- Total Dramaturgical Collapse in The Method Gun: American Theatre in Pandemic Time—a Conversation between Katie Pearl and Jaclyn I. Pryor
As a means of identifying what is essential about theatre, both in its making and its spectator-ship, we offer as case study Wesleyan University’s theatrical production of The Method Gun, performed on Zoom and broadcast via livestream on May 1–2, 2020. In this essay, structured as a conversation between director Katie Pearl and spectator Jaclyn Pryor, we coin the neologism “total dramaturgical collapse” to name the phenomenon in which multiple diegetic and non-diegetic dramaturgies intersect during the course of a performance event, casting both fictional and nonfictional narratives into urgent and sharp relief. Because of the context of COVID-19 within which The Method Gun was suddenly operating, the necessity of theatre suddenly rang clear. The performance process and production became a container through which the audience and creative team could confront their feelings of isolation and loss in the early weeks and months of shelter-in-place, while reawakening a shared sense of what is indispensable about theatre: imagination; collaboration; the ability to create community, even amid separation; and the vitality of risk, both fictional and real.
Let’s begin with you telling us about the show.
Sure. The Method Gun was originally created by The Rude Mechs of Austin, Texas, and had its national premiere at The Humana Festival of New Plays in 2010. The play follows a group of actors who are company members and devotees of an actor-training guru named Stella Burden. Burden teaches what is known as the most dangerous acting technique in the world: The Approach. She believes that danger and risk are essential to truth and beauty in theatre; as a promise of that, she keeps a loaded gun in the rehearsal room.
The inciting incident for the play is Burden abandoning her company while her students are engaged in a nine-year rehearsal process of a version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire—without the main characters of Stanley, Stella, Mitch, or Blanche. In other words, the company members are playing only the minor characters in Streetcar.
I want to make sure that our readers understand the convention that you are describing. The characters in The Method Gun are trying to stage Streetcar without any of the main characters: what happens in The Method Gun when we get to those characters’ lines?
The Rudes use a couple of techniques. One is that they look straight at the audience: the audience becomes those characters. There is silence where the lines would have been spoken, and they respond to the unsaid lines. Sometimes they use a light cue. And there’s very beautiful music composed by Graham Reynolds that runs throughout the show that begins to feel like the missing characters.
Yes. The most memorable example of this is the final scene in the Rudes’s original production—which I saw when it premiered in Austin. After we’ve been watching them prepare for this moment the entire play, the ensemble enacts all of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire from start to finish with only the minor characters—the tamale vendor, the Evening Star collector, the doctor, the nurse—and no spoken text, just highly choreographed movement. All while a dozen or so terrifyingly real ghost lights, which are attached to long metal poles, swing like pendulums from the grid with great force and velocity, barely near-missing the actors’ skin. It was breathtaking. [End Page E-37]
It was. And filled with risk. You can see some of it in the trailer for their production.
But you did something else entirely, which was equally mesmerizing. Tell us about your approach to that final scene.
I knew I couldn’t do the swinging lights, and I didn’t want to. The original proposal I made to the Rudes is that I redevise the play with students—so there was never an expectation that we would mimic their blocking. But as playwright and Rudes’s co-producing...