“…in the sixties, there were plays inspired by the black power movement where a guy would come to the front of the stage and yell at the audience, ‘You are pigs, we are going to get you.’ And the drama critic would say, ‘My favorite part of the evening was the thrilling moment when that guy approached the audience and said “You are pigs. We are going to get you.”‘ To that drama critic, that was an exciting moment of theater. To the writer of the play—well, he might have meant it. But the critic watching the play didn’t really feel threatened, he just thought it was great theater.
The idea that people might react like that to The Fever was nauseating to me. I didn’t want to give someone an agreeable feeling of agitation. I was trying to speak as a friend to a friend, from one human being to another. And that isn’t possible in a theater, because in a theater, even if an actor has a heart attack and dies onstage, the audience always interprets it as part of the show.”
from Interviews: Wallace Shawn
The Art of the Theatre No. 17
Interviewed by Hilton Als
Paris Review, no. 201, Summer 2012
What deeply impressed me and made me love The Fever when I first saw it in Edmonton in 1993 was just how artless it was – in the good sense of the word – at delivering its message. Because as anyone who has seen or read the play will know, the message of The Fever is the kind most writers prefer to deliver under the cloak of metaphor. Shawn doesn’t let it rest at simply pointing out that the system upon which the world currently runs presupposes and perpetuates miseries that include state-sanctioned torture, rape, and murder for the billions who sit on the low rungs of the economic ladder.* He thereafter proceeds to direct a finger at the audience (either an index pointed horizontally or the middle digit hoisted vertically, depending on how we take what’s coming) and says quite plainly that not a single one of us can consider ourselves a decent person. Rather, we’re all as good as torturers and murderers unless we’re doing something material – and this is painstakingly and forcefully opposed in his argument to fine sentiments and to merely thinking and saying all the right things – to counter the system’s effects.
This means you in the front row. And you in the back. And you, there in the middle. And you, and you, and you. And me. And the producers of the show. And the director. All of us, pretty much. As this production’s performer, Melissa Thingelstad, would ruefully and roughly translate the gist of play to friends and acquaintances on numerous occasions, “We’re all a bunch of assholes.”
Obviously it’s important to honour Shawn’s conviction that the seriousness of his message is not something you want to have people confuse with just another night at the theatre. So, yes, perhaps it’s best to confine the piece to the living rooms of the people to whom it’s directed: just about everyone in the so-called First World, including, and I’ll underscore this, me.
On the other hand, Shawn did finally take the play to the stage himself. And as often as it’s presented in living rooms, The Fever has been performed on stages around the world, including twice previously at the professional level in Edmonton and at least once more, I’m told, as a directing project at the University. Sometimes its mise-en-scène has gone no further than the bare minimum: a chair, an actor, lights up and it’s off to the races. This was the case with the first production I saw, the first Canadian touring production featuring Clare Coulter. The directors of these productions have either been wise enough to recognize that such simplicity best suits Shawn’s text and its message, or they have been content to treat a theatrical space as if it were a kind of living room; in either case, it’s hard to argue with that formula. There seems to me an unassailable honesty about it, all things being equal. It lets the text do the talking, and maybe that’s really the best way to do the play after all.
However, other productions of The Fever have grappled further with how it could be presented in a theatrical context. One person I spoke to aptly noted that one of the challenges of putting on The Fever in a theatre was finding a way to break down the more ingrained sense of separation that exists between the audience and the performer in that context in a manner that reproduces the intimacy and directness that’s possible in a living room – thereby, presumably, reducing the chance that the audience can dismiss the piece as mere entertainment. This person cited the 2007 production at the Acorn Theater in New York, featuring Shawn himself, and directed by Scott Elliot. Shawn delivered his piece sitting in a literal slice of a living room situated in the middle of the stage (the set designer was Derek McLane). In order to break down the fourth wall, people were invited onto the stage before the start of the show to mingle and sip champagne with the playwright.
At least one concept has gone steps farther: an ingenious sounding production I came across on the internet involved something like five actors performing the script at a dinner table at which the audience members were also seated. I wish I could have seen this production. I imagine it must have played out like a conversation at a dinner party at which it became increasingly harder to eat the food in good conscience. Our worship of consumption would have been impugned in a most palpable manner. On the other hand there was also that recent French production at LaMaMa in New York at the top of which the actress, Simona Maicanescu, enters and makes her way to a small square of light in the middle of the stage. Arriving at the spot, she mutters “I stand here?”, then steps into the square of and remains there, according to reviews, for most of the first half of the show. The articles I read didn’t really describe what happens after she finally leaves the square, but I wish I’d seen this staging too, partly to find out and partly because it sounds like director Lars Norén may have done without the almost obligatory chair.
