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On The Exhale: Designer Statements

Posted on: March 29th, 2017 by Roundabout

 

Set model for ON THE EXHALE.

Rachel Hauck—Set Design
On The Exhale could be set anywhere, Martín does not specify a location. Leigh, Martín, Marin and I had some long conversations about what the liminal space might be from which of our character would tell this tricky, dark, terrifying tale. It was important to make the journey for the character possible, but it was equally important that the audience be caught in the world with this character, that the people hearing this would not be safe on the other side of the fourth wall, as it were.   We have chosen to set it in a highly psychological environment. From the moment the audience enters, this is never a comfortable room. The environment begins charged, it is a place of tension which only increases as the story unfolds. It’s also a very neutral world, the quality of which can change radically with lights and sound and, of course, with Marin’s remarkable performance. I suppose I would call this an aggressively minimal environment. There is nowhere to hide, no stool, no glass of water. The character is pined between two planes. These planes could be the hallway at the school where she teaches, the walls of her home, they could be the barrel of a gun. What these planes represent will be different for everyone who watches this play. We also chose to soften the walls of the theater itself to make them a little harder to define, to create a void within which we are all a bit trapped together. The thing about this story and the way that Martín tells it, is that though none of us imagine we could be in her shoes, this could not happen to us. But, of course, it could.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jennifer Schriever—Lighting Design
When I read On The Exhale for the first time, I was a sleep deprived new parent (I still am), feeding my 4-week-old son, Henry. I’d happily spent the 4 weeks since his birth ignoring the heart shattering woes of the world and simply basking in the perfect newness of his gentle being.  This was the first new script I’d read since he was born and I was eager to dive into another world, what I wasn’t expecting was a sucker punch to the gut, and an instant instinctual emotional release.  The experience I had reading the script for the first time is a journey I hope I’m able to support visually through lighting.  Rachel’s set has a focused straightforwardness that I think encompasses the world of this story in a sort of abstract beauty.  It is an island, an abyss.  It allows us to be comfortably delivered into a void of our worst fears, and then having to redefine everything we used to know.  Instead of literally describing the various locations visually, we’re supporting a deep emotional journey.  The lighting may describe the familiar as a comforting haven or sometimes an inescapable prison.  It might be freeing or constricting, immediate and bright, or floating in a vast expanse.   I hope the lighting will be able to deliver us visually- from familiarity, to chasm, to surreal discovery, and then perhaps catharsis.

Bart Fasbender—Sound Design
Before reading the script, all I knew of On The Exhale was that it was a one woman show that Leigh Silverman was directing. Working with Leigh is always a great experience and our last show together, Neil LaBute's All The Ways To Say I Love You at MCC, also a one woman show, was no exception, so I was psyched. The first read through of a script for me, I try not to “hear” too much in my head because I don't want to get too many strong ideas before meeting with a director to discuss her concept. In his production notes at the beginning of his script, Martín Zimmerman instructed “metaphoric sound” as a must. So I did have that in mind as I started. There are no scenes, no transitions, no grounded locations that need to be established in order to convey story; the words alone take care of that. It became clear that my sound design would need to have a light touch and stay out of the way of the words, not lock in any specific emotion, time or location. I was thinking of wind. Not like a blustery cold wind, more a wind that you don't know you feel unless you focus on it. It's there, it's part of the environment, you sense it subconsciously but you don't notice it...unless it becomes completely still. I'll consider it a job well done if no one knows.


On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage


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Martín Zimmerman

Ted Sod: Please give us some background information on yourself: Where were you born and educated? When did you decide to become a playwright?
Martín Zimmerman: I was born in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C. and grew up in a bilingual household. My mother is an immigrant from Argentina and my father is from Baltimore, so I grew up speaking both Spanish and English. Also, the D.C. area is an incredibly diverse area with residents from all over the globe,whether they are refugees or people who work for foreign governments or global nonprofits, so I had friends from literally all over the globe. This is something I suppose I took for granted at the time, but now I understand was a tremendous gift and has informed a lot of my thinking and artistry. I became interested in acting and theatre very late in high school, but when I became interested, I became very interested. I went to undergrad at Duke University, where I studied both economics and theatre. I dabbled in writing a little bit very early in undergrad and then I acted in a new play festival at Duke my freshman year, and I think that that turned me on to the idea of writing plays. So I very aggressively embraced playwriting as an undergrad and wrote a ton and was very fortunate to get several of my plays staged during that time. I went straight from Duke to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin — so I also have an MFA in playwriting.

TS: Since you studied theatre and economics, it sounds like you have both sides of your brain working.
MZ: Yes, and I also think that the economics degree helps inform my understanding of how people are shaped by circumstances. I think economics – and all the social sciences — can illuminate how social forces shape people. That informs my thinking as a writer politically as well; how social forces interact with an individual’s psychology to shape the way they behave. Obviously, my mom being an immigrant has also informed the politics of my writing. By that I mean I also try to think globally, cross-culturally in much of my writing.

