The Play’s the Thing: A Discussion
CHARLES MEE: I had polio when I was a kid, and up until I was fifteen I had never read anything but comic books. Then a high school English teacher of mine brought me a copy of Plato’s Symposium when I was in the hospital, which was a very odd thing to give to me. I read it and I was completely taken with it because I myself was a sort of battlefield of conflicting emotions at that time and of course the Symposium is in dialogue form. After that I always thought in dialogue form, and everything I ever thought about or think about today occurs in my mind as a lot of voices, usually not agreeing with each other.
I wrote for the theater in the early sixties (I’m a very old person), and then I got distracted by anti-Vietnam war activities and I spent fifteen or twenty years as a political activist, really, writing about politics and history. I didn’t return to write for the theater until about fifteen years ago, when I took my two very young kids to see a revival of My Fair Lady on Broadway. I got seats in the first row all the way over on one side so you could look into the wings and see the stage hands and all the artifice of the theater completely evident, which I thought would be fun for my kids to see. We were sitting there watching the actors putting on their make-up, and this guy sitting behind us leaned over to my ear and said, “This is the real world.” So I turned around to see who he was, and there was no one there. And since I’ve never heard voices, either before or since, I thought I should pay attention. So I started writing for the theater again.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Before I started writing plays I loved musicals. I have Oklahoma! on top of my CD pile at home. Once a day I play the last song and still, it’s great. You know, “Oklahoma O.K.” For me, that’s brilliant. I love musicals, forties musicals, the cheesier the better. I think they’ve influenced my work.
JESSICA HAGEDORN: The first thing I ever did here in New York was Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon with Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis, right here in the old cabaret upstairs. After that, Joe, who was very much alive at the time, offered me the chance to do a workshop piece of my own, which I did downstairs here. It was called Mango Tango. It was a piece with a band, and one other actor, and even the musicians had to play parts; this was a very streamlined production.
I’ve always loved the theater. I think theater feels natural because everybody’s so melodramatic, and everything’s high drama in the Philippines so theater makes sense. Even if you’re not formally schooled, it comes to you because everybody’s always heightened. I loved it because I grew up listening to a lot of radio dramas and then of course whatever plays were around my parents took me to. I love musicals too, those older grand MGM musicals. You grow up on that stuff, you can’t get rid of it—it’s a wonderful influence.
When I was living in San Francisco in the seventies I went to theater school, ACT, and I wanted to be an actor and a director and a writer, all those things. And when I realized there wasn’t going to be any work for me as an actor, I thought that perhaps what I could do was write for the theater and create work not just for myself but for other performers who were not getting hired, or were playing hookers all the time.
PARKS: When I was in college, I took a creative writing class with James Baldwin and was very excited when I had to read my work aloud. We would sit around the big table and read our work and I would always ham it up or act out all the parts—this was a novel I was writing, or a short story. So he asked, “Have you ever thought of writing plays?” and I said no. I didn’t like theater people—they were always dressed in funny ways and wearing funny hats. But I decided to give it a try, playwriting, because I wanted to be a writer.
PARKS: People tell me there lots of political ideas in my work, but I don’t think about any of those matters when I’m writing. It’s more like, “Who is the woman in the play and what does she want and where is she going and what does she have in her hand and what is she doing with it?” That kind of thing. I don’t think I’ve written a play where I sit back and think, “I want to write a play about XYZ because that is an issue which should be addressed.”
The idea for Venus was born when I was at a cocktail party and heard a wonderful director talking about the Hottentot Venus. A bell went off in my head and I said, “Ooh, she’s going to be in a play of mine.” Why? Because she had big butt. I’d just written an article on Josephine Baker, and the article was about how the rear end works. So I was really keyed into black women and black women’s black female booty. Not the meaning of it, the fact of it, you know: the butt. So I said, “Hey, yeah, I’ll write a play about a woman with a butt.” I wasn’t thinking about colonialism, I was thinking about flesh.
HAGEDORN: I think there’s a simple way to explain how many of us work. It starts with something specific like the butt, or perhaps the idea of a street kid, which was a lot of inspiration for me to write Dogeaters—seeing children on the street who live by their wits. That’s not the only thing the book or the play is about, but that one image resonated and grew. I think it always does start with this real thing—this flesh or this person or this fruit in one’s hand—and then the politics and the colonialism and the poetry and the romance and the spirituality comes out of all that. I think that’s the only way it really works. For me a lot of what Suzan-Lori does is poetic and language-driven, and yet the ideas are all present. I suspect that many of us start with the images, or we hear the voices, and that drives the whole act of faith.
MEE: I start out either hearing something or with an image, something very specific. When you make something around that grain of sand, you just make it the way you think the world is or the way it feels good to you. I think that the familiar tradition of psychological realism and naturalism is a certain understanding of what it is to be a human being, what motivates a human being, what makes people live the way they do. In that tradition of theater there’s been a vision of what it is to be human seems single-minded to me. Human beings are created by psychology, yes, but also culture, history, economics, gender, class, biology. You can’t have a person onstage without having all of that onstage too. And then I throw in chunks of image and chunks of text—sort of slam all these broken pieces of glass together—because that’s what feels true to me, that’s how the world feels to me. I remember that an architectural critic once said that architects build buildings so that the structure of the building in some way replicates the structure of their own bodies. And I think I build plays in a way that replicate the structure of my body—that is, the plays are shattered, they’re broken, they don’t work so well, and I move on, seeking some harmonious place to live. It feels as though the work comes not from an idea but from my molecules.
