Thursday, May 20, 2010

Shauna Kanter's new play, Birds on a Wire, couldn't be more timely.

"...Our emphasis has been on certain things and maybe we should shift priorities, and here were these birds, making room for the newly-landed..."

How did you start in the theater?

My father was a Broadway stage manager and he stage-managed thirteen Broadway plays, so I grew up in it. My mother was an actress and her father founded a theater in Kansas City called Resident Theatre, which some people still remember. My uncle worked for the Shuberts, so it was everywhere around me. I went to Carnegie Mellon and studied theater as an actress, and then transferred to Suny Purchase after being asked to leave Carnegie, when I decided to do an off-Broadway show that I thought would run only for the summer, but it ran for six months. It was at the Eden Theater which is now a cinema at Second Avenue and Twelfth Street. It was a three thousand seat theater. So then, skipping like fifteen years of working as an actress all around the country, mostly the east coast, I did some film work, blah, blah, blah.

Were you happy with that?

To a point. I was successful at it, and then I decided that all the plays that I was lucky enough to be cast in meant absolutely nothing to me, and I decided to quit. I was actually in a show in New York and gave two weeks notice. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. A couple weeks later, these people asked me if I had a voice tape they could buy. They had a school in Paris. I sent it to them, and they called me up a couple months later out of the blue saying, “we’ve been using your voice tape for our students and not only are their voices getting better, but they’re becoming better human beings!” (laughing) So they asked me to come to Paris to teach a one-week workshop and I agreed.

Had you been to Paris before?

Yes. My husband is an actor and he was rehearsing Peter Brooks’ Mahabarata with Georges Corraface in Paris, so I had been there, but it was always for his stuff. So there I was in Paris for the first time for my stuff, and the last day of the workshop, the agency that funded me being there, invited me to come back and said, “What you’re doing, nobody’s doing. Please come back. You can have thirty actors for six months, five days a week, for six hours. Are you interested?” I went around the corner, and thought, “Oh shit. Did I just get a job in Paris?” And sure enough, I had. So that summer, I decided I was going to write a piece about Palestinian and Israeli women.

What inspired that?

I was with my husband in Jerusalem. First of all, my mother had smuggled guns for Irgun terrorist organization that wanted to create the state of Israel in ’47, and I had grown up with a complete mindset of Arabs being a certain way. I was brainwashed. So when I went to Israel, I found the complete opposite to be true, to my shock and horror.

So we were outside of Jerusalem and my husband and I got lost. We thought if we can follow this aqueduct up, it must lead to Jerusalem because it was built by the Romans, of course it’s going to lead to Jerusalem. We came upon this guy who was literally pissing in his own backyard. And we were like, “Oh, excuse me! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and he invited us into his house and it turns out that he was Palestinian. He was living in his garden shed. The IDF, (the Israeli Defense Force) had kicked him out of his house with his family because his two sons had been to one meeting each of the PLO. I listened to his story for hours, and then came back and retold this great adventure to everyone in the theater. My husband was doing Peter Brooks’ Carmen at the Israel festival in Jerusalem and they were horrified. They were like, “What?! You went into a Palestinian household?! You could have been killed!” That’s what fed me to write this piece, and it ended up touring for five years. It’s just about to be published.

So, I wrote the piece in 1988/89 and it was done at La Mama in 1989. This was the first time with Palestinians and Israelis actors on the stage at the same time ever. Then we went to the Glasgow 1990 Festival and got invited to go back to Scotland the next year, and we did a four city tour of Scotland. When we came back, we did it at a place called Home which is now Here, and then we toured as part of National Performance Network. We toured the play until 1993 and now it’s finally being published by the University of Nebraska. So that’s my background. I want to say that although I grew up in the theater and was trained and worked professionally as an actor, I had absolutely no training as a playwright or director at all, except that I had it in my blood somehow. So I did Pushing Through for five years.

You produced it?

Yeah, I produced it for five years. So, when we were in Scotland, somebody says to me you should write a play about Scotland so I ended up writing my second play called The Homecoming Project which was about greed and real estate in Scotland and the Highland Clearances. It ended up having a five week residency at the Columbia Festival of the Arts with professional actors and sixty people from the community and unbeknownst to me, Columbia Maryland was created by the Rouse Corporation – a totally created town in the early sixties. The creation of Columbia, Maryland mirrored - unbeknownst to me when I was writing the play - what the play was about. They basically connived all the farmers by very devious means to sell their land. One of the lawyers that worked for the Rouse Corporation who had gone farm to farm was actually in the play (laughing), and actually put up two of the Scottish actors.
So that was the second piece and then I decided I wanted to see how other directors do their work.

