Introducing Home/Place

Over the years we have explored small Irish towns, families, artists, lovers, friends, plays within plays, musicals, graphic novels, love, death, memory and revolution. You have taken these journeys with us. Sometimes we have spoken to each other about what we saw, or felt, or thought. But most of the time we have not. We have merely walked the same path for an hour or two and gone our separate ways. 

And then, suddenly we cannot meet. 

And in the space apart, what is most striking is how much you can share with someone, and still not know them. How many questions will never be answered, because there was never the time or opportunity to ask. How many wonderful and moving stories you might be sharing a space with at any given moment. And how those stories, woven together, can create and build a community. Over the years, by some magic we cannot name, we have come to feel a connection to you. Without realizing it, we have come to look for you, and to feel a spark of delight when we find you there. This is the place we call home.

This project is a celebration, or perhaps a critique, or perhaps both, of the place we are in and the places we call home. It is an attempt to see what is created, what stories are told, and what conversations begin by sharing pieces of our own lives through means that do not depend upon a shared language. We do not yet know the end result, but to take this journey together, to get the chance to know each other just a little bit better, feels precious and valuable.

-Jennifer Lin, Company Member and creator of Home/Place


Home/Place is Third Rail’s third Company Innovation project, an annual production slot that allows Company Members to explore theatre that approaches structure, story, design, and point of view in new and surprising ways. Previous Company Innovation projects were Isaac Lamb’s pared-down, all female, six person concert staging of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (2018) and Jennifer Lin’s immersive, multimedia adaptation of the graphic novel by Paul Hornschemeier, Mother, Come Home (2019).

The first step of the Home/Place process is to solicit images from our audience and community, following three prompts:

  • The home I was born to
  • The road I traveled
  • The home I made

Jennifer Lin has put together a graphic representation of some of the submissions received so far, starting to explore how Home/Place can use visual storytelling to highlight the layers, connections, and pathways of our collective memories.

Stay tuned for the next steps in this fascinating, timely project. We hope you will join us to see where it leads.


Art and the Handshake

Detail from “Romeo and Juliet” by Sir Frank Bernard Dicksee, 1884

Welcome back to the Production Manager Corner. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Michelle Kashinsky and I’m the Production Manager at Third Rail Repertory Theatre. I’ve been stepping out from behind our brilliant design teams to offer my perspective on how we move forward in this new world.

I’ve been thinking about the handshake. The week of April 6th, 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the country’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.”

Dr. Gregory Poland, M.D. of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic states: “The whole idea of extending your right hand derives from medieval times when you showed that by extending your right hand, you were not harboring a weapon. The reality of it is, in modern times, you may well be harboring a bio-weapon, so to speak. I think there are much more safe and culturally appropriate ways to indicate a greeting.”

While it is not every culture’s custom to shake hands, if what Dr. Fauci says is true, how will we as a nation choose to greet each other? On my mother’s side, we’ve always greeted each other with the “air kiss,” followed by saying, “MWAH!” It’s delightful, but may not be for everyone. There’s also the fist bump, the curtsey, the arm clasp, the Vulcan salute, and jazz hands.

If the landscape of how many of us greet each other on a daily basis does in fact change, what does this mean for how we represent greetings in the plays we produce? And what if a play calls for actors to kiss? What is safe and what is art? 

One of the most famous kisses in Western drama occurs in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was written in 1594. 

Romeo: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. 

              Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged.

    [kisses her.]

Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Romeo: Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!

            Give me my sin again.

   [Kisses her.]

Can this iconic scene be accomplished without touching? Do all actors need to wear gloves? Masks? Costume designers will become even more important if we have to integrate personal protective equipment into our costumes. 

Interestingly, 1594 happened to be right after theatres reopened from a plague that hit London. Claire Cochrane, a professor of theatre studies at the University of Worcester, said, “The current situation is almost unprecedented. The only comparison is really the plague outbreaks in the 16th century and the early 17th century – and then the really big outbreak in 1665 to 1666. In each case, the public theatres were closed to protect the public from infection.” 

When plague hit London in 1592, theatres remained dark from the fall of 1592 to the spring of 1594. London’s theatres closed again when another bout of plague hit from April 1603 to April 1604. The only option available for theatre companies during these times was to tour shows in the provinces of England. Sadly, with our current pandemic, touring is not an option.

We now share the same fears that existed when other calamities shuttered theatre doors across history. (Note: Calamity is now a word my 7-year-old uses in everyday conversation.) The very qualities that live theatre celebrates – communities coming together to witness human stories, responding with laughter, tears, and gasps – must be on hold for the time being. 

