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In The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, the New York Neo-Futurists take stage directions to their illogical conclusion.
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Stage directions, those snarky little lines of italics that punctuate the pages of scripts, are one of the great mysteries of play-writing and performance. “Do it this way!,” they say, but do they speak in whispers or shouts? Suggestions or commands? Are they sly or belligerent or guiding or cryptic? Samuel Beckett expected his stage directions to be followed fastidiously; the penalty for taking creative liberties with a Beckett instruction was the quick death of the show (and the Beckett Estate is still making executions, lest you were considering getting interpretive with Krapp’s Last Tape).
Sarah Ruhl, meanwhile, writes her stage directions in the form of intractable riddles. Actors and directors must grapple with instructions like, “Mrs. Daldry’s first orgasm could be very quiet, organic, awkward, primal. Or very clinical. Or embarrassingly natural. But whatever it is, it should not be a cliché, a camp version of how we expect all women sound when they orgasm.” Parsing that is like trying puzzle together a couch from IKEA: are those legs or arms or cushions or … ?
What is particularly frustrating about stage directions—or particularly reassuring, depending on your style—is that they don’t quite know when to let it go. They are embedded in an art form that is, by its very nature, deviant and uncontainable. And yet, they continue to exert themselves, blustering about props, gestures, noises, emotional responses—as if they know what’s going on up there.
It is the mission of The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume One: Early Plays/Lost Plays to put these overbearing italics in their place. Or, perhaps less venomously, to at once honor and poke fun at O’Neill, the very serious patriarch of modern stage directions. The New York Neo-Futurists, an ensemble whose traditional focus has been honest, emotional connection with their audience, strip six of O’Neill’s plays down to their naked and invulnerable directions. I would argue that the show—artfully adapted and directed by Christopher Loar—engages as honestly and openly with the playwright as it does with the audience. Jacquelyn Landgraf, clad in a snappy black suit and armed with a tall glass of water, reads the stage directions while the actors scramble to arrange their facial features and contort their limbs accordingly. Act I, Scene 1 of Now I Ask You (1916), for example, introduces young Lucy to the stage:
LUCY appears on the left. She is slender, dark, beautiful, with large eyes which she attempts to keep always mysterious and brooding, smiling lips which she resolutely uses to express melancholy determination, a healthy complexion subdued by powder to a proper prison pallor and a vigorous, lithe body which frets restlessly beneath the restriction of studied, artificial movements. In short, Lucy is an intelligent, healthy American girl suffering from an overdose of undigested reading, and has mistaken herself for the heroine of a Russian novel.
Piece by piece, actor Lauren Sharpe assembles herself as Lucy until finally, at the last direction, she is forced to break character. She stares at Landgraf with a mix of incredulity, despair, and betrayal. Landgraf, unperturbed, stares icily back until Lucy manages to find the appropriate physical and emotional response to “has mistaken herself for the heroine of a Russian novel.”
It is these moments—loaded with a mixture of exaggeration, exchange, and personified narrative—that make The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill so delightful to watch. The show is about these moments of playful push and pull, which bring the undergirding of the theatrical process to the forefront of the performance. I met with Chrisopher Loar and actor Cara Francis to speak to them about their work on the show and their tentative plans for the future.
Hadley Roach I wanted to start out by asking you to talk about the genesis of the piece, since it’s such a “concept play,” in some ways. What was the beginning for you, the formative moment?
Christopher Loar In 2009 I auditioned and was cast in the New York Neo-Futurists. It’s a company whose aesthetic maintains that we don’t play characters on stage, and we maintain an aesthetic of being, quote, “Who we are,” and doing what we’re doing at all times. We have this sort of prescribed, non-illusory thing going on, which I was just learning how to do. And I was looking for a way to adapt plays, to somehow do plays with characters in them, that still stayed true to that central aesthetic. I took one of my favorite plays of all time, which is Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and I just read through it and figured out that basically, you could still do the plays just by doing the actions. And fortunately, O’Neill has enough actions—well, he made absolutely sure—that the play could come across, somehow, without even doing lines. So I did this two-minute piece for our show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, where we do 30 plays in 60 minutes. We did one pivotal scene of Long Day’s Journey, and Cara was in it.
Cara Francis I was Mary.
CL Right. So, you, ah, what did you do?
CF Well, my, my hottest moves were when I entered the room, and I looked everywhere except their faces. So I would come in, and I would walk all around the table, and just do this (squints blindly off into the distance). And then the play ended with me forcing a laugh—
CL And everyone taking a drink—
CF —And then my hands would flutter up to pat my hair. And then, yeah, it’d be over.
