The Director's Notebook
Ft. 'Every Seventeen Minutes the Crows goes Crazy.'
SECTION A: THEATRE IN CONTEXT The play text, its context and the ideas presented
SECTION B: THEATRE PROCESSES Artistic responses and live theatre experiences
SECTION C: PRESENTING THEATRE The director’s vision and intended impact
SECTION D: PRESENTING THEATRE The staging of two moments of the play
A. Theatre in Context
‘Every seventeen minutes the crowd goes crazy’ by Paul Zindel, is a comedic play about parents who have run away from home. They leave so that they can live a life without their children and spend time at racetracks and their money on gambling in casinos with no intention of coming back. They leave their children behind to fend for themselves and the play shows how these children learn to survive without their parents. All the children have different reactions to what has happened, which makes this a crazy but also frightening play. There is also a chorus that represents the wild nature of growing up and helps demonstrate major themes by adding to the chaos of each scene.
This play by Paul Zindel was written in the 1970s, a time of disco and hippies. Zindel was born in 1938 and was influenced by the social context that surrounded him throughout the period where he wrote the majority of his works. His first play, ‘The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds’ written in 1965 has very similar themes to Every17 Minutes (Clapsaddle). The 1970s continued the 60s fight for equality movement regarding socially marginalised groups (history.com). It was a time where women, gays, African Americas fought for equal rights in America. Society was going through a period of cultural and social oppression where the need to fight and express opinions became increasingly popular. Zindel also felt the need to express his own ideas because he too felt resentment and a need to feel equal and accepted again. Two years after Zindel was born, his father ran away from home with his mistress, which had a huge impact on his life and creative works (PaulZindel.com, 2017). During his childhood, Zindel was also bullied and felt as though he was being marginalised in his own society of people because he did not feel the social acceptance other people of his age did. He used playwriting as an expression of this resentment he felt and said how he “dared to speak and act my true feelings only in fantasy”, which he says is what made him a writer (Paul Zindel Interview: Scholastic). He also wrote because it was a way of explaining relevant family issues that audiences would be able to relate to. He said that he writes most of his plays for “the teenage audience” because he wanted them to feel as though they were not alone in their struggles as he also suffered (Janeczko). This care he has for this audience was reflected in one of his interviews where he mentioned how he loved hearing about “anything you care to tell me straight from your heart” (Megyeri). The marginalisation in society helped stimulate this movement for freedom, and Zindel did not want to also feel like he had been marginalised in his childhood so used writing an expression, which helped him with Every 17 Minutes.
Every 17 Minutes was therefore written with the intention of being a performance that expresses his own “confusing, funny, aching teenage days” (Paulzindel.com, 2017). The cultural context of this play lies in Zindel’s childhood because it was written as a response to some of the challenges he faced during this time. All of his other work such as ‘And Ms. Reardon Drinks a Little’, 1967 and ‘Amulets against the Dragon Forces’, 1989 are also about family struggles and issues faced within the home (Paulzindel.com, 2017). This similar theme of abandonment in Zindel’s other works helps to show how much of an impact his father leaving their family had on him because it influenced the way he wrote. It stemmed from this anxiety and Every 17 Minutes pinpoints this anxiety exactly.
The play portrays the nature of childhood with the absence of a prominent parental figure showing how the cultural context of the play influenced some of the major ideas that are encapsulated in this piece. Zindel said he felt “great pain at being left out” because he “had no father to teach me the skills to be a winner”, which is seen through this major idea of neglect in Every 17 Minutes (Paul Zindel Interview: Growing Up). He explains how important it is to have supporting parental figureheads in a child’s life, which is what makes this a significant theme in the play as it has impacts on many other children who will also go through this. Even if parents have not physically left, they may have emotionally left a child, which creates these feelings of neglect that Zindel builds on. Another major idea in the play is about growing up and some of the challenges that are faced. These challenges include the process of making decisions and also the desire for independence but the fear that this may also entail. Children want to feel like they can be independent, however this also comes with prime responsibility and so this internal conflict is something that is relevant because it happens so often. These challenges are relevant because they are common issues that teenagers will face when growing up. Zindel expressed the challenges of growing up in an interview saying how “I was forced to dream of worlds that could be, rather that a world that was for me”, as he felt he could not fit in properly (Paul Zindel: Growing Up). Being a teenager makes people vulnerable because they are worried about the way people judge and view them. Fitting in is a huge part of this, which makes it a prominent anxiety, felt throughout childhood. It initially had such a great influence on Zindel and is a major theme in the play because it expresses the desire for something better, which could be the escape from social pressure. The challenges of growing up are therefore also an important theme in his play. This can link to the pressure of being a teenager and how to cope with struggle, which is another major theme in the play. It makes a character stronger when they are faced with challenge because they learn how to work around this and grow. However, children do still need support, which is why another theme in Every 17 Minutes is the chaotic nature of childhood and the emotional learning that comes with these times.
