Lumbering Toward the New
This article is adapted from a keynote Todd London delivered virtually for Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s OriginKC: New Works Festival on 14 March 2020.
I’m coming to you from my dining room table in Brooklyn, NY. I don’t know where you are, but I’m glad we’re together, even if only through the magic of the virtual. I had hoped to be with many of you at KC Rep this weekend to help launch the fifth annual OriginKC: New Works Festival, but it wasn’t meant to be. I know there are theatre artists all over the country sitting at home when you were supposed to be in rehearsal or onstage or celebrating this opening or that final week. I know there are years of work that are on hold or postponed or cancelled, and we suffer for it, as we suffer for the lack of witness to that work. We’re such natural gatherers in the theatre, always making that essential invitation of the art, the request I’ve come to think of simply as: Let me sit with you awhile. So I’m grateful to all of you who, as a plan b or c or xyz will sit with me awhile.
Risk is the realm of the theatre, but it’s not such a good strategy when it comes to global pandemics. Risk is our realm, crisis our norm, and improvisation at the top of the list of skills required for a life in this art. Our good friends at the Rep—New Works Director Lisa Rothe, the new artistic director Stuart Carden, and the whole team—as well as the brilliant original commons connector-streamers at HowlRound, with the unbreakable calm of risk-taking, improvisational crisis-surfers, have scrambled to gather us together right here, wherever that is, enabling us to keep our social distance while bridging it.
There’s such an achiness to this moment. I keep thinking of Laura Eason’s Festival play, The Vast In-Between. In it, a woman in the middle of an eroding marriage travels weekly between Chicago and Seattle, but really lives in the space between. She’s neither with her daughter—a cusp teenager at thirteen—or truly separate from her. She’s obsessed with a neighbor who’s recently been caught leading a bigamous life, and she flirts with such a life herself, stepping in and pulling out on each trip away from home. She can remember the good beginnings of her marriage and already knows what the ending might be. Still, everywhere she moves is the in-between, where it’s never clear how to live just where you are. That feels like now: in-between as far as the eye can see. As we trudge on through our collective limbo.
This was meant to be a keynote speech forty-five minutes long, but now it’s more like a fireside chat, the fire being an office candle. The subject of this chat was the subject of the festival itself: plays and origins and what’s new and, especially, the work of new works. If you’re following this now, it’s because you are part of that work, whether you are a playwright, director, actor, designer, festival thrower, dramaturgical advisor, administrator, spectator, auditor, supporter, helper, or hanger-arounder. Whatever your role is, you are part of this labor of newness, and I’m excited to think with you about it, to put into words what that labor is and why it’s important.
Let me start by simply saying the names of the plays and playwrights who were to have been part of the festival in hopes that you’ll seek them out some other way: a production of Kyle Hatley’s two-person adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein kicked off the festival to be, directed by Joanie Schultz, followed by a reading of Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s Flood, directed by Ken Prestininzi. The second full production was of Stacey Rose’s Legacy Land with Logan Vaughn as director, and finally, a reading of The Vast In-Between, Laura Eason’s play with Joanie Schultz again as director. There were wonderful panels planned, with some of the great, compassionate dramaturgical minds of our profession and, of course, BBQ. Apparently, the staff of the Rep spent some time yesterday, reflecting on the wonderful weekend that wasn’t, as if remembering it after the fact, each one describing favorite moments and meals. I love theatre people: if we can’t live it, we dream it; if the space is empty, we fill it up, one way or another.
I’ve only been to Kansas City and the Rep once, though I feel as if I know it, because I’ve known three of the four former artistic directors—George Keathley, Peter Altman, and Eric Rosen—for decades. Lisa Rothe, who put this festival together, has—happily—been in my life a long time, as has Marissa Wolf, who was a founder of the OriginKC festival. I was eager this weekend to meet Stuart Carden, the new artistic director, and to be there in person to wish him great things in the years ahead.
