In 2013, while in Germany for a playwriting residency at English Theatre Berlin, Bay Area-based theatremaker Mark Jackson saw some graffiti that read: “HOW LONG IS NOW?” A penny dropped, and he soon emailed actor Megan Trout with the broad proposal that together they create, produce, and perform a new show about age, gender, technology, and being present. Trout said yes.
The eventual result, Now for Now, debuted at Z Space in San Francisco last July, after which Trout and Jackson went back into the rehearsal room to create a revised version, which will premiere February 27-29 as part of Shotgun Players’ inaugural BLAST Theatre Festival in Berkeley. Now for Now blends theatre, dance, and live digital media to survey 40 years in the lives of either two or six characters, depending on how one chooses to interpret it. Three possible relationships between a woman and man a generation apart—a daughter and father, a student and teacher, and a romance—bleed in and out of each other via text, movement, and real-time social media. In exploring uncomfortable, ugly, embarrassing issues about age and gender dynamics, the piece strives to make audiences question the nuances, assumptions, and biases in their own complex relationships.
Trout and Jackson control most of the tech live onstage from their laptops and iDevices. The show opens with a seemingly impromptu scramble, a choreography of stuttered explanations of the evening to come as they hurriedly connect a tangle of computer cables strewn like entrails along the downstage edge—a mechanical metaphor, perhaps, for the emotional guts that get dragged out by show’s end.
American Theatre asked Trout and Jackson about how and why Now for Now does what it does.
American Theatre: How do dance, theatre, and digital media work together in Now for Now? Why that mix?
MEGAN TROUT: Structurally, Now for Now unfolds in three cycles, one for each of the three relationships. The characters each deliver their biography directly to the audience, describing chronological highlights of a 40-year span—20 years into the past and 20 into the future. Then they come together for a physical duet. We use personal hand-held technologies like iPhones and laptops throughout.
To develop the characters’ biographies, Mark and I adapted details from our own past 20 years and then imagined 20 years into the future. These invented futures contain personal, often embarrassing fears and desires. We also use a lot of repetition between the biographies of all six characters, creating an intentional blur between the three relationships. The blur allows for the subconscious projection of “inappropriate” feelings that can occur in any relationship. It’s pretty emotionally vulnerable to perform, actually.
The physical duets that follow the biographies are nonlinear choreographies expressing conflicts and dynamics specific to each relationship, often with very real precariousness and imbalance at play. Mark and I dance on each other’s feet and perform a ballet of sorts while perched atop two stools. These moments get at how we struggle to find balance in relationships strained by time and distance. They also force us as performers to keep our sense of presence razor-sharp!
MARK JACKSON: We found mixing performance modes an effective way to express the tensions, discrepancies, and miscommunications that can arise out of physical versus digital presence, or between physical and verbal communications. Now for Now deals significantly with presence, and how physical separation impacts relationships. So everything we say is mediated by a microphone, Skype, or IM app. How our respective characters recount shared memories often don’t match up, and so communications get distorted—memory’s version of Internet lag. We use dance and movement to get into the messier, scarier, most brutally honest emotions. What we claim verbally often contradicts what we do physically. Then the emails and IMs we send each other omit or evade important details expressed verbally or physically.
What we did not want to do is demonize social media or pit it against physical presence. We use social media onstage in ways people do in everyday life. The movement sequences then lift things up into the realm of the confusing emotions words and wires struggle to convey. Dance is closer to how dreams articulate our feelings—more mysterious and less literal. Mystery is a big part of what’s “real” about life, I think. So in that sense, dance is a very realistic form. We often get the comment that Now for Now is at once linear and nonlinear. I like that. Life feels that way.
The show flirts with the line between truth and fiction. Can you talk about how and why?
TROUT: We knew we weren’t writing a play, and we knew we weren’t creating what people might call “performance art.” What we did want to make was an experience—something embarrassingly human and insolvably problematic, which was theatrical but also devastatingly real.
In addition to blurring the lines between characters, we also blur the line between actor and character to confuse the audiences’ sense of what’s real and what’s not. To me, this blur emulates how individual perspective can make some things true for one person and radically untrue for another. Also, it allows the show to mimic the now normalized activity of carefully curating our lives and personalities on Facebook. We’re playing dramaturgically with how technology has altogether changed the way we communicate who we are to one another.
JACKSON: We use our own names, which is a simple way to keep things personal. We include certain facts, like my having lived in Berlin or Megan studying acting in Russia. But those literal real-life details are merely containers for fictional content. Megan is not my daughter, and we’ve never been lovers. Megan was indeed once my student, but even our teacher and student characters share experiences we haven’t. And the show ends when she’s 46 and I’m 62, which is still some years away, so obviously most of the material can only be fictional.
In America we’re kind of obsessed with autobiography. It’s a lingering puritanical impulse in our culture, this concern about what we show on the outside versus what’s true inside. At one post-show discussion a guy asked us point-blank, “Can you tell me what’s biographical and what’s not?” I honestly said: No, I can’t, because everything in the piece now feels like fiction. Literal fact and dramatic invention have blended so fully that, although I can relate to my character at times even painfully well, I definitely feel like I’m taking on a role and playing it.
We did all this to heighten the sense of aliveness. Our characters don’t always know what’s true and what’s not. It seemed appropriate that the audience be stuck in that predicament with them.
Like your characters, you’re a woman and man 16 years apart in age. In addition to informing the subject of Now for Now, did you find this informed the process? How did you work together?
