Is Big Dance Theatre renouncing its latest theatrical piece, whose title—Alan Smithee Directed This Play— refers to the invented pseudonym for directors who’ve lost creative control of a film and wish to disown a project?
Alan Smithee, which runs Sept. 30–Oct. 4 at Brooklyn Academy of Music, acknowledges that its directors, Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, are in the creative driver’s seat. The pair are co-artistic directors of Big Dance Theater, the 23-year-old company known for smashing together dance, music and text while drawing on what may be considered wildly incongruous source materials. The Other Here, which premiered in 2007, paired the bucolic stories of Japanese author Masuji Ibuse with the globalized conference lifestyle of insurance salespeople set to Okinawan pop music. Last year’s Man in a Case, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, adapted short stories of Anton Chekhov while weaving in surveillance cameras, instructional videos and the verbatim text of turkey hunters.
Alan Smithee follows this grand tradition of surprising yet thoughtfully considered collage, drawing on three film scripts that span decades and countries: Terms of Endearment, Doctor Zhivago and Le Circle Rouge. As a result, Zhivago’s early-20th-century Moscow, Rouge’s midcentury Paris and Terms of Endearment’s late-20th-century Houston come together onstage in a rumination on the nature of creative control, political rhetoric and the connection between the personal and historical.
“There is no traditional narrative in Alan Smithee,” explains Parson. “It has more of a dance structure than a theatre structure: theatre putting pressure on dance, and dance setting theatre free.”
Alan Smithee began as a short dance commissioned by a French theatre and based on a well-known New Wave film. “The commissioner gave me a three-minute clip to make a dance from. This film and dance turned into a visual motif for all the interstices for the piece,” elaborates Parson, who choreographed Smithee with the company and essentially rewrote Terms of Endearment using different poetic forms for each scene.
Ultimately the play’s title becomes a wry comment about creative control and the curious artistic pact made with an audience. “The seeming loss of creative control is the key to success for us,” says Lazar, describing the group’s devising process. “Once no one can take ownership of an idea, it is at its most alive.”
Adds Parson, “In my mind, Alan Smithee leaves the theatre after the final rehearsal. He is subsequently fired, and David Lean, Jean-Pierre Melville and James L. Brooks come into and take back what they rightfully own.”