TS: Will you tell us what inspired you to write On the Exhale? Can you talk about your process writing it?
MZ: The initial spark for the play came in the aftermath of the Newtown Sandy Hook shooting and seeing how even something as horrific as that wasn’t going to move our national government to take meaningful action on gun control. My frustration and deep anger about that was the seed for the play. Once I have the spark of an idea, I’m always immediately thinking about how the form of that play can be tightly bound to the content of the story I’m telling. I’ve long been fascinated with the act of firing a weapon and how it is a very aggressive act, but how, to do it well, you need to be incredibly calm, centered, focused. It can be a meditative experience if you do it very well — I’ve long been fascinated by that paradox. I think that those two things — my anger about gun violence and my fascination with the psychological experience of firing a weapon — converged in my mind. I knew that because the act of firing a weapon is so solitary I wanted the play to be one woman alone onstage in order to replicate that experience. I knew that pretty early on. And, because I knew it would be a one-woman play, the act of writing this piece was very much about being still and trying to live in this woman’s experience moment to moment. Then, as I was actually writing the play, the play became as much about that initial impulse as about how grief can isolate you — especially when you feel unable to grieve with a community. The writing process became about how that tunnel vision of grief can warp the psyche.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: Why did you choose not to name the woman who the play is about?
MZ: In a lot of my writing I try to embrace a theatrical world that allows many different people to identify with what’s happening onstage. I want to give just the right amount of specificity to make the world of the play and the characters vivid, but at the same time, I don’t want to give extraneous detail that could shut people out of the world of the play. I feel like too much detail could put a barrier between the character and the audience. I’ve had a number of readings of the play, and at each one people think that the play takes place in many different geographical locations within the United States. Often, audiences see the town that they live in. I tried to make the play open-ended enough so that the play can contain multiple interpretations and can speak to people in different places.

TS: What kind of research did you have to do?
MZ: I certainly did some research for this play in particular, but a lot of specific research that I did for other plays also informed the writing of this play. I worked on a play for a while that was about soldiers in combat in the Iraq War, and a vital part of that play was about the emotional impact of firing weapons. For another commissioned play I’m currently working on, I have done a lot of research about trauma and how it impacts the body and the mind — that research was especially helpful in writing this.

TS: How did you deal with writing about the grief of this character? Is that something that you had to explore for yourself?
MZ: I’ve certainly experienced grief in my life. Most people have. But seeing how people around me respond to deep grief had a greater impact on how I wrote this play than did my own personal experiences of grief. It’s important when you’re writing a character who is grieving to remember the dramatic fundamentals. I think those fundamentals serve you very well. They force you to constantly remember what the character is trying to accomplish. She is intentional. When a lot of people try to portray grief they will depict a character who is stuck in emotion and not moving with any kind of intention or motivation. This character is intentional and motivated, but grief keeps her from thinking strategically, from thinking in the long term. She’s merely following whatever impulse happens to seize her in that moment. That’s how her grief shapes her. When trying to write a character who is grieving, it’s vital to remember that no one can live forever with such massive emotion weighing down on them. Their body would shut down after a while. One of the shocking things about the body is how people are able to assimilate things into their experience and genuinely function after a while. They may function differently, but they do function. Grief can surge up unexpectedly at any moment, but that doesn’t mean someone who is grieving is always consciously aware of their grief. It more subtly tweaks the way that person navigates the world.

TS: Did you always know On the Exhale was going to be a play with one actor or did that idea present itself during the writing process? What are the challenges of doing that? What excites you about it?
MZ: I knew from the beginning it would be a one-woman because of the solitary nature of firing a weapon and also because of how being a victim of violence can make you feel isolated, alone. It’s hard to write a one-woman play in the sense that I really had to be inside this woman’s head. As for the challenges of writing a play with one character, once you’ve done that heavy lifting, the act of putting words on the page will flow more easily. You’re just inside her experience. You don’t have to constantly change your way of thinking while writing. Whereas when you’re dealing with different characters, you’re thinking, okay, well this is how this person sees the world, this is how they would behave, and you’re having to leap from one character’s experience to the next. We haven’t entered rehearsals yet, but one of the things I find exciting about doing a solo play is that it is a much more intimate process. I think everyone is in greater communication because everyone is so vital to the process. It allows every collaborator to be really attentive to everyone else in the room, and that is really exciting to me.

TS: Will you talk us through the development process for On the Exhale? How much rewriting did you do?
MZ: The initial spark happened in January or February of 2014. Then I got my first job in TV that March. I knew I wanted to focus on that job while I was in the writers’ room, so I just let the idea percolate in my subconscious. Once I was on hiatus from that job, I knew I wanted to write a new play right away. It was very important to me to maintain my practice as a playwright. So I wrote the first draft in the Fall of 2014. Then I had an in-house workshop at Goodman Theatre during the spring of 2015, and then I had a public reading there in November of 2015. I had a reading at Roundabout Underground in February 2016 and a reading at the Ojai Playwrights Conference this past August. I had another reading at the Alley Theatre in September. Readings are a shorter process in terms of working on things, and there isn’t a ton of rewriting — it’s about gauging the audience reaction and assessing what you’ve learned about the play afterwards. I made the most substantial revisions during those first two workshops at the Goodman, and the workshop at the Ojai Playwrights Conference was more about trying to determine how the play will function theatrically. But I’m always open to rewriting.