HAGEDORN: I want to create a landscape that feels more real to me. Much of what I see is disturbing because it’s so limited, or it’s so homogenous, and for me the world is much more. It’s many colors and stories and voices, not just Asian American, African. I don’t want to sound like the agenda comes first, it doesn’t for me. I think I write unconsciously. I hear the voices first, and it always is a sort of dialogue, many dialogues and monologues going on. I don’t know why this child is haunting me as opposed to the child’s mother who’s standing right there, who’s fourteen years old, who’s just as tormented. But for some reason the kid’s face is stuck in my mind and I have to go with that. I don’t know where this will lead me, but the characters seem very rich to me so I try to evoke them.
HAGEDORN: When JoAnne Akalaitis was the artistic director here at the Public, she tried to put together a group of artists from different genres to talk about ideas and be a salon of sorts. I met Michael Greif then and he said Dogeaters had really touched him, and then a few months later he called me and asked if I’d ever thought of turning it into a play. And I thought, “Hell, no, it’s too big and unwieldy, and I’d always thought of it as a film.” He said, “I don’t see why you can’t do both.” Of course my interest was provoked and he was very persistent in a gentle way. I thought, “How is this ever going to work, with the state of the theater what it is today? Because I’m not going to want to reduce this novel to a two-character piece, it’s impossible, so realistically what are the chances of it ever getting done?”
But there was an opportunity to go up to the Sundance Theater Lab, which turned out to be a really great thing for me because I got to work with incredible actors. It was a trial by fire, and I work well that way. I like to do things spontaneously with the actors right there, rewriting on the spot. I arrived with maybe four scenes, and at the end of two and a half weeks I had drafted the first act, which I couldn’t have done here in Manhattan. I got good feedback and I started to see that perhaps it was possible to do this, and I fell back in love with the process of working in theater. It had been a long time since I’d done anything like this and it was also such a big piece—not a performance piece where I was controlling everything, but a production where I was collaborating with a huge group of people. We were all depending on each other, having to trust each other. From then on, the play became a reality. I got the permission from La Jolla and we produced it last year.
When we did Dogeaters in the San Diego area, which has a large percentage of Filipinos, we did a massive outreach to get them into the theater, offering ten-dollar tickets, or lawn tickets for free, and working with a whole bunch of community centers and libraries. It was a lot of work but I think it was worth it because it did bring in people who wouldn’t have come otherwise. But after the play closed, the question became: Are those same people going to keep coming? Because you want people to continue going to theater, to see everybody’s plays and not just the play that relates to their immediate concerns. That’s an ongoing problem, but I think there are many many ways that a theater can try to help, because I certainly saw it happen. I went out there, as the writer, and so did the cast. It was important to them, as Filipino American actors, to get the community to come and see them.
PARKS: I feel really lucky. Before I had a play done here in New York I was welcomed into the Yale School of Drama community. And before that there was BACA Downtown. I feel as if I’ve been at BACA and Yale and now The Public, surrounded by love, which is very important to me as a writer. It doesn’t mean that I don’t write any angry plays anymore, but I know how supportive a home can be.
MEE: I saw a piece in the meat market which some of you may have seen. It was produced by Anne Hamburger who ran En Garde Arts at the time. The piece was in and out of the streets of the meat market, and then in and out of warehouses. Carpenters were walking through, and you didn’t know if they were actors or audience members or if they were working. At one point I took a wrong turn and I ended up standing at the window of a restaurant for about ten minutes, watching everybody have dinner. I thought it was part of the piece.
It was incredible, so I went home and I called Annie Hamburger and left a message on her machine. For me, it was a total rethinking of what a theatrical experience could be. That is to say, you take it into the streets so that it breaks down the walls between life and art. It’s exhilarating. People come to see this event who never otherwise go to the theater; some people see it by accident. You incorporate the life of the city within it, the city becomes a set, everything that happens in the piece is played against the architecture of the city and the social economic structure of the real world. I could go on and on about all the things that I thought were so thrilling about what Anne Hamburger set up as a producer.
I wanted to do a piece of people on the fringe, marginal people. So we got an abandoned cancer hospital on 106th and Central Park West, and we set up a dinner table in the courtyard. I thought of the piece as nothing more than some strange people who come out and break bread with the audience. With them we perform the most fundamental sort of social and befriending ritual that we have, which is to share a meal together. So these weird people come out, they sit around the dinner table and say a lot of weird stuff, and the audience, which feels odd and uncomfortable in the beginning, gradually relaxes—until by the end, I think, they love the people onstage. They’ve just made a human connection with these people. That was the event. There was a rock band—guys who had recently been discharged from a mental hospital—who played great music. People came in from the neighborhood, kids came in. One of the wonderful things about Annie was she gave away a lot of free tickets, so there were forty, fifty kids in the house every night who’d never seen a live theatrical event before. Many of them came back night after night, a great audience. There was the downtown art crowd, and there were these adolescent boys, and they all laughed in different places.
