In the world of theater, Samuel Beckett’s plays are an extreme sport.
"I feel like an athlete in training, Beckett is the journey to self – for him or for whoever is performing it," Susan Sargeant, WingSpan Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director, said of rehearsals for "Two By Beckett - FootFalls and Not I." The two one-act plays will be performed Oct. 3-19 at the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas.
Sargeant has long-admired Beckett’s plays as exhilarating, challenging and often comic examinations of the human condition. "I love Beckett. I love the language. I love the intellect. I love how it demands and commands an actor and an audience," she said. "Footfalls" and "Not I" star women, a rarity in the Beckett canon. Jennifer Kuenzer will tackle her first Beckett role in "Footfalls" and Sargeant will perform "Not I," her first role in a fully staged play since 2009.
"Footfalls" is a haunting portrayal of May as she paces outside her mother's sickroom. The mother, unseen throughout the one-act, comments on her daughter’s life and the years of loneliness she has yet to endure. May's behavior mirrors the pacing of an important woman in Beckett’s life. "I think there has to be a little bit of an examination of the women in his life. In ‘Footfalls,’ it is his mother," Kuenzer said. "It’s more about the relationship with his mother or how his mother fought against herself."
Beckett has specific directions for the actor playing May. Kuenzer must pace in precisely nine-step sequences before turning and beginning another series of steps. Kuenzer’s costume will be modified so the audience hears each step, and her long robe makes a distinct sound as she turns. The sound of her steps become a metronome beat supporting Beckett’s language. "It’s been interesting to navigate where certain things need to be said before I make a turn, before I let myself move to the next nine," Kuenzer said. "You feel it when it’s not right. When it’s right, it pushes you forward emotionally."
Kuenzer voices the roles of mother and daughter. Throughout rehearsal, she experimented with the difference between the two voices. Gradually, the difference became less marked. "The effect is more chilling," Kuenzer said.
"Footfalls" is contemplative with an abundance of pauses acting as an emotional structure. "I love discovering the freedom within that structure," Kuenzer said. "There is a message of what are you living your life for and what are you looking back at?"
In contrast to the meditative "Footfalls," "Not I" is a relentless barrage of a fractured memory, unleashed in seven and a half pages. A disembodied voice speaks about itself in third person, trying to comprehend life experiences, fears and longings. "It's a rebirth in so many ways, even though she’s stuck and repeats herself," Sargeant said.
Sargeant's acting challenge lies in finding the rhythm in the repetition while maintain the play’s emotional vigor. "It runs in repeats and if you ever put it on automatic pilot and think you know where you are, you’re in trouble," Sargeant said. "It mirrors the mind."
Portraying a voice requires Sargeant to shroud herself in a black void with only her mouth made up in red lipstick visible to the audience. During early rehearsals, she kept her eyes closed while wearing sunglasses to simulate the void. "“It’s all about the language and the music. I feel like I’m singing in so many ways," Sargeant said.
The structure of "Not I" is framed by the phrase "What?...Who?...No!...She!" The defiant refrain represents the voice’s emotional disassociation with itself. "I think it’s total fear because the inside voice is saying, 'I, I – it’s you! I, I – accept! I, I – feel!' She can’t. She keeps slamming the door and then she goes into repeats," Sargeant said. "She thinks, 'If I keep it at a distance, I’m not going to have to feel, I’m not going to have to acknowledge, I’m not going to have to confront, I’m not going to have to change.'"
Beckett's plays are as much a workout for the audience as the actors. "He really respected his audiences," Kuenzer said, summing up the playwright’s expectations of playgoers. "You can think these deep thoughts. Get to it!"
Learn more: http://www.wingspantheatre.com/