The Secret in the Wings

The Secret in the Wings

The Secret in the Wings

Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman
Main Season · Roda Theatre
September 3–October 17, 2004
West Coast Premiere

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

After enthralling Berkeley Rep audiences with her stunning adaptations of Wu Ch’eng-en’s Journey to the West, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks, Mary Zimmerman returns to her Bay Area home with The Secret in the Wings, a vivid staging of European fairy tales retold in the imaginative and colorful style for which she is so acclaimed. A captivating voyage into our collective childhood subconscious, The Secret in the Wings weaves elements from Beauty and the Beast with four lesser known stories into a dream-like exploration of the darker side of human impulses. Punctuating the tales’ haunting truths with breathtaking visual moments and poignant snatches of song, Zimmerman’s latest endeavor challenges the belief that fairy tales are only for children; The Secret in the Wings is her invitation for adults to immerse themselves in a rare and magical storybook experience.

Creative team

Mary Zimmerman · Adaptor / Director
Daniel Ostling · Scenic Design
Mara Blumenfeld · Costume Design
T.J. Gerckens · Lighting Design
André Pluess and Ben Sussman · Sound Design & Original Music
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager

Cast

Mark Alhadeff
Christopher Donahue
Laura Eason
Anne Fogarty
Raymond Fox
David Kersnar
Louise Lamson
Erik Lochtefeld
Tiffany Scott

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Welcome to the 2004–05 season. We are proud to open with another play created by Mary Zimmerman and her band of collaborators from the Lookingglass Theatre Company. It is always a treat to bring back artists whose work continues to inspire us on every level. The Secret in the Wings maintains Mary’s pursuit of attempting to reveal the underbelly of our mythic world, the complex truth behind the simple folk story and the interconnectedness of beauty and darkness. It is a pleasure to watch her endlessly imaginative work unfold as she and Lookingglass once again crack open our doors of perception.

We are not only (madly) preparing to present the plays you will see this season, but are deep in the throes of developing shows for the future. No less than six plays are being workshopped at Berkeley Rep this year. They include a new adaptation of Zorro by Culture Clash and Brian Freeman’s Here and There, an examination of the health crisis in Africa.

In addition to these workshops, we have offered commissions to two wonderful young writers: Sarah Ruhl, whose nationally-lauded Eurydice will be seen this fall on our Thrust Stage, and Berkeley’s own Itamar Moses, who plans to write a play about his experience as a student at Berkeley High. Stay tuned.

Our interest in young talent does not stop with our commissioning program. The Berkeley Rep School of Theatre continues to grow by leaps and bounds, offering a wide variety of classes and school residencies. Serving a total of 18,000 people last year, the number of participating families rose to 600, our enrollment in programs for all youth increased by 1,000, and 200 teachers participated in teacher training workshops. Conceived as a center for lifelong learning and a place where students of every age, size and color can hone their artistic talents and engage their spirits, the School serves as a tool to sustain an engaged citizenry.

Thank you for your ongoing support as we persist in our effort to bring you the finest dramatic work in the country. It is always a pleasure to re-discover the unique character and intelligence of our audience. Enjoy!

Tony Taccone

Director’s note

The structure of The Secret in the Wings is as follows: All but the central story (“Silent for Seven Years”) is told in two parts; the first half of each story is interrupted by the first half of the next story and so on until we reach the central story which is represented without interruption. After that, the second half of each story unfolds in the re-verse of the original order. The play “fans in” to the central story, and then “fans out” again.

The framing story of the play is an updated version of Perrault’s familiar classic “Beauty and the Beast.” In it, a merchant steals a rose from a monster and for his crime his young daughter is compelled to go live with the beast. Each night the beast asks his captive if she will marry him; each night she denies him. Yet every night she dreams of a prince who tells her, “Do not trust your eyes.” At the end of a year the beast wins her love despite his terrifying appearance and at the moment she kisses him, he is transformed into the prince of her dreams. It is this story which most movingly illustrates what G.K. Chestereton wrote of fairy tales: that their profound lesson is “you must love a thing before it is loveable.”

