The Complexities of Stranger Things

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Ronnie Clark

In 2009, Ghost Road Company wrapped up its modern three-part series based on the Oresteia Trilogy of ancient Greece, dubbed Home Siege Home. The performances at [Inside] the Ford Theatre took a toll on company leaders, says member Ronnie Clark.

“[Co-founder and artistic director] Katharine Noon had just directed the trilogy. She wanted to move on to a new project, but didn’t want to helm it. She asked for ideas.”

Clark, who played Orestes in Home Siege Home and Orestes Remembered, had one. “I love reading philosophy, as crazy as it is, and had been through a spurt of reading [French philosopher] Albert Camus. I’d just read Le Malentendu or The Misunderstanding. I loved the ideas in the play but it didn’t work — he just wasn’t a dramatist. Camus himself had a very interesting foreword to the play and admitted he was trying to do certain things with it but didn’t think he quite got it.”

That felt like an invitation to Clark, who had penned three pieces in The Car Plays 2007 and produced them with Paul Stein. That series continued this year.

David O in “Stranger Things”

Ghost Road takes a collaborative approach to new works, so Clark, sensing a new version would be best served by music and ambient sound, first sent Camus’ play to his friend, Ovation-winning composer David O (Ubu Roi, A Noise Within 2006). O admits to being “some dude who thinks his last name is a letter” and found himself very interested in Camus’ sense of constant, ominous foreboding.

“And I was very interested in the complexities of the relationships which were yet expressed in very simple ways,” says O. “I was also very intrigued with his fifth character, a sort of groundskeeper. His presence is never fully explained; he’s perhaps of the spiritual world.”

Clark and O agreed on a few parameters, then took their ideas and a few bars of music to the company where actors improvised dialogue. The groundskeeper essentially became a pianist with O, assuming the mantle of the fifth on-stage character, holding close to his vest his thoughts on the character’s true identity and purpose. Clark manned a video camera and transcribed the recordings. Eventually, a play emerged.

“A son comes back to his family after a 20-year absence,” explains Clark. “He is now 35 and a graphic novelist. His return echoes the exploration in the novel he’s writing.”

Clark tapped into Camus’ themes of estrangement and being an outsider. “We also focus on the theme of the absurd, which was also a big thing with Camus. He would say that life is absurd, but you just have to keep going and not try to figure it out.”

Christel Joy Johnson and Doug Sutherland

And that’s a plot point in Stranger Things. A son who leaves at 15 returns as a mostly unrecognizable adult. “A mother might usually recognize her son, but in this case, he gives absolutely no confirmation he’s her son because he’s trying to figure out who his family is and fulfill the plot of his graphic novel,” says Clark. And because the son returns as a gay man, there are changes to more than his appearance.  He also brings his partner, a true outsider, with him.

His sister, on the other hand, seems to recognize him. “But he intentionally acts as a stranger to her, too.”

Another theme emerges — when does one emotionally kill off a long-lost relative? “In the sister’s case,” Clark muses, “she killed him off years ago because the pain was too great. She did have a deep love for her brother when they were kids. But their relationship is complex because he broke a promise to her long ago, so…”

Clark lets the thought trail off.

“It’s a much more personal piece than I ever anticipated. I have a close and loving relationship with my family, but my mom lives 15 miles away in Duarte, where I grew up, and I talk to her once a month maybe. So in some ways I’m exploring whether I’m harming my relationships by not being more adamant about contact, saying hi and I love you more often.”

He continues, “And there’s something personal in my investigation as an artist into what I do. I try to create something that speaks to others, and in the end there’s a question ““ and this seems like a horrible thing to say — but what is it good for? Where does that investigation lead? Is it just a selfish thing? That same question can be asked of Johan, the returning son, who could’ve been direct but wasn’t.”

Doug Sutherland and Katharine Noon

Clark says he has a great appreciation for his past but doesn’t try to stay connected with people “in a telephone kind of way. I keep going and experience the present. I like the past to be in my internal suitcase. I don’t regret anything, including my mistakes.”

It’s those mistakes, Clark believes, that comprise his notion of hell. “Religion is referred to only once or twice in the play, but I believe very strongly that I create heaven by every positive impact I’ve made on anybody’s life. I’ve created my small hells, too, with some people I’ve hurt beyond repair.”

