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Exploding Moments: Infectious Opportunity

Friday, July 17, 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.

What better way to start than with a look at the recently extended production of Infectious Opportunity? I asked actors David Ian Lee (Wes) and Rebecca Comtois (Jenny), and director Pete Boisvert and playwright James Comtois a few questions about a powerful moment that occurs near the end of the play...

SPOILER ALERT: Do not continue reading if you mind spoilers. Go see the extension and then come back!

SYNOPSIS: Wes Farley is a screenwriting student who, through a measure of empathy, manipulation and accident, winds up claiming he is HIV+. The sympathy this lie engenders helps his career profoundly, winning him a cushy teaching job and eventually, an Oscar nomination. As his success grows, it becomes ever more linked to the lie that started it, and the psychic cost of maintaining the lie starts weighing heavily on him.

At a moment when those pressures grow nearly unbearable, Jenny, a student smitten with Wes, waits for him after class. Out of love and respect for Wes, she has also been writing about AIDS, though she is not HIV+. In this moment of feeling powerless, he takes his lie further than ever before, with a scaldingly hypocritical attack on his student for her lack of honesty. As she tries to look away, he slaps her face into attention. That slap, and the scene that preceded it, were some of the most fiercely exciting moments in the play.

The scene:
JENNY. You feeling okay, Wes?
(Half to himself.) No one told me how many times I’d have to field that fucking question every day.
JENNY. Wes…?
WES. Yes, Jenny. What do you need?
JENNY. Well, I’m having a bit of difficulty with this script I’m working on. I think I’ve hit a roadblock. And I was wondering, well…
WES. Well, just bring the pages next week and we’ll see what we’ve got, okay?
JENNY. Okay. But I was wondering…I know this isn’t really how we do it, but if you would be at all willing to read what I’ve got on your own and let me know what you think…unless you need to go back to Los Angeles.
WES. No.
JENNY. Oh. Well. Maybe tonight or tomorrow night. If you’d like to come over and see the pages. I could even cook dinner if—
WES. Why are you writing about something you don’t know anything about?
JENNY. Mr. Farley…?
WES. Do you think this is glamorous? Do you think it’s heroic? One of my best friends from college died from toxoplasmosis. Do you know what that is? You get it from cats. His brain just shut down and when they found his body, he had shit himself. Speaking of shitting oneself, there’s also clostridium difficile, which causes the sufferer to literally shit himself to death. Then there’s the old standard, Kaposi's sarcoma, which gives you those sexy lesions and causes you to incessantly cough up blood. And this isn’t theoretical. It’s not poetic. It’s what I have to look forward to. So please, Jenny, either put that in your work, or stop riding the coattails of my sickness.
(Trying hard not to cry.) …okay…
(Pause. Takes a deep breath.) I’ll see you next week, Jenny.

What made this sequence so powerful? For answers, the artists:

1. James, what was your process of writing this scene? Was it part of early drafts, or did it come later? Did it pop out perfectly the first time, or was it part of rewrites?
James: Actually, this scene was added later during revisions. In the original draft, Wes was a little more passive and kind of just "going along with the ride," with his original lie. A few people who read it felt I was being too soft and pulling my punches, and they were right. So, when I rewrote it, I added a few parts where Wes was much more active in exploiting opportunities that came up from people thinking he was sick. Two scenes/exchanges I added during the revision process was the scene where he tells his mentor, Professor Franklin, that if he accepts the teaching position at the university, he'll need a salary bump to pay for the cost of medicine, and the scene where he chews out his student, Jenny, for "riding the coat-tails of his sickness."

2. Pete, David and Rebecca, please describe the process of rehearsing the scene. Was the slap a suprise?
Pete: The exchange between Jenny and Wes at the end of the final classroom scene is one my favorite sequences in Infectious Opportunity. We built it in rehearsal through a combination of improvisation and a close analysis of James’ script; of course, isn’t that always how you find the really good stuff?

