What Gatz – an 8-hour long show – taught me about the power of imagination

I had never read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It wasn’t part of the curriculum in my highschool but it was certainly a book I had heard of and one that remained lazily on a long list of books I would eventually read. My first encounter with Gatsby was in the 2013 film directed by Baz Luhrmann. Gatsby was a dashing Dicaprio, with slick blonde hair, and Nick was played by Tobey Maguire (who really, at the time, I could only see as Spider-Man). This was a film that left my heart filled with a love for the art of filmmaking. From the music to the costumes, I loved everything about this film when I saw it.

So when I first encountered the set of Elevator Repair Service’s production, Gatz, which showed at the NYUAD Arts Center in September, I was skeptical. In a production that first premiered in 2005, ERS’s Gatz, directed by John Collins, ambitiously staged the entire novel – word for word – resulting in an 8-hour long production. Rather than the set being a decorative grand mansion, the characters’ wardrobe revealing their worth, ERS set the novel in an office space.

Nick (Scott Shepherd), an office worker comes into work one day to find that his computer isn’t working. When meddling around his desk, he finds a copy of the Fitzgerald’s novel. The other staff come in and out, some curious and others annoyed over Nick who reads the book aloud. Slowly but surely though, elements of the book come alive through the characters on set, until it completely takes over. Still set in the office space, the words of Fitzgerald and the marvelous acting by the ERS troupe lead audiences to use their own imagination to see two swivel chairs as the leather seats of an expensive car; the office space as the apartment of Tom Buchanan’s lover in New York; or the secretary’s office as the balcony where Gatsby looks on towards the guests at his extravagant party.

Working behind the scenes with archiving the show, I first saw the 8-hour long show behind monitor screens, capturing the action on stage from a series of three different camera angles. I kept wondering: why an office? What was the motivation for this piece? On the second night, I was enthralled by how clever the piece was. And on the third night, when I finally watched the piece from an audience seat, I hardly felt the hours pass by. I was captivated.

The staff in the dreary office became the careless wealthy. Eight hours encapsulated months. The actors lived in the pages of Fitzgerald, but so did the audience become immersed in the events that unfolded.

I didn’t expect for Fitzgerald’s novel to be funny. Luhrmann’s film was everything but funny, I thought, when I had watched it. What had stuck for me in Luhrmann’s version of the tale, was the tragedy of Gatsby’s death; left alone on his deathbed. But Gatz highlighted the humour in Fitzgerald’s novel. Moments of slapstick were perfectly timed in the piece, and offered a reflection on the absurdity of it all. Here was a scene in a mansion taking place with nothing more than a few office desks. These moments offered a humorous break as the audience lived with the characters, but they were also an ode to theater; that within a theatrical experience, one’s imagination can be powerful.

 

 

 

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New beginnings

AND I’M BACK!

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on this blog. After my Capstone ended, I graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi, traveled around Europe for a few weeks, and returned back to Abu Dhabi to begin working. I began working as a video journalist for a local newspaper – filming and editing videos for their online platforms – but then left that job to accept an offer with the NYUAD Arts Center.

As much as I liked working in the realm of journalism, my heart is in the arts. I accepted a position with the NYUAD Arts Center as Theatre Technical Specialist. Basically, I would be helping with video and projection set up for the shows. This may not sound artsy, but it means the world to me to work in this field. Coming from a directorial and design background, I wanted to learn technical vocabulary so that I can better engage with fellow collaborators when putting together a show. And since I call myself a projection designer, it only makes sense that  I should expand my knowledge in the field of video so that I can become confident, and eventually be an expert, in proposing designs for a show.

I am so excited about this opportunity because it means that I finally get to delve into the technical side of working in theatre. As a kid, I loved any chance to build something or work with tools, but there wasn’t always the opportunity to be trained to do so. When my older brother left for college, I had some smug pride over the fact that I’d be the one to set up the electronics in the household. With this new job, and a new pair of caterpillar steel-toe shoes, I feel like I finally get to engage in something I’ve always wanted to do.

The NYUAD Arts Center is perhaps the leading center for performing arts in the Middle East, attracting a diverse range of shows of a high, international caliber. To be able to work behind the scenes, and see the rehearsals of international troupes, makes my heart flutter. In this way, I can continue to be inspired and develop my own artistic practice.

All while hoping I don’t break any bones on the job. Yikes.

