This text was originally delivered as the keynote address of the 6th annual Graduate Theatre Syndicate Symposium at Ohio State University “Position: The Power and Politics of Witnessing” on February 28, 2014 at OSU in Columbus, Ohio.
The charge of the new underlines each act of writing for the theater. The ghosts of the past hover over the signs struck on the intangible pages on the screen. Strike. Strike. The fingers tap into the keyboard the breath of a new theater about to be born. Indebted to nothing but itself and the ghosts of the past that call upon the writer’s duty to bear witness.
In the act of writing, the political body of the text imagines itself in a room with the bodies of the public that will make possible the exchange of life that a theater piece demands: the exchange of a performance unbartered and given over to the ineffable presence of the moment.
Words are mere signs in a theater space. They dart and dance and wound the air with their weight, meaning and sound. Text is carved upon the invisible spaces of the theater, the spaces rendered body by actors and elements of design. The kinesthetic beauty of theater making allows for a rare intimacy of engagement with the public—one that pushes past comfort and into a suspended state of transformation.
Writ upon the theater walls are the ghost signs of past words, utterings, and inhalations of breath by former text builders and theatermakers. Each ghost sign is part of the present moment. Each moment performed is thus haunted. Spectral acts mark the spectral space that knows no boundaries beyond that of the imagination. Writing for the theater is an act of resistance. It is also an act of folly, daring, and one that asks of its makers and emancipated spectators alike to consider potentialities of being beyond the quotidian and sometimes, yes, beyond nation and state. Making theater is a spiritual endeavor. Its religion is not organized, but rather assembled from kinships with theater tribes across time.
One of my best friends in theater is named Euripides. Another is named García Lorca. And yet another is named Calderón de la Barca. These makers from the past are as much kin to me in the art of writing as are my peers in the field and those with whom I share an aesthetic lean. I distinguish them of course one from the other, but when I write, I feel as if they are all with me, depending on the play being made, and with me too are conversations about writing and of facing the curious challenges of writing a play—of making something that you know will always be unfinished, that will always be tested in front of an audience, and only serve as a rough score for performance.
In making a play, the writer obsesses over every detail, every line, and every action that the play puts in motion. Yet, the score is never exact. We know this when we write. The paradox of making theater, in building text, is that you are always somehow at its mercy, and yet judged by its merits. How does a writer become?
This question is as old as the hills, as the saying goes. What starts one on a path of writing? We invent stories for ourselves in order to answer this question. Your families try to suss out anecdotes about your childhood to try to understand what it is that makes you a writer. You may even craft a strong and convincing lie about the precise moment when the yes happened in your brain, and yes, you became a writer. But there is no real answer. This is something that you learn over time. Writing is a part of you. Like breathing. It is essential to your life. And you can’t imagine life without it. It is what keeps you up at night, what troubles you during the day, what stirs your dreams and alights your imagination. Writing is about catching things: a moment, a gesture, a phrase, a figure in a landscape. But it is also something that catches you. You sit, you write, the work begins to dictate what it wants to be, and your job is to please, get out of the way, and let the work be done.
When you have a political conscience as a writer, when you understand deeply the nature of making work that will be performed live, and thus, dependent on the presence of others in order for the work to truly communicate, sometimes the what of what you want to say, the what that perhaps has stoked your creative outrage and made you write this something in the first place, begins to dictate the limits of the work. Boundaries begin to set in. Constraints hold the writing in check. But the transgressive and radical nature of theater resists message-making. Just look at Brecht’s work or Kushner, at his best. The more you try to convince your audience of something, the more the work (if it is truly alive) will throw contradiction into the mix and complicate in the best way possible the straight lines of ideological thought that may have driven the work’s making in the first place.
We know this. At its best, at its greatest, theater upends our insides. It disturbs our existence in light ways or darker ones. It sticks us with thorns and asks us to bleed roses. Theater is a beast. A wily monster that charges us with the task of opening ourselves up to action: to thought in motion, to things we would rather not see or things we could only imagine in dreams.
The One of Theater is not the I of theater, the egotistical I of self, but rather the eye of seeing true, and true does not mean mere replication, mere exactitude, but something else: something quite, well, of itself. Of you and I being here in a room meeting for the first time wanting to have an exchange of some kind, each seeking something of the other, each demanding a bit more of the other. Will you take this ride? That is what theater asks. How far will you take it?
A friend of mine talks about the territories of theater making. The dare of daring, and yet the fear around daring too much. Writers talk about such things. Because even though the idea of putting inky stains on paper may seem trivial, we understand that this precarious enterprise is a blood sport. The page need be broken, need yield in order for the words to truly count. After all, those of us who live in Western culture, sometimes called globalized culture, know all too well about how culture is constantly, seemingly, over articulating. Everywhere, it seems, there is chatter, and text. Words sent across phones, social media, and various devices. In addition to our daily experiences of over articulation, there is also the barrage of media, sometimes called information overload that assaults our senses 24/7. Nothing new. We are inured to this. But the thing is, what writers do is cut through all the noise. That is our job. Not to contribute or add to the noise, but cut through it. Blood sport again.
