Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Fantastical Skin

There’s a moment in the documentary China: Through the Looking Glass (I don’t remember if I talked about it here or in one of my regular Facebook posts which lately have taken the form of flash essays – you know, like flash fiction only essay) when employees in the Costume Institute at the Met open a giant crate and take out a super heavy, bejeweled cape with a train, one of those designer affairs that took months to stitch and costs more than I’ll make in a lifetime. They approach the piece wearing white gloves and disposable lab coats whose opacity makes the employees look rather esoteric, like extras in a sci-fi film where no expense was spared in the costume department, and everyone moves silently, with creepy splendor, behind huge panes of glass, attending to some experiment that might wipe out the human race.

There was something strange and very beautiful about people in white coats (the asylum of fashion?) touching the most lavish fabrics and designs, and it made me think of the impossible task of the costume designer in the theatre. The director has only words to communicate shape, color, symbol (all costumes should be extensions of the characters), when in reality there are so many more things that need to be talked about: the three hundred shades of the same pigment, the rustling of the fabric, the way it trails, holds its composure, moves with the light…I love costumes. Not costumes that wear the characters, but costumes that become a second skin, a better skin, and allow the body underneath to discover movements that were not possible before.

As usual, I have very little money (I mean, I have more money than I had for previous productions, but in the grand scheme of things, I have very little money…) and yet the girls need to look spectacular. Girls. Plural. Yes, they’ve multiplied. But no one’s really shocked, are they? All my plays grow in the telling – I wouldn’t know how to write otherwise – and a play about me finding a purpose in exile (purpose = theatre) has to pay homage to the second skin, the fantastical skin, the outer personality layer: the costume. And how can I do that and not show respect for the item of clothing the actor puts on, ideally in a movement that resembles a ritual?

And so fictional me (the girl) acquired a dresser on stage, an esoteric figure in white, whose face is covered by a gauzy layer of fabric, whose hands are protected by white gloves, a silent figure who glides through the space carrying the girl’s clothes the way the believers carry the relics of saints. I imagine a series of beautiful tableaux vivants in which the dresser and the dressed pause to admire each other’s work. The pause is very important. At the end of each choreographed moment, they have to hold the image, so that the spectators can fill their eyes with its beauty and significance.

I see the girl as a reluctant mermaid (“here, by the rocks, in the foreground...”) behind the scrim, on her platform –  while the dresser reaches for her in front of the scrim, a figure frozen in longing. One hidden, in silhouette, one revealed by the light, exposed.

I see the girl dancing with her dresser – a waltz distorted by the excruciating lingering of Butoh, each step deconstructed, each turn a longing for stillness. I think of Butoh as the regret of movement. I think of it as a complement to silence. I think of it as hiding in the light.

The presence of the second girl allows me to do what I do best: to step back and look, to manipulate silhouettes so that their interaction tells a story without the need for language; to delight in the possibilities of light, the fading of a single sound, the substantial complexity of a blackout. This way I can remain on stage as I truly am: a voice, a body of work, a narrative frame. I can’t lie: I also enjoy immensely that my fictional self now has a fictional self. I love stagings into the abyss, I like the open-endedness of it all.

In profile, the dresser has to look a little menacing. Something about her headpiece has to communicate the possibility of terror because there is a very thin line separating the horrific from the sublime. This is why we can move so abruptly from love to hate (and back?), this is why truly fantastical monsters are always beautiful. For the dresser I’m thinking of a headpiece similar in shape to that of Pyramid Head in Silent Hill, but white and semi-transparent. Or antlers. I mean, if we are to dream big, there’s always Alexander McQueen.

I remember reading, as a child, fairy tales about self-sacrificing mermaids or serpent maidens ready to shed their skin for true love. I remember thinking no, don’t do it. Don’t hide your skin where they can find and destroy it. He who is meant to love you, will love you with the serpent skin, with the mermaid tail, with the fantastical layer that protects you from the real...But the girls never listened and the fairy tales never saved them, and so with burnt skin and broken hearts they always returned to the sea, to the forest.

Well, not this time. This time we keep the real contained, behind bars. This time the fantastical skin stays on, in all its glorious terror.

Friday, September 23, 2016

An Inventory


I care about you because you are beautiful the way cities at night are beautiful.
It’s an image I understand only as a falling, an adventure into spaces I fear I have no business occupying, and yet inhabit for the simple reason that I care about you.

