The Curtain 51: Trapped in Time ⌛️
How do we engage with the present, rather than merely historicize it? Plus: the state of online theatre.
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Trapped in Time
I'm still in Marin County, living with my partner's family for now. I feel really fortunate and grateful to be in a place with a backyard, and I feel for everyone who is currently trapped in a cramped apartment, whether in New York or elsewhere.
It's been hard to get a routine going, though. I crave unstructured time, but even this is too much for me! Attempts at creating structure have had varying degrees of success. I'd like to be writing more than I am, but also don't want to beat myself up about it in these moments of global existential dread.
I've been thinking a lot about how to create art in times like this, when we're in the belly of the beast. There's been a lot of jokes about who's going to write the first quarantine play to be presented at a major New York theatre—but it's interesting to note that, after the 1918 Flu, almost no art mentioned the flu at all. World War 1 took up much more of the cultural consciousness of everyone in the literature, theatre, visual art, and film worlds. I don't think that will necessarily happen with COVID-19—this has been a traumatic event for so many, and because of the internet we've been able to see what's happening at a much more magnified, violent scale. But it is to say that if we can learn anything from that 1918 pandemic, it's this: some day, this will be over.
I hope that our government will have learned something about the nature of pandemics, largely that people have been predicting this for years. And that, most likely, there will be others in the future that could be worse. I hope that, by holding and collectively processing the trauma of COVID-19—whether through art or other means—we'll be able to push ourselves to not let something like this happen again. But I also try not to hold an overly romantic view of art; I don't think it's going to save the world.
But I do long for art that engages with the present reality, rather than just historicizes it. After finishing Jenny Offill's novel Weather, a critical smash, I felt frustrated by its feeling of being "stuck in time". As Lauren Oyler writes in The New Yorker:
If the times are unprecedented, how much can you really expect from a novelist? Accepting the premise, critics often praise such books for their ability to depict reality rather than for their ability to respond to it, critique it, or engage with it. Representation—and its attractive counterpart, relatability—are celebrated as achievements rather than acknowledged as the baseline from which a novelist should begin her work.
All art is, in a way, trapped in the time that it was created. But reading Offill's Weather, especially in comparison to her magisterial and majestic Dept. of Speculation, it already feels somewhat stuck in its present, and superseded by the events of the world. Great art finds a way to both be in response to the times while also transcending time, tapping into a deeper mystery; in the words of Oyler, the strength of the novel as a mode is that it reflects a mind that is "hyperaware of its time but is not actually trapped in it."
So I keep thinking about that, turning it over in my head: how can we create from a place that's not trapped in time? How can we create art that doesn't just treat the present as the past, a stream of things we cannot control, but that actually wrestles with the present, with reality, turns it inside out, to create new forms entirely?
Catch yourself some online theatre
The Schaubühne in Berlin, director Thomas Ostermeier's theatre, is streaming shows from their archive every night. Lots of fantastic things here, including Ostermeier's wild version of Hamlet premiering April 1st, with English subtitles. Shows are available just for that evening (ala a performance).
And if you speak German or get some google translate going, you can try to navigate on Nachtkritik, which has more streaming German theatre.
This is a fantastic opportunity to see some eclectic stuff, and I really wish more American theaters could do something like this. But there are so many hurdles with the infrastructure—like the lack of proper equipment to nicely record theatre, and Actors' Equity's somewhat draconian prevention of streaming theatre.
That being said, there are exceptions: you can watch the Public Theater's 2019 production of Much Ado About Nothing online for free here, starring Danielle Brooks and directed by Kenny Leon. The Public also hosts a really interesting session called "Watch Me Work", featuring Suzan-Lori Parks, which is now being offered on Zoom. You watch Parks work and also can do your own writing with her, and then can ask her questions. Okay then!
The Wooster Group has always been a beacon of forward-thinking experimentation with technology in theatre. You can currently watch their production HAMLET online for free on their website. With this and the Ostermeier version, you can watch two radically different—and equally radical—takes on Hamlet that are wildly unlike any "traditional" version. (And if you do some digging, you can find Robert Icke's version online as well, the one starring Andrew Scott. If you need some help, you can email me. 😏)
But despite all this I can't help but feel that, for the most part, online theatre just doesn't cut it; that it's merely a finger pointing at the moon, always frustrating and never as good as you want it to be. I'm not sure if that's ever going to change. While I champion the digital accessibility of theatre and hope theatre can continue to push forward and innovate upon itself in that space, it still can never replace the fact that theatre depends on air, on space, on people in a room. This is kind of a tough pill to take, because it's really difficult to predict when we're going to get theatre up and running again, or what exactly it will look like six months from now.
