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Matt Earp: Standing Witness

07.31.09 | 20 Comments

Matt Earp lives in San Francisco and creates electronic music under the name Kid Kameleon.

The Basics

’97: I’m 18, a freshman at Wesleyan in Connecticut. My best friend gets me to read A Supposedly Fun Thing. I go to see DFW speak at the Harvard Film Archive. I fall in love.

’99: Coming back from Australia, I’ve finished Infinite Jest on a six week road trip, and landing in San Francisco, a friend, the same friend in fact, and I go see DFW again at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books (now sadly gone). I tell DFW I want to make a play out of IJ, and he laughs and says “Let me know how it turns out.”

’00 (summer) – I do it. I sit in 100 degree heat sweating to death in an apartment on 11th and C in New York, and trim, coax, and cajole the script from it’s 900 or 1000 pages down to 70, focusing entirely on Enfield and Hal, because to take on any more would have been ludicrous.

Sept ’00 – March 6th of ’01: I turn 21 and we produce Infinite Jest, now called Standing Witness. Bonnie Nadell, DFW literary agent, grants me permission to do it as long as it’s a one time event and we don’t charge for it. My advisor cajoles me into making the script more coherent and understandable. I cast my best friend and closest acting associate as Hal. My genius props designer not only makes tennis balls drop from the ceiling during Eschaton, but makes it snow in the theater later in the play, and a lot of other magic.


Eschaton
More photos from “Standing Witness” here.

Another friend turns Mario into a Bunraku puppet. Two further actresses and friends meld Madam Pyschosis into a character that’s part radio host, part DFW’s narration, part Mario’s voice, and part an excuse for me to try some of the Supercollider patches I was working on at the time to mess with her vocal cadences. The whole cast shows up at 6AM to liberate the bleachers from a block of snow, bleachers that eventually become the audience seats. We crank the sound system in the theater up at 2AM and play jungle into the wee hours when we can’t concentrate on building the set any more. The staff hated us. The audience loved us, both those who’ve read the book and those that haven’t. We finish the play. We have a ridiculous cast party, one of the stage runners singes her eyebrows off on a flaming 151 shot, and we burn the set plans outside in the snow.

I never direct another piece of straight theater again.

Eschaton

Eschaton was the crown jewel of the show – I mean, it’s probably the crown jewel of the book anyway, but as a scene it’s got everything a director could want in it. It’s funny, it’s got drama, it’s got the dual attention between the big kids and little kids, it’s got a huge build up, it turns into a fight … and it ends with one of the most dramatic moments in literature, the infinitely long frozen arc of the computer as it flies out of Lord’s hands through the air and onto the court.

Because it was a black box configuration, we had the opportunity to use one of the balconies as a space for the big kids to sit and watch, and to me that way it was like Pemulis was conducting the madness from on high. Not only was he above the kids but above the audience as well. He could manically shout down at the little kids during the action from above while Hal fretted, Axford (who in my version was sort of Peemster’s sidekick) smoked and Troeltsch narrated. Meanwhile the little kids started pleasantly enough but slowly devolve into this elegant match that turns into a fight, then into a wrestling match, then a melee, then a disaster. It all happened over the course of about 12 minutes.

So many details about it were just amazingly fun to engineer. Dressing everyone up in as much winter gear as we could find, and making sure all the clothes were a little too short (to give the illusion that the actors, all 18-21, were actually 12-14). The actor who played Otis P. Lord gave an awesome performance in the perfect beanie, playing the most gigantic nerd on earth and carting around an old monitor which we destroyed every night (no easy thing to engineer, throwing a heavy monitor about 20 feet over the heads of a bunch of fighting actors…). The impending sense of disaster as tennis balls started to fly off in all directions, and the double horror and glee that all the designers and I felt as we both watched the audience get (sort of intentionally) pelted with balls and held our breath hoping nothing would knock a light or a piece of sound equipment out of alignment.

Not only did I direct the whole thing, I sound designed it as well (theater was always kind of just an excuse for me to have access to loud toys and a place to use them in), and my favorite moment of the whole play was the sonically enhanced crash of the monitor onto the floor that coincided with the blackout at the end of the 1st act and the loudest noise I could make (I ripped it from the explosion at the beginning of 2 Bad Mice’s Bombscare). We spit it out through two giant subwoofers under the audience. Literally earthshaking. It was magnificent. Every night we got some of the loudest and most raucous applause I’ve ever heard at a theater.

Coda

I haven’t actually read the book since then … it was so very much of a particular time and place for me. Since my life has taken me away from theater, I didn’t think about it much again till Infinite Summer asked me for the use of the picture of the Eschaton game and Matthew offered me a chance to reflect (by the way, the balls falling from the ceiling were more for visual effect than because the book calls for them … dramatic liberties I suppose). In doing so, I found an old review of the play on Wallace-L … read it if you care too, although definitely be warned of spoiler alerts about a few details:

Happy reading, I hope IJ gives you as much joy, wonder, happiness and sadness as it did for me all the times I’ve read it.

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