By being ever more mindful of how his actions affect others, Clark finds a bit more control over his life, unlike Johan. “He has a lack of control over his own creation because he’s a character in it. It sounds convoluted, but it’s navigated in such a way that I think is really interesting and plays out as a suspenseful mystery.”

O’s music is mysterious as well, as is the accompanying sound design by Cricket Myers (Tony nominee for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo). “My ambiance plays continuously throughout and David’s music comes and goes,” she says. Myers heard O’s music before she designed the sound, which gave her a flavor for the show. “I was responding to his music as much as I was responding to the words of the play.”

From across the table at a bistro in Eagle Rock, O insists Stranger Things is absolutely not musical theater. “It’s a play with music. There is very little singing. There is one song the quartet of actors sings and another that the two female characters sing. Other than that, there are a couple of phrases that are sung. The rest is instrumental underscoring.”

Brian Weir

It’s often sparse instrumental underscoring, sometimes just one note at a time, a note that’ll fade out before the next begins and mingles with Myers’ ambience. “I think they serve the same purpose in creating the very cold, tense tone of the inn where the play takes place,” notes O.

“In a perfect world of endless budgets,” O imagines, “my character would be the invisible ghost piano player Irma at the Magic Castle [in Los Angeles]. It would work well in the story if the piano could play itself.”

No, says Clark. “We would lose David matching or setting the tempo if we somehow recorded the music. The pace and rhythm changes based on the actors’ movements.” Myers adds, “A midi piano could play it the same way each time but we don’t want that,” then jokes about finding a way to make it happen.

When O composed the music, he experimented by putting objects in the piano strings to alter the instrument’s sound. “I wanted to change the timbre and resonance. We wanted the piano to be in the world of the inn.” He remembers early work they did two years ago at the Bootleg Theater. “The piano they had was perfect because some of the hammers were missing. When we moved into Atwater Village Theatre for the workshop, the piano there had a very bright, present, aggressive sound, what I call a shiny sound, which didn’t work at all.”

Stranger things in the strings

That led O to stuff wax paper, scotch tape and bobby pins under and around the strings of an old Wurlitzer spinet, a piano abandoned by a school district. “I found ways to mute and darken the sound and the wax paper gives it a sense of the paper world we’re in with the graphic novel. It gives the piano a nice buzz. I definitely see the piano as an instrument to be messed with.”

Myers says the actors accidentally found places where the stage squeaks. “It was fun watching them find those spots and figure out when to step in them and when not to. That’s as much a part of the world as the text and the music.”

Neither O, Myers nor Clark would claim to own the over-arching vision of the play and its design. Clark says he is “in the play in some of the words and the one who will answer for it,” but he wanted his colleagues, including set designer Maureen Weiss, lighting designer Chris Wojcieszyn and costume designer Pamela Shaw to “do what they do best.”

Clark says, “When we did this at the Ko Festival [of Performance in Amherst, MA earlier this year], the audience just loved the levels the play was operating on, especially the sound design. We’ve had people tell us it reminds them of [Jean-Paul Sartre’s play] No Exit. There’s also at times a Pinter-esque quality to its text and pauses and pacing.”

But with its genesis in Camus, there is the potential to write over the heads of an audience. Clark demurs. “We realized in our first reading a year ago we were over-communicating. There was too much exposition. That’s good for us and our back story, but now we’re withholding more. It’s scant. Besides, we like to assume that our audiences are more capable than some others where shows are ‘dumbed down’ for consumption. We’re not giving anybody the night off.”

Stranger Things, presented by Ghost Road Company. Opens September 3. Runs Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm. Through September 25. Conceived and directed by Ronnie Clark, starring Christel Joy Johnson, Katharine Noon, Doug Sutherland and Brian Weir with original music by David O. Tickets: $25. Students/seniors: $15. Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Visit www.ghostroad.org or call 310-281-8341.

***Stranger Things production photos by Jose Diaz.

Steve Julian

Steve Julian

Steve was KPCC's host for Morning Edition, an actor, and director from Southern California. He served on the boards of two theater companies and wrote about theater for LA STAGE Times. Steve passed away in April of 2016, and will be sorely missed by the Los Angeles creative community, his family, and friends.