When I was five, I remember cutting out paper dolls from a children’s activity book. The dolls had clothes you could mix and match. I liked tracing the outlines of the clothes in my mind before deciding upon which ones to have my paper dolls wear. I would imagine different scenarios—theater scenes, in effect—in which the dolls would partake. The paper clothes would become in my mind conduits for adventures doled out over limitless time as the dolls would play out the scenarios in my head. A change of clothes, a trade of this dress for that one, would send the dolls on new journeys. Sometimes these journeys would be recreations of scenes from everyday life. Sometimes they would be fantastical, and at others, dips into the past—as the dolls would find themselves in stories invented on the spot that took place in the 1800s or the 1920s. These acts of invention were humble exercises of a child’s active imagination. We are all story-makers one way or another. We like making them up and sharing them with others. Even if the others are not yet present. We imagine what it would be like to tell this story and tell it well, and how the public will react.
Oh. Look. Did you see that? Did you hear what she just said? We say to ourselves. And we delight in the momentary communion of a shared experience.
A friend of mine talks about how theater can transport us. That that too is its job: to take us somewhere we have never been or remind us of who we are, because, after all, culture is always asking us in one way or another, to forget who we are and be, well, data—tractable consumers, bits of information stored somewhere, targets for advertising. My friend says to me that theater should be like church. And I say to her, well, but there are those that go to church to be transported and then there are those who go out of duty and spend most of the allotted time in church thinking about something else: what they are going to do after.
At the end of the evening, after all this, we will truly say what we want to, do what we want to do and be. We will be freed from duty.
This after is where theater need begin.
Theater is not/should not be what is sandwiched in between other things. It shouldn’t be what you are on your way to doing. It is the doing.
How to bring back the doing of theater when we have forgotten or lost the interest in being present at a live performance?
I saw a show recently at a theater. It was a solo show and it was performed by a well-known actor. The kind of actor who has a following. In the front row, during the show, ninety percent of the audience, regardless of the announcements made at the beginning of the show, were watching the actor through the camera lens—the eye of the I—of their phones. The performer was less than ten feet away from them, but somehow this audience needed or wanted the distance of the lens and the image shot through the palm of their hand, as proof of the experience.
See? He is there. On stage. They said as they looked through the camera on their phones.
The performer acknowledged them in a playful way and carried on.
The ubiquitous wave of beaming phones replacing candles and flickering lighters at rock concerts has become commonplace for those born in the digital age. Presence is reduced to virtuality, and virtuality becomes home.
What happens when theater disrupts the virtual plane?
How do we acknowledge presence, then?
Immersive theater has been the buzzword for much of the last ten years of theater making. In an effort to challenge the digital dependence of the millennial generation, theatermakers have been exploring to greater and lesser extents the interactive possibilities of theater experience: audiences stand and move throughout the show, or are guided by actor-docents through play mazes that mimic the structures and worlds of video games; sites of performance are fluid and the play is enacted midst the crowd; dinner and drinks are part of the experience often at immersive events that now charge as much as 180 dollars per ticket. Event theater has become fashionable and aggressively caters to an audience that is considered hip and savvy. If you can pay the ticket price.
Immersive theater is also as old as the hills, as the saying goes. Everything old is new again. While the live of liveness is paramount in immersive theater—you can’t escape, you are complicit, the performers are right there, sometimes in your lap—the attempt to remind the audience that they are in a live experience can sometimes backfire. When immersive theater, I would argue, becomes event theater, like a chic amusement park ride, then liveness, its charge, its magnificence—becomes corrupted into spectacle. Thus, the society of spectacle is mimicked by the spectacle of performance, and we are in the presence of mere replication.
Hold a mirror up to nature. That’s what theater does. That’s what we have always been told. Much confusion I think has arisen from the elegant simplicity of this statement. Theater does hold a mirror up to nature but not a mirror of likeness, of sameness, but rather the mirror of nature in all of its complexities and contradictions and roaring wildness. The nature of which we are afraid, perhaps. The nature of which we would rather not bring to the table every day for breakfast. The mirror of theater shows us who we are in all our frailties, madness, strangeness, and beauty. It is not the mirror of showing us how we are lesser than ourselves, poor versions of “reality,” but rather the mirror of our extraordinary selves: the radiant particles that arise from and beyond our routine lives. So, even if theater may show us what seems like ourselves in a photo realistic manner, it’s not about photorealism, but always about something else: what is beyond or underneath the surface, what is outside the frame, the gods and goddesses inside all of us. The mythic sense of ourselves is what theater, at its best, shows us.
Writing with a mythic pen requires bloodletting and owning up to the strangeness of human-ness. We are animals. We are human. We make mistakes and say the wrong things and sometimes are pure instruments of grace.