For our production, what was reassuring for a start was our venue: the wonderfully intimate, appropriately named, and sadly now defunct Living Room Theatre, home until very recently of Azimuth Theatre, a local experimental company that also made it its mandate to make their small space available at very reasonable cost to local independent productions. The theatre seats just over fifty audience members compactly wrapped around a small thrust that’s effectively about twenty feet wide by about fifteen feet deep. It’s about as intimate a space as you can get outside a real living room.
But in spite of its homey name, the Azimuth space is (or was) a performance space, a theatre. It had a basic lighting grid with a modest complement of Source Fours and Fresnells. It had speakers and a sound board. It had as many as three tiers of seating oriented around a clearly defined playing area. All of these elements either created or tended to contribute to that problematic sense of separation between an audience and a performer. Moreover and perhaps at once the same and worse, they also fostered in audiences the expectation of a night of entertainment.
So we were faced with two conundrums. Should we confound the assumption that a theatrical event would occur in the theatre or run with it? Should we make an overt attempt to decisively tear down the wall between the performer and the audience or should we cross our fingers and leave it up?
We also needed to consider the question that, I think, has to be addressed in some way when staging the play, even if it’s performed in a living room: namely, where in the world is the play’s sole on stage character supposed to be? Shawn has written them speaking in the present tense, as if they are “in” the poor country of which they speak, right from the outset, starting with the play’s first line:
“I’m travelling, and I wake up suddenly in the silence before dawn in strange hotel room in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken and I’m shaking and shivering. Why?”
The character goes on to describe, always in the present tense, moving from the bedroom of this strange hotel room to its bathroom and back over the course of the play, so one might well argue that they are indeed in that hotel room, having that fever at that time, and that perhaps they are talking to themselves.
On the other hand, nothing in the play necessary precludes the character from actually being in an actual living room, or literal theatrical space for that matter, speaking directly to an audience in that same space as exactly the people they are. In this case, she or he is recounting the story in the present tense in the same way people often do when they tell stories at dinner parties:
“So I’m walking down the sidewalk minding my own business and all of a sudden…etc., etc.”
Or maybe it’s something in between. Maybe the character is in the hotel room speaking to the audience as if they’re part of his or her hallucination. That would be possible. Or maybe they’re in someone’s living room but speaking to an imaginary friend. That would be pointless. Or maybe, as I seem to recall Shawn himself suggesting somewhere, it’s not something you’re meant to think about too much. Audiences intuitively get the convention of being spoken to directly by a character on stage, even though they know they are not “there” where the performer imagines herself or himself to be; if the reality the performer is creating for themselves is compelling enough, they will be drawn into it whatever it is.
In answer to these and other questions for our production we made the following decisions.
First, as we were in a theatrical space, we were going to risk a more theatrical approach in staging the play. This risk that we’d dilute the impact of Shawn’s message by theatricalizing it was minimized, I felt, for a number of reasons. For one, the space we were working in was so intimate that the sense of separation between audience and player would be diminished considerably. Contributing to this point in our favour, we were also working on a thrust stage; what walls that might exist around it would tend to be dissolved by the fact that most audience members would be reminded throughout the performance that they were sharing the space with other human beings because they could see other viewers either across from them or tangent to their line of vision. In addition, Melissa would not let them forget each other because she would constantly be turning to address all three sections of the audience. For a second thing, I think Shawn’s message is so forthright and forcefully communicated that it can penetrate a theatrical treatment in a convicting fashion. Third, as honest as I’ve said that I think the actor-in-a-chair-in-the-middle-of-the-stage concept is, I think there is equal honestly in not ignoring that the play is being presented in a theatre, where certain possibilities come into play that are not available in a living room. Finally, Edmonton had been treated to the chair-plonk production twice. One I’d seen. The other not. Regardless, it had been done. And I wanted to try something theatrical instead.
This decided, the question of a concept called for an answer. If not in a literal theatre, where then were we situating the speaker? Photos of productions available on the internet confirmed a variety of answers had been tried. Clare Higgins in the 2009 Royal Court production looked as though she was, well okay, working on a chair-plonk set. Regardless, I was having no second thoughts about creating a more involved design around Melissa. I’d been informed that the second Edmonton production, directed by Amy deFelice and performed by John Sproule in 2005, was set in a living room in which each piece of furniture cleverly looked like it had come from a different country of origin at the 10,000 Villages store. There was also a chair that looked a bit like an electric chair and a bowl of oranges that was used to help illustrate the section on commodity fetishism. I google-found another set that seemed to put the actor on a patio of some restaurant or villa, complete with table, chairs, a glass of wine.
