photo by Joe Mazza and Brave Lux

Friday, September 30, 2011

What Am I After? or, Evaluating 1, 2, 3 and Killing the Father

As this blog begins to take shape, I realize I want it to serve three purposes. They are:

1) To post the short plays I’m writing every week.

2) To discuss my relationship between theatre in the U.S. and Eastern Europe.

3) To evaluate my ability to reconcile my U.S. and East Europe theatre influences in the posted short plays.

The first two I’ve already begun; the third will begin with this post. Of course, I’m hoping comments from readers will allow this blog to be more dialogue than monologue, and this is particularly true for my evaluation of the short plays. In an ideal world, I will post a new short play every Monday, an evaluation of that play on Wednesday, and a continuation of my relationship to U.S. and East European theatre on Fridays. That said, I want to use the rest of this post to discuss how I see 1, 2, 3 and Killing the Father working within my varied influences.

Simply, 1, 2, 3 is the story of a woman at the time of her father’s death feeling as though she cannot pay him back. The prompt for this play was “loss,” and, while the loss of a parent is perhaps a clichéd subject for art, I felt that the story of the quarter could embody a feeling many people have about small gestures of generosity from parents that will forever remain unrepaid. I started from that, the realist story of a young girl wanting a quarter from her dad and feeling bad when she “wastes” it thinking she’s controlling the ghosts in Pac Man. This would be my U.S. narrative side.

From there, I tried to think of two stage images that could be created simply, and perhaps simultaneously, in the vein of Kantor. This got me thinking about white sheets from his ending of Wielopole, Wielopole, and led me to the idea of a man lying in a sauna under a white sheet and a body lying in a morgue (or in state?) under a white sheet. So this was a more visual creation, but still essentially realist story-telling. Or so it seems to me.

Connecting the two was more problematic in this process, and, I think, ultimately the part that seemed the most influenced by the East European theatre I’ve seen. I knew there were two periods represented onstage, and the thought of having two actors play the woman at different ages quickly occurred to me. Having them join hands and count their steps forward in unison between “scenes” between the younger self and the father took longer to come to, and, for me, was the real structural risk.

When it was performed, the storytelling seemed perfectly clear. People understood the separate times, that the two actors were playing the same woman, etc. But there was some confusion about the moments of holding hands and counting.

For me it referred on a literal plane to the three lives in Pac Man that a quarter buys. Symbolically I hoped it would take on the meaning of all the wasted time we spend thinking we’re paying attention to the important aspects of life (the “ghosts” in the game) when, in fact, we should have entirely different focuses (on the “pac man” in the game). These meanings were important to me and didn’t entirely come across.

But when Kantor writes about his work, he never so obviously defines any of its symbolism. He instead writes about attempting to literally combine realities, for instance subtitling Dead Class a “séance.” He writes about attempting to project his memories into a “room of memory,” which, as I understand it, is as much a mystical as artistic process. So what was I doing with the locking of hands and counting? I was collapsing worlds and trying to project a memory of mine into a fictional world. The clasping of hands of a child/adult self and counting was meant to open up a real theatrical space to explore time, death, and regret. If it didn’t do it, it came close given the reception from the audience.

I found Killing the Father far less successful. Though not realism, the piece, to me, is a relatively simple narrative. The telling encompasses three moments in time: the present from which the Young Man is narrating; the recent past when the Man marries the Young Woman; and the more distant past when the Man married the Young Woman’s mother. I enjoy how all these periods criss-cross throughout the piece, and I enjoy the direct address, and the kiss at the end created gasps of disgust from the audience. So, as a piece of storytelling, I suppose it was successful. It was also a break from the straight U.S. realism my work often falls into. But there was never a moment of collapsing images into meaning without words, or at least not in the way there was in 1, 2, 3.

Noticeably, though, both these analyses lack an ability to clearly define my goal. I’m unclear what I mean when I say “collapsing images into meaning without words” or “open up a real theatrical space to explore time, death, and regret.” I’m not after straight realism; I’m not after recreating the visual theatre of East Europe as embodied for me by Kantor. What, then, am I after exactly? It’s no wonder I can’t hit the target if I don’t understand what it is. Perhaps as I continue the part of the blog exploring my understanding of U.S. and East Europe theatre I will gain a clearer awareness of the type of hybrid I’m after.


  1. my question would be this: if an audience has no experience with eastern european theatre, or of kantor's work, are they at a disadvantage by not recognizing this traits, or themes?

  2. Thanks for the question.

    I don't think an audience's lack of experience with Eastern European theatre would hinder its experience of my work if I succeed in writing well.

    Let me explain by analogy. If there's a play that includes lots of references to Ancient Greek theatre or myth--O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, for instance--obviously a spectator who knows the Ancient Greek texts will be an advantage. That spectator will get more jokes, understand the symbolism in a different way, and perhaps have a more full appreciation for the play. However, if the modern play referencing Ancient Greek theatre is written well and does its job, it should function on its own. So I think if I managed to combine Eastern European and U.S. theatrical traditions an American unversed in Kantor shouldn't be at a disadvantage per se.

    On the other hand, some tastes are acquired. I think there are very few of us who enjoyed Shakespeare or Beckett the first time we encountered them. I think some styles of theatre take multiple encounters before we appreciate them. But I'm convinced a spectator with an open mind and a willingness to believe there are multiple forms of acceptable theatre can adjust, if you will, to new styles. I'm living proof. The first time I saw Beckett I hated it; my professor at the time made me go back to the same production the next weekend. And the next. He didn't lecture me on absurdism or philosophy or theatre history, just repeated my exposure. And by the third viewing of Waiting for Godot, I started to get it. Only very vaguely, but I began to have an appreciation. And now Beckett is one of my favorite writers.

    So, a disadvantage not knowing East European theatre? I don't think so.