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Finding the Rhythms in a Playwright’s Words

May 23, 2010

After a run-through early last week of the play “God’s Ear,” the director Erika Chong Shuch assembled her cast for a post-rehearsal debriefing. The actors, members of the Shotgun Players, were dissatisfied with their work that evening on this dark and surreal drama, written by Jenny Schwartz. They said they felt their collective lack of focus had sapped the play of its energy.

Ms. Shuch, a San Francisco choreographer with, by her own admission, a limited command of theatrical terminology, was groping for a concise way of telling them to be more aware of their physical choices.

“What’s that word I’m looking for?” she asked. A chorus of voices immediately responded: “Intention!”

Dance and drama have always been closely related. But over the last few decades, choreographers have increasingly been sought after to take on projects in theatrical disciplines. These days it’s not unusual to find choreographers directing operas (Mark Morris, Trisha Brown) and musicals (Bill T. Jones, Twyla Tharp).

Meanwhile, choreographers like Ms. Shuch and some of her peers in the Bay Area, including Joe Goode and Deborah Slater, create hybrid dance-theater works that fuse movement and music with modes of expression more commonly associated with drama, like spoken text. Yet it’s much less common for a choreographer to direct a so-called straight play, a text-based work by another author. By staging “God’s Ear,” Ms. Shuch, 36, is stepping into relatively uncharted territory.

“This is a new frontier,” said Mr. Goode, the founder and artistic director of the Joe Goode Performance Group and a professor in the theater, dance and performance studies department of the University of California, Berkeley. “Artists like Erika are in danger of being a little misunderstood in dance circles because their interest in theater is genuine and not secondary to their desire to make choreography.”

“God’s Ear,” which opened on Wednesday and follows the disintegrating relationship between a husband and a wife after the death of their young son, is in many ways an ideal vehicle for a dance-oriented director. The text courses with rhythmic and melodic vitality. It sounds in parts like a Gertrude Stein poem with repetitive, singsong lines that come close to emptying themselves of meaning. (“He’s in a coma. He’s hooked up to a respirator. He has a pulse. He has brain damage. Due to lack of ... Extensive brain damage. Due to lack of ...”)

The play is also about the failure of language to express true feelings. Thus a director who is used to articulating emotions in a nonverbal medium like dance may be well equipped to mine the depths of such a drama.

“There is an exquisite balance in the play between the mundane and the abstract, which I have recognized in Erika’s dance theater experiments,” said Elizabeth Lisle, the managing director of the Shotgun Players, in explaining why her company decided to pair Ms. Shuch with “God’s Ear.” (The company had employed her once before, to create dance sequences for last year’s production of “The Threepenny Opera.”)

Ms. Shuch often uses the trappings of everyday life to conceal — and occasionally reveal glimmers of — deeper truths. In “Orbit: Notes From the Edge of Forever,” which was performed at Intersection for the Arts, a multidisciplinary arts center in the Mission neighborhood, in 2006, she mixed old household appliances and references to popular movies like Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” with deliberately unwieldy aerial dance techniques (performers being carried around the stage by other cast members) to comment subtly and humorously on our inability to understand the universe or one another.

Similarly, in “After All: Part 1,” a work created by Ms. Shuch in 2008 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, scenes involving a goldfish, a preacher and a man sunbathing on a beach coalesced into a dreamy theatrical riff on the elusive nature of the present, the slipperiness of memory and our unsettling hopes and fears.

Ms. Shuch has also had the benefit of working with playwrights. As a resident artist at Intersection for the Arts, she has collaborated with Philip Kan Gotanda and Octavio Solis.

Nevertheless, she has faced significant challenges as a director. In a play the text is king. For the most part, Ms. Shuch has created what are called devised pieces. These collaborative works are typically developed from scratch in the rehearsal room, and the creative team is often free to remove, add or transform lines or replace entire scenes with movement, video or other visual elements.

But plays generally require the director and actors to honor the author’s words. Directors also have to pay careful attention to the narrative arcs of characters, as well as to the structure of scenes and the shape of the play. Choreographers don’t usually have to concern themselves with complex characterizations.

Ms. Shuch seems to relish the challenge. “Directing a play is wildly different than devising a new work,” she said. “There is a freedom in being handed a structure that has been tried and tested elsewhere. It’s like being able to play on a jungle gym that somebody else built, as opposed to fashioning your own jungle gym and having it break under your own weight a thousand times before you know it can handle being played upon.



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