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Breaking New Post-dramatic Ground

Wesleyan University’s The Method Gun

Nearly six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed various theatre adaptations on Zoom. But the medium has not proved ideal. Too often the results are talking heads that fail to establish connection with the viewer. These initial attempts seemed futile—nostalgic imitations of in-person theatre. However, Wesleyan University’s livestreamed performances of The Method Gun in early May assured me we were on the threshold of a new form of live theatre, an experiment that depends on the audience’s full participation.

Through the sure-handed guidance of theatre professor Katie Pearl, the student actors adapted to Zoom in remarkably short time, presenting their own devised creation of the play based on the original by Rude Mechs of Austin, Texas. From the very first moments, Wesleyan’s adaptation felt like a radical invention that invited audiences to see and interpret reality on a deeper, more perceptual basis.

The Method Gun is based on a version of A Streetcar Named Desire that includes only the lines, actions, and stage directions for the ancillary characters. We enter the play as the characters react to the disappearance of their mentor, Stella Burden, with whom they had rehearsed for nine years for a one-time live performance of Streetcar. The company struggles to move towards the performance without Burden, ultimately failing in their goal. By eliminating altogether the appearances of the main characters—Blanche, Stanley, Stella, and “Mitch”—the playwrights have addressed the exclusions, the misogyny, and the violence embedded in an American canonical classic. At another level, The Method Gun explores the sense of desperation, inadequacy, and frustration inherent to the process of creating meaningful work for the stage and in everyday life.

zoom video chat of several people

The Paperboy leans in to light the absent Blanche’s cigarette. Actors from L (top) Penelope Lutvak, Miguel Perez-Glassner, Liz Woolford; (middle) Elijah Comas, Leon Ristov; Luisa Rodriguez; (bottom) Esme Ng; Max Halperin; Chapin Montague. The Method Gun by Kirk Lynn, directed by Katie Pearl. Zoom, 1—2 May 2020. Video still courtesy of Katie Pearl.

Confronting Isolation in the Pandemic

In rehearsals since January, the Wesleyan team’s production was disrupted at the beginning of spring break by the pandemic. Once it was clear it would not be performed in person, Pearl, the ensemble, and the production and artistic teams began to etch out plans that would transfer the work to a virtual stage and reimagine it for a new platform. When I asked Pearl if the company had proceeded on some theoretical basis or more by the seat of their pants, she replied, “Definitely it felt like the seat of our pants. We were learning a new medium, discovering what we could and could not do, and addressing the poverty of the situation in a way that then became content for the play.”

Pearl, having been raised by a father who practices Buddhism, is familiar with the principles of nonattachment and nonlabeling, which have steered her towards the kind of theatre she makes today. “If faced with an unworkable space, my response is always to notice it more deeply. Get curious,” she said. “What is actually here that can be of use? How does the obstacle become the opportunity?” No matter the space, Pearl asks how she will be in relationship to it and what’s going to emerge. She had to do the same thing with Zoom to make her students feel safe in the not knowing, and instead be in the joy, the pain, and the presence of saying, “Wow, we are really confused about why we’re even moving forward right now. How on earth can we connect to each other? Let’s just be in this frustration and see what grows out of it.”

As if in free fall, the actors revealed their doubts, confusion, and willingness to be in the liminal between spaces.

Reflecting and Transcending Real-World Concerns

Given the social and political upheaval in the United States since March 2020, one of The Method Gun’s conceits—a rejection of our nation’s systemic injustice, exclusion, and inequality—assumed deeper meaning. This production magnified the issues we’ve faced in the past months of chaos. In fact, viewing The Method Gun a second time, in light of the George Floyd tragedy, revealed how well the play echoes the American society. However, to focus on this alone diminishes Wesleyan’s achievement in using Zoom to find, in Peter Brook’s words, “the vital currents hidden in this misery.”

The ensemble adapted their original devised text to explore the more profound questions of isolation and of nonattachment to certainty. As if in free fall, the actors revealed their doubts, confusion, and willingness to be in the liminal between spaces. The disconnected narrative, bouncing from storytelling to acting exercises to confusion among the Wesleyan and Burden actors, created a nonsensical, awkward post-dramatic chaos that splintered my consciousness in ways that compelled me to pay more attention.

