In Small Spaces, Theater-Makers Are Telling Big Stories
Monologist Mike Daisey has a new story to tell, and if you want to hear it, then you'd better settle in. It's going to take a month to get through it.
In one sense, All the Faces of the Moon, starting Sept. 5 at the Public Theater in New York, is a collection of 29 different monologues, which Daisey will perform consecutively and for one night only. Each piece has its own narrative, so even if they see just one installment, audiences can have a complete experience.
Pull back, though, and the project becomes a single massive opus — one that runs about 44 hours.
"It's a very large, sort of magical, novel-like treatment of New York City," Daisey says, adding that his "opening-night party" won't even happen until after the project is completed.
"For me, I will feel like the one and only performance ends on Oct. 3," he says.
Daisey isn't the only one mounting a massive cycle this fall. Through Sept. 28, a collection of West Village theaters is staging all five of Lucy Thurber's The Hill Town Plays, a cycle that charts a blue-collar woman's life in western Massachusetts.
And on Sept. 19, Utah Shakespeare Festival (in Cedar City, Utah) begins performances of Richard II, the latest entry in its multiyear effort to present Shakespeare's 10-play English history cycle in chronological order. Meanwhile, New York Public Radio is producing an audio archive of another 10-play epic: August Wilson's Century Cycle, which deploys one play per decade to chronicle the African-American experience in the 20th century. By Sept. 28, each play — including Wilson's two Pulitzer Prize winners, Fences and The Piano Lesson -- will have received a star-studded staged reading, and all of them will have been recorded for posterity.
Why all the epic projects? When producing plays and attracting audiences is more challenging than ever, why grapple with something so ambitious?
For many of the artists involved, the answer is simple: This is what theater's for.
"When you exceed the standard parameters of storytelling, you get this opportunity to reflect on something that is larger than the art itself, which I think is always something that the art is reaching for," Daisey says.
To that end, his All the Faces of the Moon is scheduled to parallel a lunar month, beginning on a full moon and ending on a sliver.
"The whole point is to document performances that occur in time spans that were not created by human beings," Daisey says.
Plus, when we experience a large story, we have more time to wrestle with themes and ideas, to contemplate a work as well as experience it. For David Ivers and Brian Vaughn, co-artistic directors of Utah Shakespeare Festival, that's part of the appeal of the history cycle project.
"We're keenly aware of the breadth and scope of these stories, and inside the plays in the history cycle, there's this incredible family drama unfolding," says Ivers. "We thought, 'Why wouldn't we give ourselves the challenge of seeing how Shakespeare orders history?' "
As Richard II gets underway, Vaughn is preparing to direct Henry IV, Part I next year. He says that experiencing Henry's predecessors — King John and Richard II-- has changed how he understands the characters, not least Bolingbroke, the rebellious earl who leads the effort to unseat the ineffective Richard.
"I was really struck by Bolingbroke's obsession with guilt, and how that carried through for him into Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II, and how that guilt is then passed on to his son in Henry V," Vaughn says.
Being asked to think about her entire cycle at once has also influenced Lucy Thurber's writing. Though one play, Ashville, is receiving its world premiere, the other four have existed for years. Now, though, all of them have been revised — and Stay, the cycle's final section, is essentially brand new.
"I have been trying to solve that play for close to a decade, and it's only been doing it as part of the five-play series that has allowed me to figure out how to finish it," Thurber says. "It's because I've been watching and working on the other plays to the extent that I have that I was able to finish it as an individual play, and as the final play in a series."
Of course an artistic breakthrough wouldn't have much immediate impact if no one showed up to see it — and it's not hard to imagine audiences avoiding a multiday, multishow commitment. But the theaters involved report that ticket sales have been respectable for all of the projects.
It's possible that TV deserves some credit for that; the era of binge-watching has arguably been prepping people to absorb enormous stories in a short period of time. But epic live performances are exactly what television can't provide us — so maybe the real appeal is that these cycles are unique to the theater.
No matter why patrons commit, though, David van Asselt thinks those who see all five of Thurber's plays are in for a better time. He's both the artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which has supported Thurber for years, and the leader of the collective that's mounting The Hill Town Plays.
"The sum of these plays is much bigger than their individual parts," he says. "I feel like audiences are ready for this sort of thing. Maybe they're ready to be challenged more."
There's also the appeal of witnessing a capital-E event. It's one thing to see a random production of Richard III, but it can feel more exciting to experience Shakespeare's entire vision of history.
Or his entire canon, for that matter: Along with the history cycle, Utah Shakespeare Festival is dedicated to producing all of the Bard's plays by 2023. To create a sense of buzz, the theater is offering a special pin to mark every Shakespeare production, in the hopes that people will want to collect them all. As the history plays progress, it's also possible that the same actors will play the same roles across multiple shows, which could encourage people to follow a performer from production to production.
In a similar vein, the Public is offering perks — including invitations to special parties and the chance to make an onstage cameo — to anyone who sees multiple monologues in All the Faces of the Moon. There are even patrons who have signed up for all 29 parts, which even Mike Daisey admits is a surprise.
"I've never watched anything for 29 nights," he says. "I actually find that more inconceivable than the thing I'm going to do. The idea that they would be totally emotionally available to witness something for 29 nights is shocking and kind of awesome."
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