Sunday, September 29, 2013

Of Blue Lights and Utter Solitude

For a while today I spent time on a dark stage. I thought about The Empty Space; I thought about Bartleby. I thought about The Hunger, The Addiction, Immortality, Cronos, and all the vampire films whose scope went beyond the usual blood bath. I thought about the vampire as a mobile signifier (but let’s not get too technical here). I thought about loneliness, perhaps not in the usual way, but loneliness as freedom from the others; I thought about the quiet of that dark room and how my thoughts always come together in such places. And then I thought about the vampire’s paradox (dilemma?) as a creature doomed to a life of seclusion, yet dependent on countless, insignificant encounters. (Seclusion, solitude, sequestration, withdrawal, privacy, peace…It’s interesting that we begin with isolation and end with tranquility, as if, as the list of synonyms progresses, we move away from all the negative connotations into an endless calm). I suppose this is why I love the desert: the bottomless intensity of that expanse of space reads as tranquility to me.

There is something in the self-imposed exile of Mr. S. Night that reminds me of the vampire’s old soul, not because all vampires are gentlemen, but because Night turns every gesture into an act of gentlemanship. And since today seems to be a good day to get lost in the library, Night also reminds me of Aloysius Pendergast, Lincoln and Child’s character, who is the perfect combination of everything I’ve ever loved in fictional men: Holmes’ intelligence and wit; the vampire’s ageless wisdom, the soft spoken voice of a man who knows the dangers of haste, a touch of Bartleby’s pallor and forlornness and, above all, the perfectly tailored black suit, accompanied by the crisp white shirt and skinny black tie. There aren’t many men around (fictional or otherwise) who can dress like that and not look like underpaid  maîtres d’.

So: the vampire (quick flashback to my first years in the States: “You’re from Transylvania? Oh, how exciting! Does it really exit?” Or, my personal favorite, a random encounter - at a party- with a man who, on hearing of my birthplace, became so terrified, that he ran out of the room backwards. Good times).  And yet: the vampire. How awful it must be to see people drift in and out of your life, mean something for a second and then leave, or die, or lose too much blood or find fascination elsewhere. What happens when one’s isolation is completely penetrated? What happens when one’s barriers no longer hold? And why is it that in these sad, sad vampire movies (no teenage hysteria vamps for me, please) I can never identify with the victim? Stoker. Watch Stoker. It has nothing to do with vampires and everything to do with “bad blood” and yet it has the rhythm of a noir vampire movie. Not many directors can do that: tell one story in the shape of another.

Is this what I’m doing in Noir (and have I just paid myself an enormous compliment? Let me reread that last sentence…Yep. I did). Am I taking a noir story and making it supernatural because normal love affairs (what the hell is a normal love affair, anyway?) are no longer enough? And why exactly did I stand in the middle of the dark stage in Fletcher (while S. did all the work, plugging in lanterns and lamps) and contemplated bloodletting? Ah. That is the question. Am I prepared to answer it now? No…

Allow me my stream of consciousness moment as I look at the dark of the stage and think about Night, and his self-sufficient movements, and how his face is going to look under a translucent paper lantern that casts a benign, yet slightly mortuary blue light, and how the femme fatale’s noisy entrance and Audrey sunglasses are going to other her the moment she steps into Night’s world. And how Night falls, falls, is falling in love with the Angel of Death (“Do you want to go someplace dark?"), and how much he wishes he could save the girl and live happily ever after. Perhaps the secret is that Night dislikes being happy. Perhaps happiness doesn’t match his impeccable black suit or the space he has carved out for himself of this irresponsible and hasty world that assassinates him with kindness. “We’re all out of happiness.” What chance does Night have after that?

And as S. turns on all the lights and I realize, for the first time, that this stupid, crazy idea we had to bring lamps and lanterns on the stage might just work, and as I talk to her about the space, and bluish lights and lampshades, my mind races to the vampire, to Bartleby, to Pendergast, to Night, and I see, for a fragment of a second, all my three characters standing against those globes of light looking nocturnal. And I think we might have a chance.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

On the Subject of Doubt

I think I’ve said this before: I’ve been writing and staging plays for 25 years. It’s a long time. I’m not saying that the sheer amount of time (quantity) makes me an expert. (Ok, perhaps I am saying it a little). It definitely makes me a snob. I have seen so many plays – American, British, French, Polish, Russian, Romanian, German, Japanese…it’s both useless and ridiculous to go on. The point is: I’ve seen a lot of theatre; I’ve done a lot of theatre; I’ve worked with all kinds of people – professionals, almost professionals, and amateurs; I’ve been a drama critic for a good portion of my life, I’ve made friends and deadly enemies expressing opinions I cannot hide. When it comes to theatre, I cannot lie: not to the people I’m working with, not to the people whose shows I am invited to see.