Zindel is able to link these ideas together because they are all issues that teenagers can relate to. Issues that explain the nature of growing up. Issues that explain how family life can be disrupted and also the crazy chaotic way that life can sometimes fall into. The play was written in the 70s, however this does not change the relevance of this play because it contains social issues that are still seen very prominently considered today. This shows a strong link between ideas as they all mean something to the target teenage audience. Every 17 Minutes is also told through the eyes of children and teenagers as the play centers around these characters demonstrating a younger perspective of these issues. This perspective can provide a greater idea of the feelings that would have been distinguished when dealing with these challenges. The childhood perspective is very effective in linking these ideas together because it represents the direct impact of the issues regarding childhood neglect on children which gives the themes a much more personal feel within the play. The ideas are not glossed over, but are expressed in a witty and comedic way to draw attention how sometimes these problems may be obscured even when they are very much there.
Zindel’s childhood was full of abandonment because he had to grow up without this support from his a Father and a Mother who “struggled to get money” (Paulzindel.com, 2017). Zindel felt an extreme amount of responsibility because he was left without a father from such a young age, which is a difficult role to fill. Feeling vulnerable, Zindel used these themes from his own life in the theatre that he wrote. Childhood abandonment features most prominently in Every Seventeen Minutes, as it is the central idea of the entire play. This experience from his own life helped him create performances and connect his own ideas with themes in his plays. The responsibility he felt is also seen in many of his plays and specifically with regards to Every Seventeen Minutes, because the characters react desperately in response to their parents leaving. Zindel suffered in his childhood and was able to use theatre as a means to develop themes in his works that resembled what he had gone through.
I chose this play because it discusses issues that are relevant to us today. Even though it was written in the 1970s, it still discusses prominent social problems that people are able to relate to. I think that teenagers often reach a point in their lives where they are no longer expected to act like children but are not yet treated like adults. This point in life represents the transformational growth into adult hood and the responsibilities that this entails, which is something I hope to incorporate as a major theme in my directorial vision. The challenges children face when growing up and learning how to make decisions and handle themselves without parents, are all things we learn about through experience.
B. Theatre Process
Every Seventeen Minutes is a play that employs both naturalistic as well as surreal artistic choices, which are blended together to express the themes of the play and create the chaotic nature of adolescent years. It is naturalistic in the sense that it follows a plot storyline and has scenes with developed characterisation. However, the surreal part of the play comes from the use of the chorus and how they are chosen for artistic effect to set the tone of the play and build on the themes.
My overall vision for this play is to fuse realism and surrealism together using techniques from both Stanislavsky and Brecht. The surrealism will help create the chaos by reflecting the major themes of abandonment by raising the stakes of the piece. In contrast to this, the realism will be used as a way of setting the underlying darkness of these themes and the impact they can have on an individual. Often a play can be very visually appealing as well as entertaining to the extent where the audience leaves the theatre having only enjoyed the performance. I want to go for more of an impactful effect where the
audience is able to think about the themes during the play and be reminded of the fact that they are watching a piece of theatre. I want to merge these two theorists because I want to highlight certain moments in the play for different effects, which is why I thought it would be effective if both were used.
