Staging a play about lost passions isn’t for the apathetic, especially if it’s a production built from scratch.
“This Illusionment,” an original work by Viscosity Theatre, will premiere as a “skeleton production” this weekend. The year-old troupe, which is dedicated to “wildly physical, collaborative, immersive experiences for audiences and artists,” hopes to raise enough money and interest from the performances to mount a full run next year.
The story revolves around a small group of characters whose creative energies are intertwined: A magician suffering fatigue, his spirit animal who falls apart as he loses interest in his craft, a young boy who aspires to be a great illusionist, and a young girl who wants to disappear entirely into dreams.
The Viscosity members devised a skeleton plot “on the loss of passion and this idea of exploring what is it to lose your passion for something you’ve always loved,” said Rebecca Schaffer, co-director and co-producer.
Then the script was written collaboratively with the actors through improvisations that at first didn’t even involve words, Schaffer said. They agreed on physical actions the characters would take and then slowly began to “layer the language” over those interactions, she said.
“The idea was to get away from standing around and talking,” Schaffer said. “Because we as people are so active in our lives and the way we engage each other, and a lot of times dialogue … sometimes dialogue on stage lends itself to standing and talking. And so how can we make this a very active thing?” she said.
Once the improvisers were allowed to move on to full sentences, stage manager Jeffrey Hubbard began typing them all up, and co-director Josh Wagner shaped the raw material into a script. Schaffer said the result is dialogue heavy, but the moments of banter arose out of a necessity, not habit.
Wagner, a local writer who’s worked in a variety of mediums, said about
60 percent of the work was done for him. “There were large chunks of dialogue I could pick out and slap into the script,” he said. The bulk of the work was choosing the best parts, combining pieces of one improvisation with another, and adding his own material.
He said this level of collaboration was new to him, but parts of the writing process remained the same. In his fiction, he said he likes to pull dialogue from the world around him, which isn’t much different than sifting through the improvisations for the best lines.
Wagner gave much credit to the cast for its writing, particularly the child actors: Lucy Heutmaker, 11, and Tristan Redearth, 14. The two committed to the script devisement process, even coining the names for their characters – Constantine and Victor, respectively.
The lead role of the disenchanted magician, meanwhile, is played by someone with plenty of writing experience, but no acting background at all: Ryan Nicodemus.
He’s best known as one half of the Minimalists, a writing-blogging duo with Joshua Fields Millburn who espouse a lifestyle divesting themselves of “stuff.”
“I got into this because I wanted to go through the experience of being in a play, and yes, writing your script was a little bit more than I’d expected, but it was a really cool process,” Nicodemus said.
Nicodemus, who shed a lifestyle of “adult toys” including a house, brand-new car and vacations for a less-cluttered, more meaningful existence, said he could identify somewhat with the magician in creating his role.
“For me, I had to relate to experiences and maybe different hobbies that I had that I was really excited about but lost interest in. That’s really where I had to draw from,” he said.
Because it’s a skeleton production, set designer Scott Morris, an installation artist, had to be creative, using only found objects.
“The set concept had to be very fluid because it was whatever resources were available, and at the end of the semester everyone throws out their couches. And so he and Diego (Burgos) wound up going to the back alleys and getting all the couches and old chairs and furniture that students had thrown out that they could find,” Schaffer said.
They then stripped the fabric from all the abandoned goods, leaving the wooden frames. Once assembled into a ceiling-high pile, the structure acts a framing device through which the audience views parts of the play, and later becomes an important part of the plot.
As for the magician’s spirit animal, called the Familiar, Kara Chandler of Missoula Community Theatre’s costume shop built a somewhat gremlin-inspired costume. The character went through several inspirations, Wagner said, including a deer-rabbit, and eventually resembled the aye-aye, a primate from Madagascar mostly notable for its sheer ugliness. The Familiar, though, is “really cute in a really creepy way,” Wagner said.
In addition, John Sporman and Nate Biehl composed an original score for the production.
If you’ve taken note of the diverse backgrounds involved, it was intentional on Viscosity’s part.
“I love working with people who don’t necessarily come from a theatrical background, who don’t already have a sense of what theater should be, because I feel they bring new and much different ideas to the table,” Schaffer said.