Theatres have been forced to close before, but they reopened. The capacity for cultural rebirth is alive in all of us. The most encouraging lesson we can learn from Shakespeare’s era is that the playhouses will survive and reopen, again and again. Theatre will adapt and find a way. It has and it will again!

Michelle


Incognito: The World We Were Creating

Actors Isaac Lamb and Maureen Porter, accompanied by their costume sketches. Photo by Owen Carey.

Welcome to the Production Manager Corner. My name is Michelle Kashinsky and this is my second season as Production Manager for Third Rail. I’m usually behind the scenes, making sure the designers and director have what they need in the room to do their beautiful work. I help the team keep on task, on schedule, and on budget. But since Incognito by Nick Payne never got to open, and with the arrival of the previously scheduled closing date (Saturday, April 11th), I wanted to share the world we were creating.

At our production meetings, the design team works to take the ideas of the play and put them into physical shape. Sometimes this is literal (a character plays the piano, so we hunt down a piano, move it into the theatre, tune it, and use it in the play). But sometimes the process is more abstract. And with Incognito, it was always more abstract.

First a note about the structure of Incognito: four actors play a combined twenty-one characters within the play’s three interwoven stories. A pathologist steals the brain of Albert Einstein; a neuropsychologist embarks on her first romance with another woman; a seizure patient forgets everything but how much he loves his girlfriend.

In the play, the character Anthony says this about starlings (small birds): 

“We watched the starlings. I love how they come together and move away and then come back together. They sometimes look like half a shape. It’s beautiful.”

This concept was a guiding principle that inspired much of the overall design. The designers worked to subtly guide the audience without their knowledge. One small bird, or design element, would not stand out by itself, but when you put all of them together (sets, costumes, lights, and sounds) something beautiful took shape. 

Specifically, a choice was made that the designers would not help us know which story we were following in any given scene. For example, each actor would wear the same costume throughout the show regardless of which character they were playing. And, despite the multiple locations in the play, everything would be played in a void made of black astroturf, wooden cubes, and a string art installation (instead of literal desks/chairs/tables). This disorienting effect would mirror the fragmentary structure of the play, and the design elements would all coalesce at the end: the audience would hear the complete melody of a piano piece, whereas earlier they only heard fragments; the audience would see a new vibrancy of color as the string art installation glowed in special lights, where before it was a dark structure in the space. 

Applause. End of play.

Please enjoy and please be well! And may the arts keep us going, give us hope, and reunite us again, safely, and soon.

Michelle (and Fiona and Rosie)


The Art of Flying

“We watched the starlings. I love how they come together and move away and then come back together. They sometimes look like half a shape. It’s beautiful.”


Costumes

Designer: Abigail Vaughan

Using different surface treatments we can create patterns derived from plant growth, fractals, brain scans, etc. … Textures or patterns that are barely there but then catch the light and become momentarily visible. The implication of thoughts and memories patched, woven, printed, and superimposed on our form.


Lighting

Designer: Company Member Jennifer Lin

Art gives us the language to talk about abstract things.”


Scenic Design

Designer: Megan Wilkerson

I love the thought of using materials with unidentifiable qualities.


Sound

Designer: Ryan Gamblin

“This selection of cues from Incognito demonstrates a variety of the textures and tones in the show. Atmospheric compositions for piano, realistic underlays that inform setting, and arpeggios that emphasize the pace of the events all come together, woven into the rich story and characters of Payne’s text.” 

Incognito: Two Minute Sound Sizzle

Dramaturgy

Dramaturg: Brian Myers

“Some of the characters in Incognito are neuroscientists and some are patients. The play is not exactly about the science, but it is imbued with awareness of the questions that neuroscience raises. … Playwright Nick Payne goes further: his concerns manifest themselves not just in the experience of the characters but also in those of the actors and the audience. Several features of the play challenge us in ways that foreground how we receive and process information.”

To read the full dramaturgical notes, click here.


The cancellation of revenue-generating programming will have a substantial impact on our organization, and we are extremely grateful to those who are able to give a little extra support to Third Rail at this time. 


Incognito: Dramaturgical Notes

Incognito Dramaturgical Notes by Brian Myers

Cognition


All this confirms me in thinking that we’re splinters and mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes.
Virginia Woolf

When a personal computer starts up, you see a screen we conventionally call the desktop. On the desktop you might see folders, and inside the folders are documents. Once in a while something malfunctions. You might try to open a folder but get an error message, or you might open a document and see garbage characters. Malfunctions like these may provoke a recognition that we are not working with actual folders and documents. We have a sudden queasy fear that our work may have been lost somewhere down there in the ones and zeroes. An expert may diagnose the problem using words like file allocation table, master boot record, and disk sectors. While we are willing to posit the existence of such obscure mysteries, the explanation is full of confusing details that don’t fit well with our idea of a file and a folder. At any rate, we can’t do any more work until someone puts things right—until the underlying system is restored and once again maps correctly to our expectations for “folders” and “files.”

