Monday, May 26, 2014

I Am the Designer of My Own Catastrophe

Around me things collapse and then emerge from their ashes with a frequency, with an intensity that I couldn’t justify on the stage even if I tried harder than ever. Everything I knew to be just so a few weeks ago is no longer there. Everything has changed. I wake up every morning to a world that has rearranged itself around me with a colossal disregard for my well-being. But the initial panic has subsided and something else has taken its place, a kind of lucrative numbness that allows me to feel completely detached from habits and people I thought were absolutely necessary to me. And inside this detachment, like inside the eye of a storm, there is a place where the world of Glissando evolves continuously, in an exalted and feverish manner.

The idea that there is a “final text” has become an inside joke. I write the script, it feels final, I save it on my desktop as “Glissando-final” and in the next moment, or a few hours or days later, an idea surfaces for a new scene, or a different kind of scene, and I have to accommodate it, I have to let it emerge and take over the text which is now saved as “Glissando-final1,” which later becomes “Glissando-Finalized” or “Glissando Final Text…” The truth is, there is no final text. The text evolves with me, with the cast, as they come together and fall apart, as they pair and split, as they dance around each other’s obsessions not realizing that they’re simply part of a performance which, like Noir, has already begun.

We are working with a text inspired by Chehov after having studied (to death) his characters and their moods, their unhappiness, their endless, painful follies. In the end (I’ve always known this), there is one single aspect of Chehov’s tragedy that everyone in this play must understand: the fact that it doesn’t kill. It maims, it erodes the soul for a while, but the characters continue to live as if (on the surface of things) nothing has happened. This is a fate worse than death. Aware of it or not, Chehov’s characters continue to live, diminished and unhappy. Less. But they continue to live. No exit line for them, no satisfaction, just the drudgery of never-ending days that intensify their need for grand passions and immediate affection. Some of this fever was bound to affect the cast. This is neither the planets’ fault nor, entirely, Chehov’s. Perhaps something had to give. Something did.

And so the ever-evolving text of Glissando swallowed everyone’s tragedy – their doubts and torments, their fears and resolutions, their unapologetic need for guilt and punishment. Somebody (wise, but I wasn’t listening at the time) once told me: “Always think: a year from now, will this be equally important?” I remember the woman in Kieslowski’s Blue who says “Nothing is important.” Except for death (the death of those we love), or a permanent dependence on the kindness of strangers for the smallest daily tasks (I remember the crushing unhappiness of a man in a wheelchair who told his doctor that his only regret was that he could no longer use his hands to kill himself), nothing matters.

There is a tremendous advantage to growing old – this sounds terminal. Let me try again: there is a distinct advantage to not being twenty or thirty anymore. It feels immensely liberating, age. C. and I talked about writing this in the play. The oldest sister, Marnie (C. plays her), is the one who says exactly what she thinks. If she loves a man, she tells him that. She chooses her words carefully, to do justice to the feeling, but also to clarify it. She leaves no room for misunderstandings. She is very precise. She says, “I love the color of your eyes; I love the shape of your bottom lip.” She is clinical, not at all a romantic like me. But the point is that her age (in the play, 45) gives her the courage (the right?) to say these things. Saying them frees her. Instead of festering on the inside, nurturing some idiotic, unrequited passion, she formulates it, and once it becomes words, an identifiable text, she is free of the sentiment. Chehov’s women are made of contradictions: they are impossibly indirect and introverted, and in the next moment they utter their unhappiness without shame. But that’s the pattern: they never admit to the love that consumes them; they admit to the unhappiness that follows. What a sad way to see the days go by…

I’ve put in this play everything (well, maybe not everything) that I’ve always wanted to say about men and women, about age and passion, about blindness and insight, sex and sexuality, love and death. (So, a small play…) Like Marnie, I’ve looked the characters in the eye and told them everything I saw in there. What I see in the actors is a different story. I think they only see what I see when they look at photographs -- we did a photo shoot this past weekend, so I could start introducing the characters, visually, to a public who might develop a relationship with them months before the play.  Naturally, the public is virtual: the readers of this blog, the network of invisible friends on Facebook, a few other places as well. Some of these people will end up seeing this play. By then, they’ll be as familiar with the characters as I am.  But I was talking about blindness and insight. Mostly blindness. I’ve always been able to look at people (potential future actors in my plays) and see an image that hadn’t materialized yet. The being-inside-their-being, something dying to come out. I’ve always sensed the ravenous nature of the shiest people, for instance, their need to perform certain tasks with abandon. I say tasks, but I mean actions, gestures. I had people do on the stage things they wouldn’t do in the privacy of their homes surrounded by their best friends. I’ve always needed those moments on the stage; they were never there to shock – they were always justified. Still – I’ve always known whom to ask. So when I do ask them to let go, or to put on tattered wedding dresses and climb up trees and look languid or relaxed, or forlorn, or dangerous – they do it, and then they look at pictures and don’t recognize themselves. I always say: “Trust me. I know what I’m doing. I know how to look and when I see what I’m looking for, I know how to capture that image.” This play…there is so much at stake, emotionally. I tell the cast to use the turbulence they’ve been experiencing and sublimate it in performance. I tell them that they can leave if the rehearsals become unbearable. With one exception, I was pretty kind during “Noir.” I can no longer be kind. I want whatever is buried deep inside the souls of Chehov’s characters to come out. What is the point of doing a 21st century Chehov revision if that sentiment doesn’t come out with unspeakable force, if it doesn’t level everything in its path?