The scene comes at the crux of the play, as the lie Wes has been living finally begins to slip out of his control. The direct catalyst for Wes’ breakdown is the phone call he receives from his agent, Brent (Daryl Lathon), informing him that he’s been nominated for an Academy Award. Towards the end of the phone call with Brent, Wes lets his mask slip for a second, grousing that Brent is building his success off of Wes’ (faked) illness. He lets a bit of the sarcastic demeanor he has been using in his exchanges with Josie (Andrea Marie Smith, playing the embodiment of Wes’ conscience that has been harassing him throughout the play) bleed into his phone call with Brent. Brent immediately senses a change in Wes and apologetically retreats, leaving Wes in horror at the gaffe he has made.

Two more slips of the mask occur in rapid succession as Professor Franklin overhears him calling out for Josie as she initially abandons him, and again as his internal monologue turns external when he complains about the aggravation of having to field questions about his health in front of Jenny. The façade that he has smoothly perfected over the years is rapidly falling apart under the increased pressure he feels as a result of the nomination.

The “Oleanna” moment (as we jokingly referred to it in rehearsal) is a twisted mirror of the first classroom scene near the top of the play. Wes is flattered by Jenny’s infatuation with him, but is always a bit uneasy at the similarities between her attempt to fictionalize her relationship with Wes and his own fraudulency. The crime he accuses Jenny of (leveraging a false experience of illness to further her writing career) is, of course, the precise sin that Wes has built his entire career and identity on. Where he initially tries to dissuade her gently from her topic, his reaction in the final classroom scene takes on a dark and violent tone as he desperately tries to reassert his ownership of the lie.

The moment of the slap was not something I had come up with prior to rehearsal. I wanted Wes to put a full court press on Jenny, intimidating her away from her subject matter as a way of protecting his own territory. The steady, inexorable cross to drive a point home is one of my favorite staging techniques, which you can find examples of in many of the Nosedive shows over the years.

Rebecca: Reading the play, this was the scene that drew me to the play, and made me go up for the role of Jenny. I do think this is Wes’ cruelest moment in the play, to answer another one of your questions, because to some extent he is aware of how he is ruining this girl. While his world is beginning to spiral out of his control, he attempts to reassert his dominance and control, and who better to do that with than Jenny. Jenny who he knows won’t put up a fight. But Jenny has her own story playing out. She has misinterpreted an earlier warning shot as approval. In the earlier classroom scene Wes tries to steer her away from, “the whole AIDS angle” in her writing, but he is soft with her, and she reads that as approval, and respect for her as a writer. She then gets to go off for a week (unseen) and fantasize about what step she will take next. She writes a few more pages, presumably involving a love scene between the high school teacher living with AIDS, and the sexy yet dedicated young grad student who has been observing his class for credit to get her teaching license. So she returns to class, her plan being to invite him over for dinner, to read the pages with the hope being that the power of her writing will make him fall head over heals in love with her. His admiration igniting a deep seeded lust for his protégé. Trashy dime store romance novels got nothin’ on this girl. So Jenny has had a week to fantasize about this, to play out every conversation in her head and, she believes, every possible outcome. She is, of course, wrong.

Going into rehearsal I had all of my book work done, all of my intentions mapped out and then, like Jenny, the scene just didn’t seem to cooperate with the vision of it I had in my head. I wasn’t anticipating the unabashed vitriol that was turned her/my way. Like in the scene itself, Wes’ attack started smaller, more constrained in the beginning and then is only fully unleashed as the attack continues. It was the same in rehearsals. It was several passes at the scene before we arrived at the tenor that you see in performance. I think it wasn’t until we got into runs that the scene really hit its stride, and David could use the momentum of the whole play to really rip into Jenny with the ferocity that he does in performance. But being under fire such as she is from this man she admires, if not adores, it’s hard not to see disengagement as her only option.

David: This scene was one of several which I auditioned with, and I had the privilege of reading opposite Rebecca. Most of the beats that made their way into the final production seemed to arrive organically in that first cold read, and under Pete’s direction the scene and monologue took a more refined shape. I remember Pete wanting the monologue to have a slow burn. He had a specific image for the beginning of the speech – hunched over the desk, eyes forward – and wanted me to restrain much of the furor and vitriol that I initially leaned into.