You see me, and this opacity allows me to feel safe in a way that I haven’t felt (safe) in a very long time. It’s not a safety of objects but of location – a place I call home, an arrival.
I care about you because although you understand nothing, you understand me on an elemental level (of each thing ask what it is in itself – its nature) in a way that doesn’t require a mapping of my deficiencies: an inability to live small, to feel less, to hold my tongue.
I care about you because you represent a harmony - like Hieronymus Bosch’s perfect spheres: the ultimate correspondence of content and surface.
I like the transgressions reflected, singularly, in the way you look at things.
I care about you because, in your presence, I speak of acts whose memory is enough to sever me. (Looking at you I remember two things: that idiotic discussion of Madame Bovary’s eyes and the fact that they constantly change color – like Flaubert didn’t know what he was doing, and kept giving her dark eyes, blue eyes, hazel eyes - Nobody thought: it’s a reflection of the fireplace; and that I would lie if I said I didn’t want to keep looking at you until the world dies)
You are kind, endangered, and vague - an anomaly compared to others - and I care that you care about the discarded, the underdogs, the sad.
I care about you because you feel whole in a way only the damaged feel (whole). You are comprehensive.
I care about you because you remind me of everything I used to love (the act of loving, prosthetic memory; endearment).
I care about you because you contain the landscapes you find necessary - the mountains, the water - the way Whitman owned the rooftops of this world. (I love everything)
I care about you in a way that bends me around obstacles like sound waves bend around corners.
I care about you despite rumors to the contrary (and the pettiness of the just), in a way that reminds me that I am alive, still human, and very, very sad.
I care about you. This is the reason.                     

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Of Magical Transgressions

I was talking about E.T.A. Hoffmann the other day, about growing up with his utterly risqué fairy tales that involved nutcrackers, and mice, and slightly pedophiliac uncles who mended clocks and wore glass wigs, and students running through parks late at night, followed by serpent women with green eyes and promising other words totally appropriate bedtime stories for resilient Romanian children.

And yet his stories didn't damage me. On the contrary, they made me love the fantastical (and nutcrackers!), and made it very easy for me, I think, to accept the magical transgressions of a book like One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which a man bewitched by the beautiful Remedios is always followed around by hundreds of yellow butterflies...

The strange, and the beautifully pathological have always been my refuge. I’m attracted to other people’s damage like a bee to honey (in other words, like an insect to its regurgitation). This explains, perhaps, the central "freak" in all my plays: the solitary male character whose behavior fascinates and repels. He has no peer, no mate, no equal though he desperately tries for a normality which looks pathetic from the outside, and merely painful from within. In him, I gather the shadow-selves of all the damaged men I’ve known (and a few I wish I had encountered), in an attempt to capture, in one single character, everything I find beautiful: a tragic impulse reflected in the eyes, repressed violence, failure, vulnerability. I can’t help it: other people’s tragedy triggers in me an affection I cannot control.

I’ve loved, unapologetically, every freak in every single play I’ve done: Larry Tarkowsky shouting his loneliness from the perpetually live Habitat Radio in The Happiness Machine; Gray, whose emotions were triggered, then extracted with maximum cruelty by the staff of the Institute for the National Suppression of Emotion through Combined Technologies (I.N.S.E.C.T.) in The Silentio Project; Urmuz, who shot himself in the temple after completing his masterpiece, a three-page excruciating novel; S. Night, the Private Eye (Private I?) who set up shop in an abandoned lamp factory and fell in love with his second client, the Angel of Death, in Noir…and Kean…Kean, the Fool, Kean, the Magnificent, Kean the Forlorn in Q. Of all, I’ve loved Kean the most because he belongs to the theatre.

Thinking about Hoffmann, and heroic Nutcrackers, and Eternal Students lost in the contemplation of the Cosmic Female Sublime (I’m channeling Emily Dickinson tonight with all these caps), and the man accompanied by clouds of yellow butterflies…thinking about the fantastical world in my head without which I’d choke as if deprived of air, I realize the impossible task of a project like Revision. How will I say all this? How will I show it? A vivisection? (It’s been a long-standing dream of mine to split open a character on stage and take out of her body fantastical beings, one by one – Hieronymus Bosch is my god. I thrive inside his landscapes). But more to the point, how will I build a play in the absence of its male character? Oh, how my friends, the feminists, will scowl. Do not be angry, my friends: this is a legitimate question. I cannot write in the absence of the thing I love, and I love the freak. Revision is an agglomeration of exceptions: a play which is not a play, where the freak is me, not a man, not someone whose damage I understand completely, not someone whose tragedy inspires love.

There are days when colossal landscapes clash in my imagination, and out of that collision a figure emerges. Revision is not about that; it’s about the shards, the things the break in the contact between the two planes – reality and fiction. Perhaps this is a circular journey, and I have merely retraced my steps. One memory (that came up recently in a story), is of the day of my departure – leaving my country (the habitat?) after 30 years, with two suitcases and a four year old who had never tasted an orange. The memory: locking the door of my grandmother’s house lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves, placing the key under the mat for someone to find eventually, knowing I’d never go back, feeling the loss of those books in a physical way I will never be able to describe. Perhaps a more brutal Fahrenheit 451? My books, my loves, my library of Alexandria…I am Quijote. I am Alice. I am looking for Kean.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Conversation

Part II: Memory (fragment)

The phone rings. GIRL picks up.

