Essay by

Burning Down A House

Essay by

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

actors on stage
Kevin Anderson, Ian Barford, Laurie Metcalf and Kate Arrington. Credit: Michael Brosilow

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?

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.



Add Comment
Newest First

Wow! What a wonderful, thought provoking article . . . and so many insightful comments from others. Gwydion, your "They make us see things we haven't seen and that we cannot un-see." yes . . . yes . . . yes. Winter, I'm thinking about how your comment "I'm thinking about how when we build a bonfire, the excitement lies in a fire that is not blazing dangerously out of control, but a solid fire that sends sparks flying often enough to keep those around it from being lulled to sleep" reflects one perspective I have about 'disruptive' theatre. Sometimes it can be a fire out of control, which means it can be dangerous. Is the intent of disruptive theatre to 'burn' the eyes and consciousness of the audience, or to amaze them with such a brillant light, even if disruptive, that they dare not turn away, they cannot turn away, despite a part of them that may want to. This is what masterworks of disruptive playwriting have accomplished like ANGELS IN AMERICA which for me moves beyond the limited description of play. I picked up today to read again a book I haven't looked at in years, Harold Clurman's 'On Directing' and underlined a sentence - "Theatre is a particular mode of expression through which a community realizes itself." Realization can certainly mean recognizing and contending with aspects of ourselves, our culture, our world that is 'disfunctional' or 'wounded' or 'struggling for birth' or just rediculously and precariously out of control [not necessarily a bad thing] and hopefully provide a sense of direction. This often necessitates disruption, but let it be disruption for a larger purpose, not sourced from the hollow motivation of destruction for it own sake, but destruction as a purposeful act of creation. An act that spurs us to plant seeds, even if it's only in the beginning seeds of thinking in new ways, that allows us to feel in new ways, that inspires us to act in new ways. A disruption that never forgets it serves a community.

Polly--This is my favorite entry. I was knocked over by many of the same plays as have found you on the floor--Concerning Strange Devices, Bengal Tiger--and so many more. I run these plays around--these dreamy, theatrical, tough, gorgeous plays--and can't believe everyone doesn't jump to do them. I can't believe we're not all climbing over one another to to wrestle these plays to their feet. I too have a love of the messy, unwieldy, disruptive play and I feel as though it was born of coming into the theatre in the 80s, which was just off the punk 70s--which was full of daring and event and pushing. Something happened in the 90s. Something got buttoned up. Something got careful and comfortable. I think of that silly Paula Cole song "where have all the cowboys gone?"--To me the cowboys wanted to burn down the house--the Robert Woodruffs and Joanne Akalitis' of the world. Now so often we seem to just want to make a quirky house. The very best want to build an architecturally stunning house--and there's merit in that. But yes, I long for disruption--violence in the sense that Anne Bogart writes of. Or, as our forefather Schklovsky demanded, work that is able to awaken what is asleep.

I too read a lot of plays each year, and often, just as I'm about to give up on the entire genre and sling play 034 into the receptacle for broken dreams, I'll be shocked or stunned or devastated or made delirious by an image or a moment or an act or a play (hallelujah!) Like yours, some go on to be produced and some disappear, but I can rattle off several dozen that changed how I see theatre and its power for disruption in my own life and ways. Thanks Polly for reminding me of other plays I've loved (and sometimes lost.)

Thank you Polly, for reminding me of the need, the positive need to disrupt, to swerve the car into a different direction even if it lands in a tree (this happened recently to someone dear to me; it's a potent metaphor at the moment). Of course each play presents different demands and strategies.

The people you name, the moments, the angel, Laurie Anderson, Mapplethorpe, Lincoln and Booth--they did shift something in me, or affirm something or gloriously disrupt something. These visions, illuminations, and the generosity of the artists, I was thinking recently, weeping during a school production of Angels in America, how astounding Kushner’s project was and also how generous a playwright he is. And the thrill of disruption. The way I felt reading Dostoyevsky and Ralph Ellison and Bolano, those turns into something unsettling, unique, deeply human. Reading Mrs. Dalloway, the intimacy of that read and the sorrow when it was over, the sorrow for the events in the story, for Woolf, how she articulated the pull of death, her loss, and how bereft I felt when the book was over. I couldn't peel myself off the couch for days.

Models, process, a few thoughts:

Sometimes a playwright should be turned away again and again and forced to go back into the cave to find what she wants to do. Sometimes production happens too soon and so what meant to go deep slides on the surface. But other times a playwright is left to spin her wheels when she needs a process, a production, a way to step into her play with others.

Often, the rehearsal period is too short. So everyone feels she has to work against the clock and do her--or, more often--his job. The director directs, the actors act, the designers design and the audience buys their tickets and watches. Lengthening the rehearsal period would usually be a good thing, but the artists involved would need to consider how to use that time, how the model might change the way they work if they’re not used to having that time.

Sometimes when you see things that have taken a long time incubating in the rehearsal room the results are incredibly rich. Recently I saw Anne Bogart's Bob, and the Builders Association's Sontag: Reborn and Motus's Alexis, A Greek Tragedy, and Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show, and each was thrilling and unique, deeply thought and found by exciting artists who took time in the room.

