Chris Kaminstein on “The Stranger Disease” and the magic of theater (Artist Statement)



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Goat in the Road Productions partners with the Louisiana State Museum and Friends of the Cabildo for its latest work, an immersive and historical look at yellow-fever in 19th century New Orleans.
WHEN: March 23-April 15; Thurs.-Sat., 6 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
WHERE: Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine St.)
MORE: Visit the website

(Editor’s note: As we resurrect PopSmart NOLA, we do so with more intention of making this a forum for the creative people of New Orleans. The inspiration came from, of all places, a sports-related website. (Read more about that soon.) This means more content generated BY the artists and entertainers of New Orleans who explain their craft, their performances, their intentions, their challenges, you name it, as a way of making PopSmart NOLA a forum and a safe space for dialogue and engagement. Here Chris Kaminstein of Goat in the Road Productions kicks off the “Artist Statement” series as he discusses the creative process at work in their latest work, “The Stranger Disease.”)

Ian likes to creep out tourists out the second floor window. Here’s what he does: He stands with his face in one of the panes of glass and stares out at Dumaine Street. When a passing tour group sees him — some member of the group, the person particularly attuned to the hauntedness of the French Quarter — yells out, “It’s a ghost!” Ian waves, then fades away from the pane. Fun game.

I’m talking about “The Stranger Disease,” an immersive performance that Goat in the Road Productions — the theater company I help lead — is producing at Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine St.) in collaboration with the Louisiana State Museum and Friends of the Cabildo. The show is about yellow fever and the rapidly changing “color line” in 1878 New Orleans. It’s immersive because the audience can follow multiple story lines and characters at their leisure. That’s the spiel.

A piece of theater is like a magic show. When it works well, it is effortless looking, surprising, as smooth as a cresting wave. The actors move in tandem, entrances happen at precisely the right moment, monologues are recited, feelings are felt, applause is exerted. Yet for all the complication of putting on live performance, one of the most common questions that actors seem to get from non-performance folks is, “How did you learn all those lines?”

Ask this to an actor and they will roll their eyes; learning lines is the basic price of admission for acting. Not knowing your lines is like a baseball player trying to take their at-bat without a bat.

But there’s a good reason for the question. Learning a lot of lines and knowing them perfectly is the most visible piece of the magic. Like how? How can you do that? The answer, like the method behind a magic trick, is completely boring: You look at them a lot and say them to yourself in your bedroom or you record them and listen to them while you run or drive to work or you write them out, longhand, on a yellow legal pad, or you get your spouse/partner/friend/dog to run them with you, telling them to “make sure I don’t get any words wrong and let me know if I do” until, following your directions, they give you a lot of corrections because you don’t know the lines as well as you thought you did, and you get annoyed with them and tell them to “stop being so fucking nitpicky” then they say, “But you told me to tell you every word you get wrong,” and you’re like, “Whatever, what do you know, you’re just a dog,’ and your dog is like, “Well whatever to you, too; I can’t even read so why are you asking me to run lines with you SOMEONE’S AT THE DOOR SOMEONE’S AT THE DOOR SOMEONE’S AT THE DOOR DIFFERENT SMELL!”

One of my favorite episodes of the podcast, “Radiolab” (I’m a nerd for “Radiolab)), called “Black Box,” contains a story about a radio magic show popular in the 1940s. The narrators’ grandparents were magicians named The Piddingtons, who performed a very popular telepathy act that I won’t describe here. Later in the episode, the “Radiolab” folks interview Penn Gillette (of Penn and Teller) and ask him to reveal how the trick in question is done. Here’s what he says: “I can tell you how they did it. Or how they might have done it. But you are not going to like it. The only secret in magic, and there’s only one, is that the secret must be ugly. You cannot have a beautiful secret. In magic what you want is an idea that’s not beautiful. A magic trick that stays secret is so boring you don’t want to tell it, and you don’t even want to hear it. The true answer is going to kill your joy.”

I love this sentiment. It gets to the mundane truth at the heart of accomplishment. The result might be magic, but the making of the result is a series of mistakes and corrections, a bunch of duct tape, a bit of luck.

“The Stranger Disease” is complicated, at least for us. How complicated is it? It’s so complicated it requires two directors (laughter applause). The show involves seven actors, each travelling their own paths throughout Madame John’s Legacy. Each show is about 75 minutes long. Within that span, the audience can actually experience the “cycle” twice, which means that they can, for the price of one ticket, experience the show twice, following different story lines or just flitting around like an excitable Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (what I got when I Googled “cutest dog breeds”). There are a number of things that make this conceit complicated:

  • There are 12 phases, and in each phase there might be up to four or five things happening simultaneously in different parts of the house. This means cues are a problem. How to make sure that Adeline (April Louise) gets down to the courtyard at the exact moment that Louis (Keith Claverie) is exiting the hat shop. How do you make sure that the character Saul (Khiry Armstead) enters the phase 9 scene in time to tell everyone that the city is under quarantine? How to ensure it’s the same every damn time?
  • Props. Two cycles per show means the props need to be reset without anyone noticing. The amazing Owen Ever has art-designed the rooms in the house with an enormous variety of fascinating objects; how to make sure that the lighter that started on the mantle and gets moved to the vanity gets back to the mantle? What about the carpetbag that Carlota (Denise Frazier) uses to pack her things — how does it get back into the parlor, where Saul needs to fetch it from next time around?
  • French Quarter noises. Turns out that Dumaine Street is quite a popular spot for, among other things, loud tour groups, carriage rides with smoky-throated guides, party buses, ’80s music from car windows, Spanish and French tourists, a male/female jitterbugging duo busking for tips, and Harry’s Corner (great bar). We must both compete with and succumb to this Quarter cacophony.

I don’t know of any way to confront these challenges other than making lists (lots of lists), gathering a group of smart, dedicated people together, talking about the nature and scope of the problem, and then working through each moment of the show to solve it. That’s the magic trick. And we hope, if you come to see the show, you don’t think about any of this.

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