GIRL: I thought I was a silent character. Now you’re calling me?
ME: Problem?
GIRL: I am you.
ME: Yes. Fictionalized.
GIRL: You are me.
ME: We’ve established this.
GIRL: You’re calling me. How is this possible?
ME: Do you watch Dr. Who?
GIRL: Time travel.
ME: Revision.
GIRL: Is this like a 12 step program? Are you calling to apologize?
ME: For what? I’ve been pretty good to me.
GIRL: What about the child?
ME: You’re not my daughter.
GIRL: No? I’m versatile. Besides, being just you is boring.
ME: Thanks.
GIRL: She forgave you? For leaving her with strangers, for forgetting her birthday, for always thinking of yourself?
ME: No…I don’t know.
GIRL: So you admit it.
ME: That’s not why I called.
GIRL: Why did you call?
ME: Is there something wrong with me? For not being able to lie? For calling things what they are? For demanding absolutes.
GIRL: Ugh, absolutes. Now you’re asking for trouble.
ME: Why? Why can’t I say, this is what I think, and this is what I’m going to do about it. Clear. To the point. Why can’t I say, I don’t believe you, I don’t understand how you can have two versions of the same reality, one euphoric, for the cheering crowds, and one meant to elicit concern. I don’t understand how you can be both annoyed and ecstatic. Both fulfilled and starved. Both glorious and insecure.
GIRL: What are we talking about?
ME: I mean, you’re either having dinner, or starting a revolution. You can’t do both.
GIRL: Why not?
ME: Because that’s how you end up with kitchen philosophy. You’re either consumed or complacent. Stranger or saint. Hero or traitor.
GIRL: But the hero always becomes the traitor in the end. You said that.
ME: But I didn’t believe it! I often say things because they sound good not because I believe every word. It’s called wit.
GIRL: Is it? Then what do you call the things you should have said but didn’t, so later, when you replay the conversation in your head and insert the lines that will crush your opponent, you feel even worse for not having thought of them at the right moment. What do you call that?
ME: Delayed wit. I have that too. It’s a disease, like nostalgia. (Beat) I often think I write plays to get back at people.
GIRL: Is this true?
ME: No…I write plays to have conversations I would never have otherwise.
GIRL: Okay. So what happened? You experienced a disappointment?
ME: More like a landslide.
GIRL: Well.
ME: What?
GIRL: That’s everybody. Everybody lets everybody down all the time. It’s like a law of physics only nastier. You start cherishing the people who only disappoint you on occasion. They’re your best friends. It’s not like we’re spoiled for choice or anything. Have you ever looked at people in elevators? Of course not. You don’t see anybody in a crowd. But people in elevators, all stuck together, so uncomfortable because their bodies touch, start talking nonsense, mostly about the weather, “Nice weather we’re having,” or “oh, isn’t it rather hot for this time of year?” and you think “rather hot,” first, who talks like that and, second, it’s 110 degrees, what the fuck are you talking about, of course it’s hot, and our bodies are in such close proximity, and this elevator never stops, and you smell. That’s how people really feel about each other. And if the elevator crashes, they’ll try to save themselves, maybe send a child up, out of shame. That’s what we call fellow-feeling. You think you’re the only one who’s disappointed? You want me to talk about driving, and honking at people doing insanely stupid things, and putting my life in danger because they felt like being assholes that day? I bet that’s probably why you don’t drive. Or, like, one of twelve reasons. (Beat) And I’m also mad at screenwriters. It’s like they’ve never been to college or took a writing class. All the professors in their films have insanely huge offices with Persian rugs and cappuccino machines, and giant windows, and they’re totally rude to their students, and teach only in amphitheatres - on the rare occasions they do teach – and if they’re poets or fiction writers – because nobody writes plays in movies – they forget to wear shoes on campus, and never direct a dissertation or go to a meeting. Where do those screenwriters get their material, that’s what I want to know? And when we get over it, and suspend our disbelief, and start caring for those absurd characters, the ending sucks. Like, hire someone good at endings if you suck at them, don’t put your audience through that disappointment at the end of each series. (Beat) And then there are the times when I compliment someone and say, I like your earrings, or your lipstick or whatever, and they tell me they like my shirt, I’m not sure if they actually like my shirt or just say that to return the compliment, because when I say, I like your earrings, I’m totally honest, but I don’t know about other people, because there are some compliment-returners out there. And I think, my god, what if everyone is like that? I guess I really just don’t like not knowing things, but also feel like you have to trust people at some point, but if you do it too often then you’re naïve, so how many times is too often and how many times is enough? All I’m saying is, I can’t win. (Beat) You can’t win. (Beat) What were we talking about?
ME: Men.
GIRL: Were we? I had no idea.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Master of Secrets

In my eternal love of paradoxes, I discovered the following correspondence: the opacity of things makes me think of their transparency. Saying “the opacity of things” makes me think of Foucault’s badly translated The Order of Things (which should be The Words and the Things, but who am I to quarrel with translators?)