Mary Zimmerman

Eternal return: From an interview with Mary Zimmerman

Mary Zimmerman’s artistry and originality came to national mainstream attention when Metamorphoses won her a Tony Award for Direction in 2002. The award was no surprise to Berkeley Rep audiences, who had admired Zimmerman’s work since Journey to the West graced our 1996–97 season. The Secret in the Wings is her fourth production at Berkeley Rep (besides Journey and Metamorphoses, she opened last year’s season with The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci).

Secret is a return in several ways. Not only is Zimmerman returning to Berkeley Rep, her Bay Area theatrical home; she is also returning to a piece she originally created over a decade ago, a piece that in turn invites all of us to revisit the subliminal, unconscious world of childhood dreams and fears. The original production was performed by Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, and a number of the original ensemble are in Berkeley Rep’s production.

Zimmerman is as articulate as she is artful, and is equally clear in her comments on her source material and her fascinating process of theatricalizing it, providing a unique insight into her distinct style and success. She recently spoke with Berkeley Rep’s dramaturg, Nicole Galland, about her work. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

On fairy tales

I’ve always loved fairy tales. I think they perhaps led me to theatre rather than the other way around. I remember a particular, lavish book with full page color illustrations that were lush and romantic. Pictures of girls in towers in windows looking at bluebirds; pictures of white snakes. I stared at those pictures for hours; I can see them in my mind’s eye even now, in great detail. As a child I wanted to invent a machine that could record my dreams, so I could watch them in the morning; or hire someone to draw the things I had in my head, because I knew I didn’t have the skill to do it myself. Theatre is that machine. I can make these images come to life and actually walk around inside them for a while.

On the sensibility of the play

It’s not so much a matter of choice. I think all directors stage things in the only way they can imagine doing so. You don’t really select your approach to theatre anymore than you select your approach to life, or select who you fall in love with, or what your natural speaking voice sounds like. All of that is decided before you’ve actually given it a thought. So my sort of dark take on these tales is the only one that’s really available to me.

The stories had happy endings, but really brutal journeys. It was a world of absent or downright vindictive parents. Children fled their homes, were on their own, accomplished tasks that were painful and impossible—with the help of animals or otherworldly creatures. All of that was very powerful to me as a child, and still is.

On the selection of specific material

All of these tales are very, very short. If one were to do them in a row one after the other, I think the rhythm of the evening would be wrong and sort of wearying. It felt better to start one story, go half-way in, then enter another and go half-way in and on and on that way, before starting to dig our way out the other side. It is as though we are going deeper and deeper into the dark forest. And all the endings get clustered together this way; the endings are in closer proximity to each other and I think they have a greater cumulative effect. Also, I think the fragmentation has something to do with a child’s perception of story and of time itself. Realities are layered on top of one another: a fictional person might have more weight in a child’s life than a real one. Because of the way they are fragmented, the audience may get a little lost in the stories, feel for a moment a childlike, lost-in-the-woods feeling of “where am I?” My great teacher Frank Galati taught that it is good to get a little lost sometimes, to lose the trail of breadcrumbs in the forest, “for that way,” he said, “enchantment lies.”

On the play’s production history

The play has only been produced twice: once in 1991 at the Lookingglass Theatre, and then last year in a revival, again by Lookingglass. The really, really remarkable thing about the second Lookingglass production is that after 13 years it had six of the original nine members of the cast. That is just absolutely unheard of in the theatre, and it could happen because of two things: first, we’re a company that has stuck together and second, the roles in the play were never of our own age, we were always too old, and so now we’re just too older. I actually find it very poignant to see older people play these roles. When a father scolds his children in the play in a kind of “civilized” but still sadistic way, the audience hears the cruelty of the speech much more than if actual children were up there—because we speak so differently to children than to adults. When we see grown actors subjected to it, we see the ugliness of it.