CL So that’s kind of where it all came from. And this show, The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, is a main-stage piece, or what we call a prime-time show, which is a full-on, full-length show. Because the short play was so successful, and people really responded to it, I just started wondering if the plays could hold up out there. So I just started transcribing from then until, you know, now. We’ve been working intensively on it now for about a year as an ensemble.
HR Did you feel like, as it continued to evolve and emerge, it maintained those Neo-Futurist roots? The integrity of that mission? Or did it branch off, become something else?
CL You know, I think it did stay true to the mission through the stage action. It maintained the Neo-Futurist vision, but took things in a slightly different direction. A lot of our shows are known for personal story or personal monologue, and this show is just as personal, but without the language. It maintained its roots through a sense of action, definitely. We had a lot of conflicting ideas about what to do with the show for awhile. A couple months ago, we were experimenting with putting in biographical information, actually—
CF About O’Neill—
CL Right, which, we ultimately decided against—
CF And even about some of the cast members, to an extent.
CL Yeah, yeah. Just little, non-stage-direction things. But in the end, we felt strongly about boiling it down to what was essential, was inevitably—
CF I mean, the title is so prescriptive. It says what the show is, and you’ve gotta give people what—
CL You gotta get what you came for! Very literally.
CF Yeah, I remember, one of my favorite things that Christopher said was that all of our individual humanities are really celebrated by the physical choices that we were making together. So we didn’t need the verbal, really, to stay true to the aesthetic.
HR I was actually wondering, Cara, what it was like rehearsing and performing the piece, because it seemed, when I saw it, very improvisational and, at the same time, highly intentional. What was the experience of being in the midst of that process?
CF There are, even now, moments that are still changing. In some ways, because the piece is now so codified, we are currently playing even more with what we’ve already set up and established. Rehearsals started with Christopher bringing in these plays that he had cut down, and we went through them one by one, and kind of set it up as we went along. We had some space at A.R.T/New York, and we would just pull basic tables and chairs out, whatever we needed to set up the room: “That’s the window, that’s the door.” We would point to everything, acknowledge each other so that we kind of knew what our world was like, and then we would just start picking out parts. Now, early on, there were way too many parts for how many actors we had. So Christopher had to murder quite a few—
CL (laughter) I had purposefully transcribed that first draft without cutting out anything, just to see how it worked, so we would have all of these characters come in that would, basically, do nothing except enter and exit. And then, of course, stage directions repeat so many times. In the course of a minute or two, someone would shrug their shoulders, like, eighteen times. And that was when, after doing it once, we figured out how to eliminate redundancies, how to make it sharp without having someone just doing the same thing over and over and over.
HR But you also thrived on certain redundancies, it seemed.
CF Yes, definitely. Speaking to what you said about it seeming improvisational, you know, I think up until the week before we opened, Christopher was still cutting and adding things in, so there are elements that are still very new. And even when they aren’t new, I think our performance style, that of being super present onstage and engaged with the audience, lends itself to a kind of physical honesty as well as that emotional honesty you see in some of our biographical work. There’s a real honesty that, like, you do what you do in the moment, and then you figure out how to make that cohere.
CL And I think my favorite thing about that off-the-cuff feeling—because I feel that way when I watch the piece, too—it’s funny, a lot of those little moments that seem like they just made it up onstage, they did just make it up onstage—in rehearsal. But then, we would codify the best ones, and be like, okay that’s the one.
HR Which is so interesting, partly because you’re working with stage directions, which are trying very hard to dictate what you do—and yet you’re showing how that system kind of breaks down.
CF Oh oh oh! That reminds me! One thing that Christopher did, directing us, was that he told us repeatedly to try to break each other. We were always trying to get each other to break. So it became this game, really, where we were just trying to throw the other person off, confuse them into breaking. There’s a lot of foxy motivation behind some of the stuff that we’re doing onstage … Deviant! That’s the word I’m thinking of. And foxy. Foxes are deviant. (laughter)
HR Were there pieces that were more difficult to put together, to make work, than others? Pieces that you needed to spend more or less time being foxy with?
CF Well, yeah. The indoor plays towards the end, they really figured themselves out in some ways. Maybe it’s because they are in this super recognizable space: a living room, a dining room. But the plays that were the toughest to figure out, logistically, were the sea plays. The piece with the accordion (laughter), Bound East for Cardiff … I’m the one that just has to keep bangin’ on that thang, and that is, as far as performing, my most challenging moment of the show. Because I’m not only playing the accordion at escalating volume and intensity, I’m also attempting to like, gradually raise my voice and grumble about something the whole time. And that’s something that, god, we discovered the night that we opened! We realized that there needed to be a grumble in it—the whole thing is like a weird noise experiment, that play. It’s the noise of death—this man is dying, and there’s all this chaos, and it just keeps building to where you can’t hear the reading, almost, anymore. So that piece was one that was changing, really, until opening night.