Last September, I watched a Revolutionary play about Mao Zedong, which was ironically a comedy with a darker and more serious back-story. Although ‘Every Seventeen Minutes’ is not supposed to be a play focused on comedy, the idea of having a dark underlying message masked with something else was inspiring to me. The play used the idea of a story within a story and was very interesting because it was presented in the form of a documentary. The idea of the story within a story comes across with the fact that the communist revolution was wrapped up in the making of this documentary. This isolation technique can be used with the idea of a story within a story to help remind the audience that they are watching a piece of theatre and do not get completely lost in the performance. I was inspired by this story within a story idea and felt as though it could also be effective in my take on ‘Every Seventeen Minutes’. Using chaos and some elements of humour to hide the darkness so that when it is revealed, it has a greater impact just as in this Revolutionary play when the story within a story is also revealed.
The Revolutionary play was also effective in portraying the significance of the underlying story within a story through symbolism. The moment of impact for me whilst watching this play was when the baby doll was brought onto the stage because it had a very ambiguous meaning. It could have been a symbol for Mao Zedong, but also could gave symbolised the one child policy. This moment was so significant because it used symbolism to express an idea and made me feel something as an audience member and has an impact on my creative vision. It made me see how symbolism can be used in a performance and the effect it can have. In ‘Every Seventeen Minutes’ the chorus can also symbolise the challenge and struggle in being able to deal with problems at home because of its chaotic nature. There were also four cameras set up, displaying images onto a large board covered with newspaper. I quite like this technique of displaying images onto a plain board because it can explain ideas that perhaps dialogue cannot. However, this technique would probably not work in my take on the play but I found it interesting to see how it worked in this play.
This image above represents the colour scheme of the performance and how the play was able to use this as a technique to further establish the prominent themes. There was a moment in the play when all the characters came out only wearing red. They stood on stage in one massive clump and had a scene where only movement was used to demonstrate the progression of time. The main focus of this moment was on the colour of each character’s costume because they all wore this prominent red. Red was symbolic and was always there being a reminder for revolution and what people went through as a result, but this suffering was not always acknowledged. This is why the humour was used because it wanted to represent this idea. Similarly in ‘Every Seventeen Minutes’, I want to have something that symbolically underlies the major theme of abandonment that is covered by chaos just how humour covers up the pain of revolution in this play. Colour is effective because it is symbolic and is a significant physical reminder.
In the summer, I also watched another play called Ripples by Monsay Whitney at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston. This was an interesting play by the National Youth Theatre’s, Playing up course, which gives underprivileged people a chance to develop themselves in Theatre. The play centered around Ronnie, who wanted to commit suicide due to a series of unfortunate events that happened to him prior.There were many different people who tried to stop him, which meant Ronnie remained on the edge of the building for 12 hours and did not jump. There was a moment in the play where Ronnie was stood on the top of the scaffolding with the other characters below him all acting out moments in their own lives that might help Ronnie consider changing his mind. The scene was chaotic and intense because lines were all told on top of each other in trying to persuade him not to jump. Humour was timed and used very well in this scene because it helped isolate the horror of death and lightened the play so that the issue could be understood with more clarity. Each of the characters displayed their own humorous qualities in trying to stop Ronnie from jumping. This coupled with physical movement drew the naturalism away from the piece slightly. It was clever how they did this because it posed the question is any of this even real? and made the answer ambiguous. Time was also ambiguous despite the modern touch with the use of social media.
It was important for me to take note of these major techniques because it helped me consider the highlights of the performance. There was a moment when Ronnie was talking to the first character trying to stop him from jumping and projections of social media posts were being projected onto the back wall of the stage. The projections this play used was also extremely powerful because it could change the tone and mood of the entire piece. The social media projections were also humorous because they contribute to the isolation of suicide by making it more accessible for the audience. Social media also connect more to the audience because it is something we can all relate to, which drew us in even more.
Another play I also watched in London during the summer was one called, Posh by Laura Wade. This play was hilarious. However, there was also something about it that was somewhat sinister that only added to the humour. It was a story about the extremes of Oxford University life and what the boys of this school are really like underneath their intelligence. The play was very dialogue heavy, which created not only humour but also a sort of frenzied atmosphere, which my vision of Every Seventeen Minutes also aims to achieve. The play was set in only two different locations, which made sure that the action only really happened in one central place: the dining hall.
