STOP KISS by Diana Son
Royall Tyler Theatre, 2011
In Stop Kiss, Callie meets Sarah, when Sarah first arrives in New York City from St.Louis. The two quickly become friends and strong romantic feelings begin to grow between them, but Sarah, surprised by her attraction to another young woman is unable to understand or express her feelings. Their friendship deepens, and one night, at Sarah’s suggestion, the two build up enough courage to go a women’s bar in New York’s West Village. At the end of that evening, the two find themselves in small lower Manhattan park where they share their first kiss. The kiss is witnessed by a nearby stranger, who attacks them, leaving Callie bruised and Sarah severely injured. Sarah’s ex-boyfriend Peter, arrives from Saint Louis determined to take Sarah “home” as soon as she’s well enough. Callie’s good friend George attempts to help but doesn’t understand that the attack occurred as a result of the two women sharing a kiss in public. Once Sarah is injured, Callie must decide if she is going to come forward as Sarah’s partner, or allow fear and Sarah’s ex-boyfriend and family to decide on Sarah’s recuperation and future. The play unfolds in non-chronological time, and although the style is contemporary realism, the rapid back and forth scenes taking place at different moments in Callie’s life, provide great challenges in staging and scene transitions.
I was initially drawn to the play because of the subject matter. There are a number of contemporary plays that address same sex love and relationships against the canvass of societal attitudes, but the majority of such plays place male relationships at the center. This was a great opportunity to work on a play about women in love and a perfect match for an undergraduate theatre program, both in content and in its opportunities for student actors. I was also very drawn to Stop Kiss for the central dramatic mechanism in the play: a central character who is forced to make a decision that will determine their “fortune.” In this case, the stakes involve Callie either standing up for herself and claiming her love for Sarah, or living a life of denial and repression.
I knew the greatest challenge in directing the show was going to be the staging and shifting seamlessly and effortlessly between scenes. Once I broke the script into segments, I concentrated on the technicalities of moving from one time period and location segment to another. I charted the necessary changes between the scenes, not only where the scenes took place and who was in the scenes, but practical considerations like what costume changes would have to take place and what set and prop items would have to be moved on and off stage. Once I had a general grasp of those elements, I began to think about a space that would allow a fluidity of movement. The script indicated five specific locations for the action, the most important of these being Callie’s Manhattan apartment. The set designer and I started with this location as the primary acting space. He presented the wonderful idea of a large backdrop panel of small windows that would suggest urban living. The panel extended along the entire expanse of the upstage area and would serve as a background for all the other scenes in the play: the police office where Callie is questioned, the café where she meets the witness who called the police after the attack, Sarah’s hospital room, and the park where Callie and Sarah share the significant kiss. The upstage right area of the space became the anchor, Callie’s apartment. The stage left and downstage areas were used as spaces for all other scenes in which furniture pieces and props were set and struck by actors.
I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the soundscape of Callie’s life, and the time period that the play was originally set, 1998. This led me to the music of Sarah McLaughlin and eventually to Sara Bareilles. I was very set on finding vocalists that Callie and Sarah might admire. Along with other contemporary artists like “A Fine Frenzy,” these female artists/vocalist made up the playlist for transition scenes, which became some of the staging segments I was most proud of. We set transitions to the music in a choreographed and elegant manner, at appropriate pace and tone, underscoring the emotional vibration for the characters at each point in the story. Of all the design elements of the production the sound design emerged as a the most powerful and memorable aspect for many audience members. During and after the run of the show I was contacted by a number of people who had seen it, requesting a playlist from the production.
Lighting the show was an easy process. Using specific areas of the stage for different location allowed the designer to hang and focus instruments that were appropriate for the various multi-scene areas, whereas the lighting for Callie’s apartment suggested only interior light with some practicals that the actors could turn on and off. The large back ground of paneled windows could be lit to suggest different times of the day.
Costumes choices for the characters also developed easily. The costume designer and I turned to current popular sources and urban labels where the characters would shop: primarily J Crew and Banana Republic. We made a distinction between the urban characters’ costumes and that of the ex-friend Peter, who comes to Manhattan from Saint Louis, and whose attire was slightly less stylish and much more conservative.
Working with undergraduate actors on this piece proved to be both challenging and remarkably rewarding. I found the actors to be emotionally available, able to tell the story with an authentic personal connection. The challenging work with the student actors involved attention to some of the technical aspects of the craft; enunciation, projection, clarity of physical movement. I was very fortunate to have a cast of talented young actors who were ultimately very naturalistic and believable. They found truth in telling the story and real depth in the more elevated emotional moments in the play. I believe we did well in serving the material.