1) What the fuck is going on?
It depends I suppose on who the fuck you ask.
Since you ask me: Raising a daughter, trying to keep body and soul together, keeping the wolf from the door. Aside from that, filing the right legal paperwork to finally get the theatre company off the ground, finishing up old projects, starting new ones.
2) What’s your favourite thing about being a theatre writer in New York City?
That there’s so much to write about. My main interest is in iconoclastic, experimental work, and New York attracts so many talented practitioners of it. It’s also the home to many artists I’ve admired since my youth, and they continue to work here. You could easily go to a different show each night of the year and, if you’re careful about it, see an extraordinarily rich palette of work.
This begs the question (which you don’t ask) of the worst thing about being a theatre writer in New York. And that is that there is so much to write about. You could just as easily go to a different show each night of the year and despair of the art form at the end of it.
I decided some time ago to write only about work that I admire, that I find personally thought-provoking in some way. There’s no shortage of theatre writers in New York, in the blogosphere and out of it. I imagine all the bases are covered somehow.
3) Why is your blog called “Superfluities Redux”?
The name “Superfluities” came about after I read Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Nock was a particularly acidulous American writer of the early 20th century, most of whose work is justly neglected. But he was an interesting figure: a radical pacifist, describing himself as a “philosophical anarchist.” For a number of reasons – some good, some not so good – he’s become identified with the paleoconservative movement here in the United States. It indicates, though, that politics is not a spectrum really but a Moebius strip: the extreme right resembles more and more the extreme left. And vice versa.
In Memoirs, his last book, Nock wrote about his disillusionment and alienation from the culture in which he found himself in the 1940s; he claimed that the values he held were regarded with increasing indifference. I am much less of a misanthrope than Nock was, and I have no truck with conservative or paleoconservative values, but I have sympathy for that kind of individual figure. The trick is to be comfortable away from the crowd, an odd condition for such a collaborative art as theatre, but there you are. You have to find the power, the imagination, the courage within yourself and the work of others you admire. It’s lonely work at first, but as a result, you eventually meet the most wonderful figures engaged in similar projects; the more you attempt, the more it is recognized.
And theatre too, at least my conception of it, is increasingly at the periphery of the culture, increasingly an expensive “superfluity,” given the ease of inexpensive access to various media. So it continues to fit.
“Redux” was just tacked on when I moved the blog from one hosting location to another in 2007. It provided continuity, but also marked a slight change of direction.
4) What’s the goal of the series of blog posts you’ve written under the Organum heading?
No goal. That assumes that one will come out of such a project with a product of some kind.
The “Organum” is a means by which I, and anyone else who’s interested, can follow my investigations. So it’s a series of provocations to myself, of excavations of those amorphous sensations that surround theatre and the culture around it. Because both are living things, constantly in flux, there is no final end, no goal. The entries may be various in themselves: arguments, contradictions. They’re all poems in some way written to the theatre – a theatre so far unseen, of the imagination.
On a more mundane level, yes, the Organum and its entries can be “used.” I use them to sharpen my thinking about this project of theatre I’ve dedicated my life to. Some teachers, I know, recommend it to their students; there’s some possibility of a book soon. And I have many readers, many of whom I also admire, who tell me that they enjoy the work. So it’s also a means of reaching out to those artists and writers who share elective affinities with what I write.
But it’s not a textbook, a recipe book. Plays will not emerge from it as delicious meals emerge from the use of a cookbook. If anything on that score, they are more a theoretical base from which the practical work is built. Nor are those plays necessarily “finished.” Brecht called his plays “Versuche” – experiments, tests. Mine are the same.
Interestingly, “organum” has two dictionary definitions. First, it’s the name for a form of early polyphony in Medieval music. Second, it’s a variant of the Greek word “organon.” Merriam-Webster defines “organon” this way: “an instrument for acquiring knowledge; specifically: a body of principles of scientific or philosophic investigation.” Both apply here. An instrument, then, and not that knowledge itself, which emerges from the theatrical work, the “test,” instead.
5) How have your experiences with theatre blogging influenced your ideas about theatre?
They move in parallel. When I was reviewing for the New York Times, I was more interested in theatre as consumable product. But over the years I became less and less satisfied with this idea of theatre, and this dissatisfaction was recorded at “Superfluities” and “Superfluities Redux.” I became more comfortable – as I suggested above – with operating at a distance from contemporary theatrical culture (by which I mean both its productions and its critical culture, in both the Broadway and the “indie theatre” arenas).
