Crafted over a series of summers, 52:15 was based on the true story of a 52- year-old school teacher who ran away with his 15-year-old student. It’s second project, The 100th Monkey ensemble was interested in exploring the backstory of the headline “Ex-teacher pleads not guilty in kidnapping his former student.” In the summer of 2017 we first workshopped the idea, exploring this relationship, as well as the relationships that surround the teacher and the student. We also expanded the exploration by adding imagined more abstract characters. Experimenting with ideas on personifying temptation, we added as a trickster clown through many dream-like scenes/moments. We also explored comedy, including an older woman character named ‘Trish” who exemplified the contradictions inherent in societies youth-worship of the sexuality of young girls as opposed to fully grown women. We workshopped and presented to a select invited audience and it was very well received. It was at this point that we decided to submit the piece for consideration for festival performances and one of the submissions we made was to the Capital Fringe in Washington DC.
As a devised piece, which often revolves around a question rather than grounded by a thematic conceptual ‘spine,’ the ensemble chose to set the exploration on the question, “What are the boundaries of choice?” This question was selected particularly because we were exploring both the choice of the teacher and the student. The structure of our group was such that we explored and created form and content and then after material was created, an appointed director would select specific components (scenes/moments) to sequence and craft into a final 50 minute piece. I directed the first workshop showing in 2017 on Bucknell’s campus. When it was received well, we decided to take it forward. Since I knew I was involved in an extensive Meisner training in the summer of 2018 (and therefore would be too busy to prepare for the performance fully), company member Wendy Schibener asked to co-direct the piece with me as we moved to taking the piece to festival. It was at this point we began conceptualizing together. In our proposal and marketing for the piece to go to the Capital Fringe Festival, my co-director Wendy Schibener and I created this statement to describe our joint conceptual approach:
In 100th Monkey Theatre Ensemble’s newest piece 52:15, the audience follows a reporter, actual witness accounts, and a trickster clown into the sticky webs of morality, ethics, desire, delusion, responsibility, and sexual grooming. 100th Monkey initially set out to investigate as many points of view as possible behind the recent, real-life news story of a 52-year-old teacher running away with his 15-year-old student. Although the process is investigative and research-heavy, it is also radically humanizing. The ensemble discovered that digging into the human lives and flaws behind the headline led to a lot of friction, and possibly emotional distress. 100th Monkey knows and sees the value in presenting a performance that unsettles.
In 52:15, the piece vacillates between exploring the specifics of our chosen news story as well as broader archetypes, emotions, and motivations behind “older man/woman” and “younger boy/girl/man/woman” romantic relationships. The ensemble explores complex and often disturbing territory, with the goal that by unearthing and examining what lies hidden in the subconscious, the audience can more effectively confront societal and interpersonal issues, crimes, and confusions. The piece focuses heavily on the “older man” and “young girl” dynamic; while acknowledging the very clear onus of criminal responsibility of the man for abducting the 15-year old girl, seeking to put on stage some of the more subtle and uncomfortable explorations of each parties psyche. By exploring the reality of the teenage girl’s life at home, feelings about the man, decision making ability or inability, statements she’s given the public, as well as the reality of the older teacher’s possible inner motivations and psychological state, 52:15 aims to provoke the audience into an inner and outer search for how they relate to the story, and to show the many complicated angles behind societies headlines.
In terms of the design of the piece we were interested in creating an abstract world in which to present ideas in both dreamlike as well as concrete ways, transitioning from monologues and scenes to songs and dances, to clowning. We chose costume pieces, easily transferable from person to person so we saw the characters of the teacher and the student being explored by different actors. The characters were represented by costume pieces such as a hat, a clown nose and a jacket for the teacher, and a red dress, ribbon or shirt for the student. We also were interested in transforming the space through props – creating atmospheres with found objects, almost all of which we previewed in the very first scene of the play in which a news reporter was examining the contents of the cabin that the two characters had shared when they ran away together. We had sound design mixed in with live singing and instruments, and lighting that emphasized the transformative nature of the piece. When we were selected for the Capital Fringe, we were placed in the Blind Whino space which was a ¾ thrust space, different than the proscenium we had originally staged the workshop in – but doable. We were placed there mainly because we were able to use the scooters we needed in multiple scenes on that floor. A large cavernous space, it was a very different feel than the original intimate tustin black box in which we had created the piece, but we rallied and adjusted the piece to fit the new theatre.
Once we were accepted into the fringe festival a number of setbacks occurred, we lost actors so we had to hire some other non-ensemble performers to fill in. In addition, I had to step in as an actor in addition to directing. My co-director began the second rehearsal process but could not complete it and left early. This left me in the position of acting in and being the sole director of the play moving forward. This dual role ended up dividing my focus. In addition we lost one of our main actresses, our main comedian. We decided since her character could only be performed by her, to cut her scenes. This decision threw off the balance of the production tipping it towards a darker overall feel, less of a female voice over-all and just a few comic scenes that now felt out of place. Lastly, and most importantly, we had more scenes that explored the position of the teacher/man instead of the position of the student/girl. This was not intentional, partly because of our process of devising which included creating a mountain of content and only then selecting a portion to move forward. This, in addition to the loss of the comedic female scenes, threw the balance off, but I was not able to see this during rehearsal. Had I been solely directing I believe I might have seen, moving forward, that although the scenes we selected were the most well defined and polished, the overall feel of the peace would tip in a more ambiguous and dangerous direction. A direction that could be interpreted as examining more fully the man’s point of view than the woman’s point of view. Yet once we were a week out from the show, my goal became to make the show polished enough to run smoothly and to prepare myself for some emotional character work as an actress. I no longer was looking at the whole piece asking, ‘How does this read? What is the piece saying?’
Unfortunately, the impact of looking at the story of the man more closely than the girl upset our audience, or at least our critics, deeply. After our first two days of a week-long run we received a few reviews that spoke directly to these problems within the production. Although it was painful to read, after we examined the criticisms as an ensemble; we saw what they were saying as having some validity. We spoke as an ensemble and decided to change the show for the next 5 performances. In a daring move during the run of the production, we cut some of the male scenes, trimmed any references to implicating the girl in any way (even from the emotional wife whom I was playing) and most importantly added an ending monologue from the girl written two hours before the show. This beautiful monologue about the nature and validity of a young girl’s feelings about her sexuality changed the whole concept of the show. The audience was moved. The girl’s story was heard. The show from that point forward was very well received. Audiences stayed to speak with us many nights after the show. Although there were no reviews of this new version of the production, we were very proud to have found the proper balance and remedied issues that were offsetting the tone of the show. Had we been in a regional theatre or a Broadway house with previews, we probably could have solved these issued before critics had reviewed the piece, but with a festival performance, we had to settle for a learning moment instead of easy success.
All in all, although the initial production was poorly received, the final production offered an excellent resolution and as an artists we learned so much. I learned so much. I have learned to pay careful attention to my role as a director and actor and to honor one, not both, in my process. I also learned about the nature of the times we are in. A show that was written in 2017 was already out of date by 2018 after the #metoo movement had reached its zenith. Knowing what I know now, I believe a contemporary audience has no interest or tolerance for stories about cis-gendered white men and their struggles. Especially if those struggles invite a power dynamic that involves an oppressed group. If I was devising this same story today, I would only explore the female side, using the male voice as a supporting role, not equal and definitely not dominant. As my teenage son says, ‘There are plenty of those stories mom. What we need now is to hear from the other side. Those are the stories that count right now.” My son is very smart.