Seeing Red 

Memphis filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox takes to the stage with Red Pain(t).

"The single most wonderful thing that ever happened to me was having my dad disown me after I decided to leave [college] as a freshman," says Morgan Jon Fox, whose play Red Pain(t) closes this weekend at TheatreWorks. "Even though it hurt like hell, it gave me the wonderful gift of having to fight my own damn fight."

And Fox is nothing if not a fighter. After his mother died and his father severed family ties, Fox went to Vermont to attend film school. But his financial aid never came through so he moved back to Memphis, bought his own equipment, and began teaching himself how to use it. He became a fixture on the coffee-shop circuit and started to organize readings of his scripts and screenplays. His recent film Blue Citrus Hearts won the award for best local feature at the IndieMemphis Film Festival in 2003. It also earned an honorable mention at the Berkeley Film and Video Festival and won for best feature at the 22nd Annual Chicago Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, where it was described as "the most honest, organic, and deeply touching film shown in the history of the festival."

Jon Morgan Fox at rehearsal for Red Pain(t)

Fox's play Red Pain(t) was written as part of a cycle of stories that includes Blue Citrus Hearts and his first cinematic effort, Bi-Polar Sun. Like his previous efforts, it revolves around sexual identity, family, and the social politics of "the closet."

There is one obvious question: Why would a young artist who is beginning to garner some acclaim as a filmmaker choose to express himself through the medium of theater? After all, theater as an art form is in a state of crisis. All across the country theater attendance is down, and there are fewer and fewer original scripts being produced. Thanks to digital technology, films have become so much easier to make. Nobody is writing plays anymore, but everyone, it seems, is working on a screenplay.

"It's been completely amazing to create a film that I made out of a necessity to communicate something that was at one time so personal and aching that I couldn't tell my best friend," Fox says of Blue Citrus Hearts. So why didn't he also put Red Pain(t) on film?

"The immediate and very honest reason was that I wrote a play," Fox says. "And it's a PLAY, and I'm not into leaving things behind these days. But the pure fact is, no form of art is more pure and present than the theater. It's there: heartbeat, breath, rafters, and shitty sets." Fox also wanted to experiment with acting techniques developed by the acclaimed acting instructor Sanford Meisner. Fox became interested in Meisner after encountering Amber Nicholson, a devoted Meisner acolyte, at a poetry reading at Java Cabana.

The late, great Meisner cut his teeth as a member of the Group Theater, an extremely influential troupe in the 1930s which attempted to put Stanislavsky's method of acting into an American context. Like fellow actor and teacher Stella Adler, Meisner took notions of emotional realism as set down by the Russian master and gave them his own peculiar interpretation. Alternately praised as the greatest acting teacher of his generation and derided for his sometimes caustic approach to instruction, Meisner believed that there was no need for an actor to ever fake an emotion. He believed that once actors had learned the lines so well they were like an extension of the mind and body, they could work entirely on impulse to facilitate genuine emotions.

"Meisner is an amazing tool for a human to have, period," Fox says, explaining that the various exercises are as applicable to the building of relationships as they are to the creation of theater. "It connects you [to your emotions]."

For Red Pain(t), Fox assembled a group of actors with relatively little experience on stage. In fact, only one actor, the 14-year-old Morgan Stewart who has grown up performing in Our Own Voice productions, has anything resembling a theatrical resume. For Fox, working with non-actors in the emotionally charged context of Meisner's techniques is a bit of a no-brainer.

"Working with people who are new to acting makes complete sense to me," Fox says. "I want a human being, not someone who's decided they're an actor. [It can be] frustrating, definitely, [but] worth it always. Anyone who is willing to take the risk of trying this new thing well, it seems they have a better chance at becoming truthful to their character simply because they aren't trying to be someone else to become that character. They weren't asked to play this part simply because they were once amazing as Roger in Noises Off. They were asked to be the character based on their personality."

At TheatreWorks through February 22nd.

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