As I prep for Alcestis, one refrain keeps appearing in my mind from all the shows I’ve seen as part of the Tepper program.
Sometimes you have to take the initiative Sometimes your whole family dies of cholera Sometimes you have to make your own story Sometimes you have to shoot the storyteller in the neck!
This profound (I’m saying that with no irony. Just wait.) bit of lyrics is part of a song called “Life Sucks (Reprise)” from the “emo-rock” musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. (You can listen to the song and three others, here.) This irreverent show comes from the relatively new and very awesome company Les Freres Corbusier, the creators of A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant, which is as awesome and hilarious as it sounds and Heddatron, the story of a woman who is kidnapped by robots and forced to perform Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler over and over again. Strindberg and Ibsen himself show up too.
Bloody Bloody highlights the nature of the early 19th century American character by telling the story of our seventh president, Andrew Jackson. The reason for the emo-rock? The American character just happens to be a very sensitive, rebellious teenager, manifested by Jackson himself, played by the very talented Benjamin Walker, a.k.a. Meryl Streep’s son-in-law, a.k.a. rock and roll sex on a stick.
In all seriousness, the machismo rock star image of Jackson is a big part of the show, because it hides a devastating vulnerability and childlike naiveté. When General Jackson is called to Washington to be told to stop killing people (Indians, the British, the Spanish) after he claimed Florida for the US, he is intimidated, mocked, and censured by the Washington elite (including Monroe, Van Buren, and John Quincy Adams, who is obviously a reference to another not too bright legacy president.)
As director Alex Timbers stages it, it is like watching a middle schooler on the principal’s carpet who hasn’t actually done anything wrong. And that’s only the beginning of Jackson being screwed over by the politicians. Bloody Bloody makes you forget for a few moments (or forty minutes) that Jackson presided over the single largest genocide in American history. It should be noted however that it quickly reminds you of the ugly side of the frontiersmen and the possible failure of populism. You really want to go to there.
Okay, now that I’ve geeked out on both the American History and theatre front, back to shooting the storyteller in the neck. Lillian, you may ask me, what the duck does that mean? Well, in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, there is a storyteller who guides us through the story, and (spoiler for Bloody Bloody, sorry) Jackson shoots her in the neck. (Maybe accidentally, but he’s the kind of guy who would claim he meant to do it even if he didn’t.)
Meta-theatrically speaking, this moment signifies Jackson taking control of the story himself, becoming an active force in his life. (Anyone who was ever a teenager remembers their own personal moment of “shooting the storyteller in the neck.” For me, it was probably when I refused to walk at graduation because I didn’t identify with my high school and wanted to move on as quickly as possible.)
How does “shooting the storyteller in the neck” apply to Alcestis? Well, one of the reasons Alcestis is a problem play is that the main character is kind of hard to like. Admetus, the king of Pherae, is supposed to die young, and Apollo negotiates for someone to die for him. But no one would. Not his parents, not his friends, only his wife, Alcestis. So she does. And Admetus has to live with it. Until Heracles shows up. (There’s my little pitch. Yay!)
So I’ve been thinking a lot about what lens to put on the show, how to help the audience sympathize with Admetus, and I’m beginning to realize that it might be time to shoot the storyteller in the neck. My actors are amazing, and I’ve sketched Apollo and Death (with a little inspiration from Neil Gaiman) in as actual characters with fears and joys. So maybe I need to just take care of the characters and let them tell their own story, let them struggle with their own battles, trust them more.
This puts us more in the throes of the writer, yes, but if the story isn’t worth telling you shouldn’t be telling it in the first place. One of my teachers, Erica Schmidt, once told me that one of the first things you can tell about the production is whether the director is in the foreground or background. Sure a lot of directors have a distinctive visual and narrative style, and that’s not necessarily the same as being an auteur. You can even be an auteur and focus on story and character rather than style. An auteur is often defined as a director who as a distinctive visual style or returning to similar stories and themes. Frankly I think everyone does that, but hey, they’re the French, they state the obvious so poetically. So being an auteur doesn’t mean Andrew Jackson would shoot you in the neck, as long as you remember whose story it is.
It’s very simple and kind of obvious, but it’s something I think we need to be reminded of every now and then. It’s not about us. It’s about the characters. I understand the auteur theory, but I really don’t want to get shot in the neck. That’s a Staging Principle.