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Script and sound alone

*A prolific composer, famed writers and a team of celebrated actors collaborate on a most unusual project.

August 24, 2005

By John Clark, Special to The Times

On a chilly night in April, a group of distinguished actors — Steve Buscemi, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Goodman, Brooke Smith, John Slattery — took their places onstage without makeup, costuming or props and began speaking in tongues. Since what they were saying was written by Joel and Ethan Coen ("Fargo") as a parody of western serials, they channeled prissy schoolmarms, belligerent gunfighters and crusty country doctors. They sounded as if they'd fallen off the front porch.

After they retired from the stage, another group of actors — Hope Davis, Peter Dinklage, Meryl Streep — came on. These three, spouting the words of narrative-bending writer Charlie Kaufman ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), played a variety of urbanites, members of the audience watching them perform and versions of themselves. They sounded as if they'd fallen down the rabbit hole.

"That," said one slightly stunned audience member after the actors casually strolled off the stage, "was amazing."

Fortunately this rare theatrical experience won't be limited to the lucky or well-connected few who were at one of three presentations at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse or a single show at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The Coen brothers' "Sawbones" and Kaufman's "Hope Leaves the Theater," both scored by Carter Burwell (who has scored all the Coen brothers' films, as well as the Kaufman-scripted "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation"), will be broadcast this Labor Day weekend on the satellite station Sirius as a pair of radio plays, together called Theater of the New Ear.

That this project got off the ground is a minor miracle, since there is no real contemporary precedent. It falls between the cracks, which is just where many of the participants like to be.

"Part of what interested us is the collaboration with Carter, so it's the idea of trying to combine: What is it? Is it a concert? Is it a theater thing? That's what we liked about it, that it was ill defined," says Joel Coen.

As he suggests, the primary mover here was not the brothers or Kaufman or Streep or any of the other heavyweights involved. It was the lowly composer, Burwell, whose work behind the scenes got the project made and whose music inspired what got made. Originally Burwell was approached by the Royal Festival Hall with the idea of presenting live excerpts from his film scores. He says he didn't find the idea interesting, because the music would be ripped from its context. Then he hit upon the idea of approaching filmmaker friends for written material — scenes or snippets of dialogue that were just lying around — that he could score and then present onstage. However, when he discussed the matter with the Coens, it was their turn not to be interested. They did make a counteroffer, though.

"What he said was, 'Actors at microphones saying lines and a band onstage,' " says Joel Coen. "And we said, 'OK, let's write something.' When we write something, it generally implies something dramatic. And so it was something dramatic that actors were reading at microphones with a live band onstage. Whatever that is."

Burwell also approached Kaufman, who agreed to write "something" and then later asked to see what the Coens did first. The idea was that his piece would involve characters attending performances of both "Sawbones" and "Hope Leaves the Theater" and commenting on them. He didn't think of it strictly in audio terms, however. That wouldn't be interesting, or destabilizing, enough.

"When I was trying to conceive of it, the fact that there were no visuals but you still saw it was important," Kaufman says. "I like the idea that the character of Louise [played by Davis] is supposed to be in the audience, but she's sitting right up onstage with the other actors. And that when she leaves the theater she doesn't leave the theater. So there's all this mental confusion, which is really appealing to me. It becomes more of a radio play when you put it on the radio because you don't have that information."

What Burwell says he originally had in mind was a guerrilla operation in which they would round up actors and musicians in London. However, when the Coens turned in their script, it required half a dozen American actors and crack timing, meaning a lot of preproduction work with performers they'd have a hard time finding in London. And since Kaufman's characters were discussing the Coens' piece, it was necessary for the sake of clarity that they be three different actors — three very specific American actors, as it turns out, entailing even more preproduction preparation.

Suddenly Burwell was confronted with a much more massive undertaking, one that required a theatrical troupe rather than a pickup band, so he and the Coens, who had a relationship with Sirius President Scott Greenstein, turned to the satellite radio station to underwrite the expense of putting together the production in New York and then bringing it to London. In exchange, Sirius received exclusive broadcast rights for five years.