The play started with only a few characters on stage, but very quickly filled up until the single room was filled with ten. I enjoyed the moment when all the characters were together in this dining hall making a mess of the room because this was the climax of the play. Setting as a technique was powerful in this moment because it centralised the action and created a sense of claustrophobia. This was effective as there was no escape from the action. The dialogue in this scene was also extremely fast paced, which quickened the pace. These techniques are also something I want to use in my play because I was able to see how they can be effective and draw attention to certain ideas because there is more focus on central action.
There was another moment at the end of the play, which was one of the only scenes not set in the dining hall. This moment was set in a living room and was a conversation between only two men. This scene had a lot less varied gesture in comparison to the other scenes, which was important because it was highlighted as important. The blocking was very simple as the two men were sat on two lounge chairs with a coffee table in between them. This blocking was done well in this scene because it created moments of thought provoking ideas. I want to also use scenes like this in my vision of Every Seventeen Minutes through the use of spotlights and also monologues. Similarly to Posh, these moments in my play will contrast the other high intensity scenes so that to keep the stakes high.
C. Presenting Theatre
My major intention for this play is to present a fast paced and chaotic play with high energy using a chorus of people to symbolise themes regarding the transformational growth into adult hood and the responsibilities that come with this. Another intention I have is to make the audience feel empathy towards characters who have faced challenge and understand the ways in which they attempt to deal with this. Softer and more touching moments will be placed in between this chaos in order to highlight the underlying desperation and sadness that abandonment brings, which is one of the major themes in this play. I want to present the play in this way so that the reality of the situation can be focused on at certain moments in time. Sometimes reality can be glossed over, which false feelings. Despair can be hidden, which is something I want to draw out and express through theatre.
Building upon my vision, this mind map (see right) was drawn to describe different techniques I plan to employ in different moments of the play. Using the chorus and the setting, I will be able to create a chaotic environment for the play. These techniques are important because they are symbolic in masking the underlying issues and sadness that are revealed more throughout the play. Brecht’s Epic Theatre and his idea of isolation can be applied in this piece because it breaks the fourth wall and takes away the realism of the piece. The chorus will be using this idea of breaking the fourth wall because they will be directing their speech towards the audience. This heightens the energy of the play and can contrast to the darker moments when the realisation of abandonment hits.
I aim to use this to create the chaotic nature of growing up and learning to deal with difficult situations. I have drawn what I would like the setting to look like in order to suit this theme. It can be seen in the image how cluttered and chaotic the house is and because I have decided to make it as full of furniture as possible. There will be random pieces of furniture scattered around as well as pillows and blankets on the floor. It also gives a limited sense of escape and creates feelings of being trapped, which is another major theme in this play I want to build upon because it works well with my intentions of the play. I have adapted this claustrophobic idea using setting from watching the play Posh. I saw how it was effective in centralising the action of the play, which is why I wanted to have Every Seventeen Minutes also set in one location where this isolation could build up.
Movement combined with the way the set has been designed will be effective because it adds to this sense of claustrophobia. All of this is representative of the struggle children face when dealing with challenge, which is something I really wanted to portray. This movement includes the use of fast gestures that will also work together with the fast paced dialogue to increase the tempo of the play. I also like the way that Posh did this in their play and therefore wanted to also consider it in my own.
How everything will work together
I plan to have all these elements working together to create my intended impact on the audience. My intention to make the audience feel empathy towards these characters dealing with abandonment and understanding the challenges of taking on immense responsibility. This will be done through the creation of chaos using setting as well as movement because they complement each other. Lighting works with these elements because it sets the underlying theme of abandonment because they use symbols to express this, similarly with the costumes.
D. Presenting Theatre
Part 2: Staging two moments of the play
Staging this play would be a very interesting process because there are so many themes to explore and techniques that can be used. My two moments I have chosen both represent a similar theme in a different way to help emphasise this idea.
