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Exploding Moments: Evanston, A Rare Comedy

Monday, September 7, 2009 Leave a Comment

In order to move forward this conversation regarding quality, we are putting some of those principles into practice with a new blog series, Exploding Moments. We'll be exploring how quality productions work through the prism of individual moments. By asking the artists involved how they created a particularly successful moment, and examining how it works in production, we hope to find take-aways to apply to our own work. At the same time, we hope to celebrate excellence in the field through this specific, detailed, useful exploration of what works.

Past Exploding Moments include Two Girls and Infectious Opportunity. This post features Evanston, A Rare Comedy by Michael Yates Crowley, directed by Michael Rau (whose excellent work on The Great God Brown was featured on this blog here). Evanston, A Rare Comedy was a part of the undergoundzero festival at PS122 and The Summer Sublet Series at HERE.

The play begins with the disappearance of a teenage girl in deepest suburbia and ends when a meeting of The Evanston Women's Book Club goes horribly awry. In between, a transgender student dreams of death, a housewife dreams of Mexico, an economics professor has an affair with a Whole Foods check-out clerk, and the financial crisis rages on.

This post will focus on the moment when Sharon, a leader in the The Evanston Women's Book Club, mourns the death of Betsey, one of their most important members. As Sharon lists the products Betsey loved best, her eulogy moves from comedy to a surprisingly moving paean for the things her friend loved. Both sublime and ridiculous, it perfectly captured the painful depths beneath suburban superficiality.

I asked the playwright, director and actor Anna Margaret Hollyman (Sharon) some questions about that moment.

1. What was your process in writing this eulogy for Betsy? Was it there in the first draft, or did it come around later, and if so, why?

Michael Yates Crowley: The list of products has always been in the script, and it's actually changed very little since the first draft. I think I changed the order a bit. I spent a few afternoons researching product names, from Evanston shops and websites. There's something magical about the sound of these products ("Crabtree & Evelyn Cade Juniper Bark Scrub" sounds like some kind of incantation). One thing that has changed is that I was originally going to perform the list, as the ghost of Betsey, but Anna Margaret was so great we decided she should do it. And, of course, it makes more dramatic sense for it to be Betsey's friend.

2. The sound design (by Asa Wember) of this moment is especially striking: at first, comic; then beautiful; with a tension underneath throughout. Can you describe the design of this moment and how you got there?

Michael Yates Crowley: The song is Ravi Shankar's "Vandanaa Trayee". There was a point during rehearsal when both Rau and I realized the moment needed something more, and we'd always been joking about how Sharon would put on some oriental-sounding music and incense. I wanted something with a sitar and chanting, so I found this and Asa worked it into the sound bed. The song is hilarious by itself, and combined with Anna Margaret's performance it was definitely one of the best moments in the show.

3. What was the process like of working on this monologue? How sincere did you intend it to be? Is it a eulogy at her actual funeral, or does it stand outside of any literal place or action?

Michael Rau: Building this part of the show went through many revisions; I spent a long time in rehearsal with Anna Margaret figuring out the tone of the list; how it built emotionally, and simply defining the given circumstances. We spent a long time struggling with interpreting
Crowley's stage direction--that the list should be solemn like a graduation; I think we took a fair amount of license with it---by our last performance at HERE, Anna Margaret was practically dancing. This moment went through a lot of trial and error. I made poor Anna Magaret repeat the list so many times, with different attempts at placing emotional builds, or changing the given circumstances. And even then once I was happy with that, I still felt that it needed something more, so Crowley and I sat around one night and went through our mp3 collections, and read the list aloud. Crowley played this song, and instantly I knew that was the right one. We gave it to Asa, who mixed it into the sound bed, and we worked to re-calibrate the list with the song, and played around with different timings, and where and when in the music to say some of the items.

Anna Margaret Hollyman: Originally, the list was read much like one would read off names at a graduation, or more accurately, names of victims after a mass tragedy. Crowley had specific ideas about the cadence and intonation, so that eventually, the words themselves have no meaning, and the audience finds themselves lost in a tangle of products. We definitely played with that for a while, at one point I actually had pieces of paper with each individual product listed, and I tossed each one out into "the universe", and they all ended up on the floor.
But eventually Rau gave me the direction to put individualized meaning behind each product on the list, and all of this hinged on sincerity. I think the list is Sharon's strongest attempt at being sincere. Rau always said that the more seriously Sharon takes things, the funnier, and sadder, ultimately. We always envisioned her in her backyard, lighting candles, maybe wearing a kimono, playing Ravi Shankar, and trying to make the experience as, "spiritual" as possible. All of these things on the list essentially sum up the life of Betsey, and it's only through listing these things (with sincere feeling) that Sharon can mourn the loss of her best friend.

(SHARON is holding the bundle of paper from Betsey’s funeral. She reads each scrap of paper, then lets it fall. Her manner is studiously solemn; items are read in the same tone of voice as names at graduation, or in a list of disaster victims: flat, even, slow.)
Whole Foods Organic Grapefruit Mint Triple Milled Soap
Northwestern’s homecoming game
Pom Wonderful Pomegranate Juice
Kiehl’s Restorative Argan Skin Salve
No-cal lemon gelato from that place on the corner
Lululemon Vitalize Tank and Dharma Crop Pants
Starbucks Raspberry Scones
Apple iPod nano in pink
Cold Stone Creamery coffee ice cream with bananas mix-in
L’Occitane Cade Juniper Bark Scrub
Ocean Spray Craisins
Brunch at Le Peep on Sunday mornings
Aveda Tourmaline Charged Exfoliating Cleanser
Body Shop Seaweed Ionic Clay Mask
Nigella Lawson Bliss Mezzaluna Board, Beech
Jamba Juice Razzmatazz Juice with Antioxidant Power Super Boost
Skinstinct Kukui Nut Volcanic Scrub
Body-Wick triple system tech sport bra in grapefruit by Victoria’s Secret
Philosophy airbrush canvas spf--silk-to-satin pigment foundation
Amazing grace--perfumed firming body emulsion--skin firming lotion
Crabtree and Evelyn Nantucket Briar Foaming Milk Bath
Aveda Enbrightenment Brightening Treatment Toner
Whole Foods Antioxidant Shea Butter
(End scene.)

Sincerity is one of the keys to comedy
The banal and sublime are not all that far apart
A rehearsal process should gradually layer meaning onto a moment

If you saw Evanston, A Rare Comedy, what other moments did you find effective?
If you didn't, was this post specific enough to be useful anyway?
Is there a show you've seen recently that has a moment worth exploding?


  • joshcon80 said:  

    God, "Evanston: A Rare Comedy" was one of the best shows I saw all year. Betsey's monologue about washing the migrant worker's feet is hilarious and actually really beautiful. And any moment that the teenage daughter character is onstage is an exploding moment.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    I liked the migrant feet monologue, as well! I nearly asked them to talk about THAT, but in the end, there was something about that list I couldn't get out of my head...