What is it with these guys?

Around 40 weeks into this thing, and I've been late once: Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband.

Make it twice now, because George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman has defeated me. To be exact, Don Juan In Hell has temporarily defeated me.

I'll be back on schedule soon enough, but really? Shaw and Wilde? What is up with that?

The Three Sisters

Is there any writer as aware of the weight of age and time and history as Chekhov? There are many playwrights who can look back on history and write a play putting it in context ... but Chekhov is writing plays in his time and of his time which place his present moment firmly in historical context. It's achingly sad, there's a sepia-tone to all these small, tragic characters, and I always think of the doomed Romanovs. Here's a passage from The Three Sisters, in the Eugene K. Bristow translation that I swear by:

TUZENBAKH. This longing for work, oh, dear God in Heaven, how clear that is to me! I've never worked, not once in my life. I was born in Petersburg, a city cold and idle, in a family that understood neither work nor worry. On coming home form military school, I remember there was even a valet to pull off my boots. At the time I was a bit silly - I'd say and do the first thing that came to mind - and my mother would always look adoringly at me. And she was always surprised when other people looked at me in a different way. I was protected against work. Only I doubt that the protection was completely successful. I really do! The time has come, something huge and immense is coming nearer and nearer to all of us - a strong, exhilarating storm is beginning to gather, it's on its way, it's almost here, a storm that will soon cleanse our whole society - sweep away all the laziness, the indifference, the prejudice against work, the rotten boredom. I shall work, and in another twenty-five or thirty years every person will be working. Everyone.

This is written in 1900, the Bolsheviks are still just a twinkle in Lenin's eye. The revolution is looming and the Romanovs will fall in 18 years. What must Chekhov have been like? How aware of the rumblings in the crust of the earth?

October Plays

Try not to be afraid. I know it's a shocking image, and could send you scurrying for the safety of your bed. Try to whistle past the graveyard ...

In Theatre Arts Conservatory's Student Slam 2008, Eric Samuelsen turned in a play that took me completely by surprise. What at first seemed a surrealist ensemble piece slowly transformed into a horror/suspense play, and it struck me that we've completely lost that in the modern theatre. Scary plays used to be a staple of sorts, and we've now happily walked away from the table and ceded the genre to television and film.

In honor of October, I'm spending the month looking at horror plays. It will be Spoooooooky, to be sure.

But there'll be candy at the end.

October 5: The Weird: A Collection of Short Horror and Pulp Plays by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

October 12: Frankenstein In Love by Clive Barker

October 19: A Night At An Inn by Lord Dunsany

October 26: Lovecraft's Follies by James Schevill

Doctor Faustus

The first Marlowe I read was Edward II, and it fundamentally influenced the way I saw him. I completely bought into the idea that he was a dramatist who could have outshone Shakespeare, and may have been the truly brilliant mind of his generation. I've read Edward II many times since, and my opinion of that play has never wavered ... but then there's Faustus.

This is Marlowe at his most maddening. Clunky "low" scenes (that may not actually be his work), wooden blank verse, and theatrical forms that seem like they are centuries before Shakespeare's best, instead of decades. The introduction is quick and dirty, then we plow through episode after episode where Faustus uses his powers to mock the powerful and satiate his own gluttony. There's no development of character, plot, or theme until perhaps the last monologues as Faustus must confront his fate.

But then there are these pieces of magic, of pure rock-and-roll that stick out from the text like a blaring beacon. Here is a playwright boldly exposing himself on stage far before it was accepted.
FAUST. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?

MEPH. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it:

Think'st thou that I, that saw the face of God,

And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,

In being depriv'd of everlasting bliss?

FAUST. Tell me, where is the place that men call hell?

MEPH. Under the Heavens.

FAUST. Aye, so are all things else, but wherabouts?

MEPH. Within the bowels of these elements,

Where we are tortur'd and remain for ever:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd

In one self place; but where we are is hell,

And where hell is, there must we ever be

And, to be short, when all the world dissolves,

And every creature shall be purified,

All places shall be hell that is not heaven.

It's electrifying and alarming and exciting. I don't know how you stage the rest of the play to match that cold modernity.

.... As a side not, as thinking about this, I came up with the following: let's compare Elizabethan playwrights to classic rock. So ... Shakespeare's the Beatles, right? Then Marlowe is Jim Morrison. I need to figure out John Webster and Ben Johnson.

Oedipus Rex

In writing about Our Town last week, I urged that we all should "read what's there, not what you think is there". Let me amend that: "read what's there, not what you think is there ... or wish was there".

I should take my own advice.

I so desperately want to be able to read Oedipus Rex and find the suppleness I find in Shakespeare. I want it to transcend the theater it was written for, and become malleable. I want it to withstand the pressures of style. I want it to adapt into an intimate chamber drama.

But it doesn't.

Some of it is translation, most of it is form. These are public rituals more than they are what we think of as theatre. They straddle the line between public worship and drama. The seeds of a character-driven play are there ... but they are just seeds: that's the realm of adaptation and of "what I wish was there". The Aristotelian Unities are partially responsible: with no passage of time or place, we only see public acts and public revelations: there is no contrast, no peek behind the scenes into what happens when these characters are not on stage.

