As part of the Almeida Festival, director Oliver Butler introduces this showing of a work in progress by the highly regarded New York-based company, The Debate Society. He explains that they are going to show about one hour and twenty five minutes of material but they expect that the whole show will last a total of an hour and forty five when it’s finished. What they are going to show is, he tells us, new material that they have generated during their process here in London.
Though the performance is script-in-hand, the engaging qualities of the performances that have won them an enviable reputation in New York City are apparent. The first characters we see are Helene and Eric, played by the piece’s credited writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. They seem very much at home in the play’s eponymous alpine-style jacuzzi in the a luxury chalet in a Colorado ski resort, discussing their plans for the next day and the book they are both reading. The scene is disturbed by the arrival of a stranger, Bobby, a young man slightly on edge, who claims to be the son of the ski chalet’s owner. He keeps on apologising but can’t quite place the others. There is an exciting tension about how much each character knows about each other and, perhaps more significantly as the play’s themes emerge, the assumptions/presumptions they make about one another.
I think my own expectations of an emerging Brooklyn-based theatre company were also upended by what I saw and though it may not be a finished project, I felt it gave me a flavour for the work of The Debate Society. Though they operate as a company with certain core members (particularly Bos, Thureen and Butler), I noticed that they don’t use the word “devise” and this does feel very much like a text-based piece of work. The style is hyper-real rather than heightened and fantastical in the way you might associate with The TEAM, for example. It isn’t drawing attention to its artifice either. These are definitely actors pretending to be the characters they depict.
In the minimalist, claustrophobic set-up, it’s rather Pinter-esque. The idle rich are entirely reliant on the caretakers and this means that there’s always the potential for the balance of power to shift. Characters have a tendency to fill space with language, as if they are afraid of silence and it’s in these moments that we see the power transitions emerge. The way the company put language at the core of the piece’s gesture remind me more of the San Francisco-based Riot Group more than any of their East Coast contemporaries.
It’s a pity that the actual moments of reversal weren’t dramatised in the version that I saw so I had to be content with hearing about them on a voice-over. These were the bits where things happened essentially. Jacuzzi’s characters and themes have crystalised and everything is now set to find the best bits of the story to show us. It feels like they know where it is going, which begs the question why are we seeing at this stage in development.
I understand that American theatre culture is very much one of development. This company typically shapes a new play via a rigorous 12-18 month development process. I also recognise the importance of bringing an audience of some kind into the room and seeing all the unexpected aspects of the piece that you didn’t know were there. However, I don’t think a public showing is necessarily useful though, particularly when the feedback mechanism is simply we’ll be in the bar afterwards. The public pay money to see something that is unfinished by a company whose work they are unfamiliar with (in this case) so they have no sense of context. The company, who probably don’t need feedback, get some anyway from anyone confident or unhinged enough to approach them in the bar. Is this really the most efficient way of working?