the natural conditions, and the steady-enough hand to take the photo itself (this feels like what the playwright does, up to first draft completion).  Then, the development of the film, which must be done carefully and thoughtfully and takes time and perhaps aligns with the drafting process of a play as it passes through the hands of potential directors and survives skirmishes with resident dramaturges, literary managers, etc.  Finally, the printmaking process, in which the image is rendered onto a surface, at last viewable.  A photographer, of course, has the freedom to discard an unsuccessful photo once it has reached this state of ‘being.’  Theater makers, not so much.  Even for the best of us, the print, what it will look like, how it will function, what it will show, which background shadows might obscure the subject in unexpected and not-so-intentional ways, these remain dangerously unknown until there’s an audience in the room.

In the instance of Really, all has gone well.  The darkness is rich, and the occasional overexposure feels intended.  The focus is clarified, the background both stark and suggestive.  And through its framing and use of negative space, it does that thing that only the best photos can achieve – it makes you believe that you were there once.  That if the camera was turned 180 degrees and another photo was taken, the image would be yours.

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