A Black Power Emblem is Sold at Forever 21

P O S T S C R I P T

A Black Power emblem is sold at Forever 21.
A Black Power emblem is sold at Forever 21. Only nine dollars. Nine dollars and I can slip on a new identity. French girl. Cool girl. Black panther. Which one did you think of first?
New York is a wonderful place to try on new identities. New York is a place where identities are up for sale. Nine dollars. Nine dollars in my pocket, who do I want to be today? Maybe everybody loves New York so much because they can be whoever they want over there. They can change their gender, sex, their whole aesthetic. They can drug themselves, age themselves, shoot themselves, turn into a star. A star. A star in a black beret, smoking up. It’s so easy to reinvent yourself here because nobody really cares. Everybody’s a star in New York. You look up at them sometimes…

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Projections: creating illusions on stage

I came across this video last night, and realized that I have been investing my time looking at audiovisual work that is experimental or footage of live VJ sets and I haven’t been looking into the world of advertising. Samsung had a grand event in NYC recently to unveil the new Samsung Galaxy Note 8. Watch their presentation in HD here.

The show was designed by Sila Sveta, a production company based between Moscow and LA. I’ve been following their work for a while since a lot of their work involves creating immersive experiences using projections. I thought I would look at the show they did for Samsung and break down what interested me about it.

  1. Windows and portals: 3D content
    The use of 3D content is so impressive in this presentation because it really feels like the stage has been transformed and that the walls have becomes windows, and the floor has become a portal where the phones ascend from. Timing is everything, and they are clever about the moment when they decide to introduce the 3D visuals ad what they show. They don’t begin straight away with it and the first content to be shown is a cuboid that appears with the aid of a virtual stylus. Expanding the cuboid and rotating it to cover the walls that are almost perpendicular to each other, is the perfect visual to begin with for audiences to get used to the transformation of a 2D plane into the illusion of a 3D space as though it had depth.
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  2. Choreography of the lights
    Projections are not the opening hit, but they actually come after a short sequence where it’s like a choreography of lights. The lights appear and disappear in time to the music. They start and single lines before combining together to show the whole floor of the stage. This introduces the audience to the shape of the stage while also paying tribute almost or acknowledging the diamond shape of the stage. This is reminiscent of one VJ’s advice to me on how to tell the narrative of a triangle; start with its outline, then form the whole shape, now fill it in, maybe multiply it. Structurally, the opening choreography of the lights defines the space. The lights later work hand in hand with the projected content, rather than being completely separate.
  3. Text and space
    At the end of the day the show is once big commercial, but what struck me was how the text was presented in relationship to the stage. There was a retention of the two walls being separate but also working as one surface. So there would be text that says “can’t” on one wall, that shifts as if a page is being turned to the next wall and then one would see “can’t” crossed out on one side and “can” boldly visible on the opposite side. There was a clear management of the space in terms of how the content was designed to make it fit the design of the stage (necessary, of course).
  4. Stage design
    The stage was set in this kind of V shape formation, with the audience one either side. This reminded me of something director Roland Auzet said when I had the privilege to meet him. He talked about the stage design for “Steve V”, an opera on Steve Jobs, which had a similar arrangement of this V shape which he wanted so that included the audience; that the show almost came towards the audience and felt more inclusive. And for Sila Sveta, it also just a nice diamond form to work with to present 3D content.There’s also something about the two sided diamond thrust stage that makes me perceive it as being violent. It makes me think of an arrowhead. Depending on the content, it might feel inclusive in a positive way or it might feel inclusive in a way that’s threatening. In thinking of my Capstone, what do I want to make the audience feel? That they are safe, that they are in danger, that there’s an element of risk? What space am I trying to create?

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Seeing the illusion of folds on the stage floor created, makes me think about PIXEL, a show by Compagnie Käfig I caught this past week at the NYUAD Arts Center which combined hip-hop with projections. The projections were a combination of interactive video content with timed content. It was absolutely incredible BUT there’s only one way to see the show taking in ALL that it has to offer, and that’s from the balcony. From the balcony, one can clearly see the projections on the floor that transform the stage into different kinds of terrain with depth and all from using lines and dots. There’s one sequence at the end where it looks as if the dancers are jumping from one mountain peak to the next and avoiding falling into the abyss of darkness. From the ground view, one doesn’t see the terrain in which their walking on and so there’s no context to the motivation for their movements. However, from above, the projected content adds an element of risk. In term of the illusion of being on a mountain, but also the risk that the magic of this illusion can be destroyed with just one faulty step from a dancer. It’s up to the dancers to make the audience believe that the terrain they are on is not from a source of light, but once that has magically appeared to pose an obstacle to them.

