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Reading Between the Lines

From "I Spy" to stage: A local theater troupe gets personal


Published December 6, 2006 at 3:15 p.m.

Marianne DiMascio never looked for love through the personal ads. She was tempted once, though, to write an "I Spy" - those brief messages published in newspapers, including this one, in which someone typically describes spotting someone else somewhere, finding them attractive and wondering: Hey, could we spot each other intentionally sometime - say, on a date?

In DiMascio's case, an "I Spy" seemed like a good way to reach a suitor whom she'd turned down, and whose number she'd discarded, to let him know she was reconsidering. But, just as she'd lost her nerve to go out with him, so she anguished over writing the "I Spy" message. So she sought counsel from a close male friend. His support and attention persuaded DiMascio . . . to start something with him instead. The pair ended up married.

Dating-scene newcomers and veterans alike will recognize in this tale the sometimes-frustrating element of randomness that permeates the process of seeking one's match in any community. Theater buffs may even see something vaguely Shakespearean about it. DiMascio, an actor, apparently did. With the help of a recently awarded New Arts Space Assistance (N.A.S.A.) Grant from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, she and fellow thespians Chris Caswell and Geeda Searfoorce will bring to life the secret identities of "I Spy" and personal-ad writers in an original theater work titled See: king.

The N.A.S.A. grant provides the artists, who together compose Heat & Hot Water Productions, with roughly 60 hours of Flynn studio time. They'll also receive marketing support in advance of a public presentation of the work-in-progress on February 15.

At a recent midweek rehearsal in the Flynn's third-floor Hoehl Studio, the actors are still incubating See: king more than rehearsing it. They're flexing improv muscles more than acting chops to whip into shape a work they still consider to be in rough-draft form. It's DiMascio's night to run the session, and after some stretching and physical warm-ups, she leads her cohorts through an exercise she calls "'The Alphabet Game'-with a twist." The twist is the game's theme: a first date. Two of the actors sit at an imaginary coffee shop and improvise a dialogue, with each line beginning with a letter that follows the sequence of the alphabet, building on the partner's line. For example:

"Do you come in here often?" (D)

"Every day." (E)

"Funny, I come every day, too." (F)

And so on.

The troupe clearly delights in playing around with what See: king may become. But their exploratory approach also incorporates research. After a few rounds of the "Alphabet Game," the women sit at a makeshift table and share the week's discoveries. They've been cruising Web sites, from the catch-all to, where Star Trek fans seek cosmic alliances. They've also been reading personal ads, talking to personal-ad editors, and conducting what Searfoorce calls "field research" - basically, eavesdropping on conversations in known rendezvous spots. Searfoorce has become intrigued by "I Spy" writers who use the word "karma" as a threat, ads that sound like thinly veiled prostitution solicitations and one ad in particular titled "ASS BLASTER." Its body text read simply, "I love 'Shark Week' on the Discovery Channel."

Caswell passes around a scene sketch involving two women who connect through an "I Spy" ad containing cryptic references to the costumes they wore at a recent Halloween party. Even with a script in hand, she calls the scene a "placeholder," or just another exercise to stimulate creative thinking.

Turning such an open, improvisational process into a coherent production may strike some thespians as entailing a leap of faith. But for the artists behind See: king, faith in one another's abilities - and their combined experience - seems to be the rule.

Caswell and Searfoorce co-founded Heat & Hot Water Productions in late 2005, when they both relocated to Burlington from New York City. Caswell had been, and continues to be, active on the Canadian Fringe Festival Circuit. She toured her original play 2112 in Canada this year and staged one local performance last month. Searfoorce is a seasoned stage and film actor who studied improvisation with Michael Gellman of Second City.

DiMascio joined up with Caswell and Searfoorce on the new company's first production, Matt & Ben, which played at Burlington's Waterfront Theatre in February. Also a former student of Second City's Gellman, as well as of Vermont Stage Company director Mark Nash, DiMascio has acted in several productions in Vermont and Massachusetts, including Vermont Shakespeare Company's production of Twelfth Night this past summer.

Though their theatrical pedigrees differ, the women approach See: king with a shared sense of "I Spy" and personal ads as rich resources for developing characters. "They're like mini-romantic comedies," DiMascio says, adding that the ads often offer people "a second chance at that connection" they missed or weren't ready to seize - as she wasn't, the first time it came around.

Searfoorce notes that the challenge of describing oneself within space constraints - Seven Days' "I Spy" items must not exceed a five-word headline and 60 words of body text - adds both complexity and a degree of reflectivity to the task. People must choose their words carefully, and that thought process - evident in the final message - may speak volumes about the writer. "In the same way that poetry needs to be explosive in its brevity," Searfoorce says, "they're little nuggets, and they're carefully carved . . . In a way, the subtext is built in."

At the Flynn rehearsal, Searfoorce presents an idea for a modern-day yenta character who coaches people in responding to personal ads. "You know," she says, "someone who thinks she knows what the people writing these ads really want - wait . . ." Searfoorce and her collaborators pause for a second, then laugh, as they realize that's the central assumption they themselves have made in developing this project.

They've read plenty of desires between the lines, in everything from an "I Spy" penned by Searfoorce's hypothetical "two-sentence Larry that saw so-and-so at the Champlain Farms and wants to have a Michelob with her" to the ad of a wealthy, highly educated overachiever with good genes seeking same, which Searfoorce found in an Ivy League university publication. Still, one longing crops up persistently. "I think that, underneath it all, everybody just wants to be loved," Caswell says. "If that means you want a friend or want to connect with fellow kayakers or want to have hardcore sex, it's all the same thing."

Turning these insights into a performance piece is the next step for See: king. Based on the diversity of voices the women hear calling from the lonely margins of the textual mating ground, they expect to strike a range of emotional notes, from poignant to humorous. There is talk, for example, of nuns and a man who's into unicorns.

Beneath all the improv games and research, one ethical principle guides the creative process: a "deep respect for the people who are using this forum," Searfoorce says. "Part of what we love about the ads, and the juice they're generating in our thoughts, is how many different people are using them and for different reasons," she adds. "There's everything you love about humanity. They're heartbreaking and beautiful . . . We want to respect that forum and let that be everything it can be."