Bringing a living room (or patio) into the theatre had obviously worked, if reviews were any indication. It looked, from other pictures on the net, as though bringing the hotel bathroom into the theatre had also been tried. That idea had made sense to me too. But I was in a mood to shy away from something that suggested a representative setting that was all just for pretend.
Wondering if it might be helpful to audiences to hint at the arbitrary and tenuous nature of the lines we draw and boundaries we set to keep our consciences clear – as in: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I have beliefs. There’s a reason why I’m not going to give the beggar all of my money.” – I toyed around with a set concept that used wires or string to divide the space in a manner that begged questions about their arrangement. This idea came from the impression made on me years before by a Fred Sandback sculpture that was just a long wire bisecting a room diagonally, extending from a ceiling corner down and across to its kitty corner on the floor. But as we continued to work on the piece I kept seeing the tiles on the floor of the hotel bathroom in which the speaker spends the greater part of the play. I wanted to incorporate them into the staging. It also occurred to me that the criss-cross pattern of their grouting could help serve the same purpose as hanging wires or string. Except of course that I didn’t want to see a real bathroom, complete with toilet, sink, tub and door. Entertaining the Sandback-inspired concept had strengthened my conviction that I wanted to have Melissa in an abstract space that resonated the play’s themes and messages.
To bring an already long story to a brief end, I decided we’d see the tiles, the wall, and a bath mat, but they would all be sufficiently schematic that the set might be understood as either the fragmented memory – or the abstract image – of the hotel bathroom in the character’s fevered mind. We’d have a chair too – one that was generic-looking enough that it could pass for something a more expensive-type hotel might place in a bathroom – but it would look productively out of place all alone in our space. I also didn’t want to do without the chair. I suppose it wouldn’t have been absolutely necessary to have one, but it was going to be helpful in creating levels, and it could carry, as the solitary piece of furniture in our somewhat surreal latrine, important significance. Finally, we used the ambiguity of the spare wall and floor of this “bathroom of a fevered mind” to play with perspective in a low-budget Robert Lepage kind of way in order to give the audience, at certain moments, an experience something akin to the flash of insight the speaker has when, at the beginning of the play, she sees herself as if from above – “at that table, in that restaurant.” In this I am probably as much indebted to Tobais Wegner’s Leo, which I had recently seen, as I am to Lepage.
And to whom was Melissa speaking? For my part, I asked her to speak directly to the audience. If she was in the hotel bathroom that her feverish mind perceived or was recalling, we were thereby seeing into her thoughts, into that mind into which she was born. Melissa may well have taken that to mean she was literally in the theatre or that she was inside her body in an imaginary living room. I left that part up to her and it seemed to work out just fine.
In the end, I like to think that our production helped to illuminate and perhaps even add further interesting dimension to what Shawn was trying to communicate in his play, even though he’s already perfectly clear and so devastatingly eloquent and evocative in what he’s saying. As for the problem the playwright outlines in the quote at the very top of this page, I’ll admit I’m not altogether sure whether our mise-en-scène succeeded, as I hoped, in amplifying the force and intention behind the words he meant so seriously to say, or diminished their impact. I hope at least we did no them harm in that respect.
On this and any other questions raised here or elsewhere to do with The Fever, these notes may be considered a call for constructive comment to anyone who cares to offer it, whether they saw the production or not. And whoever you are, you’re allowed to say you hated our staging – as long as you give reasons to support that valid reaction.
theatre no. 6
NOTES ON DESIGN
The set: white, as bathrooms tend to be, but also white because it could evoke the artificially antiseptic worldview of the speaker until the fever hits her. Surreal in its spareness – keeping its vocabulary limited and therefore, hopefully, less prone to unintentional ambiguity. White also allowed us to make use of shadows to help illustrate or illuminate certain events or images.
The wall: White, for the reasons explained above, extending along the back of the set. I used this back perimeter to suggest the “poor country” and “travel” finding reasons – some a bit contrived – to send Melissa to wall when the speaker talks about her travels. When she seems to become possessed by the spirit of the female guerilla fighter who tries to “tell her about the people who hate” her, I had her stalking back and forth along the wall, trapped but restive.
The floor: White tiles, about sixteen inches square, with a sort of grey grouting. The tiled look was created by drawing lines with a thick grey marker across a floor painted with white gloss latex. For their advice on its execution, indeed for all the constructive criticism they provided when I shared my overall concept with them, I’m indebted to designers Guido Tondino and Victoria Zimski. The lines ended up looking a little dirtier than I hoped. I would have used a lighter grey if I were to do it all over again. These grout lines would become the borders of the boxes within boxes in which ordinary objects were wrapped, thereby becoming the most precious things in the world, and also the streets that set the good neighbourhoods apart from the bad. The uniform tiles became Bob, Fred and all the speaker’s other friends, whose differing beliefs would nevertheless fail to distinguish them from each other in the eyes of the poor and of the speaker during the course of her fever.