(Catch snippets of their amazing performance here)

Which got me thinking about projecting content on the floor. This is something I had in mind to do for my Capstone when I was thinking about projecting content on the floor or ceiling. I’ve been focused on the technical aspect of how to achieve that, that I forgot the most important thing: what will the audience perceive? Something may look 3D from a bird’s eye view, but if you’re standing on the content, then what meaning do the visuals have if you can see only a part and not the whole?

Review of ‘La Boheme’ at Opera di Firenze

I never took the time to post a review on Opera di Firenze’s  La Boheme, which opened in November 2016. Up until then, the operas I had seen in Florence and Bologna fell short, to say the least. It would have been a shame if Puccini’s piece had also been so, but fortunately it wasn’t. It was such an enjoyable experience, and by the end of it I found myself wanting to watch it all over again.

Lorenzo Mariani brought to the Opera di Firenze a humourous, tragic, wonderfully staged, and notable direction of Puccini’s La Boheme in November. However, while the direction and staging of the production deserves applause, the singers were in fact ordinary. They were great, but not amazing. The only two singers to really stand out from the cast were Mimi (Jessica Nuccio), with her soprano voice, and Colline (Gianluca Buratto), singing basso. Rodolfo (Fabio Sartori) and Marcello (Simone Piazzola) did justice to their roles in terms of acting, but were on par when it came to their singing. Perhaps the moment when Rodolfo soared was during his duet with Mimi in the first act called, “O suave fanciulla”.

The set design was cleverly crafted by William Orlandi, who also did a marvelous job on costume design. On specifically the set, this was perhaps the first time I had seen a rotating stage being used with a real sense of purpose. It not only changed the scenery, softly transitioning between the attic to the café and back, but it also served as a device to mark the passing of time. The set was simple enough that it did not deter away from the actors’ performances and their fantastic costumes, but had just enough to give the audience a sense of place. Any more, and it would have been seen as over the top given the size of the cast at the end of Act I with all the kids and the mime.

It might seem odd to some to construct a set where Mimi enters from above. Rather than climbing up stairs, she descends down. However, this can be seen as reflecting the characterization of Mimi as an angel. She sees the group of artists from above whilst holding her candlelight and descending down. In Mimi’s aria, “mi chiamano Mimi,” she says her real name is Lucia, which sounds like the Italian word for light, ‘luce’. With this imagery coupled with her kind heart and fragility, Mimi is seen as an angel, certainly the femme fragile in comparison to Musetta (Laura Tatulescu), the femme fatale.

From the main cast, Colline (Gianluca Buratto) is the only one with a basso voice. The aria, “vecchia zimarra” by Colline who sings with such adoration for his coat, was absolutely stunning and flawless. In my opinion, this aria was the highlight of the night. Musetta had quite a provocative entrance in the staging of her  “quando men vo, valzer,” but on the whole failed to leave a memorable impression. Her voice was adequate, but not extraordinary. Mimi on the other hand, had an angelic voice. It seemed as though Jessica Nuccio was aware of what she was capable of with her own voice, and tried to see how she could adapt to Puccini’s libretto.
I was eager to see how Mimi’s death would be staged. Mariani chose to have Mimi lay on a simple bedding center stage. It was not a big bedding as to dominate the scene, but the spotlight was on her and the other characters turned away from her as she softly fell asleep then died. This, I thought, was delicately staged as her death is imminent, but her presence does not occupy the entire stage. With the simple bedding she has, she is practically lying on the floor whereas a bed would have been too prominent and deterred away from the scenography of the scene. It is when Rodolfo leaves Mimi alone for a moment, that she passes away.  

Bologna’s “Rigoletto”: an orgy with its highs and lows

Audiences who went to see Rigoletto at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna on November 13th, 2016, were in for a rare treat. During Act III, the audience broke out in cheer, praising Vladimir Stoyanov and Irina Lungu, who played Rigoletto and Gilda respectfully, for their duet. Surprisingly, they responded with an encore and performed their duet again. Though an encore in an opera would generally ruin the momentum of the story, this was not the case here. This is because the true highlight of the opera was its singers who gracefully and seemingly effortlessly sang Verdi’s libretto. I was particularly interested to see how the Duke (Celso Abelo) would execute “la donna e’ mobile,” and indeed he made it seem easy. Irinia Lungu had a powerful and mature voice playing Gilda. One could almost hear her voice begging for a moment of coloratura, which unfortunately Verdi does not make much room for in his opera. The real let down of the show, however, was in the direction. The director, Alessio Pizzech, decided to set Verdi’s Rigoletto in what seemed to be a brothel with doll-like women or perhaps a cheap hotel room. Pizzech makes a clear point to show how the Duke objectifies women by presenting them as existing on stage solely for the pleasure of him and his courtiers. Their costumes seemed cheap compared to the courtiers, and coupled with their doll-like make-up they seem other-worldly, as if they emerged out of a Tim Burton illustration. Even Gilda (Irina Lungu) is depicted as a doll, which can be seen as a straightforward interpretation that shows her as a daughter unwilling, or perhaps refrained, from growing up. It was an interesting choice to have her enter the cabinet and pose as one of her own dolls while she is being kidnapped, however this makes it seem as though she willing accepts being taken away by the men. According to this direction, the event does not seem traumatic, as Gilda expresses it to be in Act II.

