PROCESS • TOMATO PLANT GIRL
Geva Theatre Center • 2002
These process notes were compiled for a grant application in late 2002. This was a production I directed and for which I composed original music.
I first encountered Wesley Middleton's play, Tomato Plant Girl, in 1998. I was the assistant director on the original production at Metro Theater Company in St. Louis, directed by Carol North. Wesley was on-site for most of the process and still working on the script (begun in a playwriting class at UT Austin) with Tamara Goldbogen and Susan Zeder as attending dramaturgs. Part of what endeared the play to me was the play itself and part, admittedly, was the playwright. I greatly enjoyed being in the company of both. I found Wesley to be smart, funny, very honest-even sharpish, a little dark and quirky, and—beneath it all—good of heart. And in that way that assures me a work of art is specific to its artist, I found all that to be true of the script. While Metro's mounting was not what I had envisioned stylistically for the piece, being a participant in this early production made me sure of one thing: I wanted a chance to direct this play myself.
As soon as Metro's exclusive rights were released I was given that chance. By then, the 2001-2002 season, I had helped begin Geva Theatre's TYA program, Big Theatre for Little People, in the new second space. In their inaugural season I had directed a successful production of Y York's the Portrait the Wind the Chair and now I would open the second season with Tomato Plant Girl. In the three years between being introduced to the piece and the production at Geva my feelings and ideas about TPG had simmered steadily on the back burner of my mind. The results were some strong images—of setting and characters; some musical motifs and voicings—eventually leading to my composing the score for Geva's production; and—what I was least conscious of but what actually survived most intact in the final product—a clear sense of the rhythm of the piece in terms of dialogue and movement.
I thought I was ready to begin organizing these hunches into a clear preparation for production when a major curve ball was thrown my way. To open their regular subscription season, Geva programmed Alan Ayckbourne's tandem play event House/Garden for the mainstage and second space. This meant that TPG would perform on the Garden set (with adjustments). It also meant that I was made to use the designer for Garden to do the TPG set and costumes. Next to casting actors, casting designers is where the director exercises the most influence on the production. While I was able to pick my own lighting and sound designers, the other half of that powerful quartet (and, in this case, the most consequential half in the overall effect of the piece) was out of my control. It could have been bad for me, particularly in that I'd had so long to form my strongly held opinions of how I wanted the play to look and feel. An inherited scenic and costume designer and an inherited set felt to me a major handicap in my pursuit of a clear, engaging, and unified production that would reflect my personal response to the play. I am happy to report that it could not have turned out better. (Except for want of some money here and there, but when is that not the case?) What followed was one of the best journeys towards and arrivals at a production that I've experienced.
I first spoke with my blind date/designer, Louisa Thompson, in May of 2001—four months before rehearsals were to begin—and met her in her work space in Brooklyn two weeks later. The phone conversation was spent going over both abstract and nut-and-bolts notes that I'd sent to her via email. I'd generated these by reexamining some of my earlier thoughts about what I'd wanted in terms of style and feel when I thought I had a blank slate to work from, and running them backwards as many steps as I could to get to the roots or "whys" of them. This way I could hopefully stay true to what I still trusted as far as my gut take on the piece and yet communicate with Louisa from a square-one, open-minded point of view. I had also pulled some artwork as reference points and published them on my work-site on the web, to give us some common stimuli for discussion. It was a good conversation and more important to me than the conceptual talk I felt assured that my piece was neither secondary nor subordinate to Louisa's work on Garden. As a matter of fact, in the end I felt that TPG infected Garden far more than Garden hampered TPG.
I attempt to continually ride the dual rails of abstract concept and nut-and-bolts necessity (or "mights" and "musts") when working with collaborators on a project: designers, actors, artisans, technicians—any partner in the process. Being sure and clear about the "musts" gives me the foundation and stability to be responsive to the entire group's understanding and interpretation of the "mights." Keeping the project alive depends on a combination of the two. Again, I'm trying to engender a process where my singular point of view—or gut instinct—remains core to the production. I wouldn't want to give the impression that I consider the mounting of a play a democratic process. It is not. I firmly believe in the ultimate responsibility of the director. I would simply hope it to be an incredibly wise and well-informed dictatorship in the service of the play.
Some of the "musts" I began with: the character of Tomato Plant Girl must actually come out of the ground in a surprising and realistic manner, she must actually consume the dirt and the water, and she must grow larger before our eyes in the final scene. As to the space: it must be a place where kids are able to be alone, out of the range of adults. This allows the behavior to be entirely their own, not a performance for anyone (except themselves).
