BWW Reviews: Fully Immersed with Co-lab Kaka 'Ako

BWW Reviews: Fully Immersed with Co-lab Kaka 'Ako

For the past two weeks I have been "embedded" (if I may borrow that colloquialism from war journalism), with actors, writers and play-writes as they endeavored to create a complete, original play using the technique of collaboration. One runs the risk of bias when one becomes apart of the process, but unlike war correspondents, I signed no document stating that I would avoid writing anything that might compromise their position! (Not that I foresee doing so). Due to scheduling challenges, the course was split into a morning and evening session, with the intention of combining the finished plays for the final performance that took place on August 24th and 25th.

I attended the morning course.

This was a project created by the Kumu Kuhua Theater and organized by Managing Director Donna Blanchard. Quoting the program: "Co-lab Kaka 'ako is the result of a collaborative venture between inter-island Terminal and Kumu Kahua Theater. The goal of the program is to nurture the very best creative theater talent in our community to create an open platform for learning about and discussing Kaka 'ako
– an important place for so many generations of Honolulu-ans, and a place to experience great change.

At the center of the web of this creative process was instructor Lisa Formosa-Parmigiano a life member and former faculty member of the Actor Studio Drama School. She is currently the Director of Education at Chicago Street Theatre and an adjunct Professor at Columbia College in Chicago. Her courses have included ensemble development, collaboration techniques, film casting, directing and The Method.

Utilizing a process Lisa originally developed for The Actors Studio Drama School, I observed daily three- hour sessions where (quoting the website) "writers, directors and actors followed an innovative developmental protocol of script creation, character development, rehearsal and performance, as well as team communication" [More on the class description here:].

The more conventional mode of play creation provides little opportunity for creative exchange between participants. The play-write first completes a script, and then it is chosen by a director. Then actors are selected to perform the completed lines verbatim. There are limitations with this process because different elements of the play are created in isolation of other elements, which can inhibit a free flow of ideas and talent between participants.

What Lisa Formosa-Parmigiano demonstrated in these two weeks with Kumu Kahua Theater is how some of the best creative work can occur in situations where play-writes, actors and directors work together in an atmosphere of cooperation. For years, Lisa and a few other teachers have studied this process, learning the effective mechanisms that enable a project to succeed.

At the course's orientation, Lisa emphasized the need for clarity in regards to the chain of authority; a system of rights agreed upon between actor, director and writer. (For instance: the play-write has ultimate authority, and can pull his play at any time if he does not feel actors or players are being true to it.) She then asked the actors to improv various scenarios illuminating how this discipline is maintained successfully and how it gets undermined. As the scenarios were played out, it became clear that most reasons why a project might fail had to do with disrespecting personal and/or professional boundaries, and misunderstanding the responsibilities of the role one is playing in the project. The participants were then asked to reach consensus on a set of rights, and agree to comply to these rights prior to moving ahead to play creation.

The next step was to discuss the source material the writer would be drawing from. For the purpose of this class, interviews conducted with workers in an urban district in Honolulu called Kaka 'ako during 1941 and 1942 would be the raw material the writers would draw from. Writer Jason Kanda was asked what questions needed to be answered in regards to the tension of the play. He provided us with two: How do we resolve the tension that exists around the concept of extended family, (what Hawaiians call O'hana) ? How does this happen in a community ? This (fortunately for the sake of coherency) became the central theme at both the morning and evening classes.

The following class, Jason specified the tension we would be exploring as he formed the general themes of plot line and character development. The focus of the story would be about the way in which a woman working under stressful conditions at the Mendonka Candy Company in Kaka 'ako prioritizes the different needs of her O'hana; i.e., her personal family's needs, the needs of the other factory workers, and her needs as an individual.

There was some discussion of the roots of O'hana and how the shift occurred from women holding the wealth within family and community to men being the holders of family and community wealth.

Director Harry Wong pulled out a Hawaiian dictionary and discussed the root words within the term, O'hana. First he provided the definition:

  1. family, relative, kin, gathering

  2. to gather for family prayers

He then directed our focus to the root word, "hana":

  1. act, deed, or work

And then he explained that this is also part of the word "Hanai":

  1. to foster, adopt, nourish, feed, to be a provider.