I was surprised by the amount of hostility the expression of this dissatisfaction produced. In so far as I was trying to define my changing perspective, I needed to do so in contrast to, and often in antagonistic opposition to, that theatrical culture. What it ultimately demonstrated was how gossamer-thin, how illusory and fragile, the ideological basis of that culture is.
I do hope that, with the “Organum,” I am shoring up the foundations of that new theatre I hope to make. Time will tell.
6) How concerned are you that the use of large, complicated words in your writing will prevent some readers from understanding your ideas?
I’m not concerned about this at all. Because I’m struggling with some complex feelings and ideas, I need precision – the use of exactly the right word, at the right place, at the right time. And I don’t make these words up, you know.
I don’t think it’s the words themselves that prevent readers from “understanding.” I think it’s the ideas that they find difficult rather than the vocabulary I use (which, honestly, is not beyond the capabilities of a bright high school student, I think). In fact, I think just the opposite is true – that the vocabulary assists some readers to understand my ideas which otherwise would remain difficult, because I do aim for precision.
7) What does theatre look like when you strip it to its essential elements: “the living body and the spoken word”?
You can easily imagine it for yourself. While we don’t know much about the Elizabethan and Jacobean stages, for example, we have a vague idea that it was primarily language (specifically, poetic and lyrical language) and body that created the dramatic world. Of course there were effects – the deux ex machina, offstage sounds, and most especially costume (which is, after all, a decoration of that living body) – but these were utilized in support of the world that the bodied language created.
“Theatre minima,” as a production aesthetic, is as old as the theatre itself, nothing new. More recently there have been examples of it all over the world, including Grotowski and Artaud (neither of whom entirely abandoned language in even their most radical work, Grotowski’s gestures and Artaud’s screams notwithstanding). All I hope is to bring language a little bit more to the center of this project. The realistic and naturalistic drama tended to relegate it to the sidelines.
8) What is one of the most unpopular decisions you’ve made as artistic director of Theatre Minima?
Since theatre minima is at this point a two-person organization, I can’t say any decisions have been “unpopular.”
9) Of the things you’ve written recently – any format – which is your favourite and why?
I rather liked an essay I wrote on the Rothko Chapel recently; it’s online, here.
My wife Marilyn Nonken was there to perform a Messiaen work with Sarah Rothenberg, and it provoked a variety of responses in me. I think I was able to set them out quite well in that essay.
Otherwise it’s always the most recent work that is the favorite. “What She Knew,” a play I wrote at the Albee Foundation a few years ago, is a version of the Oedipus story from Jocasta’s perspective, and I hope to see that on stage soon. And I’m finishing a screenplay based on “Antigone” which I hope will go into production this year.
I’m starting to work on two new plays. The first is a long-planned version of Lenz’s 1776 play “The Tutor,” a fascinating comedy about the rise of the middle class during the Enlightenment; it ends with the hero castrating himself. The second is a play about Jonestown, which seems to me to have a Shakespearean sweep – the story resembles those of Shakespeare’s problem plays and romances rather than his tragedies. But it too is a remarkable example of the dynamics that exist between religion and politics, sex and power. And as I say, an extraordinarily broad canvas on which to work. And uniquely American, which presents a new set of ideas for me to consider.
10) Looking back on your body of theatre theory work so far, what are some of the common themes or ideas that emerge?
The key theme is that the individual human body possesses amazing possibilities for experience. That pain and suffering are unavoidable, but that this pain and suffering are so closely tied in their extremities to pleasure and ecstasy that it frees the imagination to consider new worlds, new possibilities for compassion and love.
Postcapitalist culture, which has given rise to a new sort of neobourgeois collectivism, seeks, in its attempt to eradicate pain and draw all experience into something to be consumed and marketed, nothing more than the death of that imagination, and the closing off of those possibilities. Individual imagination undermines the urge to communal satisfaction. With satisfaction comes a sort of death as well.
To be dissatisfied, angry, mournful with the world as it is – that’s the only real impulse we have to change it. And change, to most, is a fearful, fearful thing. In inventing ourselves, as always but especially now, we have to risk everything to gain anything.