“Okay, while we’re stopped here, I just wanted to have you guys look at something real quick.”
Director Peggy Gannon is leading the company of MAP’s Soft Click of a Switch through its first rehearsal. It is the time for “table work,” a period of rehearsal time — typically at the beginning of the process — where a director does the work of establishing their vision of a production with the cast. Table work could be as simple as the first read-through, or as lengthy as the director wants to make it, sometimes for months on end, provided they have the resources lined up. In the Fringe, it rarely lasts longer than a week; however, given the various obstacles the company had to overcome to get to this point, as discussed in our previous entry, it could be said that Soft Click has had a particularly lengthy period of table work. For this read-through, Gannon has Brandon Ryan (who plays Ed in the production) and Mark Fullerton (who plays Earl) switch roles.
Gannon continues, “Here on page twenty-two, toward the bottom, Ed says ‘You’re my best friend, and you don’t know what the fuck is happening around you…’ That just struck me — they have known each other for how long at this point? Three days? Four? There’s something so sad, so touching to me that he’s calling Earl his ‘best friend’ already.” Fullerton and Ryan take a second to let this sink in, and some small discussion is had regarding Ed’s childlike, stunted emotionalism. After noting how passively this connection is made, the notion that both characters accept this declaration of friendship without objection is accepted as fact, as well as a sign of their level of disconnect from social norms.
Gannon began this exercise by telling her actors that her intent was not to fill in the characters’ back stories. “I’m not that kind of director,” she explains, “I like to leave that up to the actor. If you want my input, I’ll give it to you if you ask, but I’m more technical as a director.” Instead, she wanted to explore the script with the cast in order to find “emotional truths, and talk it over with each other in order to create an established universe.”
As the evening progresses, a lot of material is discussed and hashed out. Among the questions and observations:
Fullerton: “Are we assuming that [Ed and Earl] are speaking the truth to each other at all times?”
A line where Ed is talking about his neighbors, Sid and Nancy, and passively compares himself to God is pointed out.
Sarah Bixler, the production’s stage manager, remarking on how Nancy’s behavior changes from moody to violent in one quick moment: “She just turned a switch.” This if followed by a discussion regarding how this describes how all humans interact and react to the world.
Gannon: “For Ed, what’s important is connection and trust. What’s important to Earl is truth.”
How Americans react to adverse prompting can be divided by class. The upper classes react with condescension; the middle classes with sarcasm; and the lower with just plain aggression.
It’s not all serious business, however. Early in the play, it is discovered that Ed has a tendency to give sexual favors to strangers, and if the recipient passes out, he feels no compunction against taking some money in return.
Ryan: “That’s how he makes friends; he blows people for twenty dollars.”
Fullerton: “Is that the going rate? Twenty dollars…plus tip?”
Gannon: “The tip is included in the blow job. It’s the first thing that goes in…”
Though all plays should receive this level of scrutiny, Carter Lewis’ Soft Click of a Switch practically demands it. To begin with, the play’s protagonists, Ed and Earl, are at turns abrasive, pathetic, and more than a little sociopathic. Through the course of the play, they turn to a life of petty domestic terrorism, acts done not with a political agenda, so much as a desire to “do something,” as Ed puts it. Earl is essentially homeless, has a dead-end job and is nursing suicidal thoughts, which is why he carries a gun with him and spends his time drinking straight gin.
Ed, on the other hand, is unemployed, lives in a dump, watches his neighbors’ intimate moments through a crack in the wall between them and describes the people who are not in his influence (which is just about everybody until he meets Earl) as “the dead,” and a bunch of “fucks.” As Earl describes his ineffectuality when they first meet, “Your hatred doesn’t achieve the status of real hatred because it’s small.” Ed hates the world, although he doesn’t know why; for Earl hatred of the world comes from far too much experience within it.
It seems that Lewis created these characters, and this story, not just to entertain the audience, but to have the audience, if not identify with them, then at least “take care of” sociopaths like these “in their hearts,” which is how Ed describes his relationship with his neighbors — there are other indications that this sympathy is being sought for that we’ll get to later. Under any circumstances, this is something of a tall order, and that’s before one takes the play’s other idiosyncrasies into consideration.
To begin with, the dialogue between the two men is elliptical and convoluted enough to invite comparisons to Samuel Beckett and early vaudevillians. Then you add the fact that everything is filtered through them: there are no outside perspectives represented during the course of the play. For example, Ed pulls out Earl’s gun inside of a bar at one point, no one notices or pays attention. Even in 1998, when this play was written, and even somewhere in Minnesota, where the story is set, this seems a bit unlikely. Just how much are we to trust these characters?
That the audience is supposed to identify with then is undeniable: Before Ed describes his relationship with Sid and Nancy as his way of “caring,” there is this bit of text where he depicts what it’s like to view them through the crack, which doubles as a description of the relationship between the audience and a play’s characters:
Ed: It’s like what’s on the outside of that room is…on the outside. They don’t want it inside. It’s naked in there. It’s just them. They don’t want to hear me, so they don’t. […] If the walls were glass they wouldn’t know it. Because they don’t want to know. […] They did what they did because it was just them. They were lost inside the world inside a cave inside them.