We did another piece on the banks of the Hudson River. It was based on Orestes. I remember going to rehearsal one night. I got in a cab and said to the driver, “Could you take me down on West 57th Street to where the Department of Sanitation pier is, and you take a right turn through the storm fence and you go up this dirt road along the Hudson River.” He said, “I don’t think so.” I said, “No, no, no, I understand it seems weird, but actually we’re rehearsing a play there.” He said, “I haven’t heard about it.” And then I saw from his license that he had a Greek name, and I said, “You know it’s based on the great Greek play Orestes.” And he said, “I’ve never heard of it.” So he called his dispatcher and had a conversation in Greek, and finally I saw his body relax, and he turned to me and said, “He killed his mother, right?” And I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Okay.”
These plays were done in scary neighborhoods, or anyway neighborhoods that normal theater people don’t go to. It meant that you got an audience of adventurous people—they were really alive. It was exciting to be with them.
PARKS: With most of my plays, I go down into the basement and wrestle with the monster there. Or to choose another one of my favorite metaphors, I dig. I go down to the basement, to the floor of the cellar, and I dig and dig and dig. And one year I’ll come up with this thing that’s a play, but it won’t feel right. I’ll have to continue working on it. It continues to change and I have to let the draft lead me; I have to listen to what I know the play is. I have this belief: the play is already written, I have to get out of the way. I have to listen because the play is calling me and I just have to keep listening to what I know it is on some subconscious level, and continue to work toward it, which sometimes takes a week, sometimes takes seven years.
MEE: I’ve never felt that I do one thing and that I’ll be doing it forever. The Magic Theater in San Francisco commissioned a piece from me about a year ago and they said, “You can use eight actors,” and I thought, “God, how do you write a play with only eight actors?” But I thought that would be an interesting challenge so I started writing, and the play turned out to have twenty-two characters with all the actors doubling. It got to be fun. Part of it was a game of “He-goes-off, now-he-comes-on.” So we had a rhythm going.
Late in life I have discovered a love for Shakespeare. I did a number of pieces based on the Greeks because they deal with these characters who murder their mothers and fathers and cut up their sons for dessert. These are the problems that they take for plays, not moderate little misunderstanding we can clear up before the commercial break. They say: This is how people are, they’re savage—now make a civilization out of that. Shakespeare was writing for a company of actors. There were twelve actors, and sometimes a few others, and a lot of doubling. And so there you get into the pleasure of finding the multiple human beings that exist in a single human being.
HAGEDORN: I think it’s a big challenge to deal with a particular time in history that very few Americans know about. And you can’t just throw it all out there and hope that people get it. At the same time I don’t want to be didactic or do a history lesson. So the ten Filipinos who come get the whole picture, laughing, weeping. And then you’ve got the other two hundred people sitting there thinking, “What is this?” I don’t want to do exposition, ever. I was fortunate because, from the beginning, George Wolfe said to me, “Don’t explain.” But then you still have to think about how to be as clear as possible. I don’t think anyone has the answer, but I’ve been fortunate in working with people who are very sensitive to how tough it is.
MEE: I’m sixty-one years old; I’ve never made a living as a playwright. So it’s a form of illness, I guess. If I’m not doing it I feel confused and hopeless and stuff blows through my mind—it’s disorienting unless I can contain it in some vessel. But I feel like I’ve become happier in the last few years and I think my plays are happier. I don’t think I’m less connected to what horrifies me in the world, and I reserve the right to write something really nasty in the future, but at the moment I’m happy and that seems like a bigger difference than having forty characters or eight actors.
PARKS: I knew when I finished Venus that my plays might be different after that, though I didn’t know how. But I’ve written three little ones since then. There used to be a lot of dead people in my plays—I would just haul them all out onto stage. Now there seem to be fewer dead people, there are really no dead people. There are of course murders, but no one’s dead for the whole play.
As a playwright I always feel haunted, but if you’re haunted by someone dead who’s way, way back there, like the Hottentot Venus, for example, who lived in the year 1800, it’s very different from being haunted by Hester, La Negrita, who’s the heroine of In the Blood, because she’s right here with us.
MEE: I like to put aside a play and repeatedly come back to it over the course of a year or a year and a half because I think that the principal reason for rewriting is not to take something that isn’t perfect and polish it until it is perfect, but to take this thing and turn it over and you look at it in different moods and different frames of mind, with different emotions. To come at it after you’ve just had a fight with somebody, to come at it after you’ve just made love, to come at it after you’ve just been to France, to come at it in all of these ways so that by the time you’ve finished it has all of you in it. It’s a piece that is as rich as you can be as a person—it finally contains all the emotions and points of view that you’re capable of.