NUMB: a history of painlessness
Drugs are amazing. Think about it: Thanks to the hubris and dangerous dabbling of some revolutionary scientists, drugs—I’m talking specifically about the pharmaceutical kind, but make of this what you will—have allowed us to overcome both physical and emotional discomfort; to virtually eliminate pain. Before anesthetics, surgeons would put you at ease with bourbon and white noise as your friends held you down on the operating table. It was not until very recently (within the last hundred and fifty years) that people discovered and began to capitalize on the chemicals that temporarily deactivate our pain receptors.
But what are the downsides of such a discovery?
Goat in the Road Productions—a fearless experimental theatre company based in New Orleans, LA—is touring the country to bring audiences face-to-face with this unsettling inquiry. They do this by introducing us to the real people who first put these numbing chemicals to medical—and recreational—use, and who, Prometheus-like, dared to play God.
Their show, entitled NUMB, lives somewhere between a play and a surrealist history lesson. The company blends history and fiction in a collage of found sound, live storytelling, expressionistic dance, and stand-up comedy, all spun together into a 90-minute performance designed to drill into your psyche…in a good way.
I saw the premiere in 2014. Two years later, I still think about this show every time I visit the dentist. Goat in the Road will be performing NUMB at JACK in Brooklyn in early December. I sat down with director Chris Kaminstein to needle him a bit about the process of making this genre-defying piece. Here’s what he had to say.
Ned Moore: What about the history of anesthesiology first made GITR say, “this should be a play”?
Chris Kaminstein: Our work tends to look back to look forward. We like mining history and science in order to comment on things that might be socially relevant to our audience, and felt that the human drive to dull pain for recreational and medical purposes is at a particular zenith in contemporary culture. Recreational drugs are an enormous part of Americans’ life experience, and prescription drug use (and drug abuse) is at an all-time high. We wondered what might discover if we examined some of the first folks to throw themselves into experiments with pain-dulling agents like nitrous oxide, chloroform, cocaine, and ether.
The other big thing that drew us to the project was something that’s particular to New Orleans. A friend of mine likes to say that New Orleans is “politically backward, but culturally advanced.” New Orleans understands catharsis, and the city works hard to celebrate celebrating. There’s a double-edged sword in this: catharsis comes with great joy, laughter, dancing, transcendence, but it also comes with darkness. All of us who have lived in the city have seen friends go to the ‘dark side’; succumb to the too much-ness of this place: too much drinking, too many drugs, too many late nights. We were interested in that line between transcendent discovery and addiction, which is fully present in each of the stories that make up NUMB.
There is also something so fascinating about the way that 19th-century romantic scientists threw themselves into their own experiments. These people were sort of recklessly fearless, testing new drugs on themselves without being able to anticipate the effects. We felt that this could be pretty interesting dramatic territory.
NM: NUMB uses the fictional frame of an imagined dinner party to explore the lives and legacies of real historical figures. What was the thought behind framing the piece this way?
CK: Our goal is to make historical figures and events accessible in a very contemporary way. There can be a sort of wall that separates “history” from the “present” in drama, a wall that causes people to think that history is so far away from us that the feelings of the characters are inaccessible, and we wanted to break that down. That’s why some of the dialogue has a contemporary feel, and why the dinner party was important to us. It’s a way to the show the energy and excitement of discovery among friends. We wanted a scene that felt contemporary in its style, in its energy, in its overlapping dialogue. Something that could help our audience drop in to the drama of the moment.
Once the scene was written, it became clear that the dinner party could help us tie together the stories of these characters in a meaningful way, and in a way that was, for the most part, historically accurate. The dramaturgy of the piece is grounded in historical fact, and many of the scenes are drawn directly from primary sources. Putting these characters together into one place allowed us to bounce their stories off of each other, to see the parallels and pitfalls in each character’s experience. In terms of story telling, I think that the drive to have the end of the piece come back to the beginning (the dinner party returns at the end of the show) felt like a good way for our audience to see something familiar in a new light. They could watch the dinner party scene at the end of the show with the full knowledge of these moments that flit by in the characters’ lives—these moments that have great importance, but barely register at the time.
NM: What are the biggest dramaturgical challenges you faced in adapting this obscure history?
CK: There are a few big challenges in terms of the dramaturgy. The first challenge was to figure out which story we wanted to tell. We were originally looking at the story of William Stewart Halsted (this was before The Knick came out) who was one of the fathers of modern surgical techniques, but was also addicted to cocaine throughout his life. We did a showing of work and found that our audience was more interested in some of the early figures in the history of painless surgery. This is why it’s so helpful to have an engaged and energetic core audience who can help you figure out where you go next.
Another challenge was figuring out which scenes to include in the piece. There’s so much history to choose from, and sifting through this enormous volume of material to find the places that seem full of dramatic possibility is a (fun) challenge. For these choices, I kept thinking about the moments of choice or decision. When is someone making a choice to go this way and that way? When is a decision being made that deeply affects the rest of the characters? Some of this was obvious, and some of it less so.
And of course there is a challenge with the historical record. How accurately do we stick to the primary source material, and when do we deviate? Do we have the right to deviate? The historical record is so fascinating on its own that we ended up hewing closely to these stories, but there were definitely moments we put together on our own, or fabricated. We do it unapologetically. Fortunately for us, we’re not historians.
NM: I was particularly blown away by the use of sound in this piece. Can you talk a bit about the sound design and how it functions as an essential element of the storytelling?
CK: As a company we like to make some design decisions early; decisions that come from instinct, but have an effect of framing the world of the play in a useful way. Too much choice is a burden. I met Kyle Sheehan, our sound designer, early in the process and we ended up vibing about how sound could be used in theater in a way we hadn’t seen very often—a way that would outline the entire world of the play, with very few props or set pieces. From there, Kyle really ran with it. We have nearly 700 sound cues in the 90-minute show, and they show both the physical world of the story, and the emotional journey of the characters. Sounds are used to illustrate each of the environments, and also to help the audience descend into our more trippy drug-induced sequences. Kyle live mixes much of the sound, and stays so reactive with the actors that he ends up being the seventh actor in the piece.
We want the sound to be a way inside of the characters’ brains. That underwater effect you get when you take some new (or old) drug; that’s part of it. That feeling of hearing certain sounds more than others when you’re in the middle of a big event or difficult conversation; that’s part of it. But most of all, the sound helps the audience journey with the characters into the unknown.
NM: If you could travel back in time and talk to one of the characters, who would it be, and what would you tell her/him about our world today?
CK: Anna Beddoes. The women tell the story in this play. They are strong, intelligent powerhouses, but they were sidelined by history. Anna Beddoes was such an integral part to all this history, but she’s remembered purely in relation to the men around her. I’d be interested to talk with her about her own journey in poetry and science, her view of the experiments happening around her, and tell her two things:
1) If she were alive today she would have more options.
2) Sorry to rub it in.
By Goat in the Road Productions (New Orleans)
Dec. 7th – 10th, 2016
@ JACK, 505 1/2 Waverly Ave, Brooklyn NY 11238
Book Now: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2602246