It Adds Up is an original play written and directed by me. It showed on Friday and Saturday, April 14 and 15 with an encore presentation on Friday, April 28, at the Antioch Area Theater in Yellow Springs, OH. It was billed as “a comedic slice-of-life one-act with socio-political commentary” with the caveat “done in Brechtian/Meisneresque realism.” For the first and last time, I am going to completely break that down.
Comedic: As opposed to comedy—a very deliberately chosen word. The play is funny, but not strictly so. I very nearly called it a dramedy, but a) though it is a drama, that makes it sound like more of a drama than a comedy, which it isn’t necessarily. Then there’s the assumption that drama is serious and comedy is frivolous, so a dramedy would be thought of, in these terms, as a serious play with frivolous elements. But my comedy is just as serious as any drama could ever hope to be. It is not an escape, a “relief,” but a deliberate tool utilized to elicit a number of reactions from spectators; and b) my advisor wouldn’t let me.
Slice-of-life: I have always loved slice-of-life, or day-in-the-life, stories. They are so infrequently made, and even less frequently made well. This form is a powerful tool to allow the spectators to connect with complex characters that can be developed more fully without the obstacle of having a specific, linear, beginning-middle-end story to relay. I have written about this form before, in A Rant On Junebug And Its Cinematic Siblings.
One-act: The play is an hour long and composed of 10 scenes.
Socio-political commentary: Our personal, social, and political realities are rarely evenly divided. I am attempting to modernize the second-wave feminist slogan “the personal is political” by blurring the boundary between the two even further so that that phrase becomes redundant. I want to acknowledge the social as another influential aspect of life, related to and connecting the personal and the political. The political world is composed of social relations, which are composed of individuals who are defined by and inextricably linked to their respective social relations and political worlds. It’s a cycle, or a spiral if you will, as opposed to a continuum or an overlapping binary.
I chose to qualify the play “with socio-political commentary” instead of calling it a “socio-political play” because it is, primarily and ultimately, a personal story, connected to the socio-political as all stories are to some degree or another. I do not wish to shove my political ideals down people’s throats, but rather engage them in the process of critical thought by presenting them with a story with clear political under/overtones and allowing them to decide for themselves how they wish to approach the ideas: They can buy them or be critical of them, consider them or dismiss them. I do not want the spectators to be passive receivers of ideas, instead I want to encourage them to choose their level of political engagement with the world of the play.
Meisner: Sanford Meisner was an acting coach that developed the Meisner technique of acting. It was a response to and critique of Stanislavki‘s method, which stressed the application of the actor’s own emotions—based on the memory recall of experiences that elicited these respective emotions—into their characters. Essentially, then, the emotions the actors portrayed never belonged (or at least, never initally belonged) to the character, but rather, to the actor. Meisner thought this idea was bunk and proposed that the objective of acting was “to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” With this as his thesis, he developed a technique which stressed the uninhibited passage of impulse between actors. This technique offers a call-and-response approach to character development and relationships and an improvisational approach to expressing the myriad emotions and reactions one’s character goes through over the course of the play. Because It Adds Up is a character-based play with lots of telegraphic dialogue, the Meisner technique was a useful tool to get the actors in a mindset that was both “on the same page” with one another as well as having a tactical approach to the play’s text, characters, and inter-character dynamics.
Brecht: Bertolt Brecht single-handedly revolutionized modern theater. No, really, he did. His epic theater was a response to and critique of the realism and elitism of the mainstream theater of his day. He said that the purpose of a play, above its entertainment value and instead of the imitation of reality, is to present ideas and invite the audience to make judgments on them. In epic theater the spectators should always be aware that they are watching a play so that they can engage critically in the presented ideas.
The production of It Adds Up probably should have been called “Brechtianish” because it borrows only certain elements from epic theater. The script isn’t Brechtian at all, only the set and staging is. I encouraged the actors to bring their own dynamics with their fellow actors—discovered through the Meisner exercises—into the world of the play. Essentially, the objective was that the actors be both themselves and the characters onstage, combining Brechtian alienation (the actors portraying themselves not as sympathetic characters, but as actors playing characters) with more traditional acting techniques that involve complete artifice and immersion into the character. The purpose of this was both associative and dissociative with Brecht’s philosophy: In order to gain an individual political view of the show, I wanted the spectators to be personally invested in the play by identifying with the characters and the actors playing the characters by seeing the similarities between them (character and actor) and thus all of them (character and actor and spectator). The play can be viewed as microcosmic and parallel to other lives, through its specificities and universalities. The connections between the actors, characters, and spectators can also be viewed in this way: We connect with others in both specific and general ways. It Adds Up hoped to achieve both in order to reach the maximum amount of people.
Another Brechtian element the show steals were signs. Signs that interrupt and summarize the action of the play are another tool to take away from the strict realism of the play’s text. I used signs—combined with music, another Brechtian flair—as markers to divide scenes, that stated the upcoming scene’s title, i.e., “Scene 2: Olivia Chills Out After Work,” “Scene 9: Marie Has Another Theory.”
The third and final thing borrowed from Brecht was a minimal set. The stage consisted mainly of two stationery sets—the coffeeshop and the living room, where the majority of the play’s action takes place. The actors moved about the sets in between scenes, often with no illusion of an entrance or exit, and there was no shift in lighting—not black- or brown-outs in between scenes or focuses highlighting the action. This, with the aforementioned sign-and-music transition, allowed for a continual break in the realistic aspects of the play; it was an interruption, a reminder that the spectators are observing theater, not real life, just in case they forgot and got too involved in the narrative.
Realism: I do not believe that being accessible and interpretive are mutually exclusive. I believe one can create complex mindful political theater with a clear message and nuanced undertones without resorting to confusing and convoluted avant-garde.