Saturday, March 26, 2016

16 Hours

I wrote a play and submitted it to American Lab Theatre and they were excited and immediately wanted to produce it.

And then a funny thing happened while I was at work….

Let me start from the beginning; what a proper place to start. In 1991, I was out adventuring with a handful of my fellow seminary students in South America. We stumbled across a Jewish settlement in the mountains near Cordoba, Argentina. The little town looked like a series of gingerbread houses and coo coo clocks. I learned that the community was full of Jewish refugees who fled Europe during the War and resettled in Argentina, which is why the settlement so strongly resembled Germany.

One particular thing deeply impacted me while I was touring the town square. There was a large tree with a rope hanging from its limbs. I asked them when they were going to repair the tire swing so the kids could have a place to play. The man shook his finger and said, “Not a toy. This was where they hung the Nazi who was hiding amongst us.” Several years before we got there, the villagers discovered that a former Nazi was hiding in their town, and they collected him and summarily hung him from that very tree. They left the rope as a reminder. And boy, do I remember.

Many years later, I wrote a play about a Holocaust survivor who lost his wife and children to the Nazis; a man who was determined to find the men responsible for their deaths and kill them. He tracks them down at a bank and takes the entire group hostage, fully intending on publically executing these murderers as an act of justice. Only, nothing goes according to plan. Rose and Mr. Cato, along with the bank president, Miss Kincaid, don’t cooperate with him.

The catalyst for change is Rose. Her presence and her story so profoundly impact the gunman, that he is conflicted to the point of hesitation.

And now I must introduce Jesus Quintero, the Director.

Jesus is a man of vision, and his mind works like a van Gogh painting. When I presented him the script, he saw an opportunity to do something significant. He stuffed the entire story into a cocoon and allowed the chrysalis process to transform that sleepy caterpillar into a work of art. What emerged was an incredible interpretation of my story, but with amazing theatrical elements that are almost impossible to describe.

For many months, I attended every rehearsal and offered rewrites and updates to the script, and then it happened. My work got in the way, and I was no longer able to attend the sessions. I could sense that something was going on with the play. Jesus was slyly leaving me hints that he was now interpreting the story. Now, I must say, he asked me for permission to take liberties with the script. I’m not fragile, and I immediately granted him discretion to take the story in any direction he chose.  And in the few weeks where I missed rehearsals, he took my script and “van Goghed” it. While I was disappointed that I was not able to participate, I think my absence was necessary for his creativity to be unfettered.

Keely Gray is Death
The first thing I noticed, he added a new character to the script: Death.

I know, right? DEATH! But it was brilliant! And his new character was smug and manipulative. And enchanting. And tempting. And I loved it.

Another thing to note is that Jesus chose to be quite unconventional in another regard: he wanted to direct the play from the stage while it was happening. It sounds like chaos, and in a way it is, but it’s controlled chaos. And it works.

So, Jesus chose to make the play a very intimate experience, and deliberately selected a venue where they could interact with the audience and actually make them unwitting participants (I’ll explain that in a few minutes…). Rather than working from an elevated stage, he found Monarch Mountain Coffee and transformed that small cafĂ© into an interactive theatre. The audience sits at their tables, and the play is performed all around them, from one end of the room to the other, and it goes back and forth for the entire performance. There is no perfect place to sit. At some point, your chair will be right in the middle of the action, and it happens without warning.

So, having Death as a character creates an unusual macabre atmosphere. But it’s not depressing. Rather, it’s quite intriguing. And I really wish I’d thought of it myself. How can you tell a story about the Holocaust without death? And once the audience figures out that the characters are dancing with Death, then the play begins to make sense. And the flashback sequences bring order from chaos. And the soliloquies from the characters are so powerful that you will be thinking about them long after the play ends. Perhaps for the rest of your life.

Okay, remember the audience participation? Well… Jesus and I worked out an idea where the play would have two possible endings: mercy or justice. Should the gunman execute the murderous Nazi, or should he grant mercy and allow him to live? Well, you, Mr. Audience Member, get to decide just that. You get to cast a vote and see whatever ending receives the popular vote. I know, right? And as soon as you see the ending you voted for, you want to see the alternate, but that won’t happen. You’ll be left wondering.

So, after I saw the performance and experienced the transformation of my story for the first time, many, many people approached me and asked if this was my original vision. Of course, I have to say, “no”. It’s not at all what I envisioned when I wrote it. But, it’s exactly the same story. And it’s told through dance, song, dialog, and acting. And it’s uncomfortable. There are some very painful moments that I won’t discuss. You have to experience it. Having said that, this story is a celebration of life, and is about the sanctity of life. And I’m so proud to be part of it. I wish I could take full credit, but I wouldn’t dare. Jesus and I worked together to make something that neither of us could do on our own. And from chaos comes art.

Find out more about American Lab Theatre at:
Keely Gray, Cory Repass, Jeremiah Guidos, Haley Nicholson, and Mason Jones are our cast of characters.
Alex Cope and Savannah Stierle work behind the scenes