Then you get to the play’s last scene which defies easy description. Are Ed and Earl suddenly victims of their own terrorist activities? Have they been caught and are now seeking asylum — in another reality perhaps? Did they assume extra-dimensional powers? What is in the wall between Ed’s apartment and Sid and Nancy’s?
We asked Gannon about these matters during a rehearsal and found that some had definitive answers while others were still under consideration.
Seattle Star: At several points in the script for Soft Click you have the voices of characters who aren’t Ed and Earl intrude on their world (e.g. a bartender, a secretary, a neighbor). Are you treating these as real, or are they a manifestation of something else, or…?
Gannon: I’ve been thinking of those voices as a more pronounced version of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons.
Seattle Star: [imitating the voices:] “Whuh whuhwhuwh whuw whuhwhuh?” “No, teacher, my dog just followed me here.”
Gannon: Right. They are never seen, but they are an invisible force that is felt by our guys. So far in my talks with the designers, everything is tilted that way. All of the design elements are aimed toward creating a bubble for Ed and Earl to live in. Everything that’s outside of the bubble — the people, the music, all of that — is non-existent. Only the voices break through.
Seattle Star: So, at the end there, are Ed and Earl breaking out of their bubble, or are they breaking into a new one?
Gannon: [Pause.] I still need to make that decision. And I will, but I’m still a little bit afraid to.
A few weeks later, the company is about to embark on their first “stumble-through,” an attempt to get through the entire play from beginning to end without interruption. As the title implies, it’s a bit of a stumble: The broad strokes of emotional beats are being tossed about, as the company’s focus is more on getting the flow of a scene going. They rush past a lot of moments as a result. Gannon stops them and suggests an alteration for the performers to attempt right away; Ryan plays a lot of moments bigger than they will be, just trying things out; Fullerton is just trying to solidify his lines, getting them out at the right time. Neither actor is really listening to the other yet.
It’s a stumble, which is to be expected, but no one ever does.
“What did you guys think,” Gannon asks after a nominal break.
“It felt blurry,” Ryan replies.
“Yeah, it was weird. I could see you making connections as the character, but the problem was that I could see you making the connections.” Gannon points out that the speed they did everything at meant that all of their interactions came across as frustration with each other, and end up creating zero sympathy as a result.
Gannon ventures, “I almost want to have you guys do a slow rehearsal.” Fullerton expresses interest and Ryan concurs, “I think that’d be great.” The three agree to try it out at the next rehearsal.
“Earl, go back, and this time try tying your line ‘I’m getting another beer’ to the little cheers moment you give Ed.” Fullerton mentally rewinds the moment and moves forward making the small adjustment necessary that precisely achieves the effect Gannon was looking for.
It is the following evening, and the company is in the midst of their slow roll through the play. Immediately, the plan to attempt to complete the entire play is discarded; it will be a leisurely rehearsal, full of fertile experimentation. Ed and Earl are in Ed’s apartment for the first time; Earl is two and a half sheets to the wind, Ed is attempting to impress while pretending to be laid-back at the same time. Earl asks about Ed’s voyeuristic habits:
Earl: When you look, are you looking out or in?
Earl: Out or in? Out of here or into there?
Ed: Is this like one of those “Is the glass half empty” things?
Earl: It’s a serious question.
Ed: I’m looking out of here and into there.
Earl: You can’t do both.
Ed: I can do both.
Earl: You can’t do both.
Ed: I can do both.
Earl: Not at the same time.
Gannon stops them again and has them try the scene again. “Actually have this conversation. Actually believe what you’re saying, actually ask these questions. Try it.” The straight faced absurdity of the conversation is more prevalent this time, which everyone enjoys. They finish the scene and take a break.
“How do you guys feel tonight?”
“Much better, thanks,” Fullerton looks like he really means it. It seems nerves were a bit jangled after the first stumble through.
Gannon reinforces the good feelings. “I like the way this rehearsal is making you, the actor, continually find out why Earl stays in this friendship.” Then she underlines one of the subtle truths in her approach for both actors, “This play really comes to life when Earl is driving the story. He’s the one who gives the audience a window into this world.”
The break comes to an end and the company presses on. They work fitfully for a couple more hours, Gannon stopping them every once in a while to make sure both characters are proactive in the decision making process — attempting to guarantee that things make sense later down the line.
In the next installment, the gang faces a particularly compressed tech week on their way to opening.
To listen to Gannon, Ryan and Fullerton discuss their experiences during the pre-production and rehearsal process, check out MAP’s podcast,After the Fire.
Soft Click of a Switch performs runs through this Saturday, September 28 at 8:00p.m. // West of Lenin, 203 North 36th Street // All performances are PWYC, available through Brown Paper Tickets