The Order of Things makes me think of the List as an organizing principle, which makes me think of Borges’ ridiculous list of impossible animals, whose absurd, giggly nature triggers Foucault’s book (or, at least, the impulse behind it). Borges’ list presents animals divided into: “(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.” Foucault laughs all the way to the printing press. He says: “In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

One great leap. Revision is that leap and I, the leaper, am contemplating the abyss underneath while making memory lists.

Revision is about superimposed images (personalities) and transparency (opacity). Me and the girl, me and the desert man, the sea monster to whom I tell my story. Visually, on stage, the concept is simple. I talk to the man in the lighting booth (who never answers). I coincide with the girl (who never speaks).The girl wearing her Victorian tuxedo jacket, perfectly tailored, turns her back to the audience to regard an image on the screen (I am very fond of the word “regard” because it implies looking, the gaze, but also the admiration – “in high regard” – one has for what one is looking at. The look and the looked at exchange a mutually appreciative glance).

On the back of the girl’s jacket, a projection: the puppet-like, miniature image of herself. As an all-encompassing repertory of images (my own), the girl contains an image of herself. At some point she emerges from the fort (a colossally tall fort – possibly suspended from the lighting rig…how would we accomplish this in performance?) with a doll which is a replica of herself (and, indirectly of me). Superimposition. A duplication ad infinitum. Transparency.

What is the girl looking at, on the screen/scrim? As a transition to Part III, The Sea, she’s looking at a ship of fools made of the sea (A Magritte image). A ghost ship made of the matter it comes in contact with – water. A chameleon ship, then. A shipwreck, a ghost depository. We carry our own ghosts on our backs. Looking forward, the girl is looking back. The look, the regard, is a revision of the real.
The image of the girl coincides with the image of the ship, the way the man coincides with the monster in Part III, but also in The Tempest, where Caliban’s position (the way he is perceived, regarded) changes to the point of ambiguity. This and the quest are the only two motifs that interest me. Yes, I am shallow and greedy, and from each text, which is a system of communication plugged into a larger system of communication (the Library, the World), I only take what interests me at the moment. I am told that is superficial. Okay, then. I am superficial.

(Technical parenthesis: in medieval drama a Master of Secrets was responsible for something that would translate roughly to special effects today. For the Greeks, the god in the machine was a problem-solver. Put the two terms together and you get…the modern Tech Director, the god from the machine, the Master of all Secrets)

Yesterday, over the course of hours of conversation (why can’t I have brief exchanges with this man?), I told the Master of Secrets about my vocabulary deficiencies which point to larger, systemic deficiencies. I have no vocabulary for the stage, not in the transplant language I’ve been practicing, not in English. I know what I want, I understand what I see, I see simultaneously, inside my head and on stage, but I have no words for the lighting I want, for the stage paraphernalia, for anything more complex than the division of stage areas. Why? Because at the moment of my forking paths, when I chose English over Theatre as a graduate degree, I abandoned everything in favor of language and writing, determined to never sound like an interloper who writes in a borrowed language, on borrowed time. This possession (appropriation) took all my energy, all my devotion. And so I’ve worked for decades staging plays here, strangely, without ever having the slightest difficulty with tech guys, but also without the slightest trace of technical theatre terminology. My confession did not bring the relief I expected. At some point, we all disappoint.

(A note: I confess everything to the man in the lighting booth not because I find him intimidating – such level of imagination and professionalism is to be applauded, not feared – but because his complete control of the production’s technical aspects gives me the courage to confess. In other words: to be in good hands, one needs to inform “the hands” of the precise nature of the cargo)

After that I went through my day a little worse for wear. In the evening, all I had to show for it was a list of larger questions about transparency and superimposition because Revision is a never-ending dialogue between my character, on stage, and the Master of Secrets in the lighting booth; because Revision is a confession of my deficiencies, a list of survival techniques in seductive but potentially dangerous territories (the desert, the sea, the stage); because Revision is my capitulation of secrecy. And who else would I tell but the Master of Secrets, the keeper of all stage illusions?