I am a theatre snob. I’m the first one to admit it. Not in a contemptuous way (the “oh, darling, how could he have directed that?” kind of way), but in a way that makes me sad whenever I see bad theatre, theatre prostitution, plays staged by people who have no idea what they’re doing, not because they are beginners (this is where the “quantity” argument becomes irrelevant), but because they have no genuine interest in the field, no imagination, no courage, and – what’s worse – think that the purpose of staging a play is the consequent minor celebrity status that is inevitable in a small community.

I guess this is a very long introduction (my apologies) to the following idea: I realize that the intensity with which I work on my plays must seem ridiculous to anyone looking in from the outside; anyone who doesn’t know me very well, who doesn’t know my past or my investment in the field.

I was amazed at the difference between the practice of theatre here as opposed to the prison in the shape of a country from which I originate. Perhaps intensity is what kept us alive there. Focus, intensity, a sense of humor. I realize that, the moment I start working on a play, something happens – a sort of trance during which I am still incredibly functional (just ask my colleagues on the Graduate Course Offerings Committee…), yet capable of inhabiting two worlds at the same time. I go to work, I get things done, I meet with undergrads whose problems I solve, and graduate students whose problems I put in perspective (perspective matters). I teach. I eat (sometimes). I pace. I smile. And yet, throughout all these activities, in my head, I’m directing the play, rewinding scenes we’ve done, dismantling them, changing background songs, adding lines, deleting scenes, having nonstop conversations with “l'homme fatal.”

There is something changing inside this production. It’s not getting away from me (nothing can ever get away from me during the staging of a play), but its mood is shifting. Yesterday we took the rehearsal to Fletcher, just to get a sense of the space and foresee the problems we’ll have to deal with in November. Ah, more the fools, we! The giant air conditioning unit whose constant hum (more like a raging storm, really) drowns every voice; the desolation of the mismatched furniture; the busted bulbs in all the worklights . All of them…I don’t know what I was thinking, bringing people who don’t yet have a firm grasp of the relationship between the characters into a space like this. It’s like inviting people to an art show where the artist has barely made a preliminary sketch.

There was such a lack of connection between everyone on that stage, that at some point I wanted to pack my toys and leave, just get the hell out of there and not look back. My first impulse is always to run: before an argument, before failed scenes; before the possibility of a new connection. Fellow feeling and all that…(“That’s enough sentiment for one day, Margaret!”)

I didn’t run but, in my head, things started changing. There’s something extremely melancholy about this play which, combined with my terror (yes: my fear has escalated) that working two feet away from the audience will be the death of us, is beginning to paralyze me.

Ok, this is what I’m talking about: I realize how insignificant my fears look from the outside. (“Cheer up, dear, it’s just a play…”) But what’s the point of doing “just a play?” These are six months of my life which I won’t get back. This is my new obsession, an adventure of my own making which will teach me to look at space (internal space) and time, and people, differently.  In case the paradox isn’t clear, let me state it plainly: I realize that I work in complete anonymity and that, five, ten, twenty years from now nobody will even remember. I realize that what I do leaves no trace and is, in the grand scheme of things, inconsequential (this is what differentiates me from the local celebrity crowd). Having realized this, I continue to think of these productions as life and death scenarios because to me they are, because their success (the image I have in my head materializes on the stage) keeps me alive, while their failure would kill my soul.

So I wanted to run yesterday after seeing the spectacular lack of chemistry between Night and Chlotilde; after adding little scenes I will later have to delete; after using music that no longer fits the mood of the play, while doing my damnedest  (Damnest? Damndest? What the hell?!) not to suffocate “the talent.” I call the cast “the talent” in an endearingly mocking way because I have to hide the fact that, in my mind, I give them this title in all seriousness. I have to hide behind the joke because laughter hides fear and is often known to cure it.

