Etta & Ella on the Upper West Side
A world premiere of an experimental thriller by seminal American playwright, Adrienne Kennedy.
This is a difficult piece to describe. When I first read it, I wondered if it was a play or an audio drama. It was 31 pages, and mostly narration. Director Monty Cole dove deep dramaturgically with the cast and creative team to present this story in a way that honored the liveness of theater. I highly recommend you read his article in American Theatre on the process.
One of my favorite moments in this process was our research period before staging. We watched film noir and discussed its lighting, music, and mood. We read the play aloud, over and over, experimenting with different line assignments. Monty discovered a story by Kennedy that was written in the same setting with the same characters, but different. We listened to an audio version together, and it felt like we were archaeologists discovering long lost secret insights into a new world.
Working with video designer Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh was another highlight. Her work was absolutely central to this production (and involved a full 2 day film shoot!). Being able to add sound to her haunting videos was a real treat. You can see one of our favorite moments in the video below.
But the most important part of my work was letting our pianist/composer do his. Maleke Clemmons created a partially improvised piano score he played live on stage. It was both rooted in film noir, and felt new. It was exciting to collaborate with someone as talented and generous as Maleke.
Sound was a crucial storytelling and emotional device and it was important that my content not overwhelm Maleke’s performance. The play dealt with haunting, slippage of reality, and even horror. I was able to support his score by bringing in the creepy element. I worked with my assistant, Eliot Burk, to create a landscape of eerie, sometimes subliminal textures that were spatialized in the theater. I did not want to make a “typical” horror soundtrack. I don’t think I’ve ever auditioned so many sounds during tech, but once we hit on the right thing, we could build our world from there. What resulted was a remarkably smooth marriage of Maleke’s live piano and my recorded sound.
Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side
written by Adrienne Kennedy
Director: Monty Cole
Produced by The Calarts Center for New Performance at REDCAT
Los Angeles, CA
Ella: Tori Danner
Etta: Sarahjeen François
Troupe: Wesley T. Jones
Pianist: Maleke Clemmons
Scenic Designer: Yuki Shiyu Ding
Lighting Designer: Claire Chrzan
Sound Designer: Clare Marie Nemanich
Video Designer: Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh
Cinematographer: Akina Van De Velde
Costume Designer: Loren Weldon
Fight Choreographer: Edward Monaghan
Choreographer: Mecca Andrews
Dionne M. Robinson (Etta)
Chisom Diana Dimiri (Ella)
E. E. Williams (Troupe)
Producer: Rui M. Xu, Producer
Production Manager: Chris Swetcky, Production Manager
Stage Manager: Maria Oliveira, Stage Manager
Associate Producer: Rachel Scandling
Assistant Lighting Designer: Ella Fornof
Assistant Sound Designer: Eliot Burk
Assistant Video Designer: Wei-Fang Chang
Assistant Costume Designer: Bailey Johnson
Assistant Production Manager: Katherine Paez Froehlich
Assistant Stage Manager: Winky Kim
Assistant Stage Manager: Rebecca Hsia-Palma
Costume Shop Director: Victor Sandoval-Torres
Master Electrician: Kate DeWall
Props Master: Patrick Smith
Head of Sound and Video: Jenica Anderson
CalArts A1: Jon Flikkie
CalArts Prop Run Crew: Arman Memarzadeh, Danielle Pope
CalArts Lights Run Crew: Porter Jacob Lawrence