Friday, 7 September 2012

“A mote of dust suspended in a sun beam”: Optic Nerve’s PALE BLUE DOT

Pale Blue Dot - see it? In the sunbeam on the right?
That's Earth from 6 billion kilometres away


The cinema has a grand tradition of science fiction that is cherished and respected, lauded and revered. The genre seems quietly overlooked by theatre. Where are the great plays about scientific discovery? Where are the great plays of specualtive fiction? Please, if you know of any, recommend them to me. It’s certainly a wish of mine to try my hand at science fiction on stage.

Optic Nerve’s Pale Blue Dot is a mix of fact and fiction – an ode to science, which reveres its grandeur while also poking and proding its humanity. A collage of stories about the infinity of space and the limits of photography and art at capturing such epic majesty.

“Pale Blue Dot” is a photograph taken by the Voyager space craft in 1990, a photograph of Earth not taken for strict scientific purposes but as a picture of perspective. Carl Sagan fought to have the photograph taken, just as early astronauts postponed sleep for mere minutes of “sight seeing” in space – human need over scientific necessity.

The play fictionalises the stories of Carl Sagan and his wife Annie Druyen, and their role in creating the “golden records” – pressed gold archives of songs, sounds, greetings, music, images and brainwaves that were sent on Voyager as a depiction of Earth. The experience of watching this production feels pressed into me, just as these images, sounds and songs of Earth are pressed into those records.

There is also the story of a French New Wave filmmaker, a war photographer and a child – and the ebb and flow of these characters and their reaction to light and movement, reflecting the many different emotions contained in the record of Earth that is “Pale Blue Dot”.

Entering the theatre, I knew little of Optic Nerve’s work but a lot about the premise of this play – given the title alone. The glossary in the programme, with its definitions of the titular photograph, the Golden Records and Voyager, etc., suggests the general public aren’t as familiar with Carl Sagan’s work as I am. Space exploration is a keen interest of mine. A subject that fascinates me. And a genre I have and will always try to write in.

But knowing the subject matter and having a preconcieved notion of what may lie in store could easily have worked against this production. What if I didn’t like the depiction of Carl and his wife? What if I thought the metaphor was overused or the importance of the photograph were diminished? What if the collage was more a mess than a cohesive experience?

The work of a smart, inciteful cast of actors and a strong director respected the material – they found a way to capture this vast subject matter and distill it into a 75 minute meditation on light and photography, space and infinity. Distilling the essence of “Pale Blue Dot” into an extraordinary theatrical experience.

Theatre, at its best, feels universal but plays to the personal. As a theatre-maker, I want my audience to understand and empathise. As an audience member, I love to feel like the play is talking directly to me. This show, in particular, felt like it hit many of my buttons – my passion for space exploration, my wonder at the universe, my general interest in photography and my intrigue in the life of war photographers – who choose to be observers, their camera sometimes distancing themselves from the hand that reaches toward them.

And light. And constants. And space. And movement. And memory.

In a very insightful Q&A forum after the show, hosted by an astronomer, there was a discussion about finding a way to draw this vast subject matter into a coherent piece of theatre (stemming from a question of mine). But there was also a discussion about how science and theatre are similar – and how they can support each other through shows like this. And how the limits of both can inform each other; science is dictated by certain universal laws and theatre is defined by its ephemeral nature.

To creators and performers Stephen Phillips, Lachlan Woods, Luisa Hastings Edge and Ben Pfeiffer – whose collaboration on and off stage are second-to-none. Director Tanya Gerstle, whose wise choices kept the show in the precise focus it needs to be. And the entire crew – particularly Russell Goldsmith and Tom Willis, whose sound and production design were the icing on the cake.

Thank you.

Pale Blue Dot finds the human inquistiveness behind the scientific principal and conveys it to the audience in a carefully judged, beautifully captivating piece of theatre. As the great Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And any greatly concieved, exquisitely produced piece of theatre is indistinguishable from magic, too.

*

"Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space


Pale Blue Dot is on at the Tower Theatre at the Malthouse as part of the Helium season until September 15

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Quoting himself, badly: Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom

A long time ago, I was told not to use a famous quote to open a play – because I was setting myself up for comparison and dooming myself to failure. Quote Shakespeare or Proust or Freud, but do it somewhere in the middle, where it rolls off the tongues of your characters and not as the first impression the audience has of your work.





Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom doesn’t open with a quote as such, but it does – just as his Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip did 6 years ago – open with a Network-like “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” scene, setting up comparisons between Sorkin and Paddy Chayefsky, as well as between the two narratives.

For me, though, the problem here is not this direct comparison but the shorthand way that Sorkin is telling and re-telling stories. Two later episodes (“Amen” and “The Greater Fool”) climax with Sorkin repurpsoing other people’s endings to finish his stories – as if acknowledging the lifts from Rudy and Oliver Twist is enough to absolve him of cheap narrative resolutions. And narrative theft.