I say all this not to brag on my connections or establish Rep credentials, but to point out an obvious fact: Even in the land of the new—new plays, new artistic director, new decade—we’re always building on what’s come before—changing it, reacting to it, updating or leaping off from it. Whether we tear down the structures in which we find ourselves or merely remodel the parts of the house we think timeworn, whether we ignore or pay tribute, modify or dismantle, evolve or revolt, we in the theatre are always part of some kind of continuous creation. The setting of Stacey Rose’s Legacy Land is also its centerpiece: a house, haunted and defined by brutality and love, as though the building itself remembers its incestuous history, a past that tears two sisters apart even as it bonds them together. Stacey’s title is the perfect name for the place we live when we are new. We usher in the new while standing in “legacy land.”
This is true of theatres and it’s true of play makers. I often return to John Guare’s ravishing introduction to a 1997 collection of Thornton Wilder’s short plays. Guare imagines a parade of playwrights “from Aeschylus on down” to anyone who’s “written even one play....” Each generation says, “Finish my work. Finish what I’ve started. These are the questions I leave behind.” And so we precede to make the new from unanswered questions bequeathed to us, until the time comes when we leave our own questions for those who come after to answer.
Our questions may be old, but our preoccupation with them is of the moment. One era may ask “what is liberation? How do we get free?” Another might be driven to know what we owe to each other, the extent or limit of our social responsibility. We might be compelled to see the source of human inhumanity or wonder how to forgive evil? Which isn’t to say that a single question defines a time, but that questions circulate through history, gaining urgency with the events of the day.
It’s not new, for example, for artists to probe questions of identity—racial, ethnic, or sexual. The theatre has always done so. But sometimes the questions flame hotter, as they do today. Sometimes the questions require newer answers to suit evolving conditions and norms. Enduring questions are our provocations and, as the activist intellectual Cornell West has written, “just as hope is the fruit of love, provocation is the fruit of vocation and invocation.” In other words, our questions arise from the work we’re called to do, and from our prayers, our conjuring calls for help and guidance from others, including whatever gods we worship. Work and prayer—both callings—bring forth our questions, our provocations.
The more we proliferate and change, the newer the new gets, the more it spills out of the old linguistic containers, the shared codes that help us know what to expect from the art meal prepared for us.
Cornell West offers a great example of how a single line of inquiry can lead to a whole lineage of artists. In his celebratory introduction to A Moment on the Clock of the World, the anthology of essays that culminated the twenty-five-year life span of the important Foundry theatre in New York, West singles out a “terrifying” question from the character of Mama in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun: “How does one bequeath to the younger generation the rich traditions of critique and resistance?” From this question, posed by a character full of a “mature love” unparalleled on our stages, West traces an aesthetic very different from that of playwrights focused on the bleak American underbelly. He calls this aesthetic line a “great caravan of love (of truth, beauty, goodness, and sometimes of God) [that] provokes us into a habitual vision of excellence and elegance, joy and justice, courage and contestation.” In this lineage he places the work of musicians John Coltrane and Nina Simone, and of novelists Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. To that line I’d add playwrights Lynn Nottage, Tarell Alvin McRaney, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Daniel Alexander Jones, Aleshea Harris, as well as many others who don’t share an African-American heritage but work in this tradition of love and justice, like Taylor Mac, Haruna Lee, Tony Kushner, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Larissa FastHorse, Universes, and the beat goes on. Our ongoing questions make the world go around and where they stop is the new.
Let’s set newness aside for a second and look at another choice of words. I love that the folks at the Rep chose to call this a festival of new works as opposed to new plays. I suspect there are lots of reasons for this diction. The theatre is absolutely a place for plays, but it’s also a place for many other kinds of creation: spectacles, performances, rituals, participatory events or immersive ones, and what we call those things we don’t know what to call: theatre pieces. The more we proliferate and change, the newer the new gets, the more it spills out of the old linguistic containers, the shared codes that help us know what to expect from the art meal prepared for us.
So yes, let’s just call it work. New work. And let’s go back to the roots even of the word playwright, the wright of which first referred to a wood-worker, builder, constructionist. Think about woodworking when you think about playmaking. The heft of the lumber, the muscular intensity of the cut. We saw and hammer, fit and bang. And then, when we’ve acquired the skill and finesse, we (or you, because I’m not a playwright nor a carpenter)—we sand and scrape and lathe and turn. The lumber of love. Funny how these ancient crafts shape our linguistic legacy: there’s a wood working term known as scribing, which describes the way a molding or frame gets shaped to fit the piece abutting it and how the lines or patterns get engraved when a replacement piece goes in—a carving made to match. And with some splendid cosmic precision another word for scribing is coping. We write to cope and in writing must learn to cope with so very much.