Some examples, like The 24 Hour Plays' "Viral Monologues" on Instagram, actually work pretty well, because they are intentionally designed for digital consumption. They've been one of the highlights of theatre during this time. But then, are they really theatre? What exactly are we even watching? Does it really matter?
And, a bigger question: is anybody really watching this besides theatre people? Or are we just creating another echo chamber, just a bit more networked?
Part of what I believe needs to happen is for us to make a shift towards becoming 21st century storytelling companies, as opposed to just theatre companies. Stories jump around across mediums, depending on what best serves the artist. In order to help theatre survive not just this pandemic but in the internet age overall, we need to find new means of productions that take us beyond just being more expensive, less accessible, and often less good parallel worlds to what's happening in film, tv, and even audio.
But the truth is, lately: I just don't know.
📝 Notes from the Week
The most vital workers are the lowest paid
For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one's work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it's obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It's not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.
In Praise of Syllabi
One of my absolute favorite things is reading about what sort of books, art and media influenced one of my favorite artists when they create a work of art. Sometimes playwrights do this, but certainly not enough.
While stumbling through the Twitterverse I discovered playwright Will Arbery's syllabus for his superb Plano (which was one of my favorite pieces of 2019, though it debuted in 2018). It's a treasure trove of great art and plays, tending "towards the haunting (but hopeful)." Arbery also just was awarded the 2020 Whiting Award in Drama. Here is his list:
The Book of Folly by Anne Sexton
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Heroines by Kate Zambreno
Twilight: Photographs by Gregory Crewdson
A Rat's Mass by Adrienne Kennedy
Apparition: An Uneasy Play of the Underknown by Anne Washburn
Watchfires by Hilary Plum
Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata
Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God by Rainer Maria Rilke
Funny, Strange, and Provocative: Seven Plays from Clubbed Thumb
Post by Bjork
Round His Shoulders Gonna be a Rainbow by Kath Bloom & Loren Mazzacane
Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves
Wanted! by The Outlaws
A River Ain't Too Much to Love by Smog
In my sights I carve him
like a sculptor. I mold out
his last look at everyone.
I carry his eyes and his
brain bone at every position.
I know his male sex and I do
march over him with my index finger.
His mouth and his anus are one.
I am at the center of feeling.
Almost as good as a syllabus is a podcast. Though it sadly closed, you can still listen to the Vineyard's podcast with playwright Lucas Hnath and actor Deidre O'Connell discussing Dana H., the best thing I saw in 2020 thus far.
Reasons to Keep Writing
Sarah Ruhl delivered a beautiful livestream speech for The Whiting Awards ceremony.
My primary genre is the theater, which traffics in presence, in that barely there dust we inhale backstage. But presence is what we’re not supposed to do at the moment. That magical substance—air—which makes theater different from books, or films-- is what we fear right now. Air contains the invisible, the ineffable-- and air also contains germs.
At the conclusion, she starts a list of reasons to keep on writing, even in the face of existential dread. For some of us, it's what we need.
Unearthing old film critics
Rotten Tomatoes has, over the past two years, started to include an interesting selection of old film critics on classic films who have previously been buried. This is a really interesting, inherently political act, as Richard Brody writes about.
Podcast Listening is Dropping
What are the other ripple effects of the COVID-19?
One is that, because people are cooped up in their houses—and not commuting—podcast listening has fallen by 10%. As an avid podcast listener on the subways in NYC, I have almost completely stopped listening to podcasts—which are almost always something I listen to while doing something else.
This won't last forever, but it's notable because of how much people are betting on podcasts as one of the main mediums of the future. Streaming video still seems to be the supreme medium of the future (at least, other than gaming), and doubly so during quarantine times. What other second and third order effects will coronavirus have?
That’s all for this week—thanks so much for reading!
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