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John Ammerman

Emory professor stages Slapping Bernard

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Artists from many media often sound the refrain, "What I really want to do is direct a movie." Veteran Atlanta actor and Emory University associate professor John Ammerman has managed to create two cinematic experiences without ever touching cameras or celluloid. Slapping Bernard, playing through Nov. 17 at Theater Emory, marks Ammerman's second stage play to emulate a classic black-and-white film style, following 2004's silent-film homage Life Goes On. He talks about the challenges of writing and directing "movies" for live theater.

Why did you originally decide to do a play in the style of a black-and-white movie in 2004? A big part of my background is pantomime, and I toured with a one-man mime show from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. I was intrigued about using mime techniques that weren't just short little clown pieces, that could go in a storybook kind of realm. I was always a fan of silent films – Charlie Chaplin was one of the premiere mime artists of the 20th century. So I proposed doing a play in that style to designers I know at Emory, and everyone bit at the bait. None of us had done anything like this, so we had to figure out how to do the monochromatic color palette in 3-D.

Why do another play, and how is Slapping Bernard different, besides having dialogue? While I was doing Life Goes On, which took place in 1929, I had an outside idea to do a film noir set in the 1940s if I had the chance to do another. All of the work we did for the first one felt like a foundation for the second one. Life Goes On was very art deco and had a lot of spit and polish. Slapping Bernard takes place in a film studio in Paris under the German occupation, so it's grittier and dirtier, with a lot of shadow and variation in the style. There's a greater starkness to it. The lighting, the shadows, the costumes are right out of noir film.

Which cinematic techniques do you wish you had? One of the hardest things is, if there's a scene change, it has to happen in real time. If it's film, you cut and it's seamless. Obviously in theater, you wish you could make the transitions quick – but there's stuff you have to move around! I'd also like to use more silhouettes, but it's not very practical for this production.

In doing an homage to serious film noir like The Third Man, is there a risk that the play feel like a parody? Part of the reason I placed it in a film studio is that some characters are making these French comedies that are very silly and goofy, and the light is very bright with no shadow. We also have the scenes that give the flavor of noir. I felt that if I had comic scenes as the jumping-off point, then I could deal with the very tragic moments of the play.

You've worked with professional actors and students in both productions. Do the students know much about silent film or film noir? Most of the time they don't. With Life Goes On, I showed the students silent film comedies early on in rehearsals. For Bernard, I wanted to introduce them to certain noir films, but also showed them documentaries about life in the German occupation, and how people functioned. In this play, the actors don't feel too much of the noir style that gets presented to the audience.

You've worked a great deal with Georgia Shakespeare and have a one-man show about the 19th-century Booth family actors. Are you a scholar of traditional acting styles? I think I just had more stylistic opportunities. My training and background came from physical specificity, to make specific choices and not waste energy. It gave me a stylistic reputation, but I was just trying to be specific and detailed in my movements. In Shakespeare, the language is not naturalistic, so it required you to speak in a different way – it wasn't that I took on an Elizabethan acting style.

Since you've made two plays that involve acting in a cinematic style, I was wondering if you had any thoughts about films that are shot against green screens, with special effects added later. Sometimes the acting in those is really terrible. It's really hard to play to something that's not there. You have to have an extremely vivid imagination. If you're lucky, you get to see drawings or photographs, but there's always that element of not having enough information. And usually the rehearsal time is so limited. On stage, actors will sometimes complain that another actor's not giving them anything, but at least there's somebody there! Maybe that's why I stayed in theater. I get so many more things to stimulate me.

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