IN PRAISE OF FEET

June 2, 2016
Pale sun

“Hungarian folkdance is very sexy and dangerous,” says Blanka.

I have been thinking about feet lately.

Now I am observing Csaba Horvath’s feet. He has launched right into the dance steps, without preamble. He calls it “a kind of tap dance.” It goes: One and two and three three three. Tap and tap and foot hits calf.

In short order, the company of Wilma HotHouse actors becomes a footloose Hungarian village, inhabiting the world of Blood Wedding. This is a Monday, and like most Mondays, the HotHouse has gathered to host guest artists and try out new ideas from practitioners who delve into the physical. Csaba will be working with them all week. No one really knew what he was going to do. “ We have no idea what he is going to do,” says Blanka, happily, in her introduction. It is a testament to the courage and trust in this community that everyone jumps right in, regardless.

There is downward and upward force to the movement. Strength is culled from the ground.

Someone told me Csaba Horvath used to terrorize students at A.R.T. so I was expecting a temperamental beast. In actuality, he has jetlag, a quiet sense of humor, and a gentle but focused monk-like demeanor. He is in an all gray outfit, with overly long, loose dance pants that were either mosquito bitten into frayed ends or destroyed by regular devotions of stomping.

It would be such a thrill to put a whole village onstage. To have them dance like that. If I weren’t a playwright I’d want to be a dancer. Or a journalist. Or a painter. Theater is of course, all of those professions. I watch the actors, jot down potential constellations for casting. I think about diversity and pairings. I ponder economics. I wonder if I could sneak some village dance scenes into my play. Could the Wilma afford that? Would the play ever get produced elsewhere? I have no conclusions.

Except for maybe this one: No shoes. No shoes for actors.

You know how we live in a culture where clothing and behavior is gendered, and women have been assigned high heels? I lament this. Choice here is a joke. Yes, standing on tiptoe can be fun – I have enjoyed starry nights in college, wearing heels while riding my trusty bicycle. Hard femme. Stilts are also nice, have you tried stilts? I just ask: what happens when you mistake the costume for your self?

Heels are still an expectation. Women were turned away at Cannes when they didn’t wear heels. At the cinema, a woman in heels tried to outrun a dinosaur.

Being grounded. Having both feet on the ground. If someone wanted to maim female power I can’t think of a better way than by expecting we all stand on tiptoe and balance on a stick. Perhaps we could strap dead fish to our feet. Perhaps that would be worse. But no, dead fish are cool and soft.

I’ve seen several folk dances now that make use of bare, stomping feet as a way of awakening lower body energy and strength. I surmise: Rooted feet -> stronger awareness of one’s own needs -> greater assertiveness -> less self-objectification -> listening to your body -> better female orgasms -> happier village all around.

Pfffffffft.

Stomp stomp stomp.

Cobblers, feel free to come up with new options for fancy female footwear, and I’ll scheme about how to sneak some dancing into my play.

I wish I could come down for HotHouse every week.

HotHouse Blood Wedding workshop, with Csaba Horvath, 2016.
HotHouse Blood Wedding workshop, with Csaba Horvath, 2016.

THE FAMILY IS JUST A METAPHOR

May 22, 2016
Mostly recovered from bronchitis.
Weather: rain, still rain. I am so tired of the rain.

I thought this yesterday, while lying in bed.

 

SHEPHERDESS
(plucking apart a flower)

He loves me
He loves me not
He loves me
He loves me not

MESSENGER
Girl!

SHEPHERDESS
What?

MESSENGER
I walk by here everyday
And find you sitting on this rock
Beheading the hollyhocks.
Who has captured your heart so?

SHEPHERDESS
God, sir.
I just want to know
If He has forsaken me.

She plucks another petal.
She leaves.

 

I don’t like sitting down to write a play until I have too much material. Until I’ve crammed my internal organs with enough matter for several plays. Generally for me this is a combination of reading and life experience. The reading keeps it about more than myopia, while the life experience makes me tell it like it’s personal. Sometimes, of course, it is personal. Sometimes I think a good playwright is just a diarist and a liar.

Of course, if you slip into something too personal it becomes nearly impossible to tell. You need some emotional distance to keep the thing a game. Metaphor helps. Writing very fast helps too.

So I gather and I gather and I stew and then when the time is right, I write very fast.

I already know some things about the play I will write for the Wilma because it has been stewing in me for some time. I wrote a first draft of a first act a couple years ago. It was wrong. The language was wrong, the story was wrong; I wasn’t ready and writing it was like pulling my own teeth. I probably won’t look at that draft again.

