Anne Washburn loves her meta-narratives and with 10 Out of 12 we watch a play about tech-ing a play. Although this is for all intents and purposes a "backstage" drama that is at times wickedly funny, it seems a distant cousin to wacky behind-the-scenes farces such as Moon Over Buffalo or Kiss Me Kate. Washburn intentionally pushes our focus from an exclusive "actor" driven world and encompasses the whole backstage world.
As Washburn took us meticulously through the way in which words and storytelling evolve over time in Mr. Burns, here (with maybe less precision than Mr. Burns) we descend into the world of theater-making with egos in costume, unsung heroes solving every emergency, and the utter messiness of artistic creation. It is a foreign culture, with a language we don't know and rules we don't understand. Yet, we are immediately submerged in this world.
The entire audience wears headsets so you could literally tune into the action happening on another frequency. The voices in your head are backstage technicians calling light cues, sound cues, making adjustments, and doing their jobs. The technicians and crew get ample stage time--some live and some as disembodied voices.
We experience the mystical rhythm to the calling of light cues--both mechanical and poetic all at the same time. The director tries to explain what he wants out of the lighting design. He speaks in abstract images and words which the lighting designer must translate into physical execution. Never has it been clearer what a lighting designer does and what an unenviable task it is to be given an imprecise "artistic vision" and attempt to give the director what he wants (when in this instance it's clear he doesn't know what he wants).
We have the same opportunity with the sound designer who is meant to bring an aural jaguar into a scene, yet push it to the background, even as the director suggests he probably will cut it all together anyway. Thankless heroes, every one.
Because of the tech purview, there are fascinating moments of the impotence of the director and the power of the stage manager (she turns off the monitors so no one backstage can hear the outburst that's about to go down in the front of the house). The playwright of the play being tech-ed in 10 Out of 12 is not present and a litany of complaints are lobbed in her direction in her absence. Tech is not about the writer.
In the first act the actors are largely pushed to the background while the technical work becomes the foregrounded cacophony. It's inevitable that we drift back to the world of actors at some point--not for nothing, they are a reliable source of "drama." They are also the one aspect of the stage experience that we, the theater audience, have familiarity with. Through the first act we watch as the actors are bored. They play games and misbehave. The drama that they create is not the scripted kind. The outbursts are from the people behind the characters.
The absurd play within the play offers ample opportunity to make fun of "serious" theater. But the work being done here is so strong, "serious" theater can handle the ribbing. An ensemble of talented actors shows us what it is like to be actors.
I loved the headsets and sonic/theatrical layering. I enjoyed not knowing what was going on exactly in this theatrical world and then discovering it all as we went along with it. When the technicians are gossiping or commenting on what we are seeing on stage, the intimacy of the headset makes you feel a part of the crew. Headphone theater has this particular power. I felt that as well with Greg Wohead's show Hurtling where he is whispering in your ear through headphones. It's a great opportunity to provide a semi-immersive feeling even if your audience is still safely ensconced in their seats.
10 Out of 12 somehow manages to both embrace and debunk the romanticism of theater and theater-making. With all the hostility, impatience, and fried nerves, we see the grueling process to make things look effortless.