THE CONVERSATIONALISTS converse with cinema

Photo by Marcus Middleton

Theater artists have long harbored aspirations towards the cinematic. With advanced technology came the cameras and screens strewn across the stage, capturing and projecting images that otherwise couldn’t have been delivered on a stage. Mostly, these tools have been deployed more as design elements or directorial vision, in support of material that is not explicitly cinema-based. But occasionally, a writer attempts to use the language of the screenplay as primary material — the movie as subject.

A playwright friend of mine wrote such a play. Hers was a (made up) independently made true crime docudrama, written almost entirely in stage direction that described what was happening onscreen. She told me at some later date that she had showed the script to our former playwriting grad-school professor and he had said, “This is great, but if you show it to people, they’ll think you’ve never written a play before.” The work eventually found its way into production (and I hope it gets produced again) but proved in some ways challenging. If you’re already fully describing the action in the stage directions which are being read out loud, what else can you do without simply mimicking or echoing that action with bodies onstage? The production solved this by making the event a re-enactment by a group of local enthusiasts who staged the screenplay as an act of community ritual.

Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading Of An Unproduced Screenplay About The Death of Walt Disney found a unique approach to framing the “why” in order to answer the dramaturgical question as to what we’re doing in movie-land in the first place. His screenplay-play was read out loud by a character who we were to believe was Walt Disney himself. Walt reads us his screenplay, written about himself, his life. When I saw it at Soho Rep, I remember pages being flung in the air, the sense of a mental breakdown hanging in the balance. It was still difficult material, but at least it maintained a sense of the stakes. Also – if it was bad screenwriting, it wasn’t the fault of the playwright, because the playwright is displacing that text onto a character. It was Disney’s fault if his screenplay didn’t make sense.

From my experience of texts that attempt to be or elicit the cinematic, it’s useful to figure out the frame. Something needs to exist other than simply the description of a screenplay or else the text risks becoming inert. We struggle when we are “told” visual information. Visual information is sensorial. It triggers something else in our brains — it’s not an intellectual exercise. Screenplays are addictive and immersive because they are able to establish the visual automatically through cinematography while doing many other things, including providing interior information, giving us close proximity to characters faces and eyes, and employing a sense of the voyeuristic. We can be in someone’s bedroom without actually being there. Sex works way better in movies than it does onstage, probably for this reason. So does violence.

The language of The Conversationalists, a “live movie” created, written, and composed by Jerome Ellis and James Harrison Monaco, developed with and directed by Annie Tippe, currently playing at Bushwick Starr through February 1st, is almost entirely cinematic – it’s the telling of a movie that doesn’t exist. Their made-up film feels like one of those sweeping international melodramas with lots of expansive cinematography. In the minds of its creators, it’s an epic-length narrative replete with multi-generational strands, multiple montages, and frequent leaps forward in time. When placed onstage, this means the play is also rather lengthy. (One might argue, too much so.) It is not re-enactment. Rather, the ambition seems to be to simply bring the film to life in the minds of the audience on a nightly basis.

The key added element here is a the live-scoring of the soundtrack, provided by the excellent musicians John Murchison, Michelle J. Rodriguez, and Delaney Stockli. What you end up with onstage is a performer (usually James Harrison Monaco) delivering a breathlessly paced monologue describing the action of the movie, complete with cuts, jump to’s, etc., while Jerome Ellis directs the orchestration (as well as contributing to it via piano, synths, horns, and sometimes additional character support). It’s a worthwhile experiment, but one that doesn’t always work. It’s difficult to experience the entire composition as a whole, which leaves long swathes of a balancing act. Should I focus on the words and try to give the piece my full imagination, as it requires in order to be anything other than a blur of text? But what’s actually visually happening is people are playing music, which frankly is often more pleasurable to experience than my imagined art direction of a screenplay I don’t quite understand.

Cut to — my admission that taste plays into the equation, as it always must. I don’t like mushrooms, but does that mean a restaurant that serves only mushroom-based dishes is repellant? It does not. That restaurant does just fine, with people who like mushrooms. And so my experience of The Conversationalists should be viewed as only my own. There’s a certain tone to the proceedings that may well be a taste thing. The overall sense of earnestness – this is their fake screenplay and they believe in its beauty and merit (which if you don’t vibe with, you’re already on the outside) – coupled with the semi-aggressive requisite collective generosity required of this “shared exercise” wherein we’re assigned the role of art director (whether we like it or not) kept me from being as willing and gracious a participant as I’d like to have been.

Even so, a sense of the transcendent can be found. The cast speaks multiple languages, and the sections that use subtitling worked much better for me than the English-spoken segments. Jerome Ellis’s step-out-of-the-action monologue in the later half of the work, while difficult to arrange in its relationship to the action of the screenplay, feels vital and shocking in comparison. The production itself is plush, polished, and tautly directed. When the storytelling and musical-making line up with big show numbers, it’s impossible not to be swept up in the moment. There is obvious artistry present. And in a world filled with truly horrible attempts at actual cinema (Doolittle, anyone?), I certainly can’t take issue with collectively imagining something better.

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