Call me old school, but I seek character arcs, plot twists, subplots and resolutions in plays. Therefore, I have always struggled with experimental theater productions. Perhaps the dislike of experimental theater stems from my family, who told me as I stage managed a devised theater piece in high school that I was wasting my time and that no one would come because no one could follow the premise. I went into “Midnight Pillow” uncertain that I would come out liking anything.
“Midnight Pillow,” a series of interrelated vignettes about the role of dreams and creation, was conceived and directed by Park Krausen (99C). The play is Theater Emory’s 2017 season opener, running from Sept. 21 through Oct. 1. Krausen conceptualized the production through a Mary Shelley quote. Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein,” described creating the story of Frankenstein as the “spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.”
Krausen said that the theme of creation stuck with her, and, as a result, she focused on the following questions: What happens when you are in the act of birthing or creating? What happens when you refuse to create? What keeps you up at night or rumbles in that liminal space between your dreams and consciousness? What happens when your creation betrays you or itself?
The production was developed in conjunction with 13 female and transgender playwrights who wrote monologues, scenes and short plays considering those prompts.
This is the first production in Theater Emory’s season that in part commemorates the 200th anniversary of “Frankenstein.” The Schwartz Theater Lab has been transformed into a dark, surrealist, dreamlike space, with several beds, rugs and objects hanging from the ceiling and couches and chairs set up throughout the space for audience members. The ensemble weaved in and out of the audience, completely surrounding them in the midst of the vignettes.
The majority of the scenes are standalone pieces, but one treated like a TV soap opera complete with boom mics, a title sequence and projections is returned to several times during the show. The others ended with marked transitions, during which the ensemble walked through the space, talked with the audience or prepped for the next scene. Some transitions contained music, others audio recordings and some dialogue. The transitions were disjointed, as though the actors had just awoken from the previous scene.
The ensemble is strong, composed of four professional actors and four students. Maggie Beker (18C) and Roz Sullivan-Lovett (19C) were dynamic powerhouses, especially during their play “She and Her.” The standout performer was Atlanta-based actress Danielle Deadwyler, whose fantastic timing and vocal inflections brought a “Bedtime Story” to life.
However, visibility was a distinct challenge for audience members. I watched confused audience members stare blankly ahead or contort themselves into positions from which they could see the action when a scene occurred out of their sight. I myself was seated against the wall far from the action and experienced difficulty watching major scenes thanks to a vanity blocking my view. I felt awkward standing up to watch major scenes or monologues, even though the program encouraged it. In this production, it felt like the audience needed to be completely immersed in the play’s world or completely removed from it.
Unlike my other forays into devised theater, “Midnight Pillow”’s structure was easy to follow with context. However, the play felt more like a reactionary project to the prompts rather than a final polished, cohesive performance. Those who wandered in would easily be lost in the sea of scenes. Audience reactions were mixed; some were sucked right into the production, as evidenced by their participation at the end, and some sat puzzled the entire show. As the actors left the stage, the audience remained in their seats for some time afterward — perhaps trying to snap out of their own dreams, too.