As Daniel Gerould, the distinguished theatre scholar has noted, melodrama was and still is a major art form in America: “Out of the seeds of melodrama grew the mainstream of serious American drama, reaching its apex in O’Neill and continuing to the present, in affectionately ironic forms, in Richard Foreman and Sam Shepard.”
Melodrama provided a structural system and theatrical tools that are the backbone of such 20th century forms as Film Noir, weekly movie serials, Radio Theatre and especially Television Drama. The devices are familiar: hidden secrets, a sound environment that foregrounds tension and suspense, dark plottings, inflated and excessive expression, and significant props such as letters, deeds, jewelry, tell-tale birthmarks. The scripts for melodrama and its descendants were and are often written by teams of writers, working in a serial format and restricted to a codified structure.
The Talking Band’s latest project is strongly influenced by melodrama’s mode of conception and expression. The Obie Award-winning theatre collective assembled four playwrights to write a serial play based on themes and structures that they would develop over a year’s time.
Lisa D’Amour, Ellen Maddow, Lizzie Olesker and Paul Zimet talked with The Brooklyn Rail about the process and development of The Necklace, which will open this month at Ohio Space.
Hello, is this the Police? Yes my name is Nazim – I mean John Butler – yes, I am calling to report – wait. A missing person – yes just a few minutes ago. She’d be in her robe – Chinese silk – faded, once quite . . . and a suspicious looking person – people. I was hit. On the head. Jumped. From behind. No, inside the house. The house of the mind. No- on the moor. Yes. House of the house . . . You can’t miss it. Large. Civil War era – moss covered shutters. A green roof –It’s peeling a bit. Turrets and towers. A brick driveway. A large fence and a hedge – that’s right. On what used to be the moor. But no more. Yes its disappearing. So fast . . . And detective? There was some blood – a drop of blood – its on my hand, now. I’m not sure whose blood – or where it came from.
Roger Babb (Rail): What was the starting point?
Olesker: The basic idea was that we would meet together over about a year. We knew we wanted to write a serial, that there would be episodes and that we wanted to follow a structure. The structure turned out to be: a ”commercial” after every 16 pages, two commercials per episode and a cliff-hanger before every commercial and at the end of the episode. Each evening is composed of two episodes. We knew we wanted it to be about a house. The house would be a crossroads for different cultures and identities and the house would function structurally. My episode begins in the attic, Lisa is in the parlor, Paul is in the kitchen and Ellen begins in the basement.
Rail: What are the benefits of this process?
Olesker: We have all become interested in different characters. You can focus on one character more than another. Ellen has had this interest in out sourcing so she has these high school twins in the basement pretending to be Indians with Texas accents and making a lot of money. What helped me was to always return to the idea of the house so I’m in the attic with a Serbian refugee and a lot of episode five takes place in the air ducts.
Rail: What are the problems?
Olesker: The danger is getting bogged down in the plotting and exposition. You have to do a lot of rewriting. But I feel like I’ve done enough pulling away that I don’t feel trapped in the plot. We wanted it to be that the audience could go to one show and be satisfied with an evening in itself.
(Donald comes to John. Donald craddles the knife as John hugs him. The hug is practical, distant, and sincere. It is the only hug John knows.)
The world is full of our kind
Untethered and loveless we wander
Looking into the eyes of anyone willing to look back.
There are so few who understand
Your Aunt is one of the few.
I’m telling you this.
I’m telling you this right now.
So when she gives you rules like:
Don’t bother your sisters while they study.
NEVER fondle the necklace.
No TV but Larry King.
NEVER go into the bone room
This is her way of saying: you are home now.
You have left the past behind.
And you are safe.
This is a grand opportunity for you, son.
Rail: How was the piece developed?
D’Amour: We were interested in Mystery, Borges, labyrinthine tales, outsourcing, mathematical formulas and many other things and we began to riff on these ideas. In Phase one, we did a series of workshops at Talking Band; and Phase two, about a year later, we took the material to New Dramatists and did a workshop with actors. Then I wrote the first scene of the first episode and we took off from there.
Rail: How has it worked out for you?
D’Amour: There are benefits to the constraints in this process. Restrictions can be a great blessing after you’ve struggled through them. And working with the Talking Band has been good. Paul and Ellen are mentors both as writers and of how to be an artist in New York. The idea of feeling free to write out of your comfort zone—if anyone is going to mentor that, I feel blessed that it’s Paul and Ellen. I think my frustration is minimal, like that of a twelve year old being forced to eat broccoli.
Rail: How has rehearsal been changing the process?
