Supporting creative work by women
Kiran Rikhye is the co-artistic director of Stolen Chair, a company she co-founded in 2002. Its 10th Anniversary season will feature a remount of The Man Who Laughs, a theatre piece that is inspired by and plays out like a silent film. Based on a Victor Hugo story, the play appears in the anthology Playing With Canons: Explosive New Works from Great Literature By America’s Indie Playwrights (The New York Theatre Experience: 2006).
Kiran spoke with Works by Women about the latest production of The Man Who Laughs, how the piece was originally created and how language is developed for a “silent film” piece.
WORKS BY WOMEN: How did you first create The Man Who Laughs, A Silent Film for Stage?
KIRAN RIKHYE: One of the things I love about working with Stolen Chair is that we have to reinvent new ways of creating material with each show we do, because each project is wildly different from the last. The process that worked for developing a sex farce in Elizabethan blank verse probably won’t work for a vaudeville or a “silent film.” So we start each process pretty much clueless! In the case of The Man Who Laughs, my Co-Artistic Director, Jon Stancato, and I had both fallen in love with the premise (which we stole from a Victor Hugo novel of the same name), and Jon had come up with the idea of staging it like a silent film. But we really had no model for how you go about creating such a piece. We figured it out the way we figure out the process for nearly all of our shows — by going on a three day long creative retreat with an ensemble of actors, musicians, and designers. These retreats are where we work through whatever has us stumped. In this case, we were stumped by how to develop plot and text when we didn’t really know which should come first: the written words or the stage action. So we figured it out, slowly, painfully–going back and forth between the director choreographing, the actors moving in the space, and me writing, piecing the play together bit by bit. Honestly, it was a horribly frustrating experience, and we felt we must be doing it all wrong. Then we happened to watch a documentary about Charlie Chaplin in which we learned that he experienced many of the very same frustrations that we were experiencing, which made us feel much, much better!
WBW: What is it like to develop a piece where the relationship to language has been changed?
KIRAN: That’s such a great question! Developing this piece is, honestly, so much fun and so tremendously confusing. It turns play writing totally on its head. Since stage action alternates with title cards being projected onto a black screen, the audience cannot simultaneously see a character speak and know what that character is saying. Words are separated from images, and the text literally interrupts the action. The sense of build and rhythm is totally different from what it would be in a “normal” play. Of course, the text also needs to do all those good old-fashioned things like communicating character, moving the story forward, etc. It’s such a wonderful challenge to have to look at words in such a different light. Lastly, rewriting this piece for a its 2013 incarnation has been fascinating. Because so much of the story is communicated wordlessly, so much depends upon the individual actors’ choices and bodies. And because the projected title cards are designed to complement the stage action (and vice versa), the script grows and changes along with the ensemble. A lot has remained the same as in the 2005 version, but a lot has also been changed. It’s really delightful to work on a that this piece is such a living, breathing organism.
WBW: Why revisit The Man Who Laughs now?
KIRAN: We’ve been wanting to revisit The Man Who Laughs for quite a while now. When we first created it, the company was only three years old, and it was the most ambitious work we’d undertaken. It’s always held a special place in our hearts, and now, in our tenth anniversary season, we wanted to reach back into the archives and pull out an old favorite. It’s been wonderful to revisit the material now that we’re older and (I’d like to think) a bit wiser. By a happy coincidence, I think this is also a good moment for this kind of work — as unusual as a “live silent film for the stage” still is, we’ve recently seen silent film make a comeback with The Artist. Victor Hugo has made a bit of a comeback, too, with Les Miserables. A live silent film for the stage still may not be something you see everyday, but it’s just a tad less mysterious sounding than it was eight years ago. Audiences can come in with a little bit more context for what the show is about, and have a richer experience. (Of course, there’s a time and place for theatre that is so unlike anything audiences have ever seen that it practically rewires their brain circuitry to, but oftentimes I think a little bit of the familiar combined with a little bit of the new can be a nice thing!)
WBW: What may audiences expect from the production?
