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How I Work

I began directing plays in 1980. However, my current working process as a director has evolved from the experience of directing a play in college entitled The Serpent by Jean Claude van Itallie. This play was created in 1968 in collaboration with The Open Theater under the direction of Joseph Chaikin. When reading the script, one is confronted with the final record of a long collaborative process and invited to reinvent and/or rediscover the territory, which inspired this map. The experience of attempting to do so, while also making the play relevant to 1983, excited me again about the possibilities of theater, which had seemed fairly bleak at the time and gave me a new sense of mission. I wanted to continue this process of investigating territories beyond words. The Serpent explored, for example, the creation myth, the Christian mythos and the seemingly terminal issue of America’s nostalgia for its lost innocence. The goal was to create a theater that was more ritual than narrative, more of a participatory ceremony than a consumer spectacle.

I spent many years after this experience trying to recreate it and was frustrated in these attempts. Most plays did not invite this kind of open-ended exploration and I was not writing texts for myself. Also, in that time-frame (mid-1980’s to early-1990’s), I found it difficult to find a group of performers who wanted to create work as an ensemble, and, quite frankly, I wasn’t as clear as I could have been about exactly what I wanted to create or how to go about it.

In the early 1990’s I began working as a director with a playwright, C.J. Hopkins, who was using language in a far more interesting way than most other playwrights were. We received an Artists’ Residency at Mabou Mines so that we could investigate new theatrical techniques in order that performers could inhabit (and to some degree create) this territory. The language of these plays created a kind of symbology, and the actors working on them needed to hear the text on this level. The text was composed of fairly “everyday” speech, but which also had meaning on this symbolic field, so the trick was for the actor to hear both levels and learn to play the music he or she heard simultaneously. The reason for this work was to get underneath the grid of meaning in which we found ourselves in the world, especially in the U.S. In order to continue with this work after the residency, we created Monkey Wrench Theater. Monkey Wrench produced several shows, all with workshop time built in to the process in addition to the normal rehearsal period so that performers would have the time to discover and create the new worlds necessary to perform the texts.

Most of our work focussed on text. The idea was that since the 1960’s-70’s theatrical experiments were so basically anti-textual, we wanted to create a theater that engaged the textual assumptions of our time as well. While the past experiments had been very successful in terms of getting at the ritual and spiritual roots of the theater and outside of the language-prison of narrative dramas, we felt that to leave text behind was perilous, since that also left behind the basis of how we think and construct our realities and interpretations of experience. However, after a few years of working in this way, I grew restless with this almost sole preoccupation with textual language and wanted to get beyond working with plays that proscribed set roles and scenarios altogether.

To begin this new level of investigation, I stopped directing C.J. Hopkins’ plays, and started a laboratory/workshop with a group of actors in 1997. The actors and I began with the notion of investigating the roots of each “rule” of the theater. We wanted to explore how we could use each element of the theatrical rules of the room in order to unearth and examine the themes of gender/sex, religion/god and class/money in America. The goal was to show the way in which we constructed these ideas as malleable and therefore changeable. Underneath all my work has been this core belief, that the ability to look at and investigate any reality construct, no matter how deeply entrenched, is the beginning of the ability to question that reality construct. The very ability to point it out is a way of showing it as malleable and a construct, rather than as “God-given,” “unchangeable human nature” or “scientifically irrefutable” or whatever is the sweeping intellectual justification for why some way of being supposedly cannot change. Of course, since I am working in the theater, the rules of the theater itself must be the first level of investigation, since without addressing the theatrical rules of engagement (audience watching performers with a whole set of expectations), all the other issues will remain within a traditional, unexamined framework and therefore remain unmoved.