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Gilda represented as a doll, Rigoletto standing in the foreground

The background, which seemed stunning at first in the opening scene, quickly became a disappointment. Aside from presence of a plain tacky red curtain, the main problem with the set was that there was no real sense of place. At times, the backdrop was even partially raised to reveal the red curtain behind it, which seemed utterly unnecessary and contributed to a lack of context to the scenes. Of particular disappointment, was the scene where Rigoletto meets Sparafucile for the first time. Dramatically, the choice to have Rigoletto change from his heels to his suit was clever, and contributes to a clear understanding of his duel identity; of how his daughter has no idea of who he is and what he does. However, when he adorns his suit and then proceeds to meet Sparafucile, this sense of a private moment is disturbed. Is he changing in private, or is he doing so in public? There is no context as to where he meets Sparafucile with the background being completely black. Michael Mayer’s production of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, which premiered in 2013, sets Verdi’s opera in Las Vegas in the 1960s. Rigoletto (Željko Lučić) meets Sparafucile (Stefan Kocan) at a bar, which is actually believable and is the ideal context for a contemporary setting. However, in the production at Bologna, Pizzech relies on the audience’s familiarity with the libretto. It seems as though he relied on the libretto to move the opera forward rather than attempting to fully contextualize the opera with his vision.

While I love to see operas that are reimagined in more contemporary settings, I believe changing the setting is unnecessary if it does not contribute to the plot in any way. At the heart of Verdi’s Rigoletto is a story of a father’s love for his daughter. Unfortunately in Pizzech’s version, poor choreography of the characters that partake in the orgy and the inability to define the settings of the scenes inhibits a full appreciation for Rigoletto. Characters lose a sense of purpose in the performance. If Pizzech was trying to play to a heightened sense of sexuality contrasted with innocence, he should have pushed it further. Of the main characters, perhaps the weakest was Maddalena (Rossana Rinaldi). It is almost as if the set, being a simple yet stunningly designed ship, overshadows her character. She could have pushed her sexuality and sense of trying to seduce the Duke even further. What more, she seemed vocally weak in the quartet because of how powerful and clear Gilda’s voice is.

The principal singers, especially Vladimir Stoyanov whom the audience adored, should be praised as they vocally did justice to Verdi’s piece. It is also worth noting the conductor, Renato Palumbo who justly orchestrated the music. Of particular excitement was the way the orchestra handled the storm, which was brilliantly executed. Rigoletto is a story that can be adapted to many contexts, however in this case, Pizzech’s direction falls short.

 

Death as a theme in Dino Risi’s ‘Il Sorpasso’ (1962)

Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso (1962) is a commedia all’italiana film that presents two male characters that go on an unexpected journey together and bond with each other in spite of their differences. The fact that Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) and Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) come from two different worlds and have distinctly opposite personalities is highlighted in their individual introductions. The opening sequence is of Bruno driving in his car on the hunt for a telephone. He is therefore associated with openness, a wild life. The first scene of Roberto, however, is an incredibly isolating and empty scene and one in which he almost appears like a ghost. He is seen looking at Bruno through the window of a brick walled building. This shot can be seen as characterizing the introvert Roberto is; closed off, hiding in the confines of his own home.

Bruno dominates each scene physically and verbally as he is the extrovert. With Roberto being an introvert, his thoughts are expressed through a voice over and his conflicting sense of self is revealed through the contrast between what he thinks and what he says. For instance, when he decides he does not want to partake in Bruno’s journey, he agrees to it anyway. When Bruno tells Roberto to “enjoy yourself for once,” it’s as if they have known each other for years rather than a matter of minutes.

