She Looks Good in Black: Our Playwright and Her Work

Sarah J. Mann is an Australian ex-pat best known for taking jobs away from hard working American citizens in the twenty years she has called the United States her home. Additionally she is an actress, playwright and poet who has returned to the Salem area from a brief stint in London, England during which she studied the fine British art of apologizing to people who were actually at fault. Her chapbook You Are Not Buffalo was published by YesNo Press in January of 2015. Her tryptic of plays The Apartment Complex was awarded the Robert C. Hamlet Best New Play Award for it's installment 12-B.

She Looks Good in Black was conceived whilst Sarah was studying a strange combination of Eugene O'Neil and Forensic Pathology at The University of Maine at Orono. The impressively mustachioed Professor Richard Brucher suggested during a discussion of Mourning Becomes Electra that a better title might have been She Looks Good in Black. She immediately requested permission to take that title for her own and the story itself followed fully with that incantation. Particularly striking to her was the concept of Lavinia transforming herself through the death of her Mother, discovering and relishing a comfort with her sexuality, long since lost. Academic criminology came in to play by Sarah's study of The Psychopath Test. There is a question on the test, a hypothetical regarding a woman's husband's funeral, that is statistically given the same answer by every subject who fails. What joins together these minds in drawing the same conclusion is a mystery, but the consequences of that response are catastrophic.  That same year it was mounted academically and received awards for play-writing, direction, acting and sound design respectively. 

Now, five years later, Exiled Theatre's undertaking of the play fully explores the transformation of self through loss and the startling ease with which we will move to extremes to ensure that transformation's permanence.

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Theatre at the Threshold (of sound)

Morganna Becker, playwright and star of The Threshold of Sound, discusses what inspired this piece and how it has evolved from the original production to the show you will see with Exiled Theatre this weekend in Somerville.

Morganna Becker as Daffodil Spout Havish

Morganna Becker as Daffodil Spout Havish

The Threshold of Sound evolved out of a conglomeration of ideas.  Its primary components are drawn from telling the story of the inner world of a bewildered woman, the scientific concept of sound, the plight of the whales, the complexities of truth - about the physical world and ourselves - and finding a way to make oneself heard.  The piece became about finding one's voice in the world - of acknowledging the power of one voice in the chorus that makes up the planet.  

Work on the piece began in the Fall of 2011, while I was studying at the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Semester in New York City.  Originally, I wanted to create a piece that used story, whale sounds, poetry, and body movement to build to a scream and end in a silence that would allow the audience to experience the fullness of silence and the threshold of sound. In the initial version, there were two performers onstage.  As a writer/performer, it was an exploration of anger and other volatile emotions, and of the body as an instrument.  These emotions were not specific to me, but to the world in general.  The year 2011 was the year of the Japanese tsunami, and the year of Occupy Wall Street.  I was hearing people say ignorant things.  I was hearing people shout their anger from rooftops.  It was a year I became aware of the frustration of generations and the difficulties in creating change.  I attempted to capture this in writing The Threshold of Sound.  At the end of the program, it became evident to me that this work was not complete.  I had enough material for a half hour performance, but could only do a ten-minute showcase piece.  There was much more I wanted to explore.  I decided to revisit and expand the piece for my senior thesis at Trinity College in 2013, during which it was produced as a solo performance. Fast forward to now, and I am still working on the piece. I feel as though the written version of this production is close to finalization. Perhaps in another five years, I might be done with it!

I am ecstatic that Exiled Theatre is producing Threshold of Sound for their 2016 summer fundraising event, and that Teri is directing the piece as I admire her directorial work.  Also, honestly, working with Teri is like hiring your own personal cheer squad to interact with you every day. Words can't describe it. I have heard the word "literary" to describe Threshold; to me that means layered.  Teri was so generous with letting me rework the play's beginning and the Gareth/Cooper/Ferdinand scenes (i.e. those scenes that keep it out of the one-woman-show category).  By the time we got to really putting the play on its feet, we were still making so many discoveries about Daffodil's world, the political nature of art, shamanism, and whale sounds, not to mention performance elements. There's a lot packed into this one hour of storytelling. 

Nick Kelley as Gareth/Cooper/Ferdinand

Nick Kelley as Gareth/Cooper/Ferdinand

I would say, above all else, I work toward an emotion with my art.  It's most commonly referred to as catharsis, but I'd say it's that bittersweet spiritual spot between laughter and sad crying.  That, in combination with the mundane - the simplest pleasures, but not necessarily nostalgia - for me carve out a really magical niche in the performance world.  I personally believe that theater is spiritual, business, play, politics, education, and magic. Sometimes I don't have a specific intention on any one of those fronts, it's simply innate.  I hope this play sparks that twinkle of wonder that shamans did (and still do), and can give that not-so-Western medicine to our audiences, even if it's just in an unexpected smile.

I've had many collaborators along the way - Teri Incampo, Nick Kelley, Davis Kim, and Grant Jacoby - and some heartfelt fans - Mom, Judy Dworin, Malcolm Evans, and Lindsay Walker -whose artistry I respect so immensely that to have had it reciprocated is beyond words. I also feel it's important to say that this piece let me fall in love with whales and has inspired new curiosities along with the continuous aspiration to be a good human.  Maybe I'll pull a 180 and become a marine biologist. Or maybe I'll end up with my own theater farm with 236 cats.

Walking Through The Waste Land

Exiled's Co-Artistic Director and Production Manager, James Wilkinson, talks about his why he decided to direct a poem in motion adaptation of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land

"First and foremost, I really love the poem. There’s so much delight to be had in the line by line aesthetic bliss of Eliot’s language and the mood it invokes. Even if you’re not catching all of the literary references that he’s tossing in the mix (and there are a lot of them), you can ride along on the landscape that Eliot is creating. I’ve always thought that the poem radiated a passionate energy that readers don’t always associate with it. I think this is partly because it’s been stuck in academia being dissected for almost a hundred years but also because if you listen to a recording of Eliot reading the poem, you’ll hear him do it in a very dry delivery. One of the great things about working on this project has been finding the human heartbeat within the poem and giving voice to it. There’s so much power to it.

I was also intrigued by the idea of creating something completely and purely theatrical. You can’t listen to a recording, or watch a video of the performance at a later date and get the same effect as if you’re watching it live. I wanted to build something where the power of the piece comes from occupying the same airspace as our actors and letting them pull you through the journey. It was also an opportunity to work with abstractions. Although the poem is very theatrical, we (the actors and I) couldn’t approach it like a traditional character-driven narrative. We got to expand our toolbox and play around with how each section was performed and the action that surrounded it. That’s why I gave the project the subtitle: A poem in motion. I think that no two audience members are going to walk away with the same interpretation of the piece.

I was really blessed with actors for this piece. I’ve worked with Laura and Alex before and they’re friends of mine, so I knew they were talented and wonderful to work with, but I wasn’t quite sure how they’d feel approaching something so intangible. They not only rose to the challenge, they took every idea I threw at them and ran with it, so the rehearsal process has been the opportunity to watch something blossom. I think this weekend the audience is in for a real treat."

Join us 5/21 or 5/22 at The Green Room in Somerville tickets here.