So will all my affectionate moments on the stage go unnoticed because I collapsed the distance between the public and the cast? Will sharing a space destroy the magic? Can one spectate magic and inhabit its space at the same time? Am I making a huge mistake? Should Night be distant with the girl and truly fall for Death? What’s at stake then? And who will believe that he’d give his life to save the girl if there’s no connection there? Am I complicating things? (Absolutely.) Can Night be attracted to the normality of the human relationship Chlotilde embodies (but how can a relationship with a movie star be normal?) when, in fact, he craves the strangeness of a connection with Death? Death has a fondness for him. (How does a man behave when Death finds him attractive?)

I am a little lost and there’s no one I can talk to. I can’t disappoint the talent, I can’t suffocate the fatal man, I can’t call Susan every five minutes to cry on her shoulder. This is a world I have created. I am my own problem. Perhaps all I have to do to move forward is stop being afraid.

“Cheer up, darling. It’s just a play.”

Thursday, September 19, 2013


I’ve always appreciated professionalism. This is not surprising. What is surprising is that, more often than not, I’ve encountered it working with amateurs, not professionals. I dislike intensely the word “amateur.” It has such a mocking, negative connotation. What is a “professional?” Let’s take theatre students, for instance. While they’re taking classes, learning how to act, learning tricks, really, are they not a bunch of amateurs in training? The label (theatre department) assures them of the opposite. And yet so many professional actors are stuck in a rut. They have their bag of tricks and, having reached a certain level of ease on the stage, they stagnate. There’s no more learning, no evolution and, the deadliest thing of all, no curiosity. No fear. The amateur is curious, terrified, receptive. Ok, so they can’t do a hundred shows and sustain the same intensity, but I take curiosity over stamina any day.

I was thinking about this yesterday during a longer rehearsal. (I have developed this strange schizo-capacity to do one thing and think about another, like direct a scene and talk to the actors while thinking about professionalism, for instance. It’s odd, but lucrative). C. had a headache; had been to the doctor only the other day, had laryngitis and a virus of some sort, and yet she didn’t miss a beat. I’m not saying there isn’t work to be done – we still have to work on almost every other sentence because there are nuances I want and because this play is pretty static, and depends strictly on the precision of the dialogue and mood. So I’m not saying C. didn’t miss a beat because everything was perfect. What I’m talking about is professionalism, the fact that despite all of that she was there, on time, prepared, inhabiting the character a little more with every reading. C. has excellent comedic timing which is great because it can’t be taught. There is a good portion of the play where she has little to say because Death just made an appearance and Night is mesmerized like a little boy with a new toy, so C. has the occasional line (bitter, resentful, funny) which is meant to interrupt the growing connection between Night and Death. She does that perfectly.  Because of that niceness I was mentioning a few entries ago, a genuine kindness, I believe, that exists under the polite surface, her voice can acquire incredibly soothing tones. In the last scene in which she says good bye to Night after discovering his first name, there is a tenderness and a sadness in her voice that almost kills me. It’s exactly what I had imagined and it makes me terribly, terribly happy.

After rehearsal, on the way home, E. said, “You know, I have to really work for this one. In all the other plays, I was a little bit myself, versions of myself. This is completely different. I have to find a voice, a pitch, a rhythm, even a new way of moving.” She was right and, for the first time, I thought I found an explanation for her multiple deaths all these years on the stage, a death at the end of each play. Perhaps I tried to teach her something in every production without even realizing it. Like “don’t date losers, baby.” “Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough.” “Don’t hesitate when there’s something you want.” Believe me, I realize how incredibly obvious these statements are, but put them on the stage wrapped inside a flawed (hence human) character and they acquire importance – even magnitude. And perhaps E.’s character died in every play because I was – again, without realizing it – eliminating that part of her character I thought might harm her in the long run. Whatever her age, E. is my child, and sometimes I believe that what I do is simply rearrange the world in an attempt to prepare her for it. 