Some of the "mights" that made it to the stage: While the space should be sequestered from adults, the effect that adults have on the actual space—and more importantly the psychological space of the children—should not be completely absent. The space should be not quite safe to play in, with trash and debris in evidence. After all, the action of the play is not quite safe, even dangerous at times. There should be a sense that maybe the girls shouldn't even be here. While the space should reflect the slightly outsized nature of some of the script elements (the place names "Heretown" and "Thereville," the character name "Little Girl," not to mention the presence of a tomato/plant/girl who is born from the soil) it should be a recognizable environment and one that a kid—or adult—could picture themselves in and be tempted to occupy. It should be inviting and at the same time foreboding. There's a struggle in this play between what is natural and what is man-made. What is considered beautiful and what is thought disgusting. What may be right and what may be wrong. This dialectic tension should influence the setting. The grid pattern Louisa imposed on and integrated into the ground of the set came to be my personal metaphor for these tensions.
While the above mentioned outsized elements do guide this play towards being a style piece, the heart of the story—the goals and actions of the characters—are utterly realistic. These are interactions that could be overheard in a real-life backyard, playground, mall, or anywhere kids play out and define their social roles. This grounding in reality is critical to the success of the piece. The subject of social roles and their impact on our lives is crucial to children—indeed to us all, were we to admit it. As a topic for theatrical exploration it deserves great care. As I learned from my early days with Metro Theater Company (and thereafter wrote into Geva's Big Theatre for Little People mission statement), it is imperative that we respect and value the emotional wisdom and intelligence of children. This brings me to the topic of non-age-appropriate casting and my approach to actors of one age playing characters of another.
Guiding performers towards a respectful, non-judgmental, honest portrayal of a character is central to the job of directing. It's true when collaborating with older actors faced with the challenge of playing younger characters or for that matter with any actor portraying anyone but himself. However, the common practice of using adult actors to portray young people comes with a particular set of traps. Chief among these is the reductionist instinct of some actors, directors, and playwrights. They think that a child is merely an unfinished adult and therefore less than an adult—less complex, less serious, less intelligent, less observant. Overly simplistic and babyish mannerisms of speech and action are the symptoms of this line of thought. It is insulting to the audience and to the artist. However much I may abhor this practice, I do understand its causes and its deep roots in western society's longstanding image of the child. What intrigues me more, within the context of modern acting theory, is the idea that one must "act younger" when playing a child. This is antithetical to the common notion that a character is the sum of his actions, as opposed to the sum of his attitudes or states-of-being. I believe (based upon experience—not academic study) that most children have no particular drive or objective when it comes to their perceived age. If they do, it is to act at least as old as they are, if not older. How many kids do you know who are walking around in the world with the objective "to be young" or more bizarrely "to be younger than I am"? Then why should an adult include that as an objective (sometimes as the objective) when playing a younger character? It doesn't make sense in work that is based in any type or realism or naturalism nor even in stylized work. I depend on the words and actions of the characters as recorded by the playwright to guide me, the actors, and—eventually—the audiences in placing the character along some sort of age continuum. We come to an understanding of their ages through their words and deeds: both in and of themselves and in direct comparison to those of the other characters in the play. This only works, of course, if the play is good. But why do any other kind of play?
I chose and directed the three actors in TPG accordingly. I sought and found three actresses who understood my above stated ideas and who agreed that Wesley's script provided strong enough dialogue and action to support a grounded portrayal of the characters within the given world of the play. As a matter of fact, instead of auditioning the actresses (they're performative skills were already known) I engaged them in conversation about theatre for young audiences, process preferences, and this play in particular. The rehearsals and resulting performances were natural extensions of these initial thoughtful, passionate, funny, and endlessly curious discussions.
Past projects of mine leave behind a mass of blocking diagrams and notations. Looking back over my TPG script I am struck by how clean it is. In part I know this was due to Louisa's wonderful setting. I never had to direct her to the idea that a theatre set must at all times be a container for actors and action. Her instincts already live there. Mostly, though, it was the play's strong, simple line of functional action (planting plants, playing Barbie and Mother May I, reading a book in the sun) that allowed for ease of blocking even in the psychological action of the play. I don't feel as if we had to do much problem solving once in rehearsal. The preparation really served us well on this piece and I believe the audiences were well served in return.
director, Christopher Gurr
scenic & costume designer, Louisa Thompson
composer, Christopher Gurr
lighting designer, Derek Madonia
sound designer, Dan Roach
assistant director, Amy Goeldner
stage manager, Jason E. Fleming
assistant stage manager, Allison Eastwood
Little Girl - Ariel de Man
Bossy Best Friend - Courtney Evans
Tomato Plant Girl - Anita Loomis