As I remember, it was in one of our final runs before tech that I spontaneously grabbed Becky’s chin and chucked it up: I (as Wes) was pissed that she (as Jenny) had lower her eyes and escaped me -- I was offering her the courtesy of not blowing my top, but she couldn’t offer me the respect of looking into my eyes. I chucked her chin up…and I (as Wes) immediately felt the shame in what I had done, felt surprise and regret, and was touched by the fear and pain I saw in Becky’s eyes.

There’s a quote by Jack Nicholson that I think is very helpful for actors in rehearsal: “If you get an impulse in a scene, no matter how wrong it seems, follow the impulse. It might be something and if it ain't: Take two!” In that moment I wasn’t thinking about the legitimacy of chucking Becky, I just knew it was the psychological “heart” of what I wanted to do, even if that impulse would ultimately be expressed in some other fashion.

After that rehearsal, I remember checking in with Becky, making sure she was physically okay and that I’d not crossed any lines by throwing some improvised physical biz into the run. Becky was gung-ho.

Still, I was uncertain about the chin-chuck (which morphed into the slap) because it is such an impermissible act for a teacher. I checked in with Pete, asking if he was sure we could go there: Wes has got to know, immediately after touching Jenny, that he could find himself in trouble with the regents, the University, the tenure review board…Hitting students is a big no-no. And Pete said, “That’s how far Wes has gone. And that’s how complete his lie is: Jenny’s not going to tell anyone. She’s not going to take on The System and The Superstar.”

Rebecca: Thank god for David coming up with the chin grab that turned into the chin slap. Every time it’s startling. It takes me out of my head, and then the autonomic responses can begin to work. That tightness in the sternum, the lump in the throat, and then it’s not about the book work, or what Jenny had planned, or really anything going on in the play- for me- and this is going to sound strange I’m sure- It becomes being 9 years old girl in a play house playing “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” with my friend Derek. Except after satisfying my part of the arrangement- Derek in turn promptly left to go tell on me. So... yeah that’s a little weird, but that’s the scene that just pops into my head whenever we get to that part of the play. It wasn’t something I had planned on, but I guess for me it’s just about the pure shame and embarrassment of rejection mixed with fear at having perceived to have done something wrong. I think Jenny leaves that scene feeling as though she’s the one that’s crossed over the line. That everything Wes has said about her is true, and that she is a terrible person, “riding the coattails of his sickness.” And that’s not something I saw when I read the play, but something I feel when we perform it.

3. James, Pete, and David, how much of that scene is Wes transferring his self-loathing onto her, and how much is him being so used to the part, he actually believes what he's saying?
James: Wow. Good question. Although it's a little bit of both, I think it's more of the latter, though personally, I don't think it's so much that he believes what he's saying so much is that at this stage of the game he has absolutely no qualms whatsoever about exploiting his fake illness. My line of thinking while writing it was to show that he's so comfortable with the lie that, at that moment, he doesn't have the slightest sense of guilt about posing as a person with HIV. He's lashing out at her because he's feeling smothered and trapped, but doesn't believe for a second that his feelings of being trapped is in any way his own fault. So I guess it's not so much that he believes what he's saying as he feels a thoroughly unearned sense of entitlement.

David: Wow. That’s a tricky one… As an actor, I tend to think I’ve little to no control over what an audience’s individual thoughts about a character may be, or what they perceive of a character via projection of their own experiences and feelings. But here’s how I (as Wes – how annoying are these codifying parentheticals?) often view the scene (I say often, because performances should be living things in flux): Jenny keeps hitting on me. I’m already frustrated and pissed off and feeling trapped, but now I’ve got this chick crossing the line, not taking the hint, and making me quite uncomfortable. Also, I’ve not been laid in ten years: There’s always THAT. The monologue is honest for Wes, as he touches on the very real pain and horror at having lost dear friends and loved ones to the disease. He talks with conviction about the horrors of Toxoplasmosis and KS because he saw what it did to two people he loved, and so he takes it very seriously; Wes, I believe, actually has a great empathy for people with HIV and AIDS, and takes genuine offense to Jenny’s ill-conceived story. From there, it’s just a little white lie, a tiny nudge, to add in the “Oh yeah: And I have HIV, too,” element.