Toward the end of the rehearsal yesterday I sent everybody home but E. and K. to work on Death’s entrance, on her outer-worldly walk; on E. and K.’s Western impulses. The difference (at least on the stage) between East and West is colossal. It’s mostly a difference of rhythm and perception (the perception of one’s body and its possibilities) that needs to be internalized. I will have to spend hours teaching E.and K. to slow down, to practice slow motion, to understand what happens to time and space when the body is still. I have to teach them the importance of a ritual performed with conviction. The meeting between Death and Night is a ceremony. Night meets mortality face to face and is attracted to it. Death is curious. Curiosity needs to be satisfied so she studies Night without touching him. Her hands glide over his face, his body, without ever making contact. She learns his shape. She gets very close. She terrifies him. To do this physically, on the stage, with public seated two feet away and without lights that emphasize the strangeness of the movement is extremely risky. One false move (one unconvincing, self-conscious move) and the whole thing collapses. Laughter would be deadly here.

I’m terrified of working without lights. I’ve relied on their capacity to produce awe on the stage for so long, that this is my way of fighting my own demons. I don’t know how anything will look. If I want magic it can’t be “fabricated,” it can’t be tricky: there has to be magic in the physical encounter between E. and K. The connection has to be there so intensely, the public must feel it developing.

It was strange (a little earlier in last night’s rehearsal) to dissect K. before everyone else, to explain to him his own coping mechanisms so visible from a distance, to see him blush or burst into uncontrollable laughter (another coping mechanism). I always wonder (usually after I do it, never before) if I’ve gone too far, if this is the time when he’ll tell me to back off, to leave intact at least one portion of his being. It hasn’t happened yet but I am afraid because I have to push him much harder from now on.

We’ll see…For now, this is progress. Slowly, slowly, people are coming together, getting used to one another, getting used to the internal space I have created for them, subjecting themselves to my harsh comments perhaps knowing that, underneath it all, lies my immense gratitude for the fact that they are the only people who can bring to life the world in my head. For that, I am immensely, impossibly grateful.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Crew

September 13, 2013

I’ve always found prep work as interesting as the final result. Let me explain: people go to the theatre and what they see in that hour and a half is the result of hundreds of hours of rehearsal, and long, often exhausting discussions with lighting, sound, and costume designers, with the stage manager and the rest of the crew. In my case the exhaustion is triggered by a lack of funds (S. and I have pretty much paid for all the materials necessary for every production), lack of proper venues, lack of support for this odd way of working on a play: months of prep and then one single show.

I’ve explained many, many times why the one show, but for all the new people who might be following us this time, here it is again: this theatre ensemble is my research lab. I do a play when I want to try something new, that’s why I never start with a complete text, a clear idea, or a rigid structure, but with something like an incomplete image that’s trying to find a shape. Whatever I learn on the stage in the process of producing the play, I take back to the playwriting seminar in an often desperate attempt to stop the “theatre on paper” movement that assures people that they can write plays without ever leaving their studies, as if they were writing a story or a poem.

I never charge admission (I don’t work in a theatre department or a repertory theatre so I don’t have to have a certain number of shows or make a profit). By the time we present the play, I think of it as a successful experiment (the image has a shape, the play its rhythm), or perhaps a classical concert offered only once. By the time the opening (and closing) night comes around, we have achieved whatever it is that we were looking for so repetition would accomplish nothing. Because I’m doing this mostly for me and my students (the people I work with), because they are students with insane schedules and busy lives, all I can ask from them is to work with me and sustain the intensity I demand of them for one evening. I can’t ask them to do this for weeks, show after show, I can’t ask them to go on tour. It wouldn’t be fair or possible. So I/we exist in this relative anonymity which gives me/us enormous freedom.

I was talking about the prep work, the backstage world the public isn’t privy to. I’ve always made that visible, not only because it is that backbone of every production but because, for me, the crew and the cast members are interchangeable. In a perfect world, the cast of a play would become the crew of the next production and vice versa. I think that the more the actors know about the work of the sound guy or the lighting designer or the stage manager, the more they can appreciate it. I’ve often had the actors interact with the crew during productions; I’ve had sound guys leave the booth and perform, for a while, on the stage; I’ve had characters have extensive discussions with the lighting designer, I’ve gone out of my way to make this clear: what you see is only half of what goes into a production. Let me show you the rest, the other, parallel world that sustains the reality you inhabit at this moment.