I was thinking the other day about the irony of the fact that I see all these things about all these people while remaining completely unseen. But then I tell myself: that is the role of the director, of the playwright, of the charlatan behind the curtain. To see and not be seen. I won’t lie, it is lonely. A certain kind of incurable loneliness is the reason I started writing plays in the first place: to populate a world I wanted to inhabit. In the process, the real world stopped being enough. In the process, I became Pygmalion. But the play, the next play – always a little more fantastical, always a little more honest, colossal and true – is worth the disappointment. The play thrives as the world (the real world) shrinks. I wonder if one day, unable to return from the refuge the stage offers, I’ll decide to live there forever, like the man in Wells’ story, who opens a magical (invisible to others) door in the wall and crosses over to a better place. This is the world of Glissando. This is The Art of Cruelty. The only way to survive it is to feel everything intensely for a while and then, to simply let it go.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Fall

The skeleton text of Glissando is finished. At 46 pages, it’s not terribly skeletal, but there isn’t much to add, a few connective moments (I’m thinking of these transitions – see the term “glissando” – as connective tissue) so that the organism (the play, the beast) can come to life. 

I also have to add the only monolog Chehov will have in the play, the most defining moment of his character. I wrote him as a neurotic, slightly detached, often unkind and tortured man. Everyone wants something from him: his wife, the actresses rehearsing his play, his public, his fans. They want what we all want – affection, understanding, patience –  but they want it constantly, feverishly, in a way that both sustains and suffocates his character.

Ok, so I’m doing it again: the image at the heart of the play is that of a solitary man, but this man, my Chehov, reminds me of a tree whose roots run deep and whose branches are always in reach, sometimes for other people (other bodies), sometimes for pure feelings (in which he doesn’t believe). At the end of the play Emma tells him, “Tony, you’re a great man but you’re a small man as well; that is the disappointment,” after which she leaves him. Writing him, I remembered something another Tony (Hopkins) said about playing a particularly despicable character: that the actor must always find the vulnerability, the humanity (even if that means all the flaws) of a character and not judge him, but understand him; that the actor cannot play a character he judges.

I’m not judging Chehov (my Chehov), I leave that to the public who is presented with all the facts, with all the torture, all the drudgery, of everyday living. At the end, they can choose where their sympathies lie, or they can remain conflicted. What happens at the end? A little pact with the devil (see Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus): the man loses everything in love but gains a spectacular career. Isn’t this always the case?

So the play ends on applause (the applause for Chehov’s play which has just ended – stage left), as Emma, and every woman who’s ever wanted anything from him (love, intimacy, sex, a better part in the play, etc.) leaves him. Perhaps this is always the case with the writer, the exceptional writer who sacrifices people for characters, life for the world he creates on the stage. I remember the words the devil utters in Mann’s book: “Thou maist not love.” “Love is forbidden you insofar as it warms.”

I keep thinking that a better title for this play would have been The Fall. A fall from grace, from the proximity of love; a fall from happiness – a painful, endless tumble down a mountain that reminds me of Sisyphus’ eternal punishment. 

Though very humorous in parts, the play got dark. I’m not sure when it happened – it just did, over time, as I kept writing disparate scenes, in no chronology whatsoever, until one day everything fell into place. Until one day everything fell. (“She fell and broke her heart,” the soundtrack claims).

In the meantime, relationships between the characters have changed; relationships between members of the Milena Group have evolved; my interaction with everyone, with the living organism that is the play, shifts slightly every day. Out of the bluest blue, Thoreau comes to mind: “There is more day to dawn; the sun is but a morning star.” And “Things do not change; we change,” and “If you built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” 

I’ve built castles in the air ever since I can remember. I’ve looked at people and seen things no one else has; I put them on the stage and they embodied those fantastical images; the foundations under my castles are always the plays, the best part of me, the spaces that belong to me completely, where – uninhibited – characters connect to one another without fear of consequences. So perhaps people are not extraordinary. Perhaps I sense the extraordinary potential in them and they rise to the occasion. I ask you: what’s wrong with that? I ask you: shouldn’t “the occasion” become the measure of their lives? 

Intensity. Chehov is intense. My relationship with him is intense. I love, not the physical man but the possibility of him, mostly the tender darkness waiting for release.

“The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star” (Henry David, Walden)