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How Absurd (Lessons from The Lesson)

April 7, 2009

We’re about half-way into the rehearsal process for Ionesco’s The Lesson, and discovering the strange joys of absurdist theater.

I have been itching to direct Ionesco for a very long time. My old theater company (actually, it was Canadian, so technically it was a theatre company) was called Rhino Productions after Rhinoceros, Ionesco’s best-known work. It’s about a small provincial town that is taken over by hordes of rhinoceroses. I know! Awesome, right? But it’s a cumbersome play (the Rhino is a cumbersome animal) with a huge cast and an ungodly number of pachyderms. My old company talked me down from trying to stage the play on our meagre budget, but let me name the company as a sort of consolation prize.

But now – I get to sink my teeth into The Lesson. It’s a fine, creepy, hilarious, political, apolitical, nonsensical, profound piece about – well, about a lesson. The cast and I are finding that a lot of the normal techniques of discovering characters and breathing life into them just don’t make sense. How do you search for motivations when your characters inhabit a world without meaning? And yet, these are people, not symbols, so they have to be real. It’s a lot of fun, and a great challenge. And we get to play, too: we can prioritize the fun, the silly, the visual pun or the overblown cliche because it’s not “real life”. It’s absurd. It’s theater.

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