You direct your own work then?

Yes. I got a gig as part of the directors attachment to the Bristol Old Vic in England and then, for many, many years, I was directing other works in British Equity Theater, and that was a very different experience. I then ended up writing a play called Legacy which ended up at the Old Vic and I brought some people from Voice Theater to work with the English actors. Then the European Commission awarded us a huge grant to take it to Germany and France. This is now between ’97 and ’98. Then in 2000, I directed a whole lot of other plays, and I was hired a lot in Europe to direct American plays. But Legacy was about the rescue of a Jewish family in Berlin in 1939. It was taken from some family history that I found out about. Then I came back to America in 2000 and started teaching acting in several different schools. A whole bunch of other plays were written that I’m going to skip over.

I was hired as a guest artist in several universities to create some of these plays and skipping to now, in a weird way, I’m sort of right back where I was in 1989, writing and directing and producing. After all this experience, I’m back to making my own props. I’m back to not having an equity stage manager. The only thing I should mention is that Legacy, the play that I wrote in Bristow, looks like it’s going to open a theater in Detroit in 2011. So that’s my background. I’ve directed over thirty productions and Birds on a Wire is my tenth full-length play.

When did you start writing Birds on a Wire?

I started writing Birds on a Wire when I was directing Sleuth two years ago in Detroit. I was sitting at a traffic light at Fourteenth Mile, and I looked up, and there was a telephone wire with a lot of birds in between two poles. I noticed that when one bird would land on the wire, all the other birds would move to accommodate that one bird. And then by the other pole, if one bird would land, all the other birds would move to accommodate that newly-landed bird. It was during the Obama campaign and I thought, wow, those birds really know how to work together. They really know how to make space. That’s the natural order of things. And Obama, at the same time, was talking about how we need to learn a new way. Our emphasis has been on certain things and maybe we should shift priorities, and here were these birds, making room for the newly-landed.

Two years before that, I was directing Measure for Measure in Abilene, Texas, and I had a big experience there, and I got to know a lot of the locals. I became very interested in the history of Texas. Then, I read a book called The Worst Hard Times which talked about the Dust Bowl and I was hooked. So, Birds on a Wire is about a family who has an unbelievable amount of resilience to stay. The Grapes of Wrath was about people who left, which was actually only about one third of the people in the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl was the greatest ecological disaster to hit this country ever, and because of certain government programs that were instituted, two-thirds of the people from Montana down to Texas, survived. If those programs hadn’t been instituted by our government, if market forces had been left to quake on their own, that would have been a Sahara Desert. There would have been no way for the land to come back.

So I wrote this play about redemption and forgiveness and also, interestingly enough, foreclosure because this family is facing foreclosure on their farm. This family is learning how to forgive each other and the community comes to the aid of this family in their most dire hour, even when the family has cared very little to do anything for their community. So again, this whole thing of this community organizer/activist being our president, and this way that we have to focus now, in terms of national health care, of taking care of each other, of being accountable, of being responsible for what kind of culture or what kind of society we have, and that’s what, by no doing of their own, that’s what this family is given. They certainly in a funny way, don’t even deserve in, but they are given it.

The reading is Tuesday May 25th at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place just west of 7th avenue at 7pm. Reservations strongly recommended. Call 212-201-9337. Suggested donation is $15.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Action Versus Image: Theater artist Daniel Talbott talks about just doing it

"You can either live your life bitching about being unhappy about not getting what you want, or you can try. You can make an attempt, and the attempt is the most important thing."

In part two of my conversation with Daniel Talbott, we segued from porn into discussing the idea of action versus image which is included below.

