When people ask why I chose to direct “Darkness at Sunset and
Vine,” I have jokingly replied that it’s because it’s an election year
piece. Joking aside, it is an incontrovertible fact that my
dissatisfaction with the Bush regime and anger at the attitudes
prevalent in this country that aid and support the aims of our current
administration is at the heart of my decision to stage this particular
text at this particular time. Ginger Mayerson says that she wrote the
novella in 2003, “in a fury after bush's "Give me $87 billion so I can
start to clean up my mess that never had to happen" speech.” Do you
remember that one? So much has happened both before and after that it’s
hard to pick out just one event, isn’t it?
I made plans and announced that I would be directing an entirely different production. However, my mind kept coming back to “Darkness” and the conviction that now was the time to articulate the feelings and ideas I could express by staging this unpublished novella that says such beautifully ugly things about the United States.
“Darkness at Sunset and Vine” is set in near-future Los Angeles in the aftermath of the total collapse of the rule of law in the U.S. and the government turning the greatest military in the world on it’s own people. “Nellie Gail” is the nomme de guerre of an agent on disciplinary leave from the IIA (Internal Intelligence Agency) for having accidentally blown up Dick Cheney and Condelezza Rice along with the people who were trying to assinate them. “Darkness” –to radically simplify the plot -- is her first person account of a case she is coerced into taking on as a private investigator.
The title “Darkness at Sunset and Vine” is a play on Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. That novel tells the story of Rubashaov, a 1917 revolutionary who is imprisoned and tried for treason by the Soviet government he once helped create. Like Rubashov, Nellie is fully aware that she was part of the creation of the hell she now tries to survive in, a cog in the machine now trying to destroy her.
“Darkness at Sunset and Vine” draws on conventions and stock characters from several genres such as comic books, anime, and action-adventure movies. For me, the most important influence on the structure of the novella is the tradition of Film Noir. As in a classic Humphrey Bogart movie, “Darkness” gives us the first person narrative of a jaded private investigator in Southern California, navigating his/her way through a jungle of violence and moral bankruptcy. As in the classic Noir film or Raymond Chandler novel, the heart of the story is not about solving the case. It’s about the journey the protagonist takes to get there. “Darkness,” like a good Noir film, is sort of a Pilgrim’s Progress in a landscape with every scrap of moral certainty removed.
In their 1955 book, Panorama du film noir American, Borde and Chaumeton listed the five primary attributes of the film noir as being oneiric (dreamlike), strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel. I think the novella with its comic book style hyper-violence, bizarre villains, and protagonist who is equal parts hardboiled detective and the most fatal of femme fatales certainly embodies all these characteristics.
In our production, I think my cast and I have consistently made staging and adaptation choices that highlight the strange, cruel, and oneiric qualities of the novella. Visually, the production wallows with perverse, giddy glee in blood, guns, and death. The wild, violently dreamlike quality of the novella is also reflected in choice to have the whole cast on stage continually for the whole production since this means that cast members play characters who die grisly deaths only to immediately rise and play other characters who kill or be killed again… and again…. and again.
The oneiric quality of the novella is also highlighted some of the choices we made in selecting material to include or cut. Though, in general, we’ve followed an action-adventure movie model of “show – don’t tell,” choosing to trim dialogue to the bone to keep a headlong pace for the plot, there are several moments where this kamikaze-style forward motion is broken up by narrative digressions. Before the collapse of civilization, Nellie was a scholar specializing in the study of genocide. We’ve preserved several of her ruminations on the cannibalistic collapse of her own civilization in the form of “image-sculpture” pieces. I’m primarily thinking of what I call the “SoCal Post-Apocalypse Infomercial,” the “Lincoln Heights Animitronic,” and the “Genocide March.” In these, we’ve distributed Nellie’s lines to other characters and frequently she becomes just another part of the horrifying picture her words create.
Because of the great turnout I had at auditions, I had the luxury of selecting actors not only on talent and what I perceived as enthusiasm for the project and an aptitude for working collaboratively, but also with an eye to how their appearance could be used to make an artistic statement. I had thought about casting multiple women to play Nellie. This would have emphasized her “Everyperson” qualities. However, in the end, I made a casting choice that emphasizes her difference and by contrast the uniformity and interchangeability of the people she both fights against and fights for.
Andrea is Black/Asian. Although “the guys” come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, next to her, they look White, White, and Very White. To emphasize their “sameness,” I chose young men who are also very similar in height and build. (Come to think of it, if this were 1999, I could’ve turned them into a pretty nice boy band…) Andrea as Nellie, therefore, is always visually marked by difference -- even when she is acting in concert with the other performers. “The guys,” by contrast, have a visual homogeneity that I think will encourage the viewer to see them as a unit – even when they take on individual characters. This has allowed us the opportunity to create some interesting contrasts and comparisons on a level that may not immediately register consciously on viewers. For instance, Nellie may be a cog in the machine, but she is the cog that does not fit. She is always surrounded and always alone. The elitist Ulluminati and the renegade DSL are essentially the same group of guys. Only their choices have taken them to different places. In this production, everyone plays the role of the both the victim and victimizer in turn. We are all culpable in our own destruction of our own society.
Collaborative directing is an approach to performance production created by feminist theatrical professionals in attempt to rid the traditional process of creating a theatrical production of power structures that replicate oppressive patriarchal practices. The discussions of this approach that I have read (most notably Cima’s Upstaging Big Daddy) have usually described casts and crews of feminist theatrical professionals creating productions of texts with the goal of highlighting instances of gender and heterosexist bias at work in our society. In these productions, cast and crew take equal responsibility in decision-making and therefore share equal ownership in the final product.
“Darkness at Sunset and Vine” is the fourth production in which I have experimented with a collaborative approach to see if this technique could make for an interesting, engaging rehearsal process and final product for a non-professional, non-feminist group of performers (with little to no prior experience working together) in an academic setting to create a production of a non-feminist text with non-feminist goals in mind.
Collaborative directing in an academic setting where the performers are students and the director is a professor (for whom the production counts as creative research) is very different from working collaboratively with peers. The power differential between student/professor and the inherently unequal stakes in the production make the experience so different in fact, that I have begun to think of what I do as “directed collaboration” instead of “collaborative directing.” Despite the near impossibility of completely leveling all power structures, I still feel that it is collaboration is worthwhile and productive approach for the academic director.
In this production (as in my other four experiments) I have shared responsibility for generating staging, adaptation of the text, and assignment of the lines with my cast. For more details of the trials and triumphs of doing so, please see my director’s log for this production. As in previous collaborative efforts, my cast has come up with ideas that I would not have. Because of their contributions, the production has a richness and complexity it would not have had otherwise.
I particularly wanted to use a collaborative technique to create this production because of the text itself. In “Darkness at Sunset and Vine” although mindless groupthink facilitates the fall of civilization, working collaboratively for the greater good is hope for humanity.
I start out with rage and end up talking about hope. Guess it does spring eternal...
This site was last updated 03/17/08