All to say, when we come together to wright new work, we are coming together to build something, separately or together, each in their own role or roles, and that something, though built out of just-created synthetics or old unanswered questions, first thoughts or naïve discoveries—that something we call new. It’s never new from scratch, even though, for the creator, it may be a belly crawl through the dark into the unknown. Kyle Hatley’s Frankenstein is a play or performance piece or play with music—played by the author/performer and a lone woman musician whose appearances and disappearances are part of the thematic and sonic landscape of loss at the heart of the work. In the story, which mostly follows the novel, but in a contemporary key, Victor Frankenstein makes something never made before. Frankenstein’s monster is new, but he’s made out of old parts, dead parts, sewn together in a motley of muscle and bone, flesh and feature. Yes, the new can be monstrous.
And just maybe, to hammer the Frankenstein metaphor home, what’s new about a theatre creation isn’t its parts, which are repurposed and borrowed and dug up from the ruins of previous lives. What’s new is the animating jolt, the enlivening spirit discovered only after years of trial and error, long nights in the laboratory, and the kind of burst of insight born of intense labor. This life spark is what’s new. It’s also what’s distinct, the part that can’t be replicated, the spirit or soul-something that makes one person unique and utterly one’s self. In theatre we call this distinction voice.
I spent eighteen years as artistic director of New Dramatists in New York, a laboratory theatre and creative community where playwrights enjoy seven-year residencies. I had a quotation on my door that I understood in a most limited way. It’s from the novelist D.H. Lawrence, who proclaimed:
It is hard to hear a new voice, as hard as to listen to an unknown language…Why? Out of fear. The world fears new experience more than it fears anything. It can pigeonhole any idea. But it can’t pigeonhole a real new experience. It can only dodge. The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest. Because they dodge their own very selves.
Can we agree that fear of the new, of the unknown—fear of the languages of others—is on bold display in this country these days? Can we agree that, although we the so-called people seem not to agree on a damn thing, that we, as a people, on the right or left or anywhere in-between, live in a federation of segregated echo chambers, soothed by familiarity and the recognizable? If this is what D.H. Lawrence means by Americans being dodgers of the new, then he had us pegged.
Which is not to say we don’t sometimes need echo chambers. Choirs need preaching too, to keep them singing. We need to hear our shared beliefs reiterated and keep the fires of faith and inspiration and activism stoked. But artistic echo-chambers are bad for the evolution of the artform itself. If audiences want the familiar, if they come to depend on certain guideposts for the “good”—a certain kind of character at the center, a certain kind of violent conflict that feels dramatic, a certain kind of humor that grows from a certain kind of recognizable type, a certain kind of story about a newsworthy topic or subject of agreed upon importance—all this agreement on what makes quality theatre contributes to its decline. In this context, too-much new can be weird or even scary. We value what reminds us of things we’ve previously valued; but we learn from that which causes confusion, the confusion that precedes learning, the categorical frustration that precedes new stages of human growth.
A hundred years later, we still don’t know what to call the plays of Chekhov—tragedy or comedy or tragic-comedy or what. After Beckett and the postwar, post-nuclear playwrights constellating around him, critics had to construct a whole new category of absurdism, because those slippery playwrights frustrated all the existing—and existential—categories. What kind of box does Adrienne Kennedy belong in? Or Maria Irene Fornes? No box. That’s the point. They were absolutely new fifty years ago and continue to be new now. Their absence from major stages stands in shocking contradiction to their continuing and up-to-this-very minute influence. Remember John Guare’s playwright parade and Cornell West’s “caravan of love.” I’d be hard pressed to think of American writers leading longer parades or caravans these days than Kennedy and Fornes, other than maybe the sneakily influential Thornton Wilder, despite their remaining virtually unknown to the theatregoing public. Maybe what’s new is that which stays news, that which concatenates more of the same which is the newly different.