4. For all: do you think this scene is the cruelest Wes ever gets in the play?
James: The way it's staged? Yes. For me, when I was writing it, I think Wes was at his cruelest when (minor spoiler alert) he emotionally strings along a very lonely and vulnerable young woman with AIDS. Though to be fair, he isn't trying to be cruel in that scene.
David: I think slapping Jenny is certainly unacceptable. But, as with all of Wes’ behavior, I don’t think it ever stems from cruelty. Don’t get me wrong: Wes commits amoral, unforgivable acts over the course of Infectious Opportunity, and he’s not a guy any of us would want in our corner. But…I don’t think he’s cruel. It’s that old cliché: If you’re gonna play Iago, you can’t view him as the villain. I don’t think of Wes as a cruel character… He’s a guy who wants to be loved, who keeps trying to do the right thing, and just doesn’t get what a fuck he is; he knows he’s a fuck, and a big one at that, but cannot perceive the abysmal depths of his fuckdom.

5. For all: how do you think this scene changes Wes' relationship to the audience?
James: I think, as I said before, this is the scene where the audience sees that Wes feels entitled, sees himself as a victim, and is completely without any scruples about what he's doing. It definitely shows him at his most contemptible.

The slap is the first of three physically aggressive contacts Wes makes in the last 10 pages of the play. It’s followed shortly by the blown kiss he smacks off of Josie’s forehead as he finally cuts all ties with her, and again after his final monologue to Brent as he plants a wet kiss Bugs Bunny-style off of the top of Brent’s head immediately following the final reversal of the play. These moments of physical contact serve as a rhythmic punctuation to three of the most intense moments of the play, and show Wes stepping fully over the line of acceptable behavior.

As Josie is in essence another facet of his mind, and Brent is either left in the dark as to the true meaning of Wes’ rant, or alternately becomes complicit in Wes’ retreat from the truth (depending on your interpretation) they don’t have the same brutal effect on the audience as the Jenny slap. That is the moment where Wes fully crosses the line, and a reasonable audience can no longer sympathize with him, no matter how charismatically he comes across.

David: When I read the play, I saw it as a coal-black comedy, and I initially approached the material with a much broader brush. Pete slowly pulled me back, and got me to trust Wes and to play it straight. That makes for a fun ride for me, and a very odd show: I don’t know how people take to this guy. I think that what the moment of Wes slapping Jenny achieves, however, is it shows an audience that the rules are no longer on the table for Wes: This is a guy who can do anything, who is unpredictable and a maybe even dangerous. As an actor, that’s a gift.

The Take-Aways
The intent of listing take-aways is to establish a language of aesthetic best practices that can be used as tools or catalysts for future choices
1. Logical extremes: Rewrites should explore pushing initial choices to logical extremes; staging should see how far the text can be pushed into action
Slips of the mask: Foreshadow major moments of character revelation through preceding "slips of the mask"
Funhouse mirror: Inverting previous scenes with their negative/opposite gives both additional power
Ambiguity's wake: The path of a boat through water is completely clear; it is the the wake that ripples in many directions. Ambiguity in action confuses; ambiguity in meaning satisfies.
Inexorable cross: Staging text that has a strong action by having the speaker cross slowly towards the subject heightens tension and the text's power
Popping the kernel: Don't rush to the emotional climax of a moment or scene. Restrain the action/emotion until the heat of the slow burn makes the pop of violence inevitable.
Guillotine: A strong physical moment can knock actors out of their heads and shock both audience and actor into immediate, authentic response.
Cruel only to be kind: In the cruelest action, identify the kindest impulse. The friction between intention and action gives the moment heat.
Game changer: Never let a scene or play continue for long without rewriting the rules of what is possible/acceptable/expected. These game changers must come out of the genuine needs of the characters or the audience will feel manipulated.

If you saw
Infectious Opportunity, what other moments did you find effective?
If you didn't, was this post specific enough to be useful anyway?
What do you think of the take-aways, and how can we make Exploding Moments more useful?
Is there a show you've seen recently that has a moment worth exploding?