Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Secret Origin of the Dainty Cadaver

Eleven years ago, when we were still pretty new to the city, Hope and I fell in with a group of associated theater artists who would meet once a week in the long-defunct (and, so far as I know, still tragically empty) East Village community space known as Charas, where we’d read each other’s works and have impassioned discussions about Theatre (capital T and British spelling). With tongues practically breaking through of the insides of our cheeks, we called ourselves the Legion of Doom. This, not incidentally, is the fertile topsoil out of which The Brick eventually grew.

I recently uncovered a cache of Hotmail printouts from those heady days. There were two primary categories – in the first, screeds and quasi-manifestos written during temping lulls in which we picked apart the vagaries of the artistic soul in a commercial era, and, in the second, an odd sort of collaborative epistolary experiment in which we sent each other emails in character as a variety of freakish misfits, Edward Gorey-esque weirdos and incipient serial killers, which I remember desperately trying to bend in the direction of some kind of narrative. It was completely stupid, but fun, and it led me to my next big idea, something I called The Blindfold Game.

The Blindfold Game was essentially an exquisite corpse for playwrights. One playwright would write a scene. A second playwright would read the scene and write a follow-up. A third playwright would read the second scene – but, crucially, not the first – and write a follow-up. And so on. I’m not sure why I like the idea of placing vast obstructions in the path of coherent narrative while still craving coherent narrative – but there you go. This was my baby.

I wrote the first scene of the Blindfold Game myself, in January of 2000 while working a temp job in a corrupt and highly dysfunctional construction trailer out in Jamaica, Queens. It involved a man who dragged his whole family away from American culture to live in the impossible purity of an igloo near the North Pole, and the weird interlopers who showed up one day to find shelter from a possibly apocalyptic snowstorm (including one character who was a were-polar bear). I was proud of it, as any young writer might be, and I passed it along to the next writer.

By the time it reached the fourth writer, several months later, the whole thing was an insane, unstageable mess. Narrative had been thrown to the winds, and there was now a weird series of loosely strung words and images, some ridiculous, some sublime. By the time it reached a sixth writer, towards the end of the year, I had exhausted the resources and interest of the group, and I realized I had to finish it myself. The ending somehow involved someone turning into a jellyfish.

We finally had a read-through, in the living room of one of the writers (Charas had already cloed by that point - youth is fleeting). It made about as much sense read out loud as it did on the page. Afterward, it was suggested that, if I wanted to do it again, I might temper my frustrations by creating more rules and tighter deadlines, to prevent the dropping-out and procrastination I encountered the first time around. So in early 2001, I tried it again. This time, the story was going to be written in reverse order – a la Betrayal, but meant to be read chronologically – with a number of other elaborate restraints. I wrote a scene about a dying mermaid in a decrepit houseboat anchored illegally in the Jersey Meadowlands. Of the writers I had tapped, one dropped out after the next, until I was finally forced to give the whole thing up with only one scene written in addition to my own. I put collaborative writing games behind me for a while.

So why am I telling this dumb story? Because I think I finally realized that games are most fun when you take them a little seriously, and that, having had time to grow up and expand our community a little bit, the time is right for a redo. The Legion of Doom hasn’t existed for nearly a decade, but four of its members comprise the core staff of The Brick. Other members have moved away from the city, others still have gone on to bigger things, but the rest of us have been absorbed into a larger community of gifted artists who are still besotted by the theater and its possibilities. And this wider community, I realized, might be ripe for an evolved version of the Blindfold Game.

And I was right. Piper McKenzie’s Dainty Cadaver is going to appear at The Brick from January 28-30, and it’s ambitious far beyond the scope of the original idea. There are three teams of six writers each, all of which are in the midst of writing strange and uncanny plays that will be staged by three different directors for one night only at The Brick, natch. Watching the three different plays simultaneously embrace and struggle against chaos, entropy and (inevitably) the vagaries of the artistic soul in a commercial era is proving to be a great joy, one that I’m hoping will be shared by audiences later this month. Will any of these plays be masterpieces for the ages, winning places on the organic microchip-embedded curricula of future intergalactic universities? Probably not. (But maybe!) Will they be unique manifestations of creative collaboration that could only ever exist in this lovable, damnable medium we know as Theatre/er? Absoflippinglutely.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing Mad Libs-style interviews with the Dainty Cadaver playwrights and directors, in order to whet your whistle. I hope they give you an idea why I love these writers, and why I’m so happy to have them supporting my folly. Come on back and give them your love!

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