I think we’re learning images, instead of actions. I feel like if you do theater, if you create theater, then you’re a theater artist, and you can look like anything, but I think because of marketing, because of capitalism, because of whatever, we’re like, “ Oh, actors dress a certain way, or act a certain way”. It’s like we’re sucked into kind of imitating action. I think we have problems with action in our culture, and work in our culture - like a work ethic. There’s this thing that’s shifted, where it used to be that you worked really hard, and you became successful, and now it’s almost embarrassing that you have to work really hard - like you’re supposed to get as much as you can for as little as you can. I know that’s a really general statement, but I feel like it’s so different when you watch someone onstage act, and truly go after it with another human being, in a very universal, honest and active way, rather than imitate that they’re going after it.

I think that can be the most dangerous type of theater because it looks like maybe the action is happening, and it looks solid, and it’s pretty, and it’s well put together, and its kind of like a classy production, but nothing is actually happening. So it’s dangerous because it looks like theater, but you don’t leave feeling anything, and nothing’s been engaged, and I think maybe, as a culture, we’re more about the image, instead of shutting the fuck up and doing it, and I think that theater is throwing that back in our face right now. It’s like if you’re bored with theater, you’re bored with yourself, in a way, because we’re the ones creating theater.

You find that people are bored with theater?

I think a lot of people are bored with theater.

Do you mean other theater artists or the general theater-going public?

I constantly hear theater people bitch about everyone else’s theater. I hear it all the time. I hear more people say bad shit about people than good shit; do you know what I mean?

I think that’s one of the reasons why I started this blog because I found myself going to the theater and somehow had turned into this consumeristic-type person, who was sitting there going two thumbs up or two thumbs down all the time. I was watching something, and I was sitting there critiquing it, and I thought, you know, I’m not really getting anything out of that, so why don’t I try to find what I like about the piece? And I mean, what is that all about anyway?

It’s our culture, so we can shake our heads, and we can feel more powerful, and we can feel smarter and it has nothing – in fact, I think it’s the opposite of making good theater. Trying to understand something, especially trying to understand something that is far away from yourself, so you can become larger and more in the world in some way. I think we’re way too judgmental as theater artists. Making a fucking play nowadays, with how much it costs, and how hard it is to live, is so difficult, and yet we are so nasty to each other.

Again, I think it’s about action. You are a theater artist if you do theater. You are a theater artist if you are working in the theater. We need to get back to action, and action on a very universal level, on a societal level, on an emotional level, on a self level, a self-in-relation-to-other level. It’s like shut the fuck up, and stop trying to look like something and do it. Playing an action is jumping off a cliff every time.

Because you cannot control the results of an action.

And you can’t manipulate it. If you jump off a cliff, that’s an action. Jumping is an action. And when you do that, then something might happen, or might not happen. Then you put it out there to experience something. But if you imitate an action, so that it looks like it’s active, and you worry about pacing – which is an important element of theater, but if you’re really playing the actions of the play, it honestly takes care of itself, for the most part - then something happens. And I feel like we are able to sit back and judge because a lot of theater isn’t active, because when it’s really active you stop judging. You sit forward. You become part of the action. And believe me, I’m not saying I’m some Buddha. I catch myself saying I fucking hated that all the time. We all do it, and more and more, I’m telling myself to shut the fuck up and say, first of all, this is not about that. It’s not constructive. It doesn’t do anything. You can have an opinion, or taste, but I think it needs to affect your work. It should be a comment about the work, and how you work, not whether they were good or bad because who’s to say that my work is better or not better than somebody else’s?

Back to talking about action, I had seen Rome Torre’s review of Sam Shepard’s “Ages of the Moon” and she had said that the action took a back seat to the talking—

--talking is action. It’s what’s behind the talking.

But sometimes it feels like action, and other times it just feels like talking.

Because if they’re not really talking, and they’re not really listening, it’s not active. It’s just imitating. If you’re really talking, and really listening, something has to alter, and that’s action. That to me is the difference. The image of talking, and listening, versus truly talking and listening on stage - not to say that that’s the only action you play, to talk and listen, but I think the difference is to embody it. You can pretend that you’re listening, and pretend that you’re talking, and some people do it brilliantly, but it’s not really happening so you’re just watching someone pretend. You’re basically watching someone lie to you. Someone’s playing an image. They’re cleaning up the edges. There are not a lot of colors there. If they play an action, you can sit back, and have a response to it because an action is a universal thing. It starts with simply listening and responding.