But memory has a way of telling you what was important, and there are images, which I remember, that were right. There was an angry father. There were isolated shepherds. There was the countryside. There was Oedipus, and questions of belonging brought up by foundlings. There was drinking, partying, loving life, self-destruction, self-destruction masked as loving life, anger, and family.

Do you like plays about families? That’s kind of the American playwright’s specialty. I really think we overdo it. We’re always writing those, as well as plays about two couples sorting out some big problem over drinks in a living room. Why is that? Why do we privilege these forms?

I sometimes wonder if literary managers read things in this shape and then think, unconsciously, “Oh yes that looks like what plays have looked like for a while so it must be a good play, let’s do it.” Or maybe they just truly adore those plays. Or they think their audiences do. I don’t know – but these are the plays that get done the most and it can feel like pressure to conform. For people who fall outside mainstream conventions, it can also feel like a way to package your story in a non-threatening way, and/or to reassure yourself you too are normal.

It is possible, of course, that I just don’t want to write about family, not directly, because it scares me and is too painful and personal. It is possible that I don’t want to write plays set in living rooms because I have a built-in aversion to the domestic. Touché, realists. But also, guys, look at what happened to O’Neill. He was not ok.

In any event, I have reconciled myself to this American obsession with “the family play” by using the family as a metaphor for talking about the American political system. I did that with THUNDERBODIES and I’ll probably do it again with this play. The hierarchies and struggles for power that exist on the national scale are ones that play themselves out in our private homes, too. They also manifest themselves in our religious imaginations.

The Rise of Trump makes me reflect, urgently, on democracy and tyranny, force and manhood.

I never write charismatic, dominant men. I think it’s time I do.

Young Donald, in the role of Papa.
Young Donald, in the role of Papa.

BDSM OR COMMERCE: WHICH IS A BETTER MODEL FOR ART?

Wednesday, May 4th

Dear Fellow Victorians,

Yesterday at Happy Laundromat, coming out of the rain and into a conversation with my beau, I was blasted by an extraordinary gust of lover’s fear. My hands were shaking. My heart was a drunken bee. I worked hard to appear: fine. To anyone not wielding the microscope of intimacy, I appeared: fine. But if you peered at my innards, you would know that in that little moment, I was a terrible opera.

Beware the enormity of love.

I did not understand my feeling. I went home and tried to “sit with it,” as they say, on the Great Advice Column that is The Internet. So I did nothing, for a very long while. I pressed my hand against my heart. I waited. I prayed. (To whom or what, I don’t know. That’s another matter.) I watched the light on the wall. Eventually, a tiny misunderstanding was unearthed. Eventually the feeling transformed. Eventually it passed back into the territory of pleasure. While I endured it, however, it felt relentless.

And I thought: I want to share that, that trial by ordeal, with an audience; I want to write a relentless scene that pulls you through a gathering storm, keeps going longer than you think you can take it, and then drops you off at the unexpected next stop, mirth.

In classical drama, we watch characters try to ply one another with rhetoric. We watch and sometimes forget – their real designs are on us, the quiet watchers.

The last time I was blasted by an attempted lover’s persuasion was watching a scene from Dominique Serrand’s Tartuffe, while the company was still in rehearsal. They rehearsed in the basement of the Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis. In a cheerful room with tiny chairs and paper garlands, Tartuffe laid out, with tongue and touch, his sinister desires on Elmire, Orgon’s wife. The room was too small for that much treachery. I was among the only audience. I was intimately engaged. I wanted to reach out and stop them.

There will be lovers in my play, I can promise you that.

Their arguments and actions will be, at times, uncomfortable. I want to torture you. This is art not commerce.

I want you to sit with the scene and your feelings until some small bough inside you breaks, until your hard-earned daily resistance collapses, until you pass through who you thought you were into a glorious field. Here, all your words are being washed clean in an effervescent brook. Here, all your feelings are hanging upside down among the clouds. Here is… love.

Why do I write?
To wake us both up.
I am often sleeping.

What is Pleasure?
Is it Serious?
Where Does It Belong In A Play?
How Long Can You Sit in Discomfort, In The Dark?

Check in next fortnight; let’s talk about democracy and tyranny.

Watteau, Pleasures of Love
Watteau, Pleasures of Love

ON MICE AND DRAGONS

April 5

 

Taking the train down from NYC, I note:

Gray day.

Gray New Jersey.

Crossing into Philly, there are rowers on the river.

I think of Thomas Eakins –

… and I’m reminded how inspiring it feels, every time, to leave a routine.

