Bringing a photo to life through a stage show. That’s what Augusta University assistant communications professor Melanie Kitchens O’Meara set out to do, and her work will go live this week, with the play “Fanny’s Fantastic Food Frolic.”
Honestly, it’s hard to explain what exactly is going on in this play. Part of that comes from it being based on a series of photographs. The play’s writers had to work to come up with a story that would keep the audience engaged, and ultimately, it’s a story about how diversity in life is a good thing.
“Basically the idea of the play is, it’s through diversity that we find more happiness, more joy, through working together with other people who are different from us,” O’Meara said.
O’Meara wrote the play with Ruth Laurion Bowman, her former professor at Louisiana State University. But the work really started before O’Meara graduated with her Ph.D. in 2008, with her dissertation.
“I was writing about how photographs perform, and partnering them with different theater and performance methodologies, to talk about how photographs perform, and then to perform them,” O’Meara said. “And this particular idea, one of series of photographs that I wrote about in my dissertation was ‘The Chromatic Diet.’ … (Then, this summer Bowman and I) wrote the play that’s actually going to get staged at the Maxwell Theatre. We’d been talking about it for about the past year and a half. So we split up the work basically and split up the scenes, and then she came here for a full week in the middle of the summer, and we worked out all the details. We still had a few things to do once she left. We’ve been working together collaborating for a long time now — we work pretty well together, so that distance really wasn’t an issue for us.”
The play is based on French photographer Sophie Calle’s series of photographs called “The Chromatic Diet.” The photographer was inspired by her friend, Paul Auster, who had written a novel called “Leviathan,” with a character based on Calle — a fictional photographer named Maria who ate monochromatic meals. Calle brought the idea to life for a photo project during which she ate monochromatic meals for a week. Monday is orange, and the photo has an all-orange set-up: orange plates, utensils, napkin, plus six boiled prawns, pureed carrots, sliced cantaloupe and orange juice. Each day is a different color, leading up to Sunday, in which the photograph is a smorgasbord of all different colors.
So, how does all that translate to a play? Well, in O’Meara’s and Bowman’s play, there is a young girl named Fanny, and she’s all gray. She’s dressed in a gray smock dress, leggings and sneakers. Her mother points out how incredibly gray of a day she had been having (for several days, really) and suggests her daughter try a little variety and tells Fanny about the photography project — so, through the play, Fanny eats monochromatic meals.
“The first performance that we wrote was really abstract, and we knew we needed to have a story that the audience could grab onto,” O’Meara said. “So we created this young girl who is having a gray day, and her mom introduces her to Sophie Calle’s photographs and says ‘Hey, look, you’re all one blah, gray color. What if we took these meals and try them on, could you become multiple shades of gray?’”
O’Meara said one of the biggest challenges in writing a play is making people want to sit and watch the whole thing.
“I think the hardest part is trying to figure out how you’re going to keep your audience interested and not turn them off, especially when you’re dealing with something that is potentially as abstract as this play sounds,” O’Meara said. “So for us, it was really figuring out how do we make this play to more than just an academic audience? When I was writing about it for my dissertation, it was for an academic audience. So how do we change this into something that any and all people will enjoy?”
She describes “Fanny’s Fantastic Food Frolic” as a spectacle, with the photos coming to life through dance, vibrant colors and storytelling that keeps the audience in the know on what’s going on, on stage. For one thing, the shrimp that are in Calle’s orange-Monday photo end up dancing around on stage. Orange pool noodles — something you probably typically wouldn’t see as a prop in a play — also get used in the scene.
“I think it really is a spectacle,” O’Meara said. “So sort of like ‘poor theatre,’ basically drawing on Jerzy Grotowski and some other practitioners, it was more about like what can our bodies do on stage, and how can we use a bunch of cardboard boxes and make them into something that’s really cool to look at? I make it sound like it’s gonna look like a B-movie production or something, but it’s a spectacle and figuring out how to make different types of materials that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see on the stage work on the stage.”
The play is appropriate for all ages, but O’Meara does point out that in the yellow scene, there is a lot of word play with the Perrier fizzy drink called Pschitt.
“The whole scene, we play with ‘Pschitt’ (the P is silent) — I mean, we’re not saying ‘shit,’ but we play with the Pschitt in that scene. So I mean yes, it’s for all ages, but there is a little bit of Pschitting that happens,” she said with a laugh.
“Also on that yellow day, Sophie Calle played around on her dessert plate with what she called ‘a young girl’s dream,’ which is two scoops of mango ice cream and a banana protruding from the two scoops becomes a phallus in one of her photos, so we kind of play around with that in an artistic way.”
O’Meara’s degree is in performance studies, meaning she specializes in adapting plays from texts, like when she did a Maxwell Theatre production based on “The Little Prince.” Performance studies is a little bit different from theater, in that almost anything — newspaper articles, photographs, literature — can be turned into a play. It’s also part of what she teaches Augusta University students.
If you’re intrigued by the idea of someone taking seven photographs and turning it into a stage production, then go see “Fanny’s Fantastic Food Frolic.”
“Fanny’s Fantastic Food Frolic”
7:30 p.m. Nov. 9, 10 and 11; 3 p.m. Nov. 12
$10, general; $7, alumni, military and seniors; $5, students, children and AU faculty and staff; free, AU students