That’s why I love festivals like this one, even if we have to engage it virtually and imagine it privately. Here we are around our computers, kept at a distance by disease, together envisioning a new newness. Bring it on!
New voices aren’t always new. They may just be new to us because we’re part of a culture not used to listening to the voices of another culture, in the forms those voices take, out of the traditions from which those voices rise.
But I’ve been winding my way to another point, and that’s this: New voices aren’t always new. I’m going to say it again: new voices aren’t always new. They may just be new to us, to the people who live where we live and look like we look. They may be new to a theatre of one size or another. They may have been making their beautiful sounds mostly unheard, through stretches of semi-solitary artistic gestation—which could last decades—in a field that often favors the young and new over the long-laboring, twenty-year overnight sensations. The doors that lead truly new artists to audiences, to us, may have been previously closed. They may just be new to us because we’re part of a culture not used to listening to the voices of another culture, in the forms those voices take, out of the traditions from which those voices rise.
I’ve had this experience a lot—and maybe you have to: it’s the time of the year they announce the Nobel Prize for Literature and suddenly I stumble upon a “new” Chinese novelist or Egyptian poet or Russian journalist. And despite the fact that they are major, mature international geniuses with massive bodies of historic work, I’ve just made a discovery. I’m suddenly in touch with the new. I had high school teacher who, at such a moment, would have tossed a chalkboard eraser my way and called me an “ethnocentric booby.” And he would be right. There aren’t enough erasers in America to hit all us ethnocentric boobies in the theatre.
“Citizens cannot relate well to the complex world around them by factual knowledge and logic alone,” the ethical philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. “The third ability of the citizen,” she continues, after knowledge gathering and logic, “is what we can call narrative imagination.” Without the arts to foster this narrative imagination that allows us to walk in the shoes of others—and I quote—
we do not automatically see another human being as spacious and deep, having thoughts, spiritual longings, and emotions. It is all too easy to see another person as just a body—which we might then think we can use for our ends, bad or good.” The arts and humanities allow us to “see a soul in that body.
But how can you see “soul” in an unfamiliar body with blinders on? In the predominantly white American theatre, the sound of our dominant culture is so loud, the gaze of its audiences so defining, that even young masters like last year’s Pulitzer winner Jackie Sibblies Drury and Obie winner Aleshea Harris, are experimenting with strategies to segregate African-American audience members from the way more numerous white ones, just to have a chance to speak directly to and heal with the people they write their plays for, without explanation or apology. In a 2018 speech turned essay called “High Tide of Heartbreak,” Tony and Pulitzer-winner Quiara Alegria Hudes writes, “It is discombobulating and even humiliating to write Latinx characters who will be seen my mostly white audiences. It feels like either their brownness or their humanity is the primary performance…” The point is this: in a theatre that has been mostly produced by and presented to a homogenous cultural vantage point, the new is often a product of difference. The “other” can seem very new, even when they’ve been here all along, invisible to those who prevail.
The work of the new, in this sense, is the work of our nation: that of speaking across origin and difference, race and culture and gender, ability and age, to listen across divergent and even incompatible histories. And it’s this work that makes what we do when we gather together in a theatre—especially when we gather to listen to and for the previously unspoken or unheard—it’s this work that makes it so urgent.
This urgency electrifies the waters of Deen’s Flood. The play is a stirring absurdist cri de coeur about those who refuse to see even the most evident, dire changes happening around them. A man fiddles endlessly with a tabletop model he’s building out of wood, while his wife stands by to brew tea for the day he’s finished with his masterpiece, that future quiet time when they can be together and answer the questions about life she’s been keeping on a list. Meanwhile, the ocean is rising all around them, threatening to reach even their apartment on the sixteenth floor. Meanwhile, their two children, both unlike their parents ethnically and in gender expression, living lower down, are drowning. The man fiddles, the woman waits, and even their children’s calls can’t rouse them from insensibility and denial. They don’t know who their children are, and they don’t hear their alarms. Will the playwright’s calls rouse us?
