The Story Behind the Photo: "Absurd Person Singular"

Tania Thompson
 | Jun 03, 2021
Absurd Person Singular
Kathleen Early, Tessa Auberjonois, Robert Curtis Brown, Colette Kilroy and JD Cullum in Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn (2012). Photo by Henry DiRocco.

About ​​​Absurd Person Singular

In England’s most prolific and most ingenious playwright—and one of SCR’s most popular—outdoes himself this time by setting a party in the living room but keeping the drama in the kitchen. Three kitchens, in fact, on three successive Christmas Eves when relationships change, fortunes soar and then dive and the social kaleidoscope gets all shook up. Add an off-stage couple whose jokes are really bad, some of the most ingenious failed suicide attempts ever devised and lots of gin, and you’ve got a ferociously funny farce with very sharp teeth.

Tessa Auberjonois has been in nearly a dozen productions at South Coast Repertory—as well as numerous new-play readings as part of the NewSCRipts series and the Pacific Playwrights Festival. In SCR’s production of Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn (2012, directed by SCR Founding Artistic Director David Emmes), she portrayed Eva, a desperately unhappy woman. The play follows the changing fortunes of three married couples over the course of three Christmas Eves in 1970s England. Auberjonois selected a rock-bottom moment for her character as a highlight for her as an actor. Here's why.

What moment does this depict?

This was towards the end of the second act. In the scene, my husband (not shown here, but played by Alan Smyth) and I were hosting a holiday party, but throughout it, my character (Eva) made multiple failed attempts to commit suicide. Everything she tried was misinterpreted and interrupted by the well-meaning guests. By this moment, Eva had taken pills and alcohol, but everyone else is still involved in their misguided attempts to fix the things they think are broken due to my uncoordinated and futile efforts. For example, Eva tries to hang herself from a ceiling lamp, so the other characters are trying to change the lightbulb, thinking that that was what she had been doing. They are so involved in fixing things that they do not notice that Eva is suicidal.

How did you work to make this moment happen?

There were some stage directions from the playwright about what Eva was doing, but there were long stretches where we had to determine where I would be and what I would be doing while the action and dialogue of the other characters was going on. There were a lot of people on stage and we all had to choreograph the blocking together to make sure that people could emerge and take focus in a well-timed way. We spent weeks and weeks coming up with all of the stage business and how to make it flow and support the activity in the script.

What’s the power about this moment?

My character, Eva, did not have any lines of dialogue at all in this entire act, although she was on stage from start to finish. She became increasingly high from her attempted pill-popping and drinking and, of course, the audience was tracking her progression. At this point, during all of the other comic mayhem, I decided to crawl limply and painfully slowly across the front of the stage and make a heroic effort to land in the chair as seen here. I really wanted to look like a wrung-out piece of cloth. The costume designer helped me find the most drapey, pathetic-looking clothes to help with this effect.

Anything else you’d like to say about the photo or the production?

I love this picture because Absurd Person Singular was a real ensemble piece that required great timing and specificity from every actor. The first act was a door-slamming farce and this act was filled with lots of business with props. Comedy is a serious business, as they say, and I really feel like this shot depicts how earnestly and seriously this company of actors approached the material. There was rolling and unsubsiding laughter every night and that was extremely fun to listen to from the stage, especially because I didn't speak in this act. It was fun to hear the audience tracking the comedy as it unfolded.