The writer and director took breaks periodically throughout this initial process to discuss how they would give form to the story line, while the actors where given exercises exploring the notion of "believability" in acting. Lisa then engaged the actors in a discussion as to what "believability" means. Terms like "being in the moment", "engagement", "connectedness", "commitment to truth", "simplicity", "not thinking, just doing" were suggested.

Over and over again, the actors where asked to play out scenarios exploring the tension and obstacles potential characters may be faced with. These scenarios then became shared histories, experiences that might infuse later scenarios the actors where asked to play out, evoking unspoken tensions, creating subtlety and complexity, imbuing surface dialogue with underlying meaning.

Lisa began the following day's lessons by articulating central questions a play-write must answer: What are the conscious needs of the characters ? What are the unconscious needs ? What happens when a character doesn't get what he/she needs ?

She explained that, "There is text, and there is subtext", and asked us to consider: "What's the story behind the story ?" And, "What is the 'controlling idea'; i.e. the spine or the by-line that has to be sewn through the script ?" She emphasized that it's "good to explore the 'by-line' before the actual script gets written", explaining that "it brings a history to the characters.".

Initially, four characters were introduced by the writer, but later the number was adjusted to three (two women coworkers and a husband of one of the women) with a fourth (a work supervisor) merely being referred to by the other characters (and given one off-stage monologue).

As Lisa coached the actors through further scenarios (with directives by writer and producer to try out potential story lines) she explained that we are conditioned to find the "right way" to resolve a situation, and then exhorted the actors not to place limitations on themselves while seeking the objective of a role. "For example, You could even have a gun in your back pocket you could pull out, nothing's off the table." Then to the class as a whole: "This is how actors can explore scenarios prior to the actual script being written. When an objective is there, you have a sense of urgency. Always infuse urgency into any objective you want to play." To the writer she instructs: "At this stage, your goal is to set some of the structure of the play up, to see where it could potentially go. This allows the actors to face some of the challenges as they explore the material.

She summed up the day's class by stating: "This is how you learn shortcuts (referring to the characters in the story); i.e. who I am, what I need, and how to get there. Also, why I need it. It's got to be 'need' not just 'want'. This is how to get there fast, thinking slow. The hard part is communicating what you need."

One week in, a working draft of the script was presented to the class. It's initial form was a monologue for each actor, but in the next 48 hours, it was quickly revised into dialogue. Discussion now turned towards the specific dialogue of the characters and their motivation for saying and acting as they do in accordance with the script. Careful thought was given to how a character is treated by other characters,and how that can shape future scenarios that arise in the plot. Scenarios were once again explored by the actors, even the ancestors of the characters several generations back were explored, enhancing understanding of the chronology of O'Hana and how it gets shaped over generations.

Lisa concluded this day's class by expanding on the notion of tension and conflict:
"Something is needed in each scenario, within each character. There has to be something the characters need from each other, and conflict, then an exploration of the conflict. She exhorted the actors to 'get out of your head', and reminds them that the play has not been officially written yet, so it matters little what the tension or conflict is so long as it is created and explored.

She suggested a device, making a connection to a physical thing first; i.e. one character covets the sweater of another... and tries to get the other character to give it to her. "It is when you have something you need and a conflict, that is how you draw attention." And class concludes on that note.

It is remarkable to record what took place in the span of two short weeks. Periodically, Donna Blanchard (who both observed in the morning class and participated in the evening class), would point out that what seemed, at times, an effortless unfolding of the artistic process was really carefully guided by the depth of wisdom and experience of the teacher.

I suggested that she was gifted at steering clear of chaos, to which Lisa responded, "No, it is the allowing of chaos in, and knowing how to work with it."

There was so much more that was powerful and engrossing about this process that took place in the days leading up to the live performance, but I will shift focus now to the final works, with the hope that I have properly whetted the appetite of artists who wish to be taught by Lisa, and those who would follow the creative process of all who took part in this experience.

And so, let the play begin ! (to be continued...)



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