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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (1/10/10) 11:25pm - ... wherein Peter gets to play the eeeevil vizier.

Progress on the Arabian Nights improv show continues apace.

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I've got my costume sorted.  My "sultan in a bag" outfit arrived in the mail (yay ebay!), and it went over well.  I've settled on wearing a maroon V-neck T-shirt and black sweatpants under it.  Like most of the cast, I'm just going barefoot instead of trying to hunt down some costume-appropriate sandals.

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There was a spirited discussion online regarding whether to translate "Allah" as "God" in the show.  "Allah" just means "God", so using either one makes sense, and there are good arguments both ways.

It raises a slew of interesting questions.  For instance, to what extent do we want to make this world feel alien (and thus, fun!) to Judeo-Christian types, and to what extent to we want to emphasize the common human experience between the audience and the characters?  How respectful can/will this show be towards the culture and religion it depicts?  (For that matter, how respectful is *any* improv show towards its source material?)  Plus this sends us circling back to that old question from Curtis:  "How do we deal with the fact that it's a bunch of white dudes doing this show?"

Of course, I'm an engineer, and I mostly think of this question from the technical side.  I figure that, if I'm in the audience, every time I hear "Allah", my brain is going to go off on these liberal-art-y tangents about exoticism and Islam and homage-versus-exploitation -- and suddenly I'm thinking about all that instead of about the story.

But the bottom line is that every audience member will have their own reaction to either choice, and that makes it damn hard to make any useful generalizations.  By director fiat, we're going with "God", with the caveat that we can use "Allah" if we're really damn certain that it's justified in the scene.

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We had our photo shoot on Sunday, getting some images we can use for posters and other publicity.[1]  We were in a dark corner at SVT, with the floor covered in yellow sateen fabric, lit only by a variety of flashlights.

For each shot, we had Madi and Avi in the foreground as Shahrazad and Shahryar.  Then in the background, there were different combinations of the rest of the cast as various character-types from the stories.  (In my mind, I was 'the evil vizier.')  All of us, of course, were in costume.

The great Jon Bolden shot it.  Apparently the results were "Rembrandt-like".  And also sexy.

(Wait, do those adjectives really go together?  Help me out, arty people.)

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We continue to make tweaks to the format.  We no longer have "the Burton" -- that is, the Western storyteller who greets the audience and tells us the ground rules of the 1001 nights.  Instead we start with a scene in some bustling location -- say, a market, a dock, or a garden.[2]  My favorite location I've done was 'an antechamber in a palace where a group of dancers were preparing to perform for the sultan'.  (Not least because this led naturally to a giant dance number at the end of the show.)

Then one character emerges from that bustling crowd and announces that s/he will, for some reason, tell a story to the others.  So in my case, I was an elderly ex-dancer in charge of the troupe.[3]  And I saw that the troupe was really worried about their performance, so I would tell them a story to raise their spirits.  Then I turned to the dancers and to the audience ("and all of you there, in the back!") to get a prompt of "something you look forward to."

"Retirement" was the suggestion, so I told them I'd relate the story of "The Sand Dancer and the Great Fortune".  I gathered the dancers around and told them the basic info about Shahryar (mad king, married a new wife every night, beheaded her in the morning) and Shahrazad (beautiful & brilliant woman, married the crazy guy, kept saving her life by telling stories that cliffhangered at the end of the night).

And as I described those two personages, I faded away from the center, and two of the dancers got up to portray Shahryar and Shahrazad.  And soon I'd thrown it over to them to continue the story.

In fact, all the transitions are going to be fluid like that.  One of the best examples we've had so far:  we had a desert scene where Mo and I were waving a yellow sateen sheet upstage of the characters, indicating the wind.  Then one of those desert characters started telling a story about a demon.

At that moment, Mo expertly rolled herself into the sheet, and I simultaneously draped it around her.  Within seconds, she'd popped onstage as the (very elegant) demon.

Basically, the SVT stage doesn't have proper wings, so you can't really make proper exits -- you walk off, but wind up standing at the edge of the stage where everyone can see you -- so we're having a go at turning this limitation to our advantage.  Performers neatly transition between being the audience of one story to being participants in the next one.

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It's been interesting to see how different guys play Shahryar.  Avi played a captious Shahryar, getting irate at the plot holes in Shahrazad's tale.  Sully made him generally hotheaded, while Kyle played Shahryar's murderous intent to the hilt.

This last portrayal had all the ladies a-swoon.

That, in turn, made me feel a bit sad that I am the most innocuous person that has ever drawn breath, making that an avenue to hotness that is forever closed to me.

Me, I played the king as a rather genial mass-murderer.  This unfortunately defused a lot of tension (sexual and otherwise), but it did help in one very specific way:  later on, when I had problems with the story, it gave me somewhere to go.  There could be a contrast between "Shahryar at the start of the scene" and "Shahryar complaining about stuff," and a sense that, if Shahrazad didn't handwave a solution, things to go very pear-shaped for her.

Side note:  me playing sexual tension is just funny.  If you know me, I am likely the most awkwardly undemonstrative person you know.  I tend to treat women warily, as if they may at any point explode.  So, y'know, I do the best I can in the sexy scenes, while inwardly having a good laugh at myself and my clumsy antics.

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Generally, though, the show's firing on all cylinders.  We're nicely settling into the world depicted by the source material.  We've got the weird stories-within-stories thing down pretty well.  The show structure makes sense.  We've mostly worked out the stage design and all the costumes.  The tech types are hard at 'work' listening to tons of bellydancing music and picking out their playlists for the booth.[4]

It's all coming together like it should.  Opening night is the 22nd, and we run Fridays and Saturdays for four weekends.  When I know which nights I'm in, I'll let y'all know.

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[1] ... and, no doubt, facebook profile photos for everybody involved.

[2] Anybody know if there were observatories in ancient Arabia?  (Please say yes!)

[3] "Don't bother covering up, I'm old."  Slings & Arrows reference FTW!

[4] Question to tech people:  would the title track from Monsoon Wedding be appropriate to use?  I love that song.

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Mood: [mood icon] optimistic · Music: none
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