Break Up is a six hour improvised conversation based on strict rules. One person sits in the front and plays one person, four people sit at the back and play the other person, taking turns to speak whenever interrupted by the front person. Front and back can change over, but the characters stay distinct.
The first time we did it we didn’t really think about character very much, the focus was really to see if we could get through it. This time we set the goal of trying to remember the information that came out in conversation more diligently, and to work harder to work with it, to keep the characters distinct and coherent. It felt a bit funny to me for us to be talking about character at all in rehearsal, since as a company we’ve defined ourselves in part by the fact that we don’t play characters in a traditional theatre-y way. Not exactly a unique mission, but still- the last thing I wanted was for us all to go onstage and pretend to be someone else.
Basically we decided that the approach to character would be that details and attitudes would accumulate during the show and we would remember them as best we could, and try not to say anything that obviously contradicted facts that had been established. Obviously over six hours this is hard, maybe impossible. Beyond that, we could be ourselves, more or less, and the characters would take care of themselves.
I’ve been thinking about some of my very oldest friends and how to this day I cannot predict what movies they will like and what ones they will violently hate. I’m taken aback again and again- you mean you like Birdman and hated Boyhood? How? It’s even like this with my family. We are all walking bags of apparent contradictions, with unstable opinions and constantly shifting perspectives. We are very ready to accept this of each other in the real world. Yesterday you were non smoker, now you are a smoker. When we started talking you hated this sculpture, now you are not so sure. This is not some mistake you have made. This week I’ve watched Wolf Hall, Bob’s Burgers, Wake Up Tomorrow, and listened to (a lot of) Taylor Swift, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Aesop Rock, and Radiolab. My opinion of each has shifted around a lot. Does this sound like a consistent character to you?
So I was at Basement with everyone doing this show and thinking about how we’re creating character by doing, speech as action, speech as bricklaying, building this unplanned structure- or maybe we weren't creating characters at all, just a list of things we know about the character, or know about what the character thinks they know about themselves, or thinks they know about the other character, or just lies to get by, at each moment. The point is that, even more so than usual, there is no possible place where the person “is” at all, no centre to anything since its all shared five ways, and with the audience. But then, characters created by one person in one brain have no centre either, just a network of connections made though the action of firing synapses (or whatever it is that brains do).
To me then, this feels like as "realistic" a way to create a character as any, and as useful a way to think about the self as any- a cloud of thoughts and actions which I have at some point thought or taken, none of which define me. It certainly felt pretty real to me, being in it on stage. Who's to say it wasn't? We’re chumps if we think we’ve got anyone sussed out.
Dione Joseph, Matt Baker, Nathan Joe, and Hamish Parkinson have written reviews of the show, with really interesting observations that we'll be thinking about before heading to New York. Joe and Parkinson's are very positive, Joseph's is more neutral, and Joe's is pretty critical. Great to have so much considered feedback, thanks to them all.