A strange case of sound over sight

Author Drew Pisarra and director Jerry Mouawad talk about collaborating on their radio drama "The Strange Case of Nick M."

What’s this? Imago Theatre, known for its highly visual and physical brand of performance, creating a radio play? In a year of unlikely events, Imago’s new production “The Strange Case of Nick M.” has an entirely logical unlikeliness: If you can’t open your theater to audiences, why not let them listen in via radio? Audiences can do just that at 10 p.m. Monday, May 3, on KBOO 90.7FM (the KBOO studios are across the street from Imago’s home in close-in Southeast Portland), and also via livestream on KBOO’s website here. It’ll also be available to stream May 7-16; ticket information here.

“Nick M.,” which centers on the story of a man who can remember only what’s happened in the past 30 seconds, is a collaboration between writer Drew Pisarra and director Jerry Mouawad. Pisarra, the onetime Portland poet, writer, and monologist who now lives and works in New York, and Mouawad, Imago’s co-founder and co-artistic director, are longtime friends and collaborators who first worked together in 1994. Here, they sit down (virtually) for an inside conversation about how they put together a new piece in a medium neither had worked in before, shifting from movement to sound:

***

Jerry Mouawad: What do you think defines a play to be performed as a radio play rather than live? We’ve had lots of discoveries about this topic. One that stands out is how the imagination of the listener is a crucial component. 

Drew Pisarra:  For radio plays, I think that imagination can be nurtured by having a narrator. I was lucky in that early in our creative process, I was listening to the Public Theater’s radio adaptation of Richard II. They’d inserted a narrator into the script repeatedly, which far from being bothersome was immensely enjoyable. I mean, it was Lupita N’yongo. How could it not be? But it also sparked an idea. How might our story benefit from an all-knowing narrator? And thus, the podcaster character was born. 

Drew Pisarra, author of “The Strange Case of Nick M.,” with ancient writing implement. Photo: Steven Burton/Cafe Royal Cultural Foundation

JM: This story revolves around Nick M., a man who has anterograde amnesia, where his short-term memory in the radio play begins at only 5 seconds and eventually evolves to several minutes. He lives in a kind of moment that seems to  us a hell, or at least your fictitious podcaster relays that to us. A moment that is not necessarily bliss, yet for him it’s not such a big deal – he does not  judge the moment the same way the other characters see his “stuckness.” Do you agree with how I see his view of the moment? As the play goes on, his regard of the moment becomes negative because of his response to how others are trying to fix him and this unusual perspective of the moment.

DP: There is a certain irony, isn’t there, to being damned to “live in the moment.” The moment’s less momentous when that’s all there is. As for Nick, I don’t know that he has the ability to judge his limitations when his powers of memory are at their weakest. The very act of reflecting would require building thought upon thought. How many thoughts can you build in five seconds? It’s only later, once he has acquired a greater ability to remember, that he can truly recognize his situation. Which makes his recovery a double-edged sword. I wouldn’t say that his recuperation is negative, but I would say it has a bittersweet aspect for him. As for any antagonism he feels towards his caretakers, when it comes to the mind, I think most people are resentful of the outside fix.

JM: The piece took many turns in this long process, which I think began three or four years ago. You wrote a script based on a real-life man with severe memory loss. I shelved it after thinking I wasn’t ready to produce it. Then when the pandemic hit, I asked you to take another stab, but this time for radio. Yet the root of it can still be heard from your first draft. Do you remember what  seed or substance opened up the writing of the current radio play?

DP: Actually, the initial screenplay was based on a scenario of your making. I was unfamiliar with the actual person at first and saw your outline as a kind of Shepardesque story involving an amnesiac, his wife, and the man she ran away with. That script was challenging to write because I felt as though I were the servant of two masters. I think we’d both agree now that it never quite worked, although I personally learned things along the way. When you came back to me with the idea of turning that screenplay into a radio drama, the original pages were so old it was like someone else had written them. So I suddenly felt quite comfortable dishonoring them, chopping them up in all sorts of ways, introducing new characters, throwing out old ones, creating a new setting, structure, the works. … Even crafting the new roles for our individual actors (since the play was cast before I’d even finished the new first draft). And can I give a shout-out to the cast here? I never would’ve made the psychiatrist Russian if not for your genius suggestion and Vanessa Hopkins’ ability to drop into that accent on the spot.