According to Pearl, one of the reasons the play’s adaptation to Zoom worked so well was that the team was already in the middle of owning it. “Since the play was already devised once, when we got to Zoom we could really continue to allow it to address the moment,” she said. The strategy Pearl led with was that the actors had to acknowledge the moment. “The breakdown of the Stella Burden company suddenly began to match the breakdown of the Wesleyan company,” she said. “The deep frustration the Stella Burden company was having—with not being able to move forward—matched that of the Wesleyan company. By the final scene where everything breaks down, I said, ‘Okay, we got the two stories to meld.’”

Early in the performance, audiences experience how the Wesleyan ensemble wrote their way into the disembodiment inherent in Zoom theatre. In the play, during an interview about the self-isolation practice Burden taught, the character Connie Torrey answers, “We are shattering the illusion of theatre and bodily co-presence by finding our inner audience and performer multitudes. We learn to project into an open void and know it will echo back.” This feels almost tongue-in-cheek, but those words were also heard as a plaint, a lament. I was conscious of the daring effort it took all the Wesleyan actors to project into that void as they reacted to their self-isolation and their characters reacted to the disappearance of their mentor.

I was conscious of the daring effort it took all the Wesleyan actors to project into that void as they reacted to their self-isolation and their characters reacted to the disappearance of their mentor.

Two College Productions Meet the Moment

A Zoom event akin to Wesleyan’s was Bard College’s April livestreamed production of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest, depicting events in Romania surrounding the fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship. One must ask why these Zoom performances landed squarely when so many other digital theatre performances fell flat. As has been suggested elsewhere, both productions possibly worked better than more traditionally narrative dramas because of the nature of the content itself. Plays that explore broken institutions, social unrest, and isolation may be uniquely suited to the Zoom platform with its fractured screen of boxes and its disruptive glitches, hiccups, and delays.

The difference between the two productions is that Bard brought on an additional New York designer to consult and help with the technological transition. All elements of the work, including scenery, choreography, and lighting, were assessed and adapted. Wesleyan’s production, on the other hand, was in the tradition of Jerzy Grotowski’s poor theatre. The students worked with the production and artistic teams to create as consistent a visual vocabulary as possible using homemade props and bedroom lighting, while coordinating their efforts across four time zones from Singapore and Macedonia to the west and east coasts of America.

The Wesleyan actors fiercely took audiences into the unknown, indeterminate present moment. We were left to ricochet with our own inner uncertainties in the face of the pandemic but also to taste joy and delight. The fractured Zoom screen met our fractured realities as the questions of absence, loss, and sorrow reverberated into our living rooms. The Stella Burden actors lost their teacher and the Wesleyan actors grieved the disconnection from one another in real time, as we the audience members watched, severed from much that was once familiar and comforting. The ensemble dedicated its performance to the text, to language itself, rather than to the idea of simply entertaining an audience or making a political statement. The play will be remembered as the first poetic Zoom theatre in the tradition of Richard Foreman, Peter Brook, and María Irene Fornés.

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Blanche is taken away during the Dream Ballet. Actor Liz Woolford. The Method Gun by Kirk Lynn, directed by Katie Pearl. Zoom, 1—2 May 2020. Video still courtesy of Katie Pearl.

Breaking New Post-dramatic Ground

Wesleyan’s The Method Gun sits directly in post-dramatic modernity where the audience becomes conscious of the process of interpretation and of seeing. Pearl and her actors reimagined theatre behind glass, a theatre more dependent than ever on the audience members’ perceptions and awareness of what they are seeing. As my eyes tired of watching The Method Gun so intently, I thought of Foreman focusing lights on his audience, blinding them in an attempt to force them to deal with the problem of seeing the play on stage in spite of the brightness; he used the stage to provoke his audience into a reassessment of perception and reality. Wesleyan’s Zoom production is similarly post-dramatic in the way it creates meaning by resisting dramatic form that reinforces the familiar.

The physical experience of watching The Method Gun on Zoom within the confines of my living room shocked me, my body feeling as cramped as these actors were within their Zoom boxes. At times, however, I was released to the play’s action, mesmerized and sitting on the edge of my seat. Oddly, I also felt the actors were just feet away from me on a stage as I watched the complex execution of a poker game through two Zoom boxes; the actors passing a vendor cart between them as if it were the same object; and the actors performing rasabox exercises—a technique based on the principle that every idea an actor wishes to communicate must somehow be embodied.