For a guy who not only steals from the greats, he also steals from himself. A lot. 


Is stealing from himself better than stealing from other people? Not much. When he steals from himself, I already know I’ve seen those stories done before and done better. When he uses the same jokes, the same punchlines, the same character histories, the same narrative structures, devices and resolutions, it’s a bit tiresome.

When his laziness transfers from resuing dialogue and retelling stories to the way he draws The Newsroom’s female characters, it’s pretty distasteful. Every one of the main female characters in his HBO show can be described this way: professional women who are supposedly brilliant at their jobs but cannot wrap their (air-)heads around simple technology and are regularly downright ditzy, most often in front of or because of men.
If that character description was isolated to one of his female characters, that would be fine. If that character description applied to one of his male characters, I’d feel like he was treating characters more equally. There are two pratfalls in the pilot episode – one each from Jim and Maggie, but the difference is, Jim is never revealed to be incompetent in his job or around simple technology. And while he’s not great at relationships, he doesn’t seem to be an emotional basketcase like every woman on the show.

The one exception might have been Jane Fonda’s character of Leona Lansing. She is competent at her job and is never shown to be emotionally compromised or incompetent around the use of emails or the internet or simple tasks related to her job. My only disappointment is her emotional reaction in the season one finale to the actions of her son, Reese. If Sorkin’s women were more rounded, I might have enjoyed watching a hard-nosed, take-no-shit CEO being reduced to tears by her child’s terrible actions in the name of business. So I’m not saying this turn was the wrong choice, so much as it seems to confirm a Sorkin bias – women are good at their jobs until personal relationships become involved. Then they are a mess.

Sorkin got a lot of crap for his portrayal of women in the film, The Social Network, about the creation of Facebook. I defended him at the time for a couple of reasons. One, sometimes a writer is drawn to characters like the ones in this film who actively treat women badly or to write in a millieu where female characters are marginalised. It’s hardly surprising that this film and that story had little time for women in the narrative.

The second reason I defended Sorkin at the time – and the reason The Newsroom’s poorly drawn female characters stand out to me – is The West Wing. For me, that is the high watermark of his career – especially on television. His feature film high watermark for me is A Few Good Men, with the note that I am one of the few who finds The Social Network to be overrated – especially in the canon of David Fincher movies.

I rewatched the pilot of The West Wing this week. It’s a very strong opening episode with a tight script, whose clockwork like structure introduces the cast with precision and a good mix of politics and laughs. The opening scenes are quiet in comparison to the opening rants of Studio 60 and The Newsroom and, in a show about politics, doesn’t feel too heavy handed in its messages. Unlike his current show, I rarely felt like The West Wing was talking at me and never that it was ranting. Unless maybe Toby was speaking, but he’s just one of those people. And even then, I never felt patronised.

Of course, as Sorkin’s mouthpiece in his new show, Will McAvoy is a bully and patronising and his rants form the raison d'ĂȘtre of most episodes. Sorkin has a point he wants made and McAvoy makes it. Even as Sorkin’s liberal bias is scattered through all his shows, his news show feels much more designed to tell us things – about its premise and its characters opinions – than any of his previous work.

But while the introduction of CJ Cregg on The West Wing involved trying to pick up a guy, with the scene ending in a pratfall, the cast of female characters in the show doesn’t feel like Sorkin’s used a cookie-cutter. And that opening scene only depicts one part of CJ – her inability to balance career and a personal life. In the scenes depicting CJ at her job, she is the paragon of professionalism.

The doe-eyed Donna and the poorly-conceived Mandy feel like complex, complicated and entirely different characters from each other - compared with MacKenzie, Maggie and Sloan on The Newsroom. And that’s only taking into account the major female characters in the pilot of Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes of the White House series. Even Lisa Edelstein’s call girl character is allowed more dignity and smarts than MacKenzie or Maggie ever are.

This is the reason his new show frustrates me – because I know he can do better. I’ve seen him write complex, complicated and compelling ongoing narrative drama filled with a cast of fascinating characters – many of whom are great at their jobs and terrible at their personal lives. But at least that trope never seemed to condemn anyone to a single-dimension or a repetitive storyline.

I’m not sure that Sorkin’s male characters in The Newsroom fair that much better – though none of them are the same as each other, they are Sorkin types that he’s written and worked with before. We haven’t gotten to know many sides of Jim or Don or Charlie – and what we do know of Will doesn’t stop me thinking he’s a bully and an arse.

There were small hints at great drama in the first season of The Newsroom but they were few and far between. None of the episodes were entirely successful – many are hamstrung by poorly written relationship dramas or saddled with Sorkin paying homage to other better written stories by other people and himself.

And even for a man who wrote a television series about hard-working politicians who are noble in their pursuit of serving the people, the very premise of The Newsroom is a little too idealistic – fixing the mainstream media – for me not to marvel each week at how much disbelief I have to suspend.