Risi integrates ideas of death through the script. In the beginning, Bruno first describes Rome to be “a graveyard,” because of how empty it is. When they meet Roberto’s family, Bruno leaves calling the place “a morgue”. In fact, one of the first things they encounter on their journey together is a roadside accident, and a body lies covered by a white sheet. Being that the film is a of the ‘commedia all’italiana’, death is ever imminent but Risi integrates ideas of mortality subtly through the script so that it remains an ever present theme. The close-up of the speedometer and the good luck charms in Bruno’s car are images that appear in the beginning of the film. When these are cut to in the last scene, it becomes clear with how fast the car is moving that something tragic is about to occur. The use of sound is also important, with the incessantly annoying horn of the car dominating every moment of transit in their journey. Like the body under the white sheet at the roadside accident, Risi gives the audiences images that imply death but he never reveals an actual dead body. The tragedy of the ending is enough to dramatize and overturn the comedy of the film.

‘Semiramide’ at Opera di Firenze: notable, but not memorable

Semiramide was my first opera experience in Italy, but the second opera I’ve ever seen, my first one being Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (which I can never seem to pronounce) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York earlier this year. This was actually pretty funny, mostly because of the orientalist way the Ottoman Empire were portrayed through the costumes (namely of the Pasha) and the two-dimensional set. The set was actually quite a disappointment compared to other grandeur productions at the Met Opera (I’ve been able to watch a few online. The sets are absolutely stunning! My personal favourite so far: their production of Simon Boccanegra). Opera is certainly different to the kinds of theater I’ve been exposed to. I’d love to be able to understand it musically (my knowledge of music is close to nothing but hey, I’m trying to learn), since opera is of course nothing without music. Semiramide was a lengthy experience, to say the least. They made some interesting choices (let’s not talk about Semiramide’s hair though) but it just wasn’t exciting. This is one of those operas where you have to come prepared already knowing the plot and the plot twists, else nothing is going to make sense. Quite frankly though, kudos to you if you’re able to follow the synopsis of an opera because golly – them plot twists are really something (it’s like a soap opera…. oh wait. Well that makes sense now….). Here’s my short review of Semiramide, which kicked off the season 2016-17 for Opera di Firenze.

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Semiramide and Arsace in Act II – I really love the shattered mirrors, but does it really add anything to the plot? Does a set need to extend from the plot or can it just be cool? (that green hair though)

Rossini’s Semiramide concludes its run at the Opera di Firenze on October 4th, 2016. The opera is directed by Marina Bianchi and Marie Lambert, though they adapt the direction of the late Luca Ronconi as a tribute to him.

When the curtain opened, my breath was taken away by the magnificence of the stage. It is daring in its simplicity, but the set design coupled with the costumes and presence of the attendants seen to be emerging from the earth, is striking. Oroe (Oleg Tsybulko) is as white as a marble statue, standing on a pillar with a flame hanging above him. The backdrop looks like a cracked stone wall, giving the sense that the opera seria is set in another world and another time.

Oroe, with his costume resembling that of a statue, represents the trajectory of the entire direction taken with the opera because of its static nature. The opera lacks movement; characters frequently cross the stage by being moved by the floor of the stage but their bodies remain still. This can be seen as interpreting a kind of pure opera, where singers would stand still and face the audience. However I found this interpretation of Semiramide to be quite stale. In fact, the singers are at times upstaged by the conductor in the pit who moves with such passion in directing the orchestra. There is no real purpose for characters to be moved by the stage itself. Such a technical decision works well between scene changes, but serves little purpose to emphasizing any meaning to the opera. This reminded me of a production I saw of A Streetcar Named Desire earlier in the year at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. For the entirely of the performance, the set, which was staged as theatre in the round, rotated. This I believe added no meaning to the play. The only thing it did was to add a dynamism to the performance that was lacking between the actors. It seemed as though the director did not trust in the ability for his actors to deliver, and so had to turn the actual set into a dynamic spectacle. Much like Semiramide, the moving cubes the singers would stand upon and be transported by, does nothing to elevate the plot. There is no real purpose for the stage floor to move; what it does is simply make obvious how still the opera is. Azema (Tonia Langella) makes her entrance and exit by simply lying and sitting down on a block that moves along the stage. It is as if her body is rendered useless, her voice being of sole value. Perhaps the only real effective use of this is when Semiramide (Jessica Pratt) and Arsace (Silvia Tro Santafe) embrace, and then are instantly torn apart by the floor. Though effective, such a scene shows how necessary movement is to a contemporary adaptation of Rossini’s piece.