Folders and files are illusions. It’s not that they don’t exist, but they are not what they seem to be. The illusion of folder-ness is necessary and helpful. Like a good map it hides details, presenting just enough information to let us operate easily. We simply point and click to perform what is really a complex manipulation of digital information through a variety of hardware and software subsystems. But the map is not the territory.

Daniel Dennett, a philosophy professor and cognitive scientist, is well within the main stream of current thought when he proposes that the notion we have of ourselves as coherent rational beings is a useful illusion, much like a computer’s folders and files. Like a computer, the human brain also comprises a variety of complex subsystems. Oliver Sacks tells us, for example, that the brain processes a “continuous but unconscious sensory flow from the movable parts of our bodies (muscles, tendons, joints) by which their position and tone and motion are continually monitored and adjusted, but in a way which is hidden from us because it is automatic and unconscious.” Your brain creates for you an impression of yourself that serves as the user interface for a complex organism.

William James in 1890 distinguished “I” and “me” as components in the sense of self: “I” is a perceiving subject that knows things, and “me” is one of the perceived objects the “I” can know. Over the past few decades scientists have become more aware of how that self-perception manifests in the brain and how it may have evolved as a way of adapting to our environment. Antonio Damasio’s work has shown that emotions arise as complex physiological reactions to stimuli, and that feelings arise when the brain interprets emotions. Arthur Melton’s theory of memory recognizes three distinct memory sub-processes he named encoding, storage, and retrieval. Experiments by Michael Gazzaniga confirm the brain possesses a story-telling function, the interpreter, whose job is to explain events—to construct a model of the environment based on sensory input and memory. Much subsequent work has investigated how the brain constructs from memory an autobiographical sense of self.

Our notion of self is so fundamental to our experience that we take it for the most certain and undeniable reality of all. And as long as the input and output of our neurological processes align reasonably well with the outside world, we take that self-notion for granted. But any of these subsystems may fail, and a failure at any point can produce seemingly bizarre behavior of the sort popularized in books like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Some patients fail to recognize one of their own limbs as part of themselves. Some persistently claim to be in places they manifestly are not. Some seem unaware that they are blind or paralyzed. When neuroscience finds causes for such symptoms in organic malfunction, the system of self-awareness we rely on is revealed to be more complex than our conscious experience allows us to perceive. We may have a queasy intuition that our notion of who or what we are dissolves somewhere down in the neurons and corpuscles.

Some of the characters in Incognito are neuroscientists and some are patients. The play is not exactly about the science, but it is imbued with awareness of the questions that neuroscience raises. Some of the characters experience malfunctions. Some cope with malfunctions in others. Most of them, healthy or not, experience mismatched perceptions, finding themselves in conversations with people who simply cannot see the world the same way they do. Some develop a queasy awareness that their own idea of who they are may be less accurate than they have assumed. 

Playwright Nick Payne goes further: his concerns manifest themselves not just in the experience of the characters but also in those of the actors and the audience. Several features of the play challenge us in ways that foreground how we receive and process information. Most prominently, the ordering of scenes doles out information in a way that deliberately complicates the audience’s efforts to connect the pieces into a coherent narrative. Also the actors each take on multiple roles, often switching with startling rapidity as the memories and emotions of a new person suddenly animate the same actor’s body. Doubling parts and skipping from place to place or time to time are standard fare in theater, but in this play those devices closely align with a concern for the fragility of the brain’s ability to interpret facts by constructing a story. The actors themselves are incognito—manufacturing identities and trapped night after night reliving the same memories as though each time were completely new. Payne explains: “the idea is there is no continuous self, so you don’t have a continuum between how and when and who they play. It’s never about a game or experiment, I honestly go in thinking it’s the best way to try and deliver the material.” He names the play’s three acts Encoding, Storing, and Retrieving. The names may direct attention to the audience’s experience as much as the characters’.


Incognito: A Tribute to Opening Night

In honor of what would have been Third Rail’s opening night of Incognito by Nick Payne, Core Company Members Maureen Porter and Darius Pierce have decided to go truly incognito, and perform one of their scenes disguised as remarkably talented children. Here to introduce one of the play’s interwoven storylines that follows (literally) the brain of Albert Einstein across America, please welcome Shiloh (age 5) and Julian (age 7).

Keep connected to Third Rail for information on future dates to see the rest of the story (performed by adults).


The cancellation of revenue-generating programming over the next several weeks will have a substantial impact on our organization, and we are extremely grateful to those who are able to give a little extra support to Third Rail at this time.