Routine is the enemy in Chris Bayes’ work. Chris was my clown and commedia dell’arte teacher at Yale.* We have two days in a basement rehearsal room with him. The lights are a little dim. Dim lights aren’t as funny as bright lights. Oh well. We can’t rehearse in the laundry room, so everyone will just have to be a little less funny today.

We stand in a circle and Blanka introduces Chris as a major influence on my work. It’s true. I proposed we kick of our process with a visit from Chris because I want to make a big, tragic & funny play for The Wilma. Something terrible and epic. I will need unabashed actors for that. Actors who inhabit their bodies fearlessly and their emotions playfully. This workshop should help me 1) begin to get to know the Wilma actors. 2) Start to build a shared artistic vocabulary with them. In addition, 3) I find new inspirations every time I physically participate in this work. I am happy to see Blanka and Walter are participating as well.

Shake out your body, find your happy body, shed your socialized self. Do not walk at that steady rhythmic pace! That pace is the walk of the bored commuter. That is the slow and steady march toward death.

This is who your clown is: You, just you, if you had never been told to behave, tone it down, or reign it in. Skipping stones along the great ocean of your feelings. Trying to match the grandeur of the cosmos with the expressive potential of your voice and leg.

Chris talks to the actors about how he is most interested in the unexplored corners of their craft. Not the parts of their talent that they lead from. Your strengths are admirable, but they are your comfort zones.

Because we have been socialized into gendered creatures, Chris pushes us outside the dull confines of ladylike and manly. If you are a woman and you come out all polite and quiet, he yells at you. “Don’t come out here like a little mouse! Be a dragon!” Or, a compliment: “That’s great, when you’re yelling at the curtain and being vaguely vulgar like that.” He also strips away at male toughness, that great defense. Underneath you’ll usually find tears, songs, and something very truthful.

Last time I did this work with Chris, I didn’t understand some of the gendered exploration. I asked myself – is that all clown is? Subverting the audience’s superficial expectations of me, based on the body I was born into?

Now I understand this exploration is just the first part of strengthening your comic muscles. Ultimately, your softness and your rudeness are both yours to claim. A great comedic actor needs access the most vulgar and most delicate sides of their self. Freedom is being able to express and own the beauty of your shyness, and that of your anger, too. We are all mice and dragons. We’ve just forgotten how to be both.

We laugh at energy, truth, and the unexpected. Be too much, we are reminded by this contact with our clown selves. It’s less easy on the rest of us, if you take up space.

*The first workshop I took with Chris was actually in 2007, at the Kennedy Center, the summer I took my vows as a playwright.

Look how big life is, let’s yell at it! (Grey Marine, by Alex Katz.)
Look how big life is, let’s yell at it! (Grey Marine, by Alex Katz.)

THE LIGHT WAS SUMPTUOUS THAT DAY

We all know there are two types of people in this world. Playwrights who by nature would keep a blog, and playwrights who wouldn’t. By temperament, I wouldn’t.  I’m a private soul. That is why, up until now, I have only kept imaginary blogs. I have an imaginary blog about lighting design, in which I go see new plays and only talk about the qualities of light. I have another imaginary blog in which I give terrible professional advice to my friends. Do not steal my imaginary ideas. They may someday become manifest, like my imaginary tattoos.

In the meanwhile, though – hello and welcome to my very real blog. The Wilma has asked me to keep a digital record of the ins and outs and ups and downs of my commission process, and I am going to do it because in spite of myself, I think it is a good idea. They can call it my “blog.” I will think of it as my 19th Century diary. Those were simpler times, in the diary world. There were rules. One rule was, “one must not attempt too much.”

Here is an example of an entry that attempts not too much:

Monday. April 4, 2016. A mild rain. Paid no social visits. Did not go to day job because have been postponing writing of blog post in extreme terror. Confronted domestic partner about unusual experience with hair conditioner. He confirmed that he swapped it out with mayonnaise. Dined at Starbucks. It met expectations.

They are not so different from us, the Victorians. Those self-absorbed millennials of a century ago.

“What happenings in your life are worth recording?” asks the 19th C diarist of herself. In mine, yes, Wilma, you are right – it is this generous commission. Why not concurrently open up the strange and mysterious ways of making a play? Why not keep a record of the bits and loose ends that come to add up to a whole? This is a journal about process, manifestos, questions. I may also make note of the weather, lighting design, books started, library fines, social visits, wildlife sightings.

I hope this record will be of use to someone. Maybe you?

Chewing on pencils helps me think.
Chewing on pencils helps me think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • As part of the Wilma’s emphasis on producing bold new works, playwright Kate Tarker has been commissioned through the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation’s Woman Playwrights Commissioning Program to develop a new project specifically for our Wilma HotHouse resident acting company.