TROUT: Before this show I’d never thought about how Mark and I work together in terms of our ages or genders. Of course, those things make us who we are to an extent, but to me, how he and I work is first a combination of creative drive, shared history, and our intense personalities. It makes a unique cocktail for collaboration. We’re both pretty stubborn and want the work to be really good.
Over the years we’ve moved from a student/teacher to actor/director dynamic, in which we’ve always done very well together. With this intensely intimate project, our personal and working relationships have had to evolve. Making the sudden shift to being equal collaborators who share all the jobs has sometimes been very difficult and scary, actually—navigating the constantly changing track of a previously well-worn groove. For example, my learning how to take up more space and butt heads with Mark in rehearsals took practice. Because it was only the two of us in the room without anyone else to diffuse each other’s energy, smaller disagreements or awkward moods sometimes felt bigger than they were.
Working together in this very demanding way, while also dealing with such personally intimate material, it occurred to me we might run the risk of endangering our pre-existing relationship—one that I’d come to cherish. It takes a conscious effort to maintain a healthy boundary between the intimate, personal nature of the work and my own desires for connection and approval. That’s a required skill for making your life in art.
JACKSON: Megan and I have worked together a lot, so we have the shorthand and trust that come from shared experiences. But we’d never produced, created, and performed something together. Our different life and professional experiences have meant finding a new working language. It was a struggle—and continues to be as we hit new phases in this long process and have to negotiate newly shared territory.
Also, our piece intentionally dives into the deep end of blurry relationships, so the power differences—both assumed and real—between our ages and genders are something we’ve needed to be persistent about understanding and negotiating. As both the older person and the man in the room, I felt a certain responsibility to be very up front with Megan about anything that made me feel vulnerable, to put everything on the table so she might feel more comfortable being honest about what was vulnerable for her.
Creating the sex scene, for example, was a process of a thousand baby steps. Everyone expects working on something like that to be vulnerable for the woman. We usually don’t consider how it’s vulnerable for the man. That kind of discrepancy is often made in life, too. But the people who attended our in-process sharings kept pushing us to get more dangerous. It was daunting! But it gave us the permission and imperative to do what we knew we needed to do: which was to say to each other onstage those harsh kinds of things that can’t be unsaid, and to do things that are exceedingly private and personal.
I have to say it’s been galvanizing. I’ve developed a much broader empathy for the range of struggles everyone—women and men—are engaged in as we try to get along better.
How has the piece hit audiences? Has it impacted men and women differently? And as you continue to work on it, how have you responded to the things about it that trigger people most?
TROUT: It’s been very gratifying how grappling with the uncomfortable subject matter has proven to be something most people really appreciate about the piece. But there was also disappointing feedback. Some people wanted us to be contributing to the narrative of a beguiled younger woman who is emotionally manipulated by an older man—they wanted to condemn that, without really looking deeper into the ideas we were posing.
The trigger of a manipulative older male figure is so sadly resonant for so many women (and some men) that in certain cases it tainted people’s view of Mark himself. A few even expressed concern that Mark had perhaps manipulated me into performing the show at all. I know these responses were felt out of concern for me, but in certain instances it was hard not to take offense. These assumptions, that I would allow myself to be manipulated, completely undermine my agency as an artist. I doubt people would have the same misgivings if the senior collaborator had been a woman and the junior a man.
A great example of a gender-split trigger is the response to the sex scene. Pretty much across the board, women saw my character’s orgasm as a vulnerable moment for me to perform. And yes, it was. But it was interesting how Mark’s vulnerability in enacting sexual impotence did not strike these women nearly as viscerally. The men who gave us feedback about this moment were, unsurprisingly, completely sympathetic to Mark’s character. They saw my orgasm as not only vulnerable for “Megan” the character and me the actor, but also as heightening the vulnerability of both “Mark” and Mark.
We wanted to engage people—literally change their body temperature. And we’ve done that. We throw a mess of questions, problems, and feelings onto the stage and leave them unresolved. We graphically depict certain uncomfortable things people don’t often see onstage, though they occur in life all the time. Our audiences have a voyeuristic experience witnessing real personal and physical risk. We want them to leave the theatre asking: Why was I uncomfortable witnessing something so intimate? Why is it okay to watch that kind of thing on YouTube but not live onstage? How do I handle that intimacy in my own life?
JACKSON: We’d expected Now for Now would trigger people. It was disturbing, I’ll admit, how some people who knew us personally—and who we felt should know better—seemed to really want it to be that I’d coerced Megan into doing things she didn’t want to do. It revealed just how strong a trigger the older man/younger woman dichotomy is for people. One of my female friends didn’t even recognize that the sex scene was about male sexual impotence! That’s how overwhelming the age difference was for her. That’s really powerful.
As hard as that kind of response was to take, it really helped push us to get even clearer about why we were doing the show and how to sharpen our intent. We knew that changing the sex scene would not be right. It was clearly very affecting—so many people could identify with it. And of course our age difference is what it is. So we made revisions to the text, allowing our characters to recognize certain things related to the triggering issues. We similarly tweaked the choreography to shift certain emphases.
We want the audience to experience these uncomfortable triggers, and then, ideally, to question them. Is what they’re witnessing really only what they initially assume it is? Are their own relationships as cut-and-dried as they might want what they’re seeing onstage to be?
America’s puritanical roots have only continued to grow in a really trigger-happy, judgmental direction. Facebook alone has accommodated an explosion of this in our culture. We can be so cruel to each other! Our mission with Now for Now has been to put physical, verbal, and digital expression in argument onstage to create a performance that encourages more compassion in life for the messy relationships we all find ourselves in from time to time. Life is too short to squander on shame, fear, and judgment.