The characters that intrigued me the most were the attendants, their bodies half sunken into the earth. I particularly recall when Jessica Pratt makes her entrance as Semiramide, and behind her are the attendants reaching out to her as though she was a Goddess of the seas and they the waves kissing the shoreline. I admired the physicality of their near-naked crawling bodies and outstretched arms. They added a dynamic quality to the opera that was lacking. The choice to leave the chorus physically absent, hearing their voices offstage, is an interesting one. Their absence however is made up for by the presence of the attendants, who speak no words. Whenever they make an appearance, one can assume that an aria with the chorus will commence within the scene.

I was impressed by Silvia Tro Santafe as the contralto. She instantly grasped my attention as Arsace when she began her cavatina and opening aria, “Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento”. She had such power to her voice, more so than the male opera singers, and had a presence that truly commanded the stage. Perhaps her most striking aria with fine coloratura was in Act II when she sung “In si barbara sciagura”.

Act I ends with an impressive stage with the introduction of Nino’s ghost. Nino’s ghost was physically represented on stage with a body in a tomb or coffin, suspended over the stage. Changyoung Lee however, who sung the part of the ghost, was in the pit unseen with the chorus. The second act commences with a memorable duet between Semiramide and Assur (Mirco Palazzi). At the opening of Act II, there is a confrontation between them where they sing “Se la vita ancor t’e cara”. This is also likely the scene with the most movement taking place in that the actors physically move their bodies. Assur climbs on the structure of broken mirrors Semiramide stands upon, and she in turns climbs down. Their physical movements depict the sense of a confrontation between them. Their voices work well together as a duet between a soprano and bass.

The revival of Semiramide by Opera di Firenze is notable, but perhaps not memorable. Although the directors treated the performance as a tribute to the direction of Ronconi, the opera is let down by some of the decisions in stage design that make such a long opera seem stale.

 

 

Desperation in Vittorio de Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (1948)

I’ve recently moved to Florence in Italy and one of the classes I’m taking is “History of Italian Cinema”. We’ve been focussing on Italian neorealism, which has been absolutely exciting for me. Analyzing the films and writing reviews on them has been quite a joyous experience because once I have an idea, all these connections start to appear and the film(s) takes on a whole new meaning filled with intertextuality, symbolism, and greater depth to the chosen shots I hadn’t considered before.

It’s not so great when your professor hands you back your essay, having underlined terminology and interesting points and written “ok” in the margin. So I thought I’d use my theater blog to spend some time looking at Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, or as it is known in English, Bicycle Thieves (1948) and put my two cents in (the title is often mistakenly translated as Bicycle Thief, minor but significant detail). My ideas may or may not be original, but dang it – I had things I wanted to say. This is by no means extensive because really an entire book should be written about the film, but it’s a snippet looking at particular shots. So here we go:

 

What struck me about Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) was the portrayal of desperation. There is a sheer feeling of desperation in the reality that Ricci faces, knowing that the bicycle affects his entire life. In a snowball effect, the loss of his bicycle means he is unable to work and therefore unable to provide for his family.

As much as the story follows Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) in his quest to find his bike, it is also about following his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and observing their relationship. When Ricci is about to head off for his first day at work, there is a two shot of him with Bruno as they put their omelets into their pocket. They dress almost similarly, and the gaze they exchange between them within this shot depicts a loving relationship between them. This two shot is important, as it is the first shot where the audience has a look at both of them as father and son, without a bike between them (see featured image of the post). Prior to this, dialogue between them has had them existing on different frames. Bruno actually works on cleaning the bicycle and talks to his father, but they are never in the same shot with the bike before stepping out of the house. Though most of the film proceeds to revolve around finding the bicycle rather than it being constantly seen visually, the bicycle is present in the psychology of Ricci, which then slowly creates a sense of distance between father and son. Finding the bicycle becomes more important than the immediate care of Bruno, who is seen falling down and even almost getting hit by a car.

De Sica employs the use of wide-angle shots in order for the audience to follow the action and contextualize the scenario with the location, Rome. This then creates a visual emphasis of trying to find a needle in a haystack, of trying to find one bicycle in the city of Rome. These wide shots, however, are also an opportunity to see Ricci’s son trailing behind him. The first moment Bruno is first seen following his father, is when Ricci carries his bike out of the house. Bruno trails behind him for an instant, before turning back to realize that his baby sister lies on the bed. He closes the window so his sister (I assume sister for some reason) will not feel cold, a moment that also alienates the audience and creates this sense that the viewer is observing the lives of Ricci and Bruno unfold. The second instant that the audience is alienated, which is almost immediately after the first, is when there is a two shot of Ricci and Bruno standing by the door of their house. Ricci bids his wife farewell and closes the door. Both moments of alienation, first by the son then by the father, serve to inform the audience that both characters are equally important to the story. They also are used by De Sica to emphasize the role of the audience as an observer.