Martín Zimmerman

TS: What do you look for when you collaborate with a director?
MZ: I look for people who are humane collaborators, who are very attentive to everyone in the process. Directors who can work with different aesthetics. As a writer, I try not to live in the same aesthetic world, I try to do very different things from play to play, so working with directors who can do the same is very important to me. I also look for directors who understand what makes theatre unique as an art form and know how to exploit the unique advantages of liveness.

TS: What qualities does the actress need to play this role?
MZ: Tremendous confidence. The character is very self-assured, and she has a great strength — she does so much by herself. She’s very independent. You need to have an actor whose instinct is not to lean into the emotion — that’s a great temptation when portraying grief. Part of the strength of this character is the self-assuredness to say, “No, there are parts of my emotional life that you don’t get. They’re just mine.” I think that’s a very important quality. From a technical standpoint, an actor playing this role needs the ability to really shape text — shape it classically — as you would have to do in playing Shakespeare.

TS: What advice do you have for a young person who wants to write for the theatre?
MZ: Writers often get told to start from a place of writing what they know. That’s something I haven’t actually done. To me the writing process has been about finding stories I can viscerally identify with that are also in some way outside of my personal experience. This approach then forces me to research rigorously, which helps keep my writing specific. I think it is important to try and tell stories that are alien to your experience. It’s a scary thing to do — I won’t deny it — but I think it’s good to be scared. I think you should embrace that terror, use it to motivate yourself to be incredibly specific in your research, to be humane and gentle in how you represent characters. Writing plays in order to step outside yourself and learn is a way to sustain a lifelong practice.


On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage


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On The Exhale: Trauma and the Brain

Posted on: March 17th, 2017 by Roundabout

 

Trauma is the Greek word for “wound.” In ancient time it referred to a physical wound, but today trauma is also understood as an emotional wound.

Experiencing a traumatic event changes the chemistry of our body and brain. These changes can remain long after the event has ended.

There are two types of traumatic events. In an acute traumatic event, someone experiences a serious injury or the injury or death of another person, or the threat of death or serious injury. Violations of personal physical integrity, like rape or sexual assault, are also acute traumatic events. Chronic traumatic situations happen repeatedly over longer periods of time and include being exposed to domestic violence, living through a war, and some bullying.

The human brain is the most complex system known. It has three main parts.

  • The brainstem, the most primitive part of the brain, controls the basics like breathing, eating, sleeping, and survival instincts.
  • The limbic or midbrain processes emotions and controls how we perceive the world around us. The amygdala, which controls our sense of danger and safety and triggers the release of stress hormones, is part of the limbic brain.
  • The cortex, the frontal and outer parts of our brain, is sometimes called the rational or cognitive brain. It controls language, empathy, learning, organization, and inhibition of inappropriate behaviors.

Fight of flight.

During a traumatic event, the limbic brain takes in sensory information from the body and sends it in two directions, to both the amygdala and to the frontal lobes of the cortex. The amygdala receives the information sooner and makes a snap judgement as to whether or not a situation is dangerous. In a potentially dangerous situation, the amygdala tells the hypothalamus and brainstem to secrete stress hormones. These hormones prepare the body for fight or flight: bronchial tubes and pupils dilate, digestion slows, muscles contract, heart and respiration rates increase. If fight or flight is impossible, the brainstem will trigger a freeze or collapse response. Processes not necessary for survival shut down. The cortex, the thinking brain, is disconnected from the limbic brain and essentially turned off.

Because of this disconnect, the human brain struggles to consolidate memories and emotions into a coherent narrative after a traumatic situation, which is necessary for working through a trauma. The areas of the brain responsible for understanding time and place are bypassed, explaining the woman in On the Exhale’s inability to process what happened in her son’s classroom. Trauma is remembered as disconnected images and sensations.

In some cases individuals experience flashbacks of the trauma, or dissociate completely, unable to connect with either their emotions or their everyday life. The woman in On the Exhale seeks the rush of firing the gun, suggesting that she may be having a dissociating response.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

After trauma, the amygdala, which warns of danger, can go into overdrive and trigger release of stress hormones in non-threatening situations. This can cause emotional and psychological problems, as well as physical symptoms like high blood pressure and digestive issues. In recent years, scientists have shown that trauma symptoms lessen if treatment includes a somatic, or body-based, component. Movement and breathing exercises like yoga, or group rhythm activities like dance or choral singing, send information from the body back to brain, signaling safety and calm. Over time, these practices can help create new patterns and physical responses in individuals who have experienced trauma.

 

 


On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage


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