by Michael Osinski
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
September 3, 2017. It’s the day Twin Peaks: The Return reached its gut-wrenching conclusion and seared a hole in my heart and my brain.
I’d seen my fair share of David Lynch’s work before. I knew how impossible it can be to explain the narratives and describe the visuals. Lynch himself has resisted attaching words to his work, stating “A film should stand on its own. It’s absurd if a filmmaker needs to say what a film means in words.”[i]
I still haven’t found the words to describe the feeling I had watching that finale, but at that moment, I knew I had to make a piece of theatre that recreated that feeling for others.
Almost exactly two years later, I presented Red Lodge, Montana[ii], co-created with an ensemble of performers and Twin Peaks enthusiasts, at the 2019 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Billed as an unapologetic love letter to David Lynch, the production felt like a live-action nightmare where audience members traveled through the abandoned locker room of an old South Philly high school. One reviewer called it “a bizarro fusion of indolence, violence, nudity, sex, and dance.”[iii]
I’m proud of the work we did. I also know that co-creating, directing, and producing a site-specific theatre piece in a found space took its toll on me (and my bank account). So in the interest of preserving the mental and physical health of other creative artists out there, I’m sharing some of the lessons I learned from the experience. (Unfortunately none of these lessons involve fundraising. That remains a mystery to me.)
Lesson 1: Start with structure.
Contrary to popular belief, theatre artists don’t really create something from nothing. There has to be a spark, an impetus, a burning question. And if you want to stay organized and foster greater creativity, you need scaffolding. You need Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s third “basic building block for devised work” – structure.[iv]
This may seem antithetical to Lynch’s aesthetic. As a director he insists “the only way we make heads or tails of [life] is through intuition” and believes “there’s an ocean of consciousness inside each of us…an ocean of solutions.”[v] But how do you communicate that to a team full of artists who aren’t swimming in your own personal ocean?
Saying that I wanted to create an homage to David Lynch helped, but it didn’t provide enough of a framework. Especially if we wanted to create more than just a carbon copy of what he’s already made. So I asked my team to generate a list of “ingredients.” We watched Lynch’s film and television work and took note of all the elements that recur throughout his oeuvre. This established our scaffolding and gave us a checklist to return to as we made the piece. Do we have a few excruciatingly slow and drawn-out conversations? Check. Are we featuring music and costuming from a bygone era (usually the 1950s)? Check. Have we staged any moments of terrifying yet unexplained imagery? You tell me. (See Figure 1.)
I also brought back my “hybrid method” for inventing characters. I start almost every devising process by looking at a canonical text, because it gives us a narrative model to draw from. In this case I chose Bus Stop by William Inge. When the time came to build characters, I asked each actor to select 1 character from Bus Stop and 1 character from Lynch’s work and form a hybrid character from the two. They would list specific traits and circumstances of each character interchangeably – using a questionnaire I’ve borrowed from The Viewpoints Book[vi] – and mold their character around these attributes. These profiles provided the foundation for composition work, where each cast member created a short movement-filled piece to introduce us to their character. The pieces then fueled a series of structured improvisations with preset given circumstances and objectives. Many of these improvs turned into scripted scenes, but even the ones that didn’t make it to the final script helped to establish the mythology for our fictionalized town of Red Lodge.
I wasn’t the only one who found this structure useful. Performer and co-creator Kelly McCaughan told me that “limiting what can happen within an improv helped flesh out something specific each time. And being able to pitch our ideas within that structured prompt created a really collaborative room.”[vii]
Lesson 2: Stay flexible.
Found spaces always sound like a cool idea, until you have to stage a show in one.
When I first met with the representative from Bok Building in South Philadelphia, she showed me an old dusty room FILLED with rows and rows of lockers and benches. Talk about creativity coming from limitations! My brain instantly filled with images of actors hiding inside lockers for dramatic reveals, scampering in between the rows to frighten audience members, and even climbing atop the lockers to act out scenes above the audience’s heads. (See Figure 2.)
The next time I saw the space, almost all the lockers had been inexplicably removed. (See Figure 3.)
A big empty room felt less like limitless possibility and more like a huge hindrance to me. How could I create the same locations and effects without constructing a set? I had to adjust.
I itemized the physical attributes and environmental effects I needed for each scene and figured out how to use the existing architecture to achieve it. For instance, we had originally envisioned one drug-fueled scene taking place on a rooftop. We were going to create a small plywood supported staging area across the tops of several banks of lockers. But without those lockers, I had no way of achieving this. I knew the scene needed some height, and it couldn’t take place in a room with doors and walls. The space had to feel liminal or transitory. Suddenly our rooftop scene became a stairwell scene. (See Figure 4.)
We had also staged a rather intimate and claustrophobic scene involving full nudity and demonic possession. (It is David Lynch, after all.) But how do you make an audience feel trapped in a big empty room? I decided to stage this scene in the room’s entryway, with only 3 instruments lighting the space, and the EXIT sign and double doors in full view. It allowed the audience to crowd around a small area, and it created a terrifying moment when one of the characters pounded on the doors to escape. (See Figure 5.)