It’s easy to say that theatre teaches empathy. Maybe. Maybe empathy is fostered in the act of making theatre. But if, over the past fifty years, theatregoing has upped the capacity for empathy in our audiences, why has it been so hard for our traditional patrons to accept the work of writers who don’t share their heritage, why aren’t our subscribers clamoring for plays by Black, Latinx, Asian American and Native American artists, for LGBTQ artists, for artists from different nations, with different abilities? Why aren’t they picketing our institutions: Stop with the Shakespeare already! Down with Ibsen and his heirs! We’ve had enough of Aristotle!
I had a teacher in graduate school, a distinguished literary critic, who didn’t throw erasers but instead lobbed questions at us. One simple one stays with me: Would you rather read a writer who describes experiences similar to your own—recognizable and, what we now call relatable—or a writer who describes worlds very different from your own? I confess that to my shame I picked door number one—I wanted the recognizable, the familiar, that which confirmed the world as I knew it, rather than that which would make me work to break through what I knew, to acknowledge the alien—and I don’t mean alien in the sci-fi sense. I didn’t speak my answer out loud at the time, but I knew the self-incriminating truth, and I knew I had to do whatever it took to turn my attraction to the merely familiar around.
That distinguished—and I now see, wise—professor made the case for the other door, the one that opens to the other, the unknown, the world we might never have stepped foot in, populated by people we might never have met. She was making the case not exactly for the new, but for the new to each of us, the different from each of us, work on which I now absolutely believe our lives, our humanity, our civilization depends.
What, then, if this is the work of our lives and civilization, is possible in the theatre? Here’s what I’d suggest: the ongoing labor of making work for the stage has two essential features: that of individual creative fulfillment and that of social cooperation. In the land of playwrights—the world of new and mature voices—we can clearly see the first feature—how imaginative and emotional freedom leads to individual distinction. There is little in this life more exciting and inspiring than an artistic voice finding its fullness. In my years at New Dramatists, I got to know writers and their bodies of work really well. I could see the “project” of that work, the ways it intersects with their lives, the way one play leads to another and another, questions raised at the end of one becoming the springboard for the next. I think of this as the beautiful flourishing of distinct beings, and I first learned it from living in community with playwrights and by writing about their bodies of work in the spirit of admiration and celebration, including right here on HowlRound. Isn’t this why we’re here—in this treacherous, terrifying and magnificent world: to make the most of the gifts we’ve got for the time we’ve got.
And, as when you scan the walls of a museum or walk the paths of a botanical garden in full flower, you see how profoundly unique each vision appears when it hangs in relief to another or stands out in a field of wild biodiversity. You learn that what makes a thing/a voice/a person/a talent distinct is how its singular brilliance shines next to the singular brilliance of others.
The work of the new, in this sense, is the work of our nation: that of speaking across origin and difference, race and culture and gender, ability and age, to listen across divergent and even incompatible histories.
I saw a shockingly original production this month, a remounting of Haruna Lee’s Suicide Forest at Ma-Yi Theatre in NYC, now sadly closed as so much vibrant, hard-won, beautiful theatre is. I don’t have time or wit to describe it all, as it flips from Japanese to English, from inspired frenzy to profoundly intimate self-revelation and places in between. The writer, Haruna Lee, plays the central character, too, a teenage girl trapped in the over-sexualized rape culture of the male workplace—part cartoon and all nightmare. She also plays a version of herself, and presents herself to us in a kind of naked, vulnerable revelation only possible in the live theatre. The writer’s own Japanese mother appears in piece, making her Butoh-like way through an abstract forest, where, as the mythic Mad Mad, she lures lovers to their deaths. The piece takes place in two languages, leaping cultures, traditions, myths and genres, but it really takes place in the artist’s heart and mind and soul, from which it is gifted to us, utterly new.
Shortly after, I saw another autobiographically inspired work centering a playwright’s mother, the tour de force of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H, crafted from verbatim interviews with the playwright’s mother twenty years after her five-month kidnapping at the hands of a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. And I saw still another uncategorizable event, also steeped in autobiography, Jillian Walker’s lush and musically interwoven unpacking of race and color, family history and self, SKiNFoLK. Each work as distinct as it could be, each voice unmistakable. Meanwhile, preparing for Kansas City, for today, I read Kyle Hatley and Stacey Rose and Laura Eason and Mashuq Deen. In all this singularity, all this difference of voice and project and self, this I found and this again I came to know: when it comes to playwrights, a Rose is a Rose is a Rose, and so it is for Hatley and Eason and Deen.