KIRAN: Audiences can expect a live play that looks, feels, and sounds like a black-and-white silent film of the 1920s. This show, which is performed in black-and-white costumes and makeup on a black-and-white set, with live piano accompaniment, takes audiences back to a time when performers didn’t need to speak in order to pull on our heart strings and tickle our funny bones. Freely inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, it tells the hilarious and heartrending story of Gwynplaine, a clown whose face has been surgically disfigured into a permanent smile. Performing with his adoptive sister and father, Gwynplaine gains fame and a very modest fortune for his comic acts and his comical face. Secretly he yearns to be more than a freak and a jok, but when his yearning leads him into the arms of a debauched duchess fascinated by his grin, the results are disastrous for Gwynplaine and for his family. Audiences can definitely expect to laugh, tear up a little, and enjoy free, freshly popped popcorn.
WBW: What are two silent films that everyone must watch and why?
KIRAN: There are so many absolutely amazing films. It’s really impossible to narrow it down to just two! But okay, I’d say Chaplin’s City Lights, for starters. It’s a great example of the simple, moving storytelling that can be achieved without spoken words. With only images and sparse text, it relies on a certain old-fashioned melodrama, alongside Chaplin’s whimsy, that would probably be ruined if the actors were able to speak out loud. The second film I’m going to recommend is a strange choice, in part because the film was actually never finished, but Queen Kelly, directed by Erich von Stroheim and starring Gloria Swanson, epitomizes a lot of what’s great about silent film. In 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson, playing the faded silent star Norma Desmond, utters the famous line, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” In Queen Kelly, you see exactly what Norma Desmond means. Gloria Swanson has a face, and she knows how to use it. Even though you’re likely to be watching it on a relatively small TV screen, Queen Kelly gives a good sense, I think, of the expressive grandeur that many silent film stars had. The movie also has a deliciously and (to our eyes) absurdly twisted sensibility that silent films do so well (an extended sequence of a jealous mad queen attacking a helpless lovesick maiden with a riding crop? What’s not to love?)
Really, there are so many great films and so many tremendous performers, I could go on and on. For a quick sense of what makes silent film fundamentally different from “talkies,” though, I’d start with those two.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theatre?
KIRAN: I can certainly answer that question from the perspective of a playwright, though I think female actors, designers, etc. all have their own distinct sets of challenges. If I had to pinpoint the single biggest challenge for female playwrights in America, I’d actually say it’s that sometimes, in the efforts of granting organization, presenting organizations, and the theatre community at large to make sure the female playwrights are well represented, we focus on finding works that are engaging overtly with issues of female identity, or that somehow strike us as markedly different from “male writing” (whatever that is). We start looking for female voices that wear their femaleness on their sleeve, so we can say “Ah! This was written by a woman!” I think work that engages with questions of identity or overtly engages with feminist issues is extremely important, but I also think there are plenty of excellent female writers whose work doesn’t fit that mold. It’s just as important to champion strong work by writers who just happen to be female as it is to champion plays an overt and central role in their work. I do also want to say, though, that there are so many profound challenges facing everyone working in American theatre today (particularly non-commercial theatre, but also theatre more generally), that I think the biggest challenges facing women are the same as the biggest challenges face men. The funding models for theatre in America don’t seem to me to work very reliably, and the number of artists (including those who could be considered very successful in their fields) who work multiple jobs and/or struggle to pay the rent is almost unbelievable. These broader challenges have a huge impact on everyone, women included, of course.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theatre?
KIRAN: Right now, in New York, there are so many exceptional women leading companies, having their work produced, running theatres. Women are all over the theatre scene, often leading the charge, and that’s pretty fantastic. There are also so many wonderful examples of women working in close collaboration with men (including Stolen Chair, among many others!) to my mind, that’s very, very exciting!
The Man Who Laughs performs January 31st through February 24th at Urban Stages in New York City. For tickets, visit www.SmartTix.com.
The Man Who Laughs photo credit: Carrie Leonard