Friday, March 29, 2013

The Havel Collection: Ela, Hela, and the Hitch

Ela, Hela, and the Hitch is included in the Havel Collection as part of the book the contains The Pig

Ela, Hela, and the Hitch was, in a way, Václav Havel’s first play. It was written for the Artistic Director of the Theatre on the Balustrade, Ivan Vyskočil, as part of a longer evening, entitled Hitchhiking. Along with Ela, Hela, and the Hitch, Havel also wrote a sketch called Motormorphosis. Reportedly, Vyskočil altered Havel’s sketches for the performance, though this text is Havel’s original.

After Havel’s success with his first full length, The Garden Party, these earlier efforts were quickly forgotten. They were relatively recently rediscovered, through the detective work of a Czech theater scholar, Lenka Jungmannová. Motormorphosis was performed at the Havel Festival in 2006, a world premiere of the text as written. Ela, Hela, and the Hitch premiered in English translation following a revival of Motormorphosis at New York’s Bohemian National Hall in 2011.

What is particularly interesting about Ela, Hela, and the Hitch is the way it lays bare Ionesco’s influence on Havel. The rhythms of the play echo everything from The Bald Soprano to Salutations. Like Ionesco, Havel uses comic repetition that culminates in an explosion of language, during which words become meaningless, replaced only by the more visceral meaning one can attach to pure sound.

Another interesting side note is the societal conflict reflected in the main dilemma. Like many older members of the Czechoslovak upper middle class in 1961 (the year the play was written), Ela and Hela spoke German at school, and their behavior is definitely reflective of the German influence on their upbringing. They are separated from society not only because of their age, but because the younger generation had cut its ties with Germany.

So what Havel is doing is using Ionesco’s formal techniques, which Ionesco used primarily to critique humanity’s doomed attempts at communication, and applying those techniques to a societal critique. Which is, in fact, a prelude to what Havel would do throughout the rest of his playwriting career.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: 24/7 Fest

Dave Hanson looking out at New York
Dave Hanson, a friend and playwright who actually was in attendance in at the first ever UTC61 show, Artist Descending a Staircase (and knows me long enough to call me "Ed"), tells about his experience in our 24/7 Fest, seven straight days of 24 hour plays on different themes.  Dave and I met as interns at New Dramatists.  Now Dave does theater in Kansas City, where I participated in a similar project last year.

Ok, I'll be honest when Ed called me up to participate as a playwright in something called 24/7 I didn't know exactly what to think. You see, I'm not an actor or director or a designer or any of those kinds of theater jobs that would have led me to cross paths with the idea of writing a short play in a night and then fully staging it the next day. I would find out later that lots of people do these things. But at that moment, waiting to get on a plane to go from Kansas City to New York to be in two rounds of the 24/7 festival what I was thinking was who the hell does this? Of course, Ed Einhorn does this. And thank god he does.

I attended the performances the night before my first round came out. I was part of the neuro night. Whatever our play was, it was to be about something in the brain. It also had to include the following: someone had to die, we had to think we were in one place but really be in another, somebody had to sit in a chair, and the last requirement (which was picked from a jar because again it's Ed) was that there had to be a talking animal.

So I go to my room at the YMCA - yes folks, I went to New York and stayed at the West Side YMCA because it was very affordable. I stayed up to like 2 AM that night writing my play - Theater of the Mind. I know the title kind of fit with the whole Neuro theme. I show up at 8 AM at the theater the next morning and that's when all kinds of wonderful and terrible began.

You see it's not just good enough to write a play in less than 12 hours. These puppies were going to be fully staged. You know memorized, blocked, lighting cues, and memorized. I met my director-- Alexander was his name--and my cast. It was a great cast and very, very honest. I'll admit that I wrote a drama and very well difficult scene for the actress who was assigned to my cast. I think it was Nancy Nagrant. She read my play, twice and then ... and I remember this clearly ... looked at the director and then me and said, "You bastard, I'm only doing this part twice. You get once in rehearsal and once in the performance."

Like I said, I'm not an actor but I did know this wasn't the moment to quibble over such things. I remember thinking, I've either written a really great scene or well... it really sucked. We were really too busy to think much about it. Well, to be fair, the director and the cast was too busy. I was floored by what these people could get done. I mean they were really doing it. Well, up to and including complete memorization of the lines. Honestly, the whole memorization thing... well, the cast never actually got through an entire run through of the play before curtain with all the lines memorized. But I liked what I saw and I took my customary seat to watch a play of mine... far back corner on the right with at least two seats between me and anybody else.

The energy in the theater was crazy as the curtain came up. My play wasn't first and it wasn't last, but I still remember when it happened. It truly was the magic of the theater. The performances sparkled. The big scene... memorable. One of those moments when the whole theater goes really, really quiet. Then... then it was over.

The cast and I went to drinks that night and it was clear we had all bonded a bit over the day. Not like I'd donate my kidney to you... although I would consider it - especially for Nancy because you owe something to someone who calls you a bastard. What I think we all realized around that table was there was a feeling that we didn't really want to let go.

Doing theater is one of the hardest things in the world to pull off. You can't fix it in editing. You don't get to redo a performance in front of an audience. Usually, you don't get to do it period. And we did it all in less than 24 hours. Now, it is interesting to note that for most plays the prevailing theory is that they must be developed for months and months before they are ready for the light of day. I participated in two rounds of the festival and can report that both plays received full productions later on in my writing career. Maybe there is something to the madness. A madness that really could only be pulled off by Ed Einhorn. So to Ed, I have only one thing to say...

You bastard. I know it's odd but it really worked out for me last time so it's my new term of endearment.

Thanks Ed for 20 years and thanks for 24/7.