Seeing the “stage” through a screen made me the reader—I was interpreting the text via the connections I was making. No longer was the director leading me nor were the actors creating a bond with me. Instead, and much more meaningful as a theatre experience, I was in direct relationship to the text itself. In post-dramatic form, The Method Gun succeeds in frustrating both dramatic representation and the structuring of time while allowing the individual audience members to register their own singular set of perceptions. The play leaves us with an opening to something more, something as yet unknown and not necessarily to be understood just with our rational powers.

The Stella Burden actors lost their teacher and the Wesleyan actors grieved the disconnection from one another in real time, as we the audience members watched, severed from much that was once familiar and comforting.

History Echoes While New Ground is Broken

As with all art, the viewer’s experience is dependent on their own depth of field, and this is particularly true of The Method Gun. Embedded in the play’s fractured script is a gift of theatre history writ large. The words alone trigger powerful associations—Stella Burden evokes both Stella Adler and Konstantin Stanislavski. And who among the audience was not hearing Marlon Brando’s plaintive “Stella” during the rasabox exercise sequences performed with such hilarity? The makeshift props and costumes gathered by the Wesleyan students prompted memories of Fornés’s creative use of whatever secondhand goods she could find from which to create a play.

In my mind, where there is despair and yearning—and a gun—there is Chekhov. I saw Pirandello and his six characters as the actors veered from characters performing Streetcar scenes to abandoned characters/student actors trying to decide if they wanted to perform at all. And instead of Beckett’s characters going nowhere, there were ten actors unable to go anywhere. The actors’ choreographed performances in the constricted Zoom frames were certainly unlike any other Zoom theatre pieces I’ve viewed. I remember thinking that Wesleyan’s adaptation was as history-making as Andre Gregory’s 1972 Alice in Wonderland in its strangeness and in the audience’s not knowing at all what to expect.

My brain’s adaptation to this Zoom performance still intrigues me. At a certain point the one-dimensional screen shifted into a three-dimensional stage set where my mind, drawing on visual memories of previous performances of A Streetcar Named Desire, filled in the missing characters of Blanche and Stanley. And Prague Black Light Theatre immediately came to mind during the play’s gorgeous crowning scene: slow-moving images of a single red poppy across the black Zoom boxes, followed by hands and forearms reaching to an absent Blanche. The simplicity and starkness of the blackened screens illustrated how even this newest form of theatre inadvertently lends itself to an earlier theatre tradition.

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Liz Woolford, Penelope Lutvak, Esme Ng; Max Halperin, Elijah Comas; Chapin Montague; Luisa Rodriguez; Robyn Min Xuan Wong; Leon Ristov. The Method Gun by Kirk Lynn, directed by Katie Pearl. Zoom, 1—2 May 2020. Video still courtesy of Katie Pearl.

A Rubik’s Cube of Poetic Beauty

I’ve begun to think of Wesleyan’s The Method Gun as a Rubik’s Cube, an elegant puzzle of multiple realities converging simultaneously. The experience was both disorienting and thrilling, and I continue to wonder if my own responses would have been as intense had I not been viewing the play on Zoom. What I know to be true is that these internal resonances with other theatre moments deepened and anchored what I would describe as a seminal theatre event. My own associations, the intensity of feelings conveyed, and the poetic beauty of the performances confirmed that Wesleyan’s Zoom experiment stands with the best of live theatre.

During The Method Gun’s closing ten-minute dream ballet, the actors recited the stage directions and actions that would have been the Stella Burden performance of Streetcar had the company not broken down. These ten minutes are the most theatrical of the entire production. The actors performed from a place of bareness, speaking the actions they had rehearsed earlier. As Pearl explained, “The simplicity and abstraction work because you’ve been through the play up to that point and you have enough information to infuse what you are seeing with all the meaning that you need.”

In this conclusive scene, the actors appeared against a background of unified black screen Zoom tiles, giving the impression of a suspended darkened stage. Silence descended, a metronome ticked, and the text was delivered. The last word is “crying,” repeated seven times. At that moment, I felt the grief and gratitude swell up in me—grief for the lives lost to the pandemic, grief for the young actors’ dashed hopes, gratitude for their abundant generosity and joy in giving themselves so completely to this experience. I felt completely unified with the digital audience, knowing we had shared something extraordinary in real time. We were in the ancient cave together in the dark, in the theatre.

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