MARAT SADE by Peter Weiss (The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade)
Royall Tyler Theatre, 2016
Marat/Sade was one of the most challenging productions I’ve undertaken as a director. The majority of shows I’ve directed have provided an immediate artistic hook leading to a concept which in turn brings me into the project with a passion to make the play happen. Not so much with this one. And yet it was an assignment I would have to find a way to fall in love with, not only for myself but for all of the many collaborators: actors, designers, a dramaturge, and a large running crew. After reading the script a number of times I was fraught with anxiety and antipathy toward the material. I recognized the historical metaphors and the significant place Peter Brook’s influential production held in theatrical history. I initially attempted to draw the obvious parallels to our modern-day issues: Occupy Wall Street, the economic crisis of 2008, and the increase in wealth of the top 1 per cent. But I felt mired down by what I perceived as a script that lacked compelling plot action and an original musical score that felt dated and limiting at the outset. As I continued to study the text, I was struck by the symbolism of social hierarchies and religious references, and I suddenly began to visualize the play as an otherworldly existence of souls imprisoned by the “authorities,” held in purgatory, and awaiting sentencing. Once I set the action outside of actual French history, I began to imagine exciting and vibrant possibilities for the production. The concept was driven by two key realms: purgatory and a dance club environment. The religious references in the text led me to the purgatory concept while the blatant carnal sexuality displayed in the original production inspired me to relocate the sexual acts to a public space that reverberated in our modern world. I dispensed of the original score and worked with a composer to set the lyrics to original fully orchestrated melodies. Rather than a live band, the music and sound was run by a D. J. visible to the audience in the performances. Using raw theatre as another guiding principle we set to make the production as visceral, and at the appropriate moments, as shocking as possible.
In order to immediately upturn audience expectations upon arrival, we completely inverted the thrust stage space of the Royall Tyler Theatre. Audience members did not enter through the usual lobby but through the backstage voms and an upstage entrance near what would normally be the proscenium. The large center section of audience seating was masked by huge metal scaffolding units that extended from the stage deck up to the grid. The stage manager and board operators were in costume (as asylum inmates) in full view of the audience. Masked “inmates” directed audience members to their seating at the top of the show, then took their places, removed their masks and assumed the roles in the play within the play. The reimagining of the environment allowed me to think creatively about the staging of the play. Since the text consists of a series of vignettes enacted by the inmates, rather than traditional dramatic action, I set the goal to continually surprise, shock, and mystify the audience through composition, movement, light, and sound. I attempted to replace the audience asking “What is going happen next in the story?” with “What is going to happen next in this space?” I invest very heavily in aesthetic beauty on the stage when I direct, and after considerable research, thought, collaboration with my colleagues (and a hellish technical rehearsal schedule), the process resulted in one of the most visually stunning projects I have had the pleasure of working on. As an example: In the final segment of the play when the inmates overtake the asylum, smoke emanated from the grid, filling the theatre space, the lights went red, club music pulsed toward a monumental crescendo, strobe lights flashed on the inmates as they slaughtered their captors in slow motion, then escaped through a trap door center stage. Throughout this segment, red rose petals, accenting the slaughter, showered over the entire stage from the grid. This culminated with the master of the story, the Marquis de Sade character, suspended frozen in midair center stage, as the music reached an explosive climax and the lights hit a zero-count blackout. It was thrilling. This was a lesson in true collaboration with designers since the “spectacle” elements of the production were the focus of the live event.
The experience of working on this project reminded me that productions can have other driving mechanisms beyond the text. I believe that starting with the text is imperative, but text can open creative vision to other theatrical experiences beyond a traditional treatment of a play. As I continue on as a director, I’m dedicated to the challenge of new approaches. I ask myself these central questions: What is new about the approach to this production? Is this absolutely the most exciting and different way to story tell? Is my approach offering an experience for the audience like nothing they have ever seen? This is not to say that I advocate innovation as an imposition on the text. New approaches have to be organic and serve the play’s purpose, but originality has to be a major consideration in my directing process.