A model for a theatre? Some are doing some variation of the following: I'd give a group of playwrights, directors, designers and composers/musicians residencies where they'd work on projects and also curate readings and workshops of artists they admire. Flexibility. Artist-driven. Space. Time. Challenge. Seeing other work.

"Sometimes a playwright should be turned away again and again and forced to go back into the cave to find what she wants to do." It's a bit contrarian to agree with this statement of Kathleen Tolan's, but I find it comforting on sort of a cosmic level--for I have tried to will plays into production and that has failed. I have waited for productions to come to my plays and that too has failed. But what is somehow comforting about the above statement is the necessity to keep going. Rewrite the play or move onto the next and trust that it will inform you wherever you are going. It is easy to give up, give in. It is challenging to wait, wondering if or when you will share this work with others. Believing that a tree falling in the woods still makes a sound, and that the forest and all creatures around feel the vibration and each hear the sound differently. With regard to Polly Carl's figurative and literal burning down the house, I am not resolved--for I see the destruction of a house (or an idea) as embodying the goddess Kali and I know destruction and creation are linked--opposites which rely on each other for life and rebirth. But I do like the push to engage in deeper themes, to not simply build a quirkier house because it may be more commercially viable or palatable for audiences. As a kid, I was completely bewildered by Mapplethorpe's nude men, what made muscles and penises art, while not asking that very same question of Michelangelo's David. What I respect is the diversity of choice, that something that offends me may just be unsettling to me because I haven't seen or heard it before, but that I have the opportunity to experience it and grow older with it. Homogenous art is worse than mediocrity. I'm thinking about how when we build a bonfire, the excitement lies in a fire that is not blazing dangerously out of control, but a solid fire that sends sparks flying often enough to keep those around it from being lulled to sleep. As if to say, don't look away, I just might burn you.

I am obsessed with dysfunctional narratives not to feel better about myself (per se) but rather to try and understand why people do what they do. Both action and inaction are decisions being made. What happened before that happened? How did we arrive in this bitter, unhappy, confused place? After all, there are far greater resources available for people wanting to get out of bad situations than emotional maps for those about to walk in to them.

As for set design...if the house burns down - does it *have* to be cleaned up before the next scene? Or can it be a group of people standing in the proverbial ashes of a life left behind? Seems like a symptom of something else, a creative codependency that seeks to uphold the illusion that once we've ruined something it's all ok, because we get a fresh clean start. When in fact, we're standing in the ruins of our own making, trying to re-build on top of the mess that is clearly visible to audiences that love us and especially those that do not.

I really don't even know where to start here.

I've read this twice now. The first time, I was so compelled by the beginning that I read the whole thing in snippets on my phone while building these enormous towers of blocks for my 21 month-old son to knock down. (Talk about disrupting narratives!) The second time, I read it more contemplatively, increasingly overcome by a sense of feeling deeply understood as a playwright, for which I cannot thank you enough.

Stories serve so many different functions in human cultures. Some of those functions are, I think -- whether we'd like to admit it or not -- conservative. They conserve knowledge; they solidify or embody what we already (generally and widely) know about the world; they encode traditions; they teach us about (relatively) unchanging (or only very slowly changing) aspects of being human. And these are all, to some extent, useful functions.

Taken to an extreme, however, these conservative narratives tend to deify or cement certain worldviews and ideas. They begin to urge us to stop thinking or questioning. They reaffirm predispositions and prejudices and errors in judgment and outdated moral stances. They become stale. Even dead. For me, at least, the dysfunctional narratives you refer to fall into this category.

It is against these dysfunctional stories that disruptive narratives need to be set. Their purpose, at least to me, is sabotage and revolution. Where dysfunctional stories act like sedatives, disruptions are more like psychedelia: they liberate and reinvigorate the mind, setting the consciousness of those who encounter them whirling. They make us see things we haven't seen and that we cannot un-see. Though I hate to use this word, because it's been thoroughly "dysfunctionalized" itself, they are transformative.

But all that's very unsettling for people. It's like having your emotional and intellectual apple cart upset, which people tend to resist. (It's just part of being human.) That, to me, explains why we do our utmost to avoid creating and producing too many disruptive narratives. We're afraid that we'll all utterly lose our centers and that civilization will completely fall apart. So we don't fund or support or create the spaces from which disruptive narratives can emerge. We do our level best to suppress them: even us, the creatives of the world! We throw our efforts into dysfunction because, well, people will more readily pay us for it. I just wish we wouldn't go SO far in that direction.

This problem is especially different here in DC, where I live. In a town so drenched in power and authority (and the desire for both), we are terrified of all forms of disruption... which is why, I believe, we need it even more. In the 1980s, the punk scene here understood this, and it thrived for a good long while. (It still lives, in fact, to some degree.) I want theater in my city to find the same sort of truth-to-power (or "lit match"-to-power) energy. I try to write the sort of plays that will disrupt whatever I can possibly disrupt. It's crazy-making at times -- one's own brain can only handle so much of it -- but I can't imagine doing anything else.