This is the opening scene of the play and will be a high-energy scene that sets the mood and establishes some of the themes in the play that are built on throughout. The moment begins with a blackout that will slowly come to light, which will be a blend of different colours to set the mood and create a tone of chaos. High energy music will be playing even before the lights come up, which is also used to set tone. As soon as the lights are up there is a single moment before the chorus all runs out and climbs on the furniture whilst the music is still playing as if they are playing a game. When the music stops, the chorus stops very abruptly and lines up at the front of the stage where they begin saying their lines. The lines are said on top of each other to increase the pace of performance, which is important because there will be less focus on movement during this time. There is a strong comparison between the high intensity start of the performance and the stillness of the chorus being lined up. The tone of chaos however, still remains because the pace of the performance does not slow down.
Staging intentions and how they were executed
I. Intention: fast paced and chaotic
The music helps set the mood for the piece and because it is full of energy and sets the pace for the beginning of the play. It is loud and creates an atmosphere of chaos, which works well with this intention. The change of blocking from having the characters scattered on the furniture to having them quickly move towards a line at the front is fast and also full of energy to set the atmosphere.
II. Intention: use of chorus
The chorus is very important in this scene because it establishes some of the themes that Zindel is trying to portray. Themes of how abandonment at childhood can make someone crazy and cause chaos in a home. This chorus is symbolic of that idea, which is why it being used throughout this first scene is significant in the play.
III. Intention: setting
Setting is messy and disorganized, demonstrating a lack of parental presence in this home. When the lights come up, they reveal this state of the house to represent the state that these children are living in and how they must claim responsibility over their own lives. It can represent the struggle of growing up and having to learn to be independent.
IV. Intention: lights
Lighting starts with a blackout whilst the music is playing, which then allows the moment to build up as the lights come up. The lights come up with a blend of colours (red and blue), which coupled with the music and set creates chaos in the scene because so much of each element is being focused on. The lights start to fade slightly as the scene progresses and the lines begin, which is symbolic and relates to the underlying darkness in this play regarding the major themes.
The second moment I have chosen comes from the middle of the play after the reality of the abandonment of their parents has started to really set in. This scene is a moment of honesty the character has with themselves and the audience reflecting their inner desires for a better reality by comparing theirs with someone else’s. The scene begins with a single character on stage. They will be positioned stage left so that they are isolated from the set, which represents a change in tone from the rest of the performance. It also highlights the major theme of abandonment and the feelings that come with this. There will be a spotlight but also very low lighting in the background so that the focus is still primarily on the spotlight. The lighting is low in the back because there will be a slow motion scene of an ‘ideal family’ that links to the monologue being told in the spotlight. It is a symbol of the family that these children never had and is something that lives in the backs of their minds. As the monologue ends, the lights come up and the scene begins quickly with high energy and pace. This provides a direct contrast between each moment.
Staging intentions and how they were executed
I. Intention: slower moment - moment of thought for the audience
Having a single actor on stage for this monologue provides a contrast to the rest of the play because it is one of the few moments where a character is not surrounded by others. This moment of internal reflection changes the pace of the play to reveal even deeper feelings about the abandonment that were glossed over.
II. Intention: setting
There is less focus on the set because initially the lighting is just a single spotlight with some focus on the silhouettes in the background. This lack of setting in this scene is able to focus the energy more onto the changed tone and less on the atmosphere of chaos that the play had previously worked to create.
III. Intention: character blocking
Having the characters creating a slow motion picture of a ‘perfect’ family life in the background is effective because it is symbolic of the character’s underlying desires in life. It also works well with the monologue because this is a theme in what he is saying, which helps to establish this idea further. When the lights change and the scene resumes, the moment is gone and the characters are suddenly forced into accepting their current reality again.
IV. Intention: lights
Lighting starts with a single spotlight and last throughout the monologue, calming the atmosphere of the play by creating a sadder tone. There is low lighting in the background to reveal the shape of some silhouettes. This then changes suddenly changes when the monologue finishes as the lights quickly come up and reveal the continuation of a scene with a few other characters. This change is powerful because it is dramatic and abrupt and is able to represent how life can shift very quickly through light symbolism.
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