JM: Now compliment me, I think I need it. (half joking.) At one point you mentioned another director, I forgot who, that took in everyone’s ideas. No one was excluded in the process – not a grip, not a driver, etc. You said I did that, that I included all, but I have to confess I’m a control freak with most of my directorial work, particularly with live theater. Sometimes I refuse the actors their contributions – almost like a dictator – or at least not let them express their ideas to the group. What made you say this – with me as a director?

DP: Oh, that was when the Mabou Mines’ Lee Breuer died. I saw a video interview with him online. I still think about his Prelude to Death in Venice, and his Peter and Wendy. I don’t think I’ve listened to any musical soundtrack as much as his Gospel at Colonus. Perhaps his taste for experimentation meant that he always had to be open to the stray idea. Your willingness to step outside the box in bare feet, to try the improbable because why not, is one of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed working with you. You’re not afraid of risk in the rehearsal room. Maybe working in the unfamiliar medium of radio has opened you up even further. Have you forgotten how, throughout rehearsals, you’d ask the sound designer and me to direct? I usually declined in fearful Zoom silence. And when it came to editing, I never saw your suggested cuts as affronts because I knew you recognized things I could not and that you shared my eagerness to make the piece fly. 

Jerry Mouawad, director of “The Strange Case of Nick M.” Photo: K.B. Dixon

JM: Well thanks for that! You’ve been a great collaborator; it’s effortless working with you. I wish more projects were this way. My next question: Because of Covid, the play and process was both alienating and liberating. Early on we were shut down and rehearsed on Zoom. Months go by, we refine the script, we refine the characters and then we get together live at Imago, with you on zoom from New York. It was better live, yet still we had the weight of Covid over us. Did this influence your writing? Covid? the isolation?

DP: I asked myself this question recently and now wonder if subconsciously the settings within the play weren’t dictated by the pandemic. The two locations are a radio studio (which is nothing more than a human fishbowl) and an apartment building that’s been turned into a scientific lab where the guinea pigs are human beings. I wouldn’t call the story claustrophobic, but it’s encaged. There are tapes of people listening to tapes of people listening to tapes of people talking. Who hasn’t been going outside much? Me. And it shows.

JM: How did you feel when I wanted rewrites and wanted more in some dramatic moments?  I would actually rewrite the scene myself and send them to you. To be frank, I knew it might disturb you, that I was actually rewriting your work. But as always I put the show first even though we agreed to keep our friendship first. I thought we collaborated well together. But I bet the readers would want to know if you cringed when I sent you notes or rewrite “suggestions.” To confess, I cringed only at the end when you wanted to re-record scenes, which I really, really didn’t want to do. I also must confess there were many times I’m thinking, “I don’t know where Drew is going, but I’ll trust him and not ask.” 

DP: The first time we collaborated was with Phoenicians in the House (1994), in which I performed a couple of satanic monologues that I wrote myself. During that developmental process, I would offer a new monologue every few days and you’d say, “Interesting. But that’s not it.” So then I’d go home and try again. Was it frustrating? Yes and no. Yes because I wanted to hit the nail on the head. No because I could see why I had not. This new show was like deja vu except that dynamic got multiplied by sixty. I decided early on to look at your rewrites as idea-sharing. I’d read them as feedback and if there were compelling ideas embedded inside them, I’d incorporate the gist from my perspective and in the voice of the play. If I found a problem with the idea, I’d create an alternative intended to cancel out your concerns. I quickly saw that your feedback needn’t be perceived as invasive, so I got over being irritated and gave it my best shot.

JM: We agreed early on that perhaps Nick was not the lead but a character in an ensemble work. Could you explain what was the genesis or thrust of each of the other characters?