The camera often stays with Bruno, catching the moments when he is on his own. The audience is also frequently shown his point of view. This has a strong emotional weight to the film, most notably when Ricci decided to steal a bicycle. This moment is marked by an asymmetrical shot divided by a street post, making it seem as though Ricci is literally crossing the line from victim to thief and there is no going back when he does. Bruno sees his father riding off with the bike and then getting caught. Bruno makes his way through the crowd of people to be near his father, tight shot which serves to elevate the anxiety of the scene. As they hold hands and walk through the crowd of people around them, De Sica restrains using a two shot for this scene and only does so from behind them. They walk with a crowd of people, a moment that recalls the beginning of the film where Ricci stood amongst a crowd waiting for news of work. Seeing individual shots of the father crying and the boy in despair heighten the desperation and sense of complete loss that a two shot would shatter. What is important is to see them holding hands together, their faces visibly showing their utter loss and uncertainty of what is to come.

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The moment before Ricci steals a bicycle. The composition reminds me of some of Lee Friedlander’s photographs.

 

 

When technology gets in the way of performance – a review of Close to the Bone

This past year I realized that one of the things I would really love to do is use technology to bridge the gap between film and theatre. This is also driven by my desire to turn an audience member into a spect-actor. So when I heard about Colomboscope’s immersive theatre show titled Close to the Bone, I thought: wait a second, immersive theatre in Sri Lanka when I happen to be here?

To give you some background, Colomboscope is a multidisciplinary arts festival which has been around since 2013. I was super excited though because a) half of the festival coincided with the time I’d spend back in Colombo and b) it was a digital arts festival, so much excitement indeed.

This particular post though isn’t about the festival, but specifically about their immersive theatre show. Close to the Bone was held at the presidential suite of Cinnamon Lakeside (such a good location). The performance involved using your own smartphone (and earphones they’d provide) to access a link whereby during the course of the performance you’d be able to hear the thoughts of the characters in the play. The show would loop and start again, and you’d have the chance to follow another character and listen to their thoughts. Sounds neat, but did it work? Not quite. And there are several reasons for this, but I shall control my ranting by presenting them in list format:

  1. So what’s the show about?
    Like many theatre goers, I didn’t know what the show was going to be about before going to see it. But after reading the description, I don’t think it would have changed my experience in any way. As far as I could tell, it was basically the story of how one man deals with the wrong crowd of people, likely in borrowing money, and now he fears for his life and puts his family in danger as a consequence. But, here’s the actual log-line of the show:

    “Paranoia grabs hold of a bourgeois Colombo couple when a series of strange encounters interrupt their lives. From the outside, Kusal and Tania are the golden young urban couple living in their brand new apartment in the newly gentrified Slave Island, but when Tania begins to notice an older woman stalking her and Kusal starts receiving a series of mysterious phone calls, they each begin to suspect their own indiscretions have come back to haunt them. Visited upon by Kusal’s sister, Yasodha, and her girlfriend, Sanchia, the interruptions begin to bleed into the events of the night and the relationships of the couples present begins to fray, as the line between victim and predator becomes increasingly blurred.”

    And after reading this, it seems like it was written with a completely different script in mind. Firstly, what ‘older woman’? There was no older woman stalking Tania, Kusal’s wife, nor was one ever mentioned (why is this important it to the story even it was mentioned?). Secondly, ‘a series’ should really be three or more calls, and I believe there was only one call. Also in the show, there was a man who knocked at the door of the apartment and said his name was Kusal (insert last name that apparently is the same name as the male character). My reaction to this is simple: what?? To the script, it makes absolutely no sense that someone would show up at the door and claim the identity of one of the characters. This moment only aided in making Kusal’s wife even more worried and anxious.