During the first production the first Gulf War broke out. Because of the way I make my shows, whatever happens to the cast or to the world during our rehearsal period tends to get woven into the fabric of the play. In this case, the war “fell into” the play. For instance, in the story of the three blind queens, close to the beginning, the original script had the line “War broke out.” It was nothing more than an excuse to get the three princes out of the way so that the story could take place in their absence—a plot device. But because of what was happening in the world, that line took on tremendous, tremendous resonance. It became, in a way, the very center of the story. The whole first “movement” of the story leads now to that line. Ironically, 13 years later, that part didn’t have to change.

This production doesn’t have quite as many original cast members as last fall’s LTC revival, but they are mostly people I’ve done a zillion shows with—including Chris Donahue who was at Berkeley Rep in Journey to the West (the Jade Emperor narrator figure) and in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. I wanted him to be the ogre 14 years ago and he wasn’t available. Now he finally is.

When we first did this play 14 years ago, Phil Smith, in a section that is improvised every night, invented a line he would use and reuse on his entrance which is, “Greetings from your future husband!” Now all these years have past, so many things have happened, so many people have come and gone that the line is now true: Phil says the line to Louise Lamson, the actress now playing the part of the princess, and who is, as of this summer, his wife.

On writing and rewriting the script

I don’t work on my plays except when I’m in production. They are written entirely during the course of a regular four-week rehearsal period, although, I rush to add, not in rehearsal. I do the writing myself in between hours of rehearsal and bring in bits every day. The first production was done this way and the amendments to that production were done that way as well, during the course of this second period of rehearsal. I remember actually writing the lyrics to the second half of the “Snake Leaves” song while the cast was around the piano learning the first part with Andre Pluess.

I don’t write any script for anything I ever do until I am actually in rehearsal, unless I feel I have to make up some scenes in advance for the sake of auditions. I don’t mean that the script is improvised, it isn’t. I write it in between the hours of rehearsal and bring it in pieces every day and stage those pieces immediately. I cast a company without knowing for the most part who will play what, or what parts the show will actually contain. This is possible because I am often adapting a text, or body of work, that is vastly more huge than any evening of theatre could contain; so I’m always making choices as to what parts of that text I’m going to use; since I don’t do that until I have my company, I can tailor the text to the company, to the venue, to the design, to what happens in the world while we are rehearsing.

There are two entirely new tales in the show that did not exist in the original. One was the “Snake Leaves” tale that is entirely sung. I wanted to add an all-sung story, and that one is mighty strange and melancholy—the way I like them. A student of mine brought my attention to it in a class. The second is the sort of fragmented, re-appearing story of the “Stolen Pennies.” Another sad, strange tale.

On the significance of setting

The setting is some strange place balanced between a basement and a forest. To me, as a child, the crawl space in my Lincoln, Nebraska home was the most terrifying, enchanting, seductive and horrible place on earth: a big dirty unfinished hole in the middle of a house. The image of the crawl space (or coal bin, as it could also be) is very important to me: it is emblematic of a wound, the hole in the heart, the emptiness we try to fill up with better worlds where, for instance, good triumphs and the wicked are defeated; or where love heals all; or where beautiful magic is part of life. It is the dirty, dark source of the creative drive.

The revival’s production design was entirely different from the original production, although based on the same idea as the original, of “found” clothes and objects. And the set is changing yet again in Berkeley. The set is larger here and it is twisted to a new angle. In the LTC revival, the audience sat on two sides and each got a rather flat perspective; here everyone gets quite a dynamic one.

On the rehearsal process

Going into rehearsal is a bit of a free fall. On the first day of rehearsal, we present the designs to the cast. The set itself has to already be pretty fully conceived by this point and there is a complete model for it; but the costumes will sort of be in flux until the very end. There will be basic designs, but when we start we don’t even know all of the characters that will appear. And props are conceived, made up and brought in from day to day. Then, we sit in a circle and read stories, or episodes from stories, aloud by passing the actual text around hand to hand, each reading a paragraph. We talk about them. I say what I like about them, why they might end up in the play, or how they are similar to something else and I’m not sure which will end up in the play.