“Noir” is no exception to this rule, only the rule has changed slightly because, for the first time in 11 years, I’m not working with the same lighting designer. I am, in fact, working with no lighting designer which seems insane, seeing that the visual element in my plays dictates their mood entirely. This decision was not made in haste: I simply cannot bring myself to work with someone else. I need a moment to process this loss. This is a problem, a difficulty which I’ve decided to treat as an opportunity. I decided to light the stage with dozens of lamps of all shapes and colors. I also decided to bring the public onto the stage, create some sort of intimate, claustrophobic performance space, almost theatre in the round but not really, where the public is about two feet away from the actors. This way, instead of watching/judging the show from a distance (impossible without good lights), they’re part of the show, and the illumination, improvised as it is, seems familiar, like any kind of lighting one would have in a private space –  a living room, or an office. That’s my hope anyway. In reality, I have no idea what the set will look like…

So S., who’s the artist responsible for my sets for about 9 years now, will be a silent character in the play, Night’s charwoman, who will dust, and clean, and turn lamps on and off as scenes demand it. S. can be immensely funny, and although her life has been a bit shattered lately, I know that I can count on her as I have for the past decade. These work relationships turned friendships that nothing can destroy are experienced by few people. I am lucky. I have very few friends, but they are people I will always know, people who will always trust me.

I asked J to do sound not only because he came highly recommended by the best stage manager I’ve ever worked with, but because, having worked with him in the playwriting workshop, I knew he had a brain, a sense of humor, and rhythm. J is a poet, and a very good one (a rare occurrence in a creative writing program), so that’s already a guarantee of rhythm. Also, there’s something about his appearance, some sort of understated assurance that looks great on the stage. J will be visible, his soundboard placed somewhere behind Night’s desk. Before the play begins, as the public walks in, I want them to feel like they’re intruding on J’s territory, slightly inconveniencing him. When the public occupies the safe place which is the house, seated at a respectable distance from “the action,” they feel detached, spectators not participants; they feel entitled. Let’s see what happens when this safe space no longer exists, when they have to walk on the stage and disturb J who’s having dinner, chatting away with the cleaning lady, eating and drinking like a lunatic Viking. I’m sorry. I’ve no idea where the Viking image came from. Probably Hollywood productions where Vikings always eat a lot before having rough sex. The sex is never shown on film (this is old Hollywood we’re talking about), but would be implied by the incessant food and wine consumption. An insatiable hunger would translate into a lust for life – something like that. But back to J: I want him to eat with abandon, with recklessness. Not quite sure why yet: perhaps because when we spot insatiable appetites we feel uncomfortable. Ok, so there’s a bit of Artaud here as well. There always is.

S.B. is the stage manager. I nominated her for the drama award last year (which she got, by the way) for writing a play inspired by a poster announcing, I believe, the construction of a mechanical goat. How can one not nominate such a text after drowning in all that realism? S.B. is very efficient and, what’s more, she claps happily and giggles approvingly (but not annoyingly) whenever a scene begins to work. This is incredibly beneficial for the morale during rehearsals when I forget to thank people for their work because I focus so intensely on the parts that are still out of joint. (S., the artist, used to do this in every rehearsal – she would laugh and clap every time, with renewed enthusiasm – not the loud, fake, theatre person laugh…you know what I’m, talking about, right? That obnoxious, loud, “Ha!Ha!Ha!” one hears during mediocre shows that nobody else finds amusing…so no, nothing like that. S. would confess later that, with every rehearsal, she’d notice other nuances to the comedy because the actors would add subtle inflections, or pauses, or something that would make an already memorized dialogue line new.)

I expect it will be difficult working with two new actors and an almost entirely new crew and not relying, for the first time, on a lighting design that can make the ordinary beautiful.

I’ll have to work with ugly, and claustrophobic and desolating, which is the world of Mr. Night, a world he often makes disappear by closing his eyes. But what I cannot have in lights I managed to accomplish in sound with songs that are neither entirely melancholy nor just haunting, but a combination of the two – sounds of collective solitude and unguarded affection which often foreshadow the impossibility of a happy end.

This is the crew.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Actors

September 12, 2013

E. has been announcing her departure from the Milena Theatre Group for years now. It’s a Cher moment we all enjoy, “the last play,” followed by the next “last play,” and now the next one. I think “Noir” might truly be her last performance with the group.  She said, “In every single play you’ve done, I die at the end. Now I’m playing Death. Is this Freudian?”  Twelve years of plays (here). Twelve death sentences. (Why does “A Very Long Engagement” come to mind?) There’s something very strange about last performances. Sometimes their intensity – there’s so much more at stake – affects the entire cast and this has an impact on the relationship between the characters.