Through the course of investigating our theatrical assumptions, we also investigated the cut-up technique as a way to generate text to work with during our exercises, and perhaps to use in any possible final showing. This cut-up technique was based on the explorations of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin as outlined in their book The Third Mind. We each created a cut up text from found texts we all brought in relating to gender, class and/or religion in America. We then enhanced these cut-ups using memory texts of our own we brought in for each other’s use. These were our first memories of awareness of gender, class and religion. These texts provided the starting point for a lot of exercises I created and did in fact end up in showings of the work two years later. I also directed the cut up text I created as a separate theater piece three years later. These cut up texts were so evocative because by splicing together sentence fragments from one text onto another, one ends up creating texts which undermine each other and end up showing their sub-text: the cracks between the reality grid, which thereby illuminate the outlines of that grid as a grid. The language code begins to skid off the road a bit and it provides a wonderful textual map to begin to find the territory of the as-yet undiscovered countries which have been obscured by the all-too visible territory which surrounds us most of the time and parades around as The Real. We took this concept of cutting up and applied it not only to language but also to gesture and to the ideas of levels of address and presence, theatrical masks and styles. We continually reformulated these ideas of “cutting and pasting” different levels together and then cutting them up, interpolating them into one another and the like.

The replicable techniques we discovered in this workshop (after many, many false starts) had to do with levels of address and presence – of text and (to a lesser extent initially) of gesture. More precisely, we broke these levels down into component parts and created “jams” off of them – cutting up text and movement in the moment until a certain kind of alternate universe emerges wherein everything can be read on multiple levels at once. Other elements entered into this initial exploration, including dance numbers, moveable scenarios and the like, but these basic techniques of levels were the elements that stuck and which we were able to teach others. We showed this work-in-process in June 1999 at The Present Company in NYC under the title Inside of a Shapeless Angel. The performers who participated in these showings were Fred Backus, Renée Bucciarelli and Chris Campbell.

These performers and I taught a short-form of this workshop at the New York International Fringe Festival (which is produced by The Present Company). Based on her experience in the workshop, choreographer Sophia Lycouris invited me to teach at Chisenhale Dance Space in London. She was excited by this work with levels of address, especially for dancers using text. The level of address she was most intrigued by was the final one, which asks the performer to address the rules of the room itself, meaning the theatrical rules, as well as the social, personal and political rules that surround us. These rules I define as anything we say “that’s the way it is” about, and therefore view as intrinsic and unchangeable – something I refer to in shorthand as the “reality grid” of right now. By its nature it too changes and therefore it cannot be defined as a set of rules as much as the state in which these rules exist. These grid rules, these base assumptions, are also by nature not immediately visible and need to be teased out, through a series of exercises, including cutting up of text and gesture and concentration on levels of meaning. Sophia felt this concept of a reality grid gave her a guidepost as to where to address the text she used in her own performances, which she had not yet defined to her satisfaction. In our communications about the workshop I would teach at Chisenhale, Sophia encouraged me to expand the use of gesture and break it down with the same precision as I had with text. While working with the dancers at Chisenhale, I began investigating seriously how gestures can also fall into these categories and how different stage zones (having certain areas of the stage imply specific levels of address and types of presence) enhanced this work.

The other levels of address are simpler, namely, to one’s self, to another person on stage, to the audience and any permutations of the above (e.g. gesture to one level, text to another, overlaps etc.). However, all of these levels imply different levels of presence and masks and styles of theater. For instance, addressing another player on stage may imply naturalistic theater, the wearing of a tight character mask, which appears “natural” and a “natural” presence, whereas addressing the audience may imply presentational theater, the wearing of a broad, obvious mask and a large and stylized presence. These are not implications that need to be followed through. In fact, it is more interesting when they are consciously subverted (e.g. addressing the audience with a tight mask).

However, following along the above lines, one can also look at levels of meaning: for example, which levels of address and presence imply the literal (naturalistic, to each other – perhaps to one’s self), metaphoric (presentational, to the audience), symbolic (communal/ritual, to the reality grid), etc. I am now exploring how all of these levels can also be investigated using objects and lighting, along with levels of movement, gesture and text. In other words, to create a literal moment with a chair, one can sit in it, lit in a fairly “normal” way while talking to another person on stage. To create a metaphoric and/or symbolic moment, one performer recently placed boots at the foot of the chair, tied a rope around it, taped a picture of a man and woman from a magazine on the chair and held a lighting instrument over it as if to interrogate the objects. He was not consciously using text or gesture at the time, but if he were, where to address it would have been an interesting question.