  2. The script was flat 
    Everyone’s pretty much worried and fed up with Kusal for about 90% of the show. The remaining 10% goes towards the beginning when everyone is chilling on the couch, and to moments of intimacy like when Yasodha convinces Tania to have a little fun, just jump on the bed and play a game. But for the most part, there is no real sense of an arc. In this hour long show (which loops, so it’s two hours long), there’s just a consistent sense of tension and spite towards Kusal. This is broken up though with moments when the characters are on their own, which presents moments of quietness which is broken by the fact that you can hear their thoughts.
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  3. You can hear their thoughts
    This goes hand in hand with my earlier point. Though I was excited about going to an immersive show, as soon as I heard that it would involve hearing the character’s thoughts, I sighed in exasperation. My biggest fear was that using technology in this way, would eliminate all subtext within the script. And if this is the aim of the writer/director, then that’s fair. However, listening to the audio did not enhance my experience in any way. Having said that, I didn’t engage with the audio for most of the show because it didn’t work with my device, but my mom was able to listen to most of the show.
    When Tania steps out into the balcony (amazing view by the way), I thought rather exasperatingly: oh God, she’s contemplating suicide. My mom, who was able to listen to Tania’s thoughts at this moment, confirmed that she was.
    When Kusal is alone in his bedroom breathing heavily and clearly worried and fearful, I was hoping that the audio would have some insight into what he’s thinking about. I borrowed my mother’s device momentarily, and heard that really all he was saying to himself was “breathe…. breathe….” Great. That was informative.
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  4. Don’t produce a show that relies on internet in Sri Lanka
    This is a big one. We have serious internet issues, no matter how close you are to the WiFi router. Whereas likely anywhere else the idea of creating a private link accessible only by connecting to a specific WiFi signal and then being able to choose a character and press ‘play’ would work, it doesn’t quite work in Sri Lanka. The buffer time was excruciating, and even when I’d finally hear something, it would just keep buffering. This also meant that I couldn’t alternate between different characters because it would take majorly long for their audio to load up. I’d have loved to listen to the thoughts of Sanchia whom I thought was a relatively tranquil character, but sadly the audio would not load.

    This reminded me though, of a silent disco I had gone to in Queens, NY. Everyone would have a set of wireless headphones which were connected via Bluetooth to three DJ booths. The headphones would also light up in different colours according to which DJ you were listening to. So if you were listening to the DJ in Blue and your friend, whose headphones are red ,starts grooving, with a flick of a switch you’d be able to change your DJ from blue to red. You can imagine this is insanely fun, especially when everyone listening to channel blue starts forming a conga line.
    In the same way, a long term and definitely more expensive (because you’d’ have to import these devices) version of the show could be that they use wireless headsets that are connected via bluetooth to the system playing the recordings. Participants would be able to easily alternate between different characters and because we’re not relying on anything to load up but rather a kind of connection, there should be a minimal lag time. Just an idea.

  5. The sound design was distracting and below par
    When the internet keeps buffering, it doesn’t really work to have an audio recording with silences between thoughts. The audio would literally just stop, rather than fade out. As sound designers for film will tell you, even in a scene of absolute stillness and quiet, you need sound. Every room and space has its own ‘air’.
    Additionally the sound design incorporated this strange noise which sounded similar to Logic’s ‘marble in a glass’ sound. I liked the idea of this eerie, rolling-in-a-wine-glass sense to the sound, but it prevented me from hearing the actual dialogue spoken between the characters. And whenever a thought could be heard, it was spoken excruciatingly slowly. The sound design distracting, and didn’t contribute to my understanding of the show. It seemed as though it was completely separate to the performance.

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I’ve discussed the cons in depth,  but there was some pros as well. Immersive theatre is uncommon in Sri Lanka, and they really made an effort to instruct the audience of how a show like that works. They made it a point that the audience could move around anywhere and ideally, they should pick a character to follow. Though given how flat the script was, I would have cut the show down to 20 minutes so that within just over an hour, the play loops four times so that everyone in the audience has the chance to follow every character. I make this comment not to judge the show for what it is, but to make a suggestion that could be applied given that there is no progressional arc to the show for a story like this. Unlike The Grand Paradise in Bushwick, they made it a point that the show was about “interaction not interruption”. This was an interesting use of Brecht’s alienation effect. In the Grand Paradise, one would dance with the characters or be lured into secret rooms by them. Here, Close to the Bone relied on the audience being an observant spectator, silently intrusive with the ability to hear their thoughts. What I find interesting about the show is the choice to present an elite family and also a homosexual couple (homosexuality is still illegal in Sri Lanka, the choice thereby showing how the elite can do whatever they want). The elite are there own peculiar class of people in Sri Lanka, and I felt the use of Brecht’s alienation effect to have the audience ignored by the characters contributed to emphasizing how distant the elite are from ‘the others’.

It was wonderful to see the audience really invested in the show, moving with the characters to separate rooms. But the use of technology, if it doesn’t enhance the show, might have been a bit too much for some of the audience members to handle.