Burning Down A House
Most young writers have this experience: They create characters who are imaginative projections of themselves, minus the flaws. They put this character into a fictional world, wanting that character to be successful and—to use that word from high school—popular. They don’t want these imaginative projections of themselves to make mistakes, wittingly, or even better, unwittingly, or to demonstrate what Aristotle thought was the core of stories, flaws of characters that produce intelligent misjudgments for which someone must take responsibility.—Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House
But I just don’t think there’s any real communication anymore, real communication about real things.
—Sharon in Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit
In author Charles Baxter’s essay “Dysfunctional Narratives,” he recognizes that the stories artists tell are inextricably linked to the stories we tell about our culture and politics. Artists reflect upon the historical moment they inhabit, comment on it, and in the best of circumstances they provide some kind of insight into that moment that causes disruption and creates a fissure of new possibility. In my history, some of the artists who have created the greatest disruption include Robert Mapplethorpe, Tim Miller, Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, Björk, and Laurie Anderson. This is a personal list. These are artists who at various times came into my world (and in many cases the larger culture) and knocked me over with daring and disregard for whether I’d ever be able to stand up again. I wondered about what the hell they were doing, questioned the artistic value of the work, in moments was convinced they had made a mistake, and subsequently changed how I viewed the world as a result of their intervention. Theater is tricky in this regard. It lives as an art form somewhere between entertainment and provocation. This makes it both deadly in its dependence on convention (tried and true formulas for entertainment) and in its “liveness” (able to explode unexpectedly at any time). To use Charles Baxter’s phrase taken from David Byrne, burning down the house is particularly difficult to accomplish literally and figuratively in any art form, but I would argue in the collaborative world of theater, it’s really hard to put on a house burning play. I know this first hand after working on Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. Detroit is one of those plays that I read as a very first draft and was knocked over by it. When you read a lot of new plays like I do, this is an unusual experience. I find my reaction to plays on the page—plays I come to in the quiet of my own mind without any real outside influence—usually breaks down in to these categories:
- I’m not interested in the play or the voice of this particular playwright—this is pretty unusual response. Most of the plays I read have something to offer me.
- I’m not excited about the play because, as Baxter points out in his essay, not much dramatic happens—no mistakes made, nothing burns—but the playwright’s voice is one I want to track and hope to read other plays by this writer.
- The play is structurally sound. It’s compelling and it seems worthy of a production but I’m not on fire to produce it. I make a list of theaters that I think are an aesthetic fit for the play.
- I read a play, am completely knocked over by it, and I’m instantly on fire to produce it or to find it a home.
Some plays that have knocked me over on the page in my fifteen years of evaluating them (some have been produced and some haven’t): David Adjmi’s Evildoers, Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Deborah Stein’s God Save Gertrude, Kathleen Tolan’s, What to Listen for, Dominic Orlando’s Danny Casalaro Died for You, Victoria Stewart’s, 800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick, Kira Obolensky’s Quicksilver, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, Naomi Iizuka’s Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, and Kirk Lynn’s The Animals. I hate making lists like this because a lot of plays and playwrights that I love aren’t here, but I put it forward because it reflects the fact that I bring an aesthetic, my personal taste to bear whenever I read plays. I tend to like plays that are strange, visually compelling, poetic, overt, not overly linear, slightly incomprehensible. Plays that make me go, “what the hell is going on here!” I have no confidence that I should be programming a large theater venue because my sense of my own aesthetic is that it isn’t at all popular. Like Baxter, I’m interested in stories that can burn down the house. And I mean literally burn it down. But once in awhile something I love and the popular intersect, as happened with Detroit. Lisa had sent me the play, but I hadn’t read it immediately and Maria Striar, the Artistic Director of Clubbed Thumb, emailed me and asked, “Have you read this play? Do it right now!” Since I do whatever Maria tells me, I read it immediately and I knew immediately this play had to be produced. I didn’t at all think that I knew a Pulitzer Prize finalist upon first read, I just knew I loved this play and would do anything to see it on the stage. The subject line of the email to Lisa after I read it was: “I’m head over heels in love.”
I tend to like plays that are strange, visually compelling, poetic, overt, not overly linear, slightly incomprehensible. Plays that make me go, “what the hell is going on here!”
Dysfunctional Versus Disruptive Narratives
According to Baxter, in this fairly recent embrace of dysfunctional narratives:
What we have instead is not exactly drama and not exactly therapy. It exists in that twilight world between the two, very much of our time, where deniability reigns. Call it therapeutic narration. No verdict ever comes in. Every verdict is appealed. No one is in a position to judge. The spectacle makes the mind itch as if from an ideological rash. Hour after hour, week after week, these dysfunctional narratives are interrupted by commercials . . . for lawyers.