Unfortunately, by the time Burwell secured the scripts and cast commitments, the Royal Festival Hall had scheduled something else for the slot he was originally offered. Now he had some of the most celebrated directors, writers and actors in the English-speaking world assembled for a project that didn't have a home. That's when it was decided to stage it at St. Ann's, a relatively small venue that would complement the intimacy of the material. Also, according to Burwell, "we thought, 'Better to keep it small so that if nobody buys tickets it won't be so embarrassing.' " Once again, he vastly underrated what this project would become. It not only sold out St. Ann's, it also packed the 3,000-seat Royal Festival Hall (which somehow found space for the show on its calendar). Dinklage says he even got to meet Paul McCartney.

Meanwhile, as he was wrangling all this, Burwell was also providing the aural landscape to two very challenging plays. In the first one, "Sawbones," it turns out that the crusty Westerners are actually on a TV show that is playing as a backdrop and counterpoint to the domestic difficulties of a married couple who are addicted to watching it.

"The assignment was, How can we make this interesting?" Joel Coen says. "If you're not seeing anything, what would be interesting to us and to an audience? And so we started thinking: Supposing the drama is these two things intersecting and then you realize that one of them is coming through a television? Building on that, we thought: What if we go to different locations but the television show is always showing in each one, so that's the consistent thing?"

" 'Assignment' is a good description of it," says Kaufman, who thinks that he and the Coens met their assignments in similar ways while still being different from each other. "I like assignments. You're forced to think in a way that's not necessarily comfortable for you."

That may be, but Kaufman did manage to incorporate many of his obsessions, which he neatly summarizes as "I like things that step out of what they are into the real world." To that end, he included in the playbill accompanying the performance, which is usually a sober, telegraphic guide to what we are seeing, such phony descriptions as "Scene Six: Engine room of an Argentinean freighter, 1943" and "Scene Seven: The Void, Thursday, 6:53 am EST." And he indulged his penchant for riffing on the public personas of celebrities.

At one point Streep, who had worked with him in "Adaptation," breaks character to scream at the audience as "Meryl Streep," an aging diva who is peeved at a patron's ringing cellphone. Dinklage also breaks the fourth wall by telling her, in effect, to shut up.

"I think he [Kaufman] was working off a familiar trope that an audience might have of a famous actress and a big, gigantic, preening ego, which I'm sure he realizes there's no resemblance to the real me," Streep says, laughing.

"It's funny to have people doing that to themselves," Kaufman says. "I did it before in 'Being John Malkovich.' I did it to myself in 'Adaptation.' She was milking it, she was enjoying it, so she can't blame me."

What she can blame Kaufman for was his continual revisions, as opposed to the Coens, who tweaked but did not rewrite. At the last minute, Streep was given a song to conclude the evening. ("That's our Char," she says affectionately, as if he were being a naughty boy.) Kaufman doesn't beat himself up too much about this, saying that most plays go through many revisions over many months, whereas he had only four days of rehearsal.

Burwell, who had to score the revisions, including the song, absolves him for different reasons: "I decided to go with the flow because what he's done is brilliant and I would not do anything to slow down the creative process he's been following. If someone had done that on a film, I would have been [ticked] off."

In fact, Burwell is more than happy with the results, as are the actors, the Coens and Kaufman. A CD, probably of the third performance (which will be the radio mix), may be in the offing. The Coens say they would like to write another one. And Kaufman is restaging "Hope Leaves the Theater" at UCLA's Royce Hall next month, paired with a different play (the "Sawbones" cast had prior commitments). It's called "Anomalisa" and stars David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan. The author is Francis Fregoli, "a pseudonym for someone who, for his own reasons, would rather remain anonymous," says Burwell. Necessarily, it will be a different experience for the audience — and the crew.

"There was sort of a feeling of evaporation when it was over," Kaufman says. "And there was something sad about that. But there is also something kind of neat about it. There's this experience that we had one time, it's gone, we can remember it, but we can never really see it again."


'Theater of the New Ear'

What: "Theater of the New Ear," presented by UCLA Live and the Arts at St. Ann's. Writers Charlie Kaufman and Francis Fregoli, composer Carter Burwell, and actors Hope Davis, Peter Dinklage, Meryl Streep and others to be announced.

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 14-16

Price: $38 to $60


Where: Sirius satellite radio, Talk Central, Channel 148

When: 3 p.m. Sept. 2, noon and 5 p.m. Sept. 3, noon and 5 p.m. Sept. 4, 3 p.m. Sept. 5