I remember a “last performance” that wasn’t exactly that, but had a similar effect: a dying man, a great director, was working on “The Cherry Orchard” with the knowledge that it would be his last play. The cast felt it in every rehearsal and became strangely unified – one body, one voice, chasing that one ideal performance. The last scene (remember it? The orchard is destroyed, the old servant forgotten) is utter and complete desolation. In this production, the director chose to empty the stage of any human presence at that moment. The family has moved on. The house is empty. In the distance, the sound of an ax hitting a tree. And then, a solitary cart rolls downhill and stops, hesitantly, downstage center. The lights fade. The orchard takes its last breath and that lonely, empty cart going nowhere says it all. The man didn’t get to see the opening night. The dress rehearsal was “the last performance.”

This is depressing. E. is not dying. She’s moving on, to graduate school, to another city, another world altogether. I realize that I have a love-hate relationship with “last performances” but also know that, after all that dying, there’s no one better to play the Angel of Death.

The femme fatale presented a problem from the very beginning: first, her type is not easy to come by. You don’t wake up one morning and decide that, from now on, you’re going to be “fatale” and wither any man that crosses you. Physically, I’ve always been partial to the diminutive “fatales” – tiny but deadly porcelain dolls. The girl in “Brick” has that look. The look, the voice, the movements. Second, I wanted a different kind of femme, capable of playing the noir part to perfection (“I’m stupidly in danger but I’m gorgeous. Take away my troubles and I might sleep with you!”), but also becoming immensely human, self-sacrificing even, when we shift from noir to fantasy. That’s when I met C. in my Postmodernism class. She had the look; she almost had the voice; she had the talent (I realized during a cold reading of Stoppard), but was impossibly nice. I wondered if I would succeed in toning down that quality. I asked her to be in the play. I over-explained the time commitment, the grueling two weeks before the show, my need for perfection. She smiled sweetly. I thought, “You don’t believe me, do you?” They never do. And then the two hour repetition of a single movement begins as I inform the cast that a minute on the stage, a well-choreographed, obsessively staged minute takes an eternity in rehearsal. Then they believe me, but by then it’s too late.

There’s a certain aloofness about C., a reserve, a barrier I haven’t been able to break. It’s possible I never will. And if I do, it’s possible that I won’t know it, because she’ll smile at me through her tears. I wonder what’s on the other side of the barrier. I wonder if there’s an enchanted territory there which I can’t access because it is invisible to the naked eye, like the fairyland in “True Blood.” For now, I imagine a land of exemplary, healthy people whose optimism would devastate me. I hesitate to trespass.

S. Night would not exist had I not met the real man, an impossible combination of Steppenwolf and something else: fragility, refined intelligence, an instinct for nobler things arrested by a pathological distaste for prolonged human contact.  In class he spoke in measured sentences punctuated by excruciating silences. Dismissed by some of the faculty as “hesitant, indecisive,” unknown to most of the other graduate students, he survived inside a protective shell – fortress or prison, I couldn’t be sure. The class found his silences uncomfortable. I found them fascinating. Here is a man who thinks before he speaks, I thought. How he takes his time, how he fights the impulse to run and leave us all behind with our judgments, and fears, and preconceived ideas.

I didn’t see K. for a long time after that first class. Oddly, I had a sense of temporary loss, as if I had misplaced something, a favorite volume or an object of nostalgic value. Then, miraculously, he reappeared in my next class and then the next. Always reassuringly quiet, always dressed impeccably, like a mild-mannered Kafka clerk. I began to see him, the other one, the one called Night. Alone in his warehouse, preparing a banquet for one every evening, drinking water out of a wine glass, eating a sandwich he took time preparing as if it were filet mignon. I saw him sitting at his desk waiting for his first client, patiently, lost in one of his interminable silences. They (both Night and his real counterpart) would not be visible from a distance. There are people who become attractive only upon close inspection, with the world in soft focus. In a crowd, they are completely unremarkable. Up close though, one begins to notice a certain way of articulating thoughts, mannerisms that betray a complex internal mechanism, emotions hidden in the slightest hesitation before a word.  I guess the fragility of such a character (for a while I had the distinct impression that Night would break under the pressure of circumstance), comes from the fact that he only externalizes emotions that have already consumed him. Auster calls these guys “internal émigrés,” exiles inside the vast territories of their internal being. K. is all of this, the perfect Night, a Steppenwolf of my own making. His (re)invention has had a strange side-effect: nostalgia, a constant flow of memories and inarticulate obsessions I try to keep in check. It is immensely difficult.