All this brings me to the second part of the work of the new: in addition to fostering the singular gifts of the individual artist—in this instance the play-carpenter—the theatre demands social cooperation to an almost unparalleled degree. I’ve been compulsively quoting director/author/ensemble genius Anne Bogart’s statement that “…Theatre is the only art form that is always about social systems. Every play asks: Can we get along? Can we get along as a society? Can we get along in this room? How might we get along better?” Every play asks us to imagine a society and every process of building a play asks it. It’s part of what makes theatre so difficult and awe-inspiring. You have the playwrights in their solitary creative lairs, ruthlessly plumbing their lives and the lives of others, imagining to the farthest limits of personal ability, exercising a relentless, radical freedom to be whoever they are, think whatever they think, and say whatever they must—the solitary playwrights peeling the layers of self in the privacy of their process and then, with a crazy raw vulnerability falling somewhere between egotistic hubris at one end and codependent desperation at the other, they deliver up their nearly-borns into the hands of others. And then you have those others. The directors, actors, designers, technicians, managers—all the rest of us including the spectators and hanger-arounders—who must finish the job, locate the through-spirit and deliver the animating jolt that brings the beautiful new baby monster to miraculous life.
How does it happen? We know it doesn’t happen alone. There is such a thing as authorship, as anyone who has faced the blank page knows. But in the human, communal art of the theatre, there is always a time when the writing—like those cut boards—must be joined. Daniel Alexander Jones, the brilliant and humane playwright, director, drag artist, and diva channeler, taught me that, even in solo performance, you’re never flying solo. You’re always creating from influence and teaching, you’re always creating with others—musicians, designers, light board operators—in conversation with others, present and gone. Even alone on stage, the monologist is in dialogue with the audience.
The same is true for a playwright, regardless of how hermetic their studio or gargantuan their talent. While rewriting Perestroika, part two of his Angels in America epic, Tony Kushner added a now-famous afterword, acknowledging the contributions of over two dozen collaborators, without whom the play would not have been the same or been at all. Even as he “defensively, nervously” claims that the primary labor on Angels, its authorship, was his, Kushner cites Marx’s belief that “the smallest divisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.” Soaringly, the playwright adds: “From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs. And also plays.”
This is the labor of the new. It’s also, I believe, the labor of this life: that is, the fulfillment of individual gifts within these nets, the fabric of our society with others. The one who is never just one—however solitary and arduous the task—works/plays/joins with others to form a social order dependent on the best in each. If this is an order just for the few, an order of the familiar, it’s not an order at all. It’s merely the box we know, a fixed, unchanging thing, that can never hold the immensities of which human beings are capable, that can never expand as the world inevitably expands. A box that has to shore up its walls to keep out the new is sure to break.
But the new is a parade stretching back through time; it’s a caravan snaking into the future; it’s a net of souls from which human life springs—and also plays. These life-giving forms can only take shape when our eyes and ears are available to the visions unfamiliar to us and the voices we haven’t yet heard. That’s why I can’t think of playmaking as separate from worldmaking. They are versions of the same enterprise, the clumsy, lumbering labor of dreaming alone and then, together, assembling, fashioning, fitting, hammering, and scribing—which is also coping and requires coping—joining the most vivid of these dreams into something that gives life and is the best of life because it makes the best of our individual and collective gifts.
It’s heavy work and in Kansas City and all around the country, artists and artisans and administrators are having to temporarily lay down their materials, set aside their tools. Work that has taken years to get to the stage has been stopped, a horrible loss in a terrifying time, but a loss for the safety of all. I don’t want to minimize this loss, and I’m living it for myself and many of my friends. At the same time, I know that the people who make theatre, raised on risk, accustomed to crisis, and trained in improvisation, are also the perfect crew to have around when making a new, healthier, more just and beautiful world. And also plays.
Thank you, Lisa and Stuart and Kansas City Rep, and thank you all for being here, wherever you are. Stay safe and sanitized and, especially, sane. We will get through this, together, because that’s what we do.