What I love about Detroit is that it sets that dysfunctional narrative on fire. I think of it as a disruptive narrative, and disruptive narratives make us really uncomfortable, so much so that if we can, we try to dismiss the artistic experience as something less than art. For every person I know who saw Detroit and loved it, others couldn’t wait to talk about how distasteful it was, how much they hated it. And it was distasteful, but to my taste, and in the most delicious way. Sharon and Kenny are Ben and Mary’s new neighbors. We learn pretty quickly that Sharon and Kenny met in recovery but contend confidently, “One beer is okay.” In our recovery-obsessed culture as we try to heal ourselves from every kind of addiction—food, drugs, hoarding, reality tv—if there’s anything we can be certain of, one beer is far from okay. Let the debauchery begin! One neighborly backyard barbecue leads to another and whatever was stable about Ben and Mary’s life, despite the fact that Ben is unemployed and Mary has a drinking problem, is lost in the fervor of this new friendship; a haphazard, unplanned, series of appetizers, sexy dance moves, and encounters with a lady in a pink jogging suit. By the end of the play, Ben and Mary’s American dream of the stability of their suburban home goes completely, literally, up in flames. Sharon and Kenny’s reckless abandon has sucked them in, or better yet, it’s proven so incredibly attractive that well, Ben and Mary make some choices, and for better or worse, the consequences cannot be ignored.
Lighting the Match
I don’t know how many of you have worked on productions where the central image is a house fire, a literal one, but suffice to say that this is no easy task to stage. It’s complicated to burn things down on stage. We can use lights and sirens and fog and then we need a really long transition if we want to get that house off the stage and a charred one back on. And the more real the fire seems, the more expensive. Fires are costly inside and outside the theater. And it’s no surprise that I bring my aesthetic propensity for disruption and fires to how I approach the larger questions of our field surrounding how we make work. I like a world filled with risk, mistakes, catastrophe, and an occasional triumph here or there. In countless discussions about the end of Detroit during rehearsal and previews with the artistic team, I was never bothered that things didn’t wrap up in a more satisfying way. “Who knows who they are, they could be anybody really,” Mary speculates about the people in the next room at the Super 8, the hotel they stay at after the fire. We build houses and we make neighborhoods and we host backyard barbecues, but the truth is, the very frames we use to define our homes and our lives are subject to unexpected and mind blowing disruption. Disruption in the theater for me includes things like a flying angel helping us make sense of AIDS, or a regiment of young Scottish soldiers confronting the war in Iraq, or being jolted out of my seat by two brothers named Lincoln and Booth. There’s no going back in Angels in America, Black Watch, or Topdog/Underdog. Mistakes are made, people die, and there are consequences. History, form, and frame are set on fire and when we encounter these moments in the theater, we squirm in our seats, sometimes we ask for a refund, and we learn to have higher expectations of the transformative power of art in our lives. Dysfunctional narratives, by contrast, are everywhere and their primary purpose is to make us feel better about ourselves. After watching A&E’s Intervention—an excruciating look at the impact of addiction on people’s lives—you’ll likely feel better about yourself. You might be fucked up, but not that fucked up! But when you walk away from a play like Detroit as the economy is melting down around you, you run home to make sure your house is still standing.
Getting Our Houses in Order
If we agree to any extent that the excitement of good theater rests in disruption, then as theater makers what are the conditions upon which such stories can be effectively told? If the houses where we make theater are primarily interested in making us feel better—ask any marketing department of a regional theater how often they look for the humor element in whatever play they are producing as the way to sell a play to audiences—then have our not-for-profit theaters banked on the commercialism of dysfunction in lieu of the risk of disruption? Let’s acknowledge here that promoting disruption in art is a tall order. We’ve been clinging to dysfunction in our theaters for a reason. We think dysfunction can be treated—there’s therapy and medication. And more importantly, with dysfunction no one will ultimately be held responsible. The addicts on Intervention are the victims of a disease, we’re tentative about holding them accountable. And at this point, there’s an entire industry built up around our belief that dysfunction can be fixed, and as Americans, we’re nothing if not optimists. But if there is to be room for more disruptive stories in our theaters, my guess is there will need to be a willingness to embrace disruption in our practice. After Sharon and Mary kiss in a crazy moment of drinking and dancing near the end of Detroit, Mary says, “Did that really happen?” Sharon responds, “Of course it did. Things can just happen. You can just DO them. If you don’t then the world just stays the same.” Building creative disruption into our practice and our spaces is as difficult as writing a Pulitzer Prize winning play. We acknowledge and prefer a certain level of dysfunction in our staff and production meetings because we know that the outcome will be business as usual. We anticipate actor meltdowns in rehearsal because we hope these will eventually lead to that therapeutic moment when the actor sees things the director’s way and everybody makes up. If the world just stays the same we can rest in a certain familiarity, but will our institutions achieve the greatness our stories on stage aspire to?