Then, I might have some physical improvisations to do such as “How can we make a camel? A boat? Three different ways of sailing? Of flying?” I usually have some ideas in mind that are just fantasies and I want to see if they are physically possible. Generally, these physical images transform as soon as an actual body is trying to do them. I might say, “Can you three go off and make up a sequence of gestures you can do together, sitting in chairs, that all have to do with sight?” By the next day I’ll be bringing in little scraps of text: maybe the opening of the play, and then something from what I think will be further in the play. Bit by bit, day by day, the text and images are built together. I am drawn to particular stories or episodes because I can “see” how to stage them, or because they play into the strengths of particular company members or the overarching idea of the set. Each day’s rehearsal makes the next day’s. As we go along, more and more decisions are made, fewer and fewer options are available.

But, strange and peripatetic as this process may sound, it is always grounded in the idea of “How do we tell this story? What is it about this story that is compelling? What is the center of it? What is the idea of it? Why is it so moving or funny? Why has this story lived for so long and why does it want to keep on living?” Although the script is not finished until just before tech [the final week of the rehearsal process], the original text is always there and we are always all in dialogue with it. Actors will suggest episodes or stories from the original to me, as they are reading it at night as well. They will advocate for parts of the original text.

In this description, I’m pretty much leaving out the really intense work between my designers and me which happens before rehearsals, before any script. That collaboration is absolutely critical to everything I do. It is a long, groping process.

On creating theatre

I used to think of the process of making a play like this in sort of grandiose, architectual terms. I’d say, proudly, “Look, we took a flat line, and tugged it up into the outline of a city. We built this thing. We started from nothing, and now look!” But over time, the metaphor has changed. I think of this way of working as an act of archeology. There is something buried in the sand, and it is our job to uncover it. If we panic and work too fast, not paying attention to the true shape of the buried artifact, if we are impatient, then we will damage it. We have to let the emerging shape guide us. On the other hand, if we are lazy, and don’t do our work, the thing will arrive in front of the audience on opening night with dust still clinging to it, unclear; its true shape obscured. The treasure in the sand is comprised of the text as it wants to live on stage and some fugitive part of ourselves, buried and forgotten; but if we work carefully, its eventual shape is inevitable—made up of who we are and the text itself and our efforts in the search.

People sometimes ask me why I work this way, why not just write a script ahead of time. I can only answer that my imagination doesn’t work that way; text is not separate from image for me. There are lots of other reasons as well, I think: fear of dramaturgy, fear of calculation. I have a really strong faith and belief in the unconscious. Working this way doesn’t allow for much strategy. You pretty much have to let go, to get the hell out of the way of what is happening through you, almost in spite of you. You can’t self-censor, you can’t second-guess. There just is no time for that. The pressure is so intense it just cracks you open and you go with your secret, strange ideas, because you are desperate and don’t have time to think up any polite ones. In our work together, we have felt the palpable presence of something much larger than ourselves. It takes over—you just try and get out of the way. It arrives in the room. Everyone feels it.

Endnote

As delighted as Berkeley Rep is to feel slightly proprietary about Mary Zimmerman in the Bay Area, her true artistic home is the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago. Lookingglass is an ensemble dedicated to using theatre as “a potent means of discovery and personal and social transformation.” In addition to Zimmerman’s Tony award, the ensemble as a whole has collectively earned five NEA grants, as well as scores of citations and awards in Chicago and on both coasts.

The company is named after its inaugural production of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, put on by eight Northwestern University graduates in 1988. 35 world premieres and 25 venues later, it is now a company of 21 highly-skilled artists and designers. Lookingglass produces three mainstage shows annually, each of which is piloted by a company member through a multi-year artistic development process. They adapt work from all parts of the globe, from the ancient Greeks up through the present day, making it a priority to create ensemble pieces that are compelling in both their narrative and their bold physicality. Lookingglass runs a multi-tiered outreach program for students and teachers, as well, designed not only to engage young people in the arts but also to strengthen their self-esteem and stimulate creativity.