DP: I’d rather skip this one since it’s not how I think.

JM:  Any thoughts of where we are right now? –  because at the time of this writing we have taken the 70-minute piece after the first draft, agreed it was too long, then edited the hell out of it, to end up close to 45 minutes. That was refreshing. 

DP: The cutting was my favorite part. When we heard that hour-plus rough cut, I could barely sit through it, so I was relieved when we talked on the phone afterwards and agreed it needed to be shaved with an axe. I don’t think I realized before that overlong moment how unsympathetic radio can be to certain kinds of repetition in dialogue and how, when you don’t have visuals, you need to share information and subtext in a different way. I may have had Pinteresque aspirations in the beginning. By the end, I just wanted to tell the damn story. And since we’re not done yet, I’m champing at the bit to hear the next edit with that in mind.

Actor Sean Doran, recording the role of Nick M. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

JM: I want to talk about the process of working in an audio format. For me, as a physical director, I was thinking physically each time we entered a scene. Where are the characters? Where are these mics that are recording them? The characters are being recorded and know they are being recorded. So I was constantly directing the actors about space, where they were, and how they should relate to the fictitious and real mics. Any thoughts about how that process about space might have been for you? 


DP: Those naturalistic concerns in terms of vocal delivery barely occurred to me until you’d introduced them in rehearsal. Once you had, I was increasingly curious as to where you and the cast might go. It definitely impacted the two scenes involving the live piano; I felt compelled to pare down the dialogue to get in sync with what you were orchestrating. Overall, though, I was having a very different experience on my end. I liked not seeing the actors and keeping my own camera off so I could just listen as if it were the radio, sometimes literally listening in the dark. Then I’d revise the script for the next rehearsal based on what I’d heard. 

JM: You were at every rehearsal, virtually that is, and I thought it would be daunting, thinking, “Oh, I don’t want Drew here. I need to have control and he might want to take the piece in another direction.” But it was the opposite. I felt more in control because when I or the actors didn’t know the intent of the character or a line, you were right there with an answer. You were also there to steer us back to what you intended, because really the world of this play was in your head. Not in mine, nor in the actors’, or with Myrrh [Larsen], the sound designer/engineer. How was it for you at rehearsals? 

DP: As someone’s who spent the pandemic largely alone in a Brooklyn apartment and whose weekly dose of dialogue was sometimes restricted to brief exchanges with the guy who ran the laundromat, these rehearsals were like manna to me. The actors Nancy, Sean, Vanessa, Danny, and Stephanie were like the cool new classmates at a school I’d just been transferred to who didn’t mind me eavesdropping on their conversations, and even asked my opinion sometimes. I really wanted to write the best I could for them. And I can honestly say that I’ve never been involved with a production in which the sound designer was so crucial; Myrrh possesses a magic all their own. As for you, I’ve been wanting to work with you again for 20 years. Don’t make me wait this long again!

***

‘The Strange Case of Nick M.’

Author: Drew Pisarra
Director: Jerry Mouawad
Producer: Carol Triffle
Company: Imago Theatre
Broadcast: KBOO 90.7FM, 10 p.m. Monday, May 3; also via livestream on the KBOO website here.
Streaming tickets: The show will be available to stream May 7-16. Tickets, $10, available here.
Free talkback: 3 p.m. May 16; request an invitation by emailing Imago at imagotheatre@gmail.com
Performers: The Narrator is played by Danny Gray, Dr. Polina K. by Vanessa Hopkins, Nick M. by Sean Doran, Betty by Nancy Campbell, Liz by Stephanie Woods
Music: Clara and Robert Schumann; The Fucked Up Beat
Piano performers: Eric Little and Chase Garber
Sound design: Myrrh Larsen

***

KBOO 90.7FM  is Imago Theatre’s season sponsor for 2021, and also will be premiering Happy Times, an original radio play by Carol Triffle, and Satie’s Journey, a music-theatre collaboration between Jerry Mouawad and composer Marisa Wildeman.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.