Performer and co-creator Amanda Schoonover remembers another adjustment we made: “David Lynch often has characters that simply disappear from a scene, and we were stumped about how to make that happen without the magic of film. Once we got into the space, we discovered there were all these pillars that actors could hide behind, so with a little lighting trick, they could simply appear or disappear. It was always satisfying to hear the audience gasp when an actor seemed to appear out of thin air.”[viii]
Staying flexible ultimately saved the production. If I had forced my original staging on the found space, it would have been disastrous. In true David Lynch fashion, I had to listen to what the walls were telling me.
Lesson 3: Stand in your audience’s shoes.
No instruction manual exists for understanding David Lynch’s work. But when you’re leading three dozen audience members through a promenade style fringe piece in a dark echoey room, you gotta make a few signs. The work itself should terrify the audience, not the possibility of running face-first into a concrete pillar. You can’t throw your audience into your deep ocean without a flotation device – you have to take care of them.
I put more focus on logistics than I ever have for a piece I’ve made – at times I felt more like an engineer than an artist. Yet I didn’t want to mar the phenomenological experience of walking through a Lynch-inspired nightmare. How could I physically guide audience members in a way that kept them tuned into the show and still blended with our existing aesthetic (i.e. without turning on a bunch of harsh overhead fluorescents)? The answer was threefold.
To map out a clear path, we did what any college dorm resident would do – we strung up holiday lights. It sounds silly, but it really has become human instinct to “follow the light.” Every time one scene ended, a new strand of lights would turn on and direct audience members to a different section of the room. Did we rely on a super clumsy system of turning on and off power strips throughout the room to make this happen? We sure did. (See Lesson 2: Stay flexible.) Because at the end of the day, no theatrical experience – no matter how thrilling – is worth risking a lawsuit.
Even my years as a tour guide at college did not prepare me for how difficult it is to herd a group of people through a dimly lit medium-sized room. To keep people on the path and position them for maximum visibility, we employed “docents.” We asked two of our artist friends to dress up as two peripheral yet enigmatic Twin Peaks characters – The Giant and Lil[ix] – and communicate with gestures to physically (and mysteriously) walk the audience through the nightmare.
Finally, to give our audience some narrative guidance, we filmed a series of short teaser videos[x] that introduced the characters and acted as a prologue. We released the videos weekly leading up to the opening performance to build anticipation and to guide our audience without providing too many answers. The world we’d created made total sense to us, and we wanted people to be weirded out, but we also wanted them to care about what (and whom) they were watching.
Lesson 4: Trust your gut and your collaborators.
There’s no such thing as a doubt-free creative process. I think we asked ourselves “Is this any good?”, and “Will anyone like this?”, and of course “Will this make any sense?” countless times. In a weird way, though, embracing the work of an artist like David Lynch gave us some freedom. He never worries about whether his work will transmit a singular message to the audience. He’s just translating the ideas inside his head to the screen.
When Lynch made Blue Velvet, the ideas came to him “in fragments…it was red lips, green lawns, and the song – Bobby Vinton’s version of ‘Blue Velvet.’ The next thing was an ear lying in a field. And that was it.”[xi] He didn’t question what it all meant. He trusted his intuition.
I wondered, can we apply this attitude or approach to other work? Can we free ourselves of this burden when we’re creating something with more verisimilitude? We are making art after all, and art is neither good nor bad. It exists for others to appreciate, critique, reject, embrace, dissect.
As much as we may have fretted over the narrative logic of our piece, we made something that made sense to us. We created art for others to interpret. And as long as we’re taking care of our audience and being socially responsible in our storytelling, why should we fret so much over how others will interpret the work? I can’t say that I’ve succeeded at this yet. I still find myself fretting. But I’d like to think there’s an answer here somewhere.
As theatre artists we can choose to embrace or deny the increased digitization of our world. If we embrace it, we risk losing the immediacy of a live in-person experience. If we deny it, we ignore our future audiences. I propose we strive for something in the middle.
I believe creating a site-specific film-inspired theatrical experience like Red Lodge, Montana accomplishes this. I also know crafting experiences like this can be difficult. I hope these lessons encourage you, inspire you, and prevent you from making too many mistakes…or at least from drowning in your own creative ocean.
Michael Osinski[xii] (he/him) directs theatre because he likes solving puzzles. He manages his self-producing collective The Antidote, and he was co-founder and Producing Artistic Director of Flashpoint Theatre Company in Philadelphia. He received his MFA in Directing from The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, and he was a Drama League Directing Fellow in 2014. He is currently the Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance at St. Lawrence University, where he will devise another show in Fall 2023, and he produces and co-hosts a music podcast called This One Goes to 11 (on Spotify[xiii] and YouTube[xiv]).
[iii] Kathryn Osenlund. “RED LODGE, MONTANA (The Antidote): 2019 Fringe review.” Phindie. http://phindie.com/20057-20057-red-lodge-montana-the-antidote-2019-fringe-review/ (accessed October 21, 2022).
[iv] Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2005), 154.
[v] Lynch, 45.
[vi] Bogart and Landau, 129.
[vii] Kelly McCaughan, e-mail message to author, March 8, 2023.
[viii] Amanda Schoonover, e-mail message to author, March 8, 2023.
[xi] Lynch, 23.