It’s 11 a.m. on a cloudy morning and Raymond Chandler has writer’s block, and his story trails off to red herrings, dead ends and vain attempts at plot. Jenny McAllister, founder of 13th Floor Dance Theater, can relate.
“I know the feeling,” she says. “I do a lot of the writing for my dance-theater pieces, and analyzing how my characters would react to each other pulls me through.”
McAllister’s latest work, “Being Raymond Chandler,” debuting in The City on Saturday, recreates the ambiance of the film noir genre in which characters from Chandler’s imagination — fast-talking dames, broads, goons and of course, detective Philip Marlow — fill his imagination and come alive to help him move the plot along.
An ardent bibliophile, McAllister had been a fan of Chandler and other writers of the genre since junior high. “Thinking about this piece, I became fascinated both with Chandler as a person and with his process,” she says.
Chandler’s wife tried to encourage him to include romance in his work, but their profoundly intimate connection didn’t translate to the page. “He believed romance would ruin a murder mystery. We built that in as an argument between the two of them.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a murder mystery without a murder. In this case, the audience doesn’t know who the victim is until the end — making the piece not so much whodunit it but “to whom it was done.”
The costumes — slinky ’40s-style dresses for the women, fedoras for the men — and Michael Oesch’s shadow-filled lighting design establish the film noir feeling.
To create the off-kilter visual angles popular in those films, McAllister places her characters as if they were in a camera frame. “It’s like someone is in a close shot and something is happening far behind them on the very edge of the stage. It makes you feel a little uncomfortable, like something’s not quite right,” she says.
Her performers, including several film buffs, had as much fun in the development of the piece as McAllister did. Period costumes, ceiling fans and vintage props gave them the freedom to throw themselves into the characters.
“In rehearsals, we recreated some of the movie scenes. It was so much fun. They were just chewing up the scenery,” she says.
Then there’s the rumor that Chandler was closeted.
“There are some very intimate scenes in his novels between men, so we put a little of that in as well,” she adds.
IF YOU GO
Being Raymond Chandler
Presented by 13th Floor Dance Theater
Where: Studio B, ODC Dance Commons, 351 Shotwell St., SF.
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closes Nov. 3
Tickets: $18 to $23
Contact: (415) 863-9834, www.odcdance.org/buytickets.php