Bath mat/Wall hanging: The idea was to have a wall hanging that recalled a carpet or a bath mat to help with the perspective shift, turning the room on its side from time to time in order to get a bird’s eye view of the performer that evoked the same insight she experiences at the top of the play. I wanted it to be about six feet by four and we were unbelievably fortunate in finding something just that size in the form of what’s called a tissue carpet. We were in the Home Outfitter’s store wondering if we could stitch four smaller versions of the things together when a service person approached us and asked if we wanted something bigger. She then led us to a sale bin in which the piece we coveted was available at a substantial discount but was practically buried among other rolled up carpets. We’d never have found it without her help.
True to its name it looks like someone has threaded thousands of tissues through a braided carpet. The texture was fantastic. Maybe no one got “tissue” looking at it, which would have been unfortunate, since that seemed as likely to resonate tears, real or crocodile, for the world as it did bandages and comfort. I did use it mostly as a metaphor for latter, and for excess, directing Melissa to treat it in fetishistic fashion at certain moments. At the end, it became the forest into which the character falls but never lands.
The chair: We used a generic looking Ikea chair I had in my apartment (this was a low budget production done for love more than money). It had come with a red covering which we put over it to evoke the obvious: blood. I used it generally as a metaphor for hierarchy and power, a comfortable structure to which Melissa would be drawn when feeling threatened, and that felt less comfortable to sit on after she returned from her first travels to poor countries. As the audience entered the space, they were presented with the image of Melissa sitting awkwardly on the chair – which was resting on its side – to foreshadow the restive state of mind with which she begins the play. While nothing new, having Melissa already in the space was also our way of breaking down the barrier between performer and audience. Instead of having her take the stage at the start of the show, the audience was meant to feel they were intruding on the performer’s space.
Light: It was Guido Tondino who suggested I use matching sets of blue and white lights against the floor and the wall to help clarify the shift in perspectives we were trying to produce: blue floor and white wall versus blue wall and white floor; switch from one look to the other and the room appears to have turned on its side. While the lighting capacity at the Azimuth was limited, this is what we went for with modest success, with the expert assistance of technician Aaron Wicks. While the sequence ended up much less ambitious than the one Aaron and I initially began to build (we did keep the first five cues Aaron built for us), it was at times, I think, a quite effective design. I reserved one red light for a final, closing image of a blood soaked carpet. I also imposed an arbitrary rule on top of it all: no gobos. It was my first lighting design and I wanted to keep it simple. In that respect, thank god there weren’t so many lights to choose from.
Sound: I wanted to keep this minimal and only used very brief segments of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres as a recurring motif for the ones who are sacrificed for us: the prisoner at the start of the play, for instance, or the Guerilla fighter at the end. In case anyone saw Derek Cianfrance’s film The Place Beyond the Pines, yes, that’s where I got the idea from (though I’ve always loved Fratres, so maybe I would have used it anyway). I also kept toying with the cues throughout the run because I was unhappy with how they were originally working for a number of reasons. Pre-show: slow movements from Beethoven String Quartets Four and Seven. Post-show: more Pärt – on some nights another arrangement of Fratres, on others Summa or Silhouan’s Song. I think I eventually settled on reprising the Fratres.
Costume: We wanted something that clearly communicated her upper middle class but also looked comfortable and got across a sense of someone who was curious and outgoing enough to meet all the people she met. Again, our budget was limited, but I think the compromise worked out all right. In any event, it wasn’t much of a departure from other designs, if the Royal Court production with Clare Higgins is any indication. “If she was in the bathroom of her mind in a strange hotel the middle of the night,” you might ask, “why not put her in a slip or some other type of bed clothing?” It’s a good question. I suppose I thought that might be too distracting. And it was the bathroom of her mind. And it was her comfortable First World middle-class assumptions that were being put into question. So I suppose I must have thought it would be best to see her in that “uniform” rather than in something that tended to arouse associations with theatrical symbols of victimhood.
A FINAL IRONY?
One is tempted to wonder if it was Shawn disapproving of our production from a distance, as if he might have telepathically sensed our approach was all wrong. Regardless, Melissa came down with a real, actual fever after the second performance of the show and we ended up cancelling all three shows scheduled on the first weekend of the run. Then I came down with it and the following Tuesday night show became what we called our “unplugged” performance since I wasn’t able to be there to run lights and sound. On the bright side, Melissa felt she acted the symptoms of her fever with much greater verisimilitude after her bout.
* I’ve just cracked the cover of J.K. Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, first published in 1958, where this position is articulated with equal eloquence by one the great economists of the 20th century, albeit minus references to torture, rape, and murder.