I realized the other day that the two theatre companies that I am the most involved with in Los Angeles are both doing plays about art. This fascinates me, especially the process of choosing a play about art for their season. I wondered what these companies wanted to say about art and what was driving them to say it.
As White As O
As White As O by Stacey Simms at the Road Theatre Company poses the question, what if your life was an inadvertent work of art, complicated by an onrushing riot of the senses? As White As O is the story of a lost young fellow named Jack who has synesthesia, a condition involving an involuntary cross-wiring of the senses. This means that Jack tastes his feelings, can hear sounds and smell what he touches and even sees numbers and letters in vivid color.
The play is set in New York, and opens on a scene at an art gallery where an art installation, entitled “30 Years of Outsider Art,” is scheduled to open the following day. As the story gradually unfolds, we learn that Jack’s father Sam, a loner, plagued by his son’s oddity and the loss of his wife shortly after giving birth. Somehow the pair began embellishing their ramshackle bungalow with buttons and pennies and all sorts of found objects in collective patterns. Eventually Clara, an ambitious young woman from the city, stumbles upon the odd home and, after anointing it an important work of “outsider art,” devises a scheme to profit from it and further her career. Clara manages to purchase and then move Jack and his father’s house to an art museum in New York. There Jack is forced to revisit his painful past. Arriving in New York for the art opening, Jack becomes overwhelmed by memories of his father’s life and death, learns more about his absent mother and reunites with a girl from back home that he never stopped loving.
The set is truly a piece of art. On the transplanted house every available surface area is covered with clusters of items such as bike bells, kewpie dolls’ plastic heads, bottle caps, license plates, multi-colored wooden blocks, golf balls and crushed soda cans – all forming a pleasing mosaic effect. In one corner of the stage is a small, raised set of institutional white surfaces. Anyone interested in learning more about outsider art will enjoy this story.
Sam Anderson, the Co-Artistic Director of the Road Theatre Company and the director of As White As O says that “when I first read the play I was struck by the uniqueness of the voice of Stacy Sims, a voice I had not heard in a theatre. From the poetry of her language to the depth of her themes and unique structure, the play moved me so much and I could "see" it in my head on a stage and wanted to create what I saw -- the challenge of visualizing the inside of a synesthete's mind, the dovetailing themes of coming to terms with one's family of origin while dealing with the whole panorama of obsession with art, from the people who make it, sell it, look at it, want it, are destroyed by it or healed by it. With the help of the Road's crack design team of Desma Murphy (sets), Dave Marling (sound), Jeremy Pivnick (lighting), Adam Flemming (video design), Mary Jane Miller, costumes and the mystery prop designers, I feel we achieved that dream and brought this beautiful, moving and unique story to life.”
Another play about art in town is Chesapeake by Lee Blessing, produced by the Syzygy Theatre Group. It is an existential quest by a New York performance artist, to conform a conservative Southern politician with – ironically – a flair for fiery dramatics, and the dog that intrinsically unites their fates. The dog, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Lucky, is the beloved pet and mascot of this right-wing Senator who takes it upon himself to lambaste a solo artist’s provocative experimental performance in order to propel himself to political victory. When the performance artist finds his arts grant called into question by the ambitious Senator, he concocts a scheme for revenge. A highlight of this poetic and profound script is a speech that compares artists with pioneering explorers who delve into the unknown in order to “bring it back to us.” The play speaks to the possibility of true mutual understanding and the power of art to help us find it.
Martin Bedoian, the Artistic Director of The Syzygy Theatre Group, and the director Chesapeake says that “the play speaks passionately and profoundly to the power of art to bring redemption and disparate ideologies together to work for the common good. Syzygy was formed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and at the time I was asked in an interview, ‘Why start a not-for-profit arts organization in such difficult times?’ My answer then holds true in the times we are living through today; a loss of art reflects a loss of our humanity and, now, in troubled times, precisely because they're troubled, we need art more than ever.”
The Artistic Mind
Both of these plays explore questions that we as artists ask ourselves everyday-does art matter? Does what we do effect or move people? Do we contribute to making the world a better place? The mind of an artist is a complicated yet delicate one-one that you can delve into when checking out these two magnificent productions.
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM Oct 2009