D’Amour: Inherently, the process and the product are messy and chaotic, but I think the staging and the set will really help. The consciousness is set up that it will be full and dense: Mystery with a sense of camp. The set is this intricate arrangement of screens and doors with projections of hallways and stairways painted on them. It’s very minimal, the audience won’t be seeing a replica of a house and already their minds will be engaged. The hope is that the audience will say, “part of my imagination will be part of this.”
(Smallek, the Serb, is smoking cigarettes and typing on an ancient laptop. His teeth are brown. His chin is small. He is stoop shouldered and stringy haired. His eyes are deep and bright and even.)
Smallek the Serb is smoking cigarettes. He dreams of eating fried pike and drinking hundred-year-old slivovitz made from a recipe passed down by his paternal great grandfather and hidden in a cellar for fifty years in a damp cellar. It was unearthed on the day the Americans bombed Belgrade. He sat with Duvlana in a small restaurant. The fish bones piled up and the Danube flowed by as a man with no teeth played the violin and a man with one leg sang an ancient song. (Smallek closes his eyes. We hear singing and water gurgling in the pipes.)
Good question. Smart boy. You see I have no bags, no wares to show. For this, there is a reason. I sell knowledge . . . or to give a phrase a coin . . . Virtual Knowledge. Its for you out in hyperspace: dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, almanacs, directories manuals, cookbooks, currency converters catalogues. BUT, and this is a big BUT, how do you find what you want to know. Don’t tell me Google or Yahoo. Excuse my English, but they shits. They bury you in stinking garbage. You drown in data-vomit. No, you need to train your mind to be on-line with hyperspace. It is a skill like learning a language or mathematics. And how, I know you are about to ask, how might you suck in this skill? This is what I sell . . . a program, a technique. Perhaps your parents would be interested?
Rail: Who wrote the character of John/Nazim?
Zimet: Lisa had written him in the first scene of the first episode, which we all kind of generated a lot of material off of, and then I wrote a lot of him in the second episode.
Maddow: Lisa had written in the first scene that John “resembles the acclaimed writer/actor/director Paul Zimet”. But we still weren’t sure that he should play it.
Rail: How do the episodes connect?
Zimet: Ellen created this character, Donna Monitor, a real estate agent in the third episode and then Lisa wrote her into the first episode. We were trying not only to pick up on the characters but on recurring phrases or physical gesture in different contexts.
Maddow: I took verbatim two pages of Lisa’s text and gave them to different characters in my episode. There were a lot of rules and procedures, some of which we regret.
Rail: Are the “commercials” recognizable as commercials?
Zimet: They are recognizable as interludes because there is an explosion of song and dance, or a breakout into a completely different style. Country Western songs, A Bollywood number, cooking shows.
Maddow: John the Butler has a cooking show. He tends to like to eat things that are very dry or painful to eat. His whole life is like that. He sleeps on a very hard bed. There is a Busby Berkely number in episode seven where everyone is in pajamas and falls in love with everyone else.
Rail: There’s a strong connection to melodrama.
Zimet: Yes, well the acting style is not like TV. I think its closer to melodrama but it‘s not as large, except in certain moments. There are certainly a lot of similar plot elements that TV shares with melodrama and we wanted to transfer that structure back to live theatre.
Maddow: I think that’s part of what the exploration is actually. What we are doing right now in rehearsal. What is that style of acting that we are sort of inventing to fit the material.
Zimet: The Talking Band productions are usually meticulously scored and choreographed. This production, by the very nature of the process, will be much rougher, more improvisational. Fortunately, we are working with really skilled actors who have embraced the feeling of chance and of playing it on the wing.
Rail: How do the four playwrights negotiate the writing?
Zimet: Lisa is very concerned about having all the plot threads be consistent and pointed to early and developed. Which is not the way she usually writes. Other people see that as not so important, that each episode doesn’t have to be so tied up. So you tussle about that but both points of view eventually get represented. When you are an individual writer you don’t have to argue with anybody but yourself.
Maddow: I’ve worked in collaborative theatre all my life but to work collaboratively with other playwrights is something unusual. It’s a kind of tug and pull of four different peoples minds and ways of thinking. And the ways you are pushed in a certain direction by someone else’s aesthetic is very interesting.
The Necklace runs May 6-May 28 at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster St. (between Spring and Broome in SoHo). Written by Lisa D’Amour, Ellen Maddow, Lizzie Olesker, and Paul Zimet. Directed by Anne Kaufman and Melissa Kievman. For tickets, detailed show times and episode schedules, visit www.talkingband.org or www.smarttix.com or call 212-868-4444.
ROGER BABB was for many years a playwright / director with Otrabanda Company. He worked as an actor for Joseph Chaikin, Jim Neu, Julie Taymor, Merideth Monk and many others. He taught at Princeton, NYU, Swarthmore and most recently at Mt Holyoke College.