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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Master Class in Artistic Survival: SECCA at Burning Coal

Posted by on Tue, Apr 20, 2010 at 12:47 PM

  • Aaron Mills & PJ Maske in SECCA
Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts (SECCA)
4 Stars
Burning Coal Theatre

Through May 1

It had been a long day of rehearsals. Thankfully the show had reached its continental divide several days before: that meridian every production crosses—every fortunate one, at least—where the thought of roomfuls of strangers seeing what you’ve done no longer fills you with horror, but hope instead.

A film-based monthly we’d done an in-trade ad with had invited us to a party. A trendy downtown club was hosting the new head of local ops for Screen Gems: Yeah, kind of a big deal around here. “ Everyone will be there,” our host said.

We went. Didn’t stay that long. Something about the whole scene felt a little off.

At first, the party seemed like a smash. Picture, if you will, a barroom packed with calculated beauty, literally straight from central casting. But the conviviality had a tinge of desperation to it, that finally seemed one stage short of mania. Beautiful people with alarmingly bright eyes were leaning into apparently intense conversations—at every table in the room, simultaneously. Then, after a few minutes, with a bird-like turn of the head and an industrial-grade laugh, each would go cross-pollinate some other group.

We surveyed the Good Time for a few moments, without speaking. Then I leaned across the table and hissed to Keith, my technical director: “Exactly what fresh hell is this?

“Isn’t it obvious?” he said. “They’re auditioning. Except for you, me and the guest of honor over there, everybody in this room is desperate for one thing.”

“It’s not just to be noticed,” Keith continued. “That’s easy. Each of these chillun has to be the most fascinating thing in this room.”

He took a sip from his beer. “Every single one of them has got to be desired. No—devastating. Unforgettable.

“And all of them,” he concluded, “are convinced that their careers depend on it.”

“Creeping Christ,” I said, “we’re in a roomful of junkies.”

“You got it, ace.”

“Drink up,” I said. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

Which was when our host began introducing me as a stage director, also new to the region, with a show about to open in the biggest theater in town.

We escaped about an hour and a half later, after a fusillade of Probing Questions, Soulful Looks, Sincere Expressions of Interest—and a damp handful of Private Audition Requests. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at an all-night grocery/bait and tackle store for two bars of LAVA soap, some steel wool and a gallon of 91% isopropanol. If that couldn’t cut through the inch-thick, gelatinous exoskeleton of schmooze that had been deposited about our heads and torsos during our film industry…baptism, I guess you’d call it, we might not be in a position to do a show in this town after all.

Two nights later, while relaxing with the cast and crew after pasta, veggies and vin ordinaire at the hotel, I experienced a moment of almost disembodied clarity.

It was going to be a good show.

And within one month, every one of these people would be out of my life—including my girlfriend of more than two years, who’d just made us dinner.

The surf churned quietly at a distance, as I looked out the open sliding doors. The question arose, unbidden, again—as it had several times already, during the project:

Did you come here to make friends, or art? Because sometimes, when you try to do both, you don’t accomplish either.

Choose. Now.

* * *

And that challenge alone, dear reader, is why, if you’re in either theater or film, you should probably catch Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts this week at Burning Coal Theatre. It’s just one of the very pointed questions playwright Angus MacLachlan has for his chosen audience.

Rarely am I as divided in my assessment of a work as I am with this production. In addition to MacLachlan’s work as an actor and playwright (both of which regional audiences have previously seen at Manbites Dog Theater), his career as a screenwriter has quietly developed over the past 15 years, from an early independent short that was featured at the Sundance Film Festival, through the 2005 indie hit Junebug, which yielded an Oscar nomination for Amy Adams, to the upcoming Robert DeNiro/Edward Norton crime thriller, Stone.

Clearly, this tale of an independent filmmaker’s intuitive (and, at times, seemingly quixotic) attempts to initiate a new project has the ring of authenticity to it—if not autobiography, given the local references the Winston-Salem-based artist weaves into his work.

But that undeniable strength probably qualifies the breadth of this script’s appeal. As an insider’s look at a few of the fundamental issues a serious artist has to face—in theater or film—it’s obvious that SECCA should be seen by those who are active in either genre. For "civilian" audiences, though, the need (and, frankly, the interest) may not be as great.

Under Kathryn Milliken LeTrent’s direction, actor Aaron Mills’ work as Ethan, an independent filmmaker more or less crash-landing back home between projects, suggests the artist as combination perpetual motion and chaos machine; slightly befuddled, always bemused. While setting up a self-produced screening at the museum in the title (and waiting on word from Sundance on its acceptance), Ethan is trying to nail the funding down for his next project on his crappy cell phone. While ostensibly auditioning people—or, more accurately, one person—for the film at the same time.

But it’s unclear to us and to Ethan’s kind but extremely candid sister, Liz (PJ Maske, in a sharp-witted performance), whether Spencer, a female actor and drama teacher new to the region, is ultimately being appraised for a role on Ethan’s screen, in his bed, or both.

Emily Rieder & Aaron Mills in SECCA
  • Emily Rieder & Aaron Mills in SECCA

If Ethan’s intentions stay enigmatic, Spencer’s do not (in Emily Rieder's amusingly carbonated yet calibrated performance). Finding herself relegated to this comparable theatrical backwater, she doggedly becomes the artistic brother and sister’s bestest—and certainly most enthusiastic—friend. After all, why not? They’re the most creative people in her field of vision, and the ones most likely to get her recognized outside of Winston-Salem.

But when the siblings dissect Spencer’s combination of “innocence, opportunistic lust and altruistic intention,” the questions of how many interpersonal boundaries are transgressed—or deliberately permitted to be, and with what intent—remain up in the air until the end.

Against this array of conflicted interests, SECCA carefully depicts the fragility of these attempted relationships. It also gets at what, for artists in particular, is the sometimes too-permeable border between what seems possible and what is real. Flexibility, as we’re reminded, is important in the live arts. But when MacLachlin’s characters stretch too far at times across these particular borders, more than just their art is clearly in danger of being compromised.

The question the playwright poses to each of his characters—and to us as artists as well—is this: Are we okay with that? What first compromise is acceptable? And what of the compromises that come after?

In the end, the audience is left to decide what exactly the trio in SECCA has made: Lovers? Friends? Art? Or just mistakes, corrected before—or after—the last minute?

* * *

MacLachlan’s plot—and indeed, the show’s name—seek to raise another crucial artistic issue. Call it “suitability of venue.”

For the institution in the title exists, improbably enough. The real SECCA is a modern art museum whose slam-segue aesthetics place half of its collection in an expensive facsimile of an English hunting lodge, and half in a minimal, post-modern hangar connected to it, on what was once a manufacturing titan’s estate in Winston-Salem. It's something of a architectural non-sequitur, in a city whose unlikely array of social, historic and artistic microclimates form something of a cultural non-sequitur as well when placed against the region that surrounds it.

But, the playwright seems to ask, why stop there?

Aren’t the three artists in his play cultural non-sequiturs themselves? What other choice do they have, when their immediate environment doesn’t adequately recognize or support their work? And what, MacLachlan asks, does that do their art—before providing one answer in this scenario.

Though SECCA is a witty play, it’s something of a master class in artistic self-appraisal and survival for those involved in theater and film. It lets us re-examine several fundamental questions about our own artistic aspirations: To what extent are they possible where we find ourselves? With whom? How? Under what ethics? And finally, armed with that knowledge, what do we do next?

Byron Woods
Twitter: @byronwoods Facebook: arts.byron.woods

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