Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Shed Piece

I know this isn't a prompt or anything, and I know that it's not technically even an accomplishment of pure writing, but I did put a lot of work into the script and feel it's as true as any written word I've created. Since the Mod's are so swamped, I think we, the community of bloggers/writers, should continue writing and Using Our Words. After all, the idea of the blog is to continue our writing efforts in whatever way—prompted or not. It's not just an exercise in waiting for someone else to generate ideas for us.

Ready for this? It's kind of epic. The actual written project is at the end, but this is the story:

The Shed Piece (more formally known as the Performance Project) is a project undertaken by second year Production Students at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Australia, and since I came in as a second-year student (on Exchange), it's in my curriculum. In short, the student creates a piece of theater between five and ten minutes long, documenting appropriately.
Sounds simple enough, right? If it does, then you've obviously never done it. Oh my.
It's called the She Piece because it takes place in a Shed on VCA's campus. It's a black box, 9.1m by 5.4m and it's incredibly dusty, old, and about-to-fall-down. There's a store of lights, sound, and a/v equipment in addition to an extensive prop and costume store. It's incredibly versatile, though most performances put the audience at one end in three rows and the show opposite it, thus creating the classic proscenium audience-stage orientation. However, I was determined to do something different.

The premise is so astoundingly open-ended that it's way, way too easy to just float through ideas or add things to a concept until kingdom come. Previous pieces have been: an extremely offensive mini-musical about a kid's safari show, a segment of a favorite play, a maze of hanging glowsticks with an synthesized sound-scape, an abstract representation of a greek myth with up to eight nude VCA members and live singing and guitar and fog and mirrors and a skeleton.
One challenge particular to me: these are presented almost daily for two months or so, meaning that some students have up to two months more than others. In addition, other second-year students have been gathering ideas and concepts and actors and designers and dancers to help them for about a year. In total, I had fifteen days. I found out about it on orientation day and I was scheduled to go second. I had no ideas, knew no one here, knew nothing of the campus facilities and faculty, and I had two weeks to create a theater piece that is about a third of this semester's grade. That is a hell of a challenge.
One night I was trying to figure out something solid and do-able in an intensely small time-frame. I racked my brain for two days and came up with nothing that I was remotely happy with. So I decided to give it up for the night and watch American Beauty. After the film, I just lay in my bed, thinking about the fact that I was as far away from home as I possibly could be, and about the world that lay between me and my origins. I fell asleep, woke up, and had my idea. I was going to recreate the night before for the audience. Sweet.
How to do? I was trying to figure out how I could most directly move the perspective of the audience into my head; it had to be direct as I only had five to ten minutes. Pretty quickly, I decided I wanted to make the audience feel like they were lying in my bed, so I was going to cover the floor of the Shed in carpet and make the audience lay on their backs on the carpets, looking at the ceiling (and the stars and sky I would create), just like I was in my bed, looking out the window. This idea made me so excited; I had an original, do-able idea and it didn't seem terribly difficult and it played to my strengths.

So I start going about making the soundtrack. Bar none, the song that perfectly complimented my night was Stem-Long Stem by DJ Shadow: Download the original track here if you're interested. It's a dark track, but I find it really, really deeply contemplative. It's probably some association from my days at NCSSM. Anyways, I get to work shifting track parts around in Garage Band to better suit my purposes, patching, looping, cutting, syncing, etc. While doing this, I wrote a script for a voice-over. I wrote it stream-of-consciousness style then edited the hell out of it to get sectional parts to be between rises in the music of the track. In total, I went through four or five major revisions of the script. I was terrified of it being self-important and overblown, making me seem arrogant and inept in front of lots of new friends and lecturers. I recorded some test audio during an early version of the script to adjust the timing on the track and, after way more work than was required, I got everything as close to how I wanted it as I could possibly get.
Then came the video to project onto the ceiling. I fed an early version of the track into iMovie to start. I created some cloud-scapes in photoshop and downloaded tons of Creative Commons images from Wikimedia Commons. After four days of back-and-forth video, sound, and script editing, downloading different images and clips as I needed them, I got a good rough draft of the video done. Time, testing (lying on my bed of course), and a peer opinion later, I made the final version. Here it is, though without the context and orientation in the Shed (and of course without being in Australia), it's a different experience to watch it here, but you can at least get an idea if you would like:

To suppliment the parts with stars, I wanted to fill the entire space with them, creating some interactivity and depth to it. So I also got a mirror-ball to reflect light onto the audience, walls, and ceiling in a starscape kind of way. It mostly worked.
All right, now that I was done designing and creating the ideas, all that was left was making the show itself. Over three days, I became extremely familiar with how to reserve and collect equipment and props. I vacuumed rolls and rolls of carpets and rugs, I gathered, asked, met with, and discussed the show with numerous VCA staff. I got a lot of people making grossed-out faces when I told them I'd have them lying on props carpets.
So the day came of loading in the show, and it wasn't quite as bad as it could have been. A couple of guys from the first Shed Piece and a third-year guy helped me put up drapes around the room and hoist the roof drape, and Elina—a good friend—came to help later. The roof drape alone took about an hour-and-a-half to hang. It was an epic undertaking that really took all five of us. After that, everyone but Elina left, who helped me set up my lights, sound, and projection. Then we tested it all, came back in the morning for more testing and finicky stuff, and told my front-of-house person what I needed her to tell the people before they entered. This included all the tripping hazards, fire exits, and where to put their shoes—everyone had to take 'em off. At long last, I opened the doors to droves of production students during the lunch break, and the show was off.
The first showing went really, really well. There were about twenty-five people and everything went off without a hitch—not including that I was shaking the whole time, including while holding/moving lights to hit the disco ball. It went really well and I was really, really satisfied with it. Apparently the other students liked it too, because there were close to 45 people who came during the second showing (including each and every one of the lecturers and staff). When Kym (the dean of Production) was told to take her shoes off and lie on the floor, she looked at me, smiled, and said, "Orvis, I hate you." It was satisfying and terrifying at the same time. Excellent.
It's a really great feeling when the people whose respect you are trying to gain see something you put tons of thought, preparation, and work into and come up to you and earnestly compliment you on how much they liked it—conceptually and how it was carried out. It is really a great feeling. I really can't describe it.

In the end, I and the next ones in bumped out my show, bumped in the next, and I returned all my equipment. For the rest of the day I heard almost nothing but compliments for it all, some really great ones coming from people I really respected and admired. It was wonderful. And best of all—except for a good amount of drawings, renderings, models, and documentation—I was done. So that night, the night of the 24th, I went away from the VCA with a huge smile on my face and had a wonderful night.

This is the script—the inspiration of writing that generated this entire story:

I'm lying in my bed. It is a strange bed in an unfamiliar country and there is an entire world between me and where I came from. My friends are waking for their first classes of the day, my father is arriving at work, and I am lying on my bed, wholly different in time and space, seeing a sky they have never seen. Seeing clouds. Seeing stars.

Welcome to the sky.

It's a truly complex machine we live in. We experience the incredible every day; it is all there for us to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch—the entire universe waiting for us.

Our voices go out into the sky as radio waves. Our great accomplishments make themselves known by lighting the earth at night. From space, the earth seems covered in stars, showing where we are and what we've created. [beat] But our stars cannot possibly tell the whole story.

People take incredible action with themselves and each-other, and every single choice has an effect on the entire world. The effect of each choice multiplies ad infinitum across every street, city, and nation and every second, day, and lifetime. With each hour, humanity rends itself to shreds while building a whole greater than itself. The power in every action is phenomenal.

It's a truly complex machine we live in. We experience the incredible every day; it is all there for us to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch—the entire universe—all of creation...waiting for us.

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