In "The Bargain & the Butterfly," Annie, the protagonist and child of a watchmaker, says, "The bottom of a glass is a lens. Water is a lens. Many things are lenses if you look through them carefully."
And that's exactly what Katharine Noon's latest play offers — a lens with which to explore the potential link between genius and madness.
In 2010, the artistic director of the Los Angeles-based theater ensemble the Ghost Road Company delved into research about creativity and neurology. She returned to the troupe with her findings — images, interviews and articles — and affirmed a keen collective interest in the human mind.
"We usually start with an existing text, play, short story, novel or poem," Noon said. "Or just with a set of questions."
Although the group was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful" — which pits artistry against pragmatism and spotlights characters who share names with those in "The Bargain & the Butterfly" — its 83-minute story has an entirely unique plot.
Coming to South Coast Repertory on June 13, the show spotlights Annie's efforts to resuscitate her comatose twin brother, Owen. Armed with the blueprints for a synthetic soul, she employs the help of a local glassblower to make her design function.
Workshops, which began in 2012, featured extensive physical exercises, group writing and improvisation, all of which was videotaped in true Ghost Road Company style. After the initial exercises, the group took a break, allowing Noon to transcribe and sort out all the material that had been generated. The next phase began soon after, and so the process went until a skeleton was constructed.
"As an ensemble member, my job is to bring everything I have to each development session — my life experience, my history, my imagination, something interesting I heard on NPR on the way in to work — and to generate as much material as possible," said actor Brian Weir. "Especially in the early phases of development, it's imperative that I not censor myself. Some of the key moments of the play have come from things that seemed wildly out of sync in their original setting."
The troupe's modus operandi not only demanded a great amount of trust and teamwork, but also took the members to various non-traditional rehearsal spaces over a span of 18 months.
"I remember one time we were in a space with a very long, narrow hallway, and three ensemble members found an old office filled with hundreds of empty binders," Weir recalled. "They created a beautiful movement sequence using the binders like dominoes. You'll see tiny fragments of that early composition in the play today.
"In another part of the same deserted office, we found old glass doors. We ended up using them in a composition, and that imagery has taken a huge presence in the piece. ... Actors climb things and hang from the ceiling, build strange environments with found objects and Saran Wrap, do puppet shows with their hands while hidden behind old filing cabinets ... Anything goes."
Before locking down a script, the team showed parts of the play to audiences and revised based on their feedback.
"The Bargain & the Butterfly" debuted in Los Angeles in 2013 and then had a successful run at Studium Teatralne in Warsaw, Poland. It is now coming to Costa Mesa to conclude the Studio SCR series.
According to the venue's producing associate, Oanh Nguyen, the program comprises five to six productions annually. Masterminded by local companies and artists, the offerings boast a provocative and experimental flavor and are hosted in the 94-seat Nicholas Studio. Also, Ghost Road Company was granted a one-week residency on-site leading up to its performances and rehearsed elsewhere prior to that.
"Our goals are to engage new artists, to introduce our audiences to their work and their audiences to ours, and to offer alternative programming from our other two stages," Nguyen noted.
Thinking back to when "The Bargain & the Butterfly" was still a fledgling work, Weir said that every ensemble member wrote from each character's point of view. They also played all the roles before Noon handed out the final assignments.
"They become like your children, all of them containing small bits and pieces of you," he said.
The 43-year-old added that, so far, audience members have been able to easily understand the lead's creative struggle, with one approaching the cast after the final curtain call to say, "That's me, that's me! You made a play about me."
Noon believes the play's appeal lies in the imaginative interplay between the sets, lights and physicality. Although it contains elements of humor, it is essentially a drama, and she anticipates that viewers will depart from the show having created a connection to the characters.
"It's gratifying when you tried something and the audience got what you were going for," she said. "Or they come to you with something you didn't even realize was there."
Both Weir and Noon commented that "The Bargain & the Butterfly" steers clear of being didactic. It poses various questions and provides some answers but leaves enough room for individual takes on the subject matter.
"We're not interested in telling you how to feel or manipulating your emotions to love the heroes and hate their enemies," Weir noted. "There are no heroes or enemies in our work. We want you to leave the theater, sit down with your friends over some wine or dessert and talk about what you saw, what you thought, who you related to, how you felt.
"And ideally, two or three days later when you're unloading the dishwasher, maybe you'll catch yourself looking through the bottom of a glass and thinking ... it is a lens."
If You Go
What: "The Bargain & the Butterfly"
Where: Nicholas Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $15 to 25
Information: http://www.scr.org or (714) 708-5555