These are the actors.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


September 11, 2013

Rehearsals have begun for “Noir- A Farce Macabre,” the play I didn’t want to do, the play I promised myself I’d never do because, like “The Happiness Machine,” it’s a bit too close to home. But then again, what’s the point of doing plays that don’t reveal anything other than technique or, maybe, a certain kind of cleverness? I used to think that was a good enough reason to stage a play. I no longer do.

Still, I wouldn’t have begun work on “Noir” if the perfect people hadn’t walked into my class. This is how trouble always starts: it’s the first day of class, and people introduce themselves, and I think I see something –  a gesture, the smallest thing…I can’t describe it. Something that I find interesting or curious. My curiosity has never failed me so far. I just know, at the end of the first week, that these will be the people I’m going to work with, and a story at the back of my mind begins to take shape, and I resist it, and then there comes a day when resisting seems pointless.

 “Noir” is the story of a private detective, one S. Night, whose office is housed inside an abandoned lamp factory. So far he’s never had a case, but that doesn’t prevent him from setting up shop every day, narrating with the best of them, carving some sort of life for himself. I’ve noticed (I’ve no idea if this is a good or a bad thing) that, whatever my plays are about, at the heart of the story there is always a Steppenwolf –  a solitary man whose isolation from the world I find incredibly attractive. These men are not heroic. On the contrary, the smallest thing, like the encounter with a woman, can shatter their world for good. Or perhaps they are heroic but their heroism does not manifest itself in the usual way, but in the strangest kinds of excellent adventures. And at the end of each adventure they are defeated. Ok. So every play I’ve ever written is a love letter to Don Quijote. So shoot me. I can’t help it. I struggled with this bothersome romantic impulse all my life, until I got old and thought I should embrace it. Pity I didn’t do it when I was 20 and still had a chance with the wolf of the steppe…But I’m digressing.

The uneventful life of Mr. Night is disrupted one evening when a movie star hires him to solve a curious case. The femme fatale explains that some people she knows, people who have been shot, stabbed or crushed by 18 wheelers, are not dying. Nobody has, in fact, died in a long time. She suspects foul play. Night, versed in the occult, suspects the case may be miraculous in nature. So far, everything unfolds in proper noir fashion: the private eye (private I?)  is very private, the femme is terribly fatale. But what I want to do with this play is switch genres in the middle, take a classic detective story and turn it supernatural. And so, when Night conducts a séance to see if he can get any information from the afterlife (Holmes has the irregulars; Night has his ghosts), a woman appears, materializes out of darkness, without memory, identity or a name. Night is smitten and horrified at the same time. For the first time in his life he plays games, plays for time, becomes a true armchair detective and tries to solve a case without ever leaving his (ware)house. By the end of a series of imaginary adventures, he knows the creature he has summoned is Death, and Death has lost her memory and, with it, her purpose. If he helps her remember, somebody will die: perhaps even the movie star he has become so fond of. This frames Night’s dilemma: if he saves the girl (any hero would) and doesn’t help Death remember, the world is in danger. If he saves the world (and what hero wouldn’t?), the girl might die. Poor Mr. Night, in love with a woman and the Angel of Death at the same time, faced with his terrible weakness, forced to make a decision. I feel for him; I’m a little in love with him, the way I am with every Steppenwolf. I want him to win. He never does. It’s not death he fears but a different kind of solitude, one which exists to remind him of the girl he’s lost and the angel he almost tricked into mercy.

These are the characters: Night, the Movie Star, and Death. The people capable of bringing them to life have just realized (during tonight’s rehearsal, perhaps), that they are at the beginning of a long process that requires precision, insane focus, and love. There’s no way around it. Deadly theatre is not just boring theatre but theatre made without love. Who was it that said something similar about teaching and stirred up indescribable outrage? How dare she? Love? In the classroom? What’s with this promiscuity? Are our children in danger? Has education become a sex act? Fools, the lot of them. Sex has nothing to do with it. Affection, on the other hand, for one’s subject, for one’s characters, for the people who bring them to life, if only for a second, is the only way to go.  Tonight: the characters. Tomorrow: the actors. For now, good night.