CL That one definitely. But they were all always mutating. It’s amazing to watch it now, because they’re all fairly set at this point, to think about the various levels of heart-attack-inducing change we were making. Thirst was one where the sharks—which are one of my favorite things ever, by the way. Cara made them—
CF —I made the stuff.
CL She made all our props, amazingly. But right up until tech, or during tech, we didn’t know how the sharks were going to work. Should we do them with remote control cars? Those kept interfering with each other, and it was a near-disaster every time.
CF Right, we put the shark hats on the cars and just had them circling. What a major design challenge, sharks. I mean, other things can be very easily suggested by the benches and chairs we have set up, but in Thirst O’Neill is like, “A life-raft. On the sea. With sharks.” And you’re just like, How the fuck are we gonna … But, you know, it’s poor theater, so you just end up doing The Best Christmas Pageant Ever version of things.
HR Well, the props were so great and so surprising, because in some ways it was such a minimal production, but there there were these moments when there was a genius prop used, like the pig snout that always described “uneven and irregular features.” How did you decide what props were going to stick without cluttering the space?
CL To be honest, it all comes out of the fact that we rehearsed out of our apartments. And we just have, you know, all this stuff.
CF Oh, we just collect so much shit.
CL So what Cara would do was just put stuff around, so during rehearsals people would just be poking around and if something spoke to that person, they could just go with it.
CF The pig nose actually traveled a long way for the piece. I had just visited my family back home in Tennessee, and there’s this thing called the Swan Ball that all the rich ladies still go to. And my grandma, every year, is always like, “Ah’d loove to go to the swahn bahl, but it’s only foh the rich women.” You know, that kind of shit. So my mom works for an events company in Nashville, and my dad had mentioned there’s this thing called the Swine Ball, which is sort of a riff on the Swan Ball, where everyone just gets fucked up and wears pig noses. And my mom, she—bizarrely—happened to be planning that event with her company. The Swine Ball! And she had all of these pig noses, and I just had to have one. So. Basically, a lot of the stuff in the show is like that. Long, long stories. It all comes from a lot of necessity, and some inspiration, and a touch of magic.
HR Okay, so just a couple more questions for you guys. I was doing some research on Eugene O’Neill, and here’s something crazy: Did you know his birthplace is now a Starbucks on Times Square?
CL I did know that! They have a plaque. It’s bizarre.
HR And so, these plays are so steeped in New York City—they seem to have such a specifically New York vibe, even though they’re from a different time, and the stage directions, in particular, really emphasize that.
CL Yeah, you know, that was one of the things I kind of forgot about until I was seeing the show. We have this voice that’s saying things like, “It’s the lower east side, it’s New York City.” It’s everywhere in the plays: New York, New York, all the time. And yeah, O’Neill was born and raised in New York, was about as New York as they come—a downtown theater artist, doing work in weird places (laughter). So I think especially with the second play, that really speaks to something essentially New York—
CF —I feel like the aesthetic of the poor theater, and what happened in our apartment, lives on the physical stage—which happens to be in the East Village. The whole thing looks, well, it looks like a New York apartment!
HR I definitely felt that.
CF It feels, absolutely, very present.
CL And I haven’t had many conversations about how the plays would translate into, you know, a spirit of city living, but this is a city of people that make the absolute most out of what they have—they really scrounge. And when I watch this show, that’s what it is. Everything, whether it’s exaggerated or tiny, is put to such specific use up there.
HR Last question (and I’m sure you’ve been getting this a lot lately): Are there other dream “stage direction plays” you have even very theoretical interest in doing? I mean, in some ways, this piece really changes the way you can think of using a script.
CL You know, not plays exactly. I’ve had this idea, it’s kind of a surprise for the group. I’ve been toying around with, The Complete and Condensed WikiLeaks. And another idea, which is really more just a joke the cast has been throwing around, is The Complete and Condensed Dramatic Pauses of Harold Pinter.
CF We’ve joked about that a lot. (Mimes entering the stage, pausing dramatically, exiting the stage)
HR But who knows. I think you might have something there.
CL Who knows.
The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume One: Early Plays/Lost Plays, presented by the New York Neo-Futurists, is at the Kraine Theater through October 8.
Hadley Roach is a writer and poet living in Brooklyn.
We have to skillfully protect and defend people Trump has terrified, which means having a little bit of spine and calling bullshit when we see it.