At about the time the original workshop was ending, John Clancy, who was then Artistic Director of The Present Company, asked me to write him a mission statement defining my goals in the theater so that he could determine how The Present Company might help me manifest the theater I was trying to create. I include below an excerpt of what I wrote because it remains true for me today and will hopefully elucidate the goals of the work. I hand this text out to all the performers I work with on shows and workshops, so that they too are aware of the goals of the work (I am a big believer in the Brechtian notion that a performer who knows the larger goals of the work has the capability to speak on more than one level in performance – not only from his or her own perspective, but also from the perspective of the work itself and with knowledge of him or herself as an agent in this work):

What I want to do in the theater:

Undermine the reality-grid of right now: meaning that which we say “that’s the way it is” about - either publicly or privately.

Regarding class/money, race/ethnicity, gender/sex, religion/God, realpolitik/politics, nationalism/patriotism, war/peace...etc.

Through the creation of theatrical work that challenges these assumptions by, first, owning them as our own (not pawning it off on an “other” which somehow creates a world in which we live as victims), exploring the depths of our own assumptions/investments and investigating our own “desiring machines” (concept from Gilles Deleuze/Felix Guattari). The Deleuze/Guattari theory is that we all, to some extent carry within us fascistic investments (meaning investments in a state of “being”) and revolutionary investments (meaning investments in the process of “becoming”). Their desire was to enact a kind of radical psychology wherein our fascistic investments could be examined, owned and somehow uprooted to bring about a social investment in something other than “being” - i.e., a static, repressive environment which rewards conformity and a certain kind of subservience to an other-centered order of things as they are. I believe their vision has to do with a more revolutionary social body - one in which the process of becoming itself is integral to living, and there is no need to impose a hegemonic force onto other living creatures (examples of this now and in the past: capital, Christianity and other Evangelical/missionary religions, slavery, women as property, man’s dominion over/destruction of nature, psychology, “the Big Bang”, etc.) This is an incredible reduction of everything they said, but serves as a useful starting point for the goals of the theatrical endeavors on which I want to spend the rest of my foreseeable life.

By creating theatrical pieces that uproot the static nature of both language, gesture, character, etc. in such a way as to bring about this process of becoming. Both in our own bodies/souls/minds as players/writers/directors and thence into the bodies/minds/souls of the audience.

* * *

While directing the first workshop/laboratory (and after having written the above mini-manifesto) I began to write texts. These texts were a mixture of cut-ups in the “traditional” sense (as defined above as the Burroughs-Gysin technique) and cutting up my own thoughts as they arose in my mind, words on my bulletin bo `da 20he`d(  ap `e pqpe0 a`t%bpa"$,!,$@@ ` caa dd t%`d`ab(bh$ d%her`ab( pa iac, `2e`ip$ `eht-``ac pand2 and la(`cr  h````$d`c a`i f* dd e`da d+ib di i cb dhd`` -f`"   0*"02 p pehd A %`bpe )b dh`2 #`` bdb! cb` Dl Ab%b Aa-a, g`( @ D 0! cbdl ``` ppaca `ghc` " 0000$ % .$%ctild2 d`d e$Pd `pldd Dd `i B`0%`i`le ,ea a Ddp Aapi  @i, and Th` bfnpedp1 tepd H`al( Habcad1( M-((!!  2 ,!he `. 4` Da `& G`%" $ 2$" dd tHa fib1 " pc`M` I 5 0 mapcad` if `( la g` a`dp`1" dhd9 "DD@DDD l da8 !( %%" ddhd )" 0( 30 a, ba4 ! 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