A snapshot of a child running. The blur of a figure in a camera. Memory tricks on a quiet night of imagining. Writing is an act of retrieval—of stories told, of stories remembered, of stories half-seen, or gestures and acts caught in glimpses in the mind’s eye. Writers wrestle with the fragmentary nature of memory—the manner in which a memory from one moment of our lives collides with another and somehow becomes part of that memory. We try to wrestle the truth from our fictions and hope our honest lies, the lies of stories, are bearers of our best selves. Even when I am writing a true story, I know I am making things up, because we cannot escape the tricks of storytelling, the desire to change and transform and embroider. It is part of the beauty of art-making that such transformations occur.
See me here. But there is this other me who wrote this. And another still who dreamt of this being written some time ago. They are all here on the page. They are before you. Mixed in with the coffee for breakfast and the conversation about the latest news headline and the song heard on iTunes last night. These bits of being come together on the page. They roll about and generate markers of time we call memory, the exact science of which we leave scientists to explain, but deep down maybe what we do know is that our mnemonic devices, the ones upon which we rely on a daily basis, may be faulty and prone to playing pranks on us, and caught up with how we have chosen or choose to record our lives.
Writing is an act of recording experience. This experience now. In theater, always now, always here, always present even if the story is a thousand years old. Mythic time is present time, and the present flashes by us in an instant.
The illusion of theater is that its artifice is real. This real person is playing a sign of a fictive self and making it walk about and behave as if it is a true thing with painted scenery and artificial light and structured sound. At some point, we say yes, I believe you are there. We buy into the illusion. Even when the play may ask us to do otherwise. See. These are actors. They will always be actors. But then again, we are actors too in the audience. We act every day. We know these roles. We have played them before. We play them at work, in the office, at the factory, in our homes, and in our bedrooms. We recognize ourselves in the enactments of stories. Mirrors up to nature. That’s why we applaud at the end, because we are completing the ceremony. We have understood the ritual and we complete the circle. The audience has been acting too. All along. What a beautiful game this is. What a marvelous game of truth and dare we play when we make theater.
There is this space between words. This space is the one I want to capture the most when I am writing. The unsaid moment, the half-completed thought, but also the articulated beating heart—this other unsaid part of ourselves. This space of writing is a space of stops and starts, tensions and fissures, plates shifting across fields of time. Reach for the stars, but stay close to the dirt. This is the charge of making theater. Smell the smoke of language pouring from the mouths of the wild children who play out their salvaged stories one more time. Awake to dreaming anew. Alight the pen. Weigh your words against the spectacle and tyranny of power. Choose freedom. At all costs.
How interesting it is that freedom is what limits us as writers sometimes. Here. In this country, for now, let us talk about the U.S. Here, where we could say anything, the structures of capitalism, the constraints of commerce, the baldness of pipelines for plays being funneled like black liquid gold—product—onto stages becomes/can become the very limit of what we can make or how we are judged as makers of this free thing, of this thing of spirit and chance and puckishness.
The competition to meet imposed limits of supply and demand wreck our lives and sometimes our writing and sometimes every bit of ourselves—our health, our fiscal survival, our daily daily—to remember that we can be free in what we make, and that there should not be a price on our imaginations. Ever.
Sometimes at night, there is this humming sound. I call it the hum of the writing itself, when it has finally cut through all the noise, all the junk, all the tinny mess of existence, and just is, truly itself.
You can feel this hum in your bones. It courses through your veins. It pulses with desire. The hum of being awake. For real. Listening to the sound too of the waking world.
Shall we call it chance? I like to think that writing is chance. An accident sometimes. We meant to do this but the call of the work made us do that. We have surrendered to it, because we have been chasing something all along. Writing teaches you who you are. It tells you where to go. It sets you on a path. You never know where it goes. You trust. That is all. And your critical brain is at the ready, should a pesky irritant, a hackneyed phrase, a soft word dare to settle in too long. Your critical brain will catch it like a knife in the throat, and toss it down the corridors of what-needn’t-be-here, what is in the way. How good of your critical brain to do that, you say. Thank you. And you move on and let chance take its course. The message going through you like gospel, the gospel of what needs to be said, when the noise has died, and writing is all that is left.
Shall I tell you a story? I had this book once on my shelf. It was brown and had gold letters on its front. It was a storybook. I read it many times. It was my companion. I knew it held secrets. Every night I read a story and tried to see if I could uncover them. Each night the secret would change. So, I read the stories again.
I am still reading.
I awoke recently to the fact that what I most wanted to do was to tell it like I always wanted to tell it. Not like I was told it should be done. Not like I thought once it must be. But to simply let the work be itself. I suppose we call this Voice. But really, it is something else: when you stop being at the writing, and just see it, let it be, for what it is. Put this another way: it is about meeting the page. Finally. As a friend. As a trusted being. The invisible stranger will guide me. Then, only then, can you go anywhere.
I am at war with words sometimes. I am at war with the mereness of speech. And sometimes exaltation occurs and I am reminded that yes, these odd signs to which we have attributed meaning, history and memory have/are life.