I was struck again reading Oedipus Rex by just how well I know they story, just how I am waiting for it all to play out just as I know it will. But that's not unique to me, it is the essential element of this play. This was not a new story to the Athenians, either: they, too, knew what was coming. It's part of the play's force, this inescapable inevitability of fate and destiny. It's so deeply embedded in the text that it's where I'd have to start as a director: how do we heighten that sense that we've seen it before, instead of ignoring it?

This I Believe

The following is the result of a writing assignment for the Plan-B/Meat & Potato Directors' Lab, based on the style of the This I Believe radio series. Though a bit tangential to this blog's purpose, I share it because I quite liked the results.

I believe that theatre matters.

I believe that theatre still matters even millennia after we gathered around the fire and reenacted that day’s hunt. I believe that even in an age of texts and tweets, gathering people in a room and telling a story is important and worthwhile.

I feel like I’m explaining my “belief” in gravity, or in a round Earth, or in the wetness of water. Yet in the early days of the 21st century, a belief that theatre is important and relevant and that it really matters puts me in the camp with the birthers or the flat-earthers, stylish in my tinfoil hat.

Theatre matters because it is still unique, because technological advances cannot breach the simple truth that we are all here together in this place and in this time. Each performance, actors and audience all gather in a temporary community that will never happen again. In a world that is slowly advancing beyond the physical limitations of time and place, theatre is one thing that cannot be timeshifted, cannot be virtualized, cannot be indexed by Google. Even as the social networks of the Internet gradually take us out of our local communities and make us members of larger groups unbound by geography, theatre still only can happen in the here and now.

I moved to Salt Lake City a few years ago, from a past spent in cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. I moved to the far exurbs, and comfortably settled in to my virtual network. I worked from home with folks from the East Coast, and socialized online with friends from across the United States and beyond. Though I lived in Utah, I did not live in Utah. Some of that was that I simply felt like a fish out of water, an alienated intellectual agnostic in the heart of a theocracy. I didn’t have much in common with my community, and chose to find my own that was unbound by locale.

Then, one night, I went to a play: Hedwig And The Angry Inch at Plan-B Theatre. Suddenly I felt amongst my people. The crowd cheered and a drag queen swore, and loud, filthy rock filled the air … and I felt like I had come home. I was not importing my community from Hollywood or Chicago or London, I was not selectively living in a virtual community … I was here in this moment with these people in this place, and I found a people I could be a part of. I don’t feel that online communities are any less “real” than local ones, but they certainly are different. Though I couldn’t know much about the crowd around me, I felt a spirit that surrounded me and could sustain me.

My later work with Plan-B has highlighted my sense of this true “Community Theatre”. We’ve sadly made that term synonymous with “amateur theatre”, as if by virtue of our paychecks we are no longer a part of our communities. As if our union status or tax returns prove that we are somehow above our community and no longer come from it and speak back to it. But there should be no shame in the term “Community Theatre”, no shame in a theatre that gathers us together for a couple of hours and lets us tell the stories we need to tell and hear the stories we need to hear. It’s what all really important theatre is.

Especially here in Salt Lake, that community theater fills a need. There are many of us that don’t quite fit in the dominant culture, who feel ill-at-ease in a conservative state where a church wields enormous power. Mannie Mannim, of South Africa’s historic Market Theatre has a quote that resonates for me: “The critics of the Market said that we were simply preaching to the converted. But that wasn’t really right. What we were doing was giving nourishment to like-minded people.”

I felt this most profoundly playing a role as the kind of right-wing religious politician that defines Utah’s political landscape. I could feel the palpable waves of smug superiority rolling off the audience, accompanied by the occasional audible snort. I was immensely frustrated that I was unable to shake them out of their assumptions and get them to actually listen. I wanted them to confront their own prejudices. I wanted to shake them out of their red/blue worldview and get them to look for the shades of purple.

Then I stopped. … and listened … and felt. A Sunday matinee made me see that this was a secular service where people were taking in the spiritual sustenance they needed to get through their week in a larger society that wanted to exclude them. While everyone else was at their church, we were at ours. I gradually accepted that this was a chance for us to escape into a community where we felt among peers and could be among our people. As a performer, I was part of that community, not separate from it. It was not “us vs. them”, it was just “us”. Some of us were telling the story and some were listening, but that was beside the point: we had gathered together because this story and its communal telling … it mattered.

It’s ok to be nourished sometimes, to get a fill-up of community and belonging, to be reminded we’re not alone. This nourishment doesn’t only come from overtly issue-oriented theatre: we can be nurtured or challenged or inspired by beauty as much as politics. What’s important about theatre, and what makes it still matter at all is that electric sense that it’s happening to us together in this moment.

We make theatre, every time it happens. We can make theatre happen without lights, without set, without costume, without even a script. But without us, without that physical community gathered together, it’s not theatre … it’s rehearsal. That community? That nourishment? That theatre? It will always matter.