There is this amazing thing I heard, and it’s so simple, and you say it, and you feel so dumb saying it – and again that’s another thing. Why do simple things have to be stupid? Why do things have to be so cool and fucking complex all of the time? It’s just bullshit. Someone said that you’re only as good on stage as you are off stage, meaning if you’re an engaged, active human being in the world, you’ll bring that to your work on the stage, and if you’re not, then it’s not like you can flip the light switch all of a sudden and suddenly bring an active artist on stage. Even if the character is a spoon and a dildo, it’s still an exploration of life in some way, or an understanding of the size of life, in some way, and if you’re active in the world, you’ll be active on stage. I think not only do we have a lack of action in our culture, we have a lack of selfless action in our culture. Many of our actions are so we can buy a big house, or we can look cool to our friends. I mean, that is an action, but it’s a small part of it. So, more and more, I try not to think good or bad.

The muscle is so strong. It’s been worked for such a long time. I mean, in school, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to critique things with long arguments on why your reasons are valid but I think - going back to what we were talking about, in terms of having to be mean to be taken seriously - it’s the same with criticizing someone’s play using all the correct language, it’s like oh, then you must be intelligent.

Isn’t it weird that we’re only intelligent if we can criticize people? That is such a strange thing to me. You’re only smart if you can make someone else look like a fucking idiot! (laughing) It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s not my thing. You see weird power games, like when the Tony winner walks into the room. I mean, how many people have won a Tony because of politics and how many have won because of the quality of their work? It’s so much more complicated than that. How many people have never won a Tony who are fucking genius? Elizabeth Marvel has never won a Tony and I think she’s brilliant. Didi O’Connell has never won a Tony and I think they’re just as good as any of the actors in the last ten years who have won Tony awards. I think the actors who have won Tony awards are fucking genius, but we all need to feel powerful, in a way, and it’s dangerous in the theater. It’s dangerous anywhere, but exceptionally so, in the theater.

How many actors walk into an audition and there’s a guy sitting behind the table eating his fucking sandwich? How are you going to learn anything about that actor by sitting there stuffing your face and talking on the phone, and not even getting up, and shaking their hand, and treating them like a human being? How do you expect them to act like a human being if you don’t treat them like one? It just happens too much.

I think a lot of theater is being run like a corporation, and it’s not a corporation. I don’t blame the producers, or the artistic directors. I think we’re all culpable, and we should all take responsibility for it. At the same time, everyone wants to feed their family, so I think it needs to be attacked on both sides. I’m not one of those people who sit there and say, “Oh, the fucking artistic director ought to be doing more new plays”. I think every artistic director should have to try to be a playwright for a year, and a playwright should be an artistic director for a year because it’s so hard. It’s so insanely difficult on both ends. We all have to work together more to change the problem.

Didn’t Paula Vogel teach a class where she invited theater critics to come and try to write a play?

All critics should have to try to write a fucking play. Not to say their job is easy, either. We’re all in this together, but theater is going to out survive all of us. Theater is kind of like, “Ok bitches, come on, do your job”. (laughing) Theater is going to survive. It’s not like we’re going to help the theater survive. The theater’s been around a lot longer than any of us, but if we’re all going to do our jobs better, if we’re all going to make it a healthier community, then we’re all going to have to understand each other better, and work together more, and eliminate the negativity, and the power struggles, and the games, and that includes critics. That includes everybody. Sometimes, theater artists are the nastiest critics out there. They just do it insidiously over drinks at Joe Allen’s afterward. We all bitch about critics, but too many people constantly talk shit about each other. Sometimes, there’s also a lot of positive stuff. There seems to be a lot of extremity right now. There’s a lot of support. There’s a lot of negativity. We live in extreme times, and I think that lends itself to good theater, and we need to put it into theater and action.

I read somewhere that you said that when you go see a play, it usually makes you think about play-making or your work. It propels you to action, as opposed to just criticism.

You can either live your life bitching about being unhappy about not getting what you want, or you can try. You can make an attempt, and the attempt is the most important thing to me. And that doesn’t mean in the way that I envision it, but that we’re all an active part of society - especially as theater artists - and we’re not just worried about our careers, but we’re attempting to do something, and trying to always make it go back to the work. There’s only one King Lear, only one Long Day’s Journey Into Night, one Streetcar, and one Top Girls. There’s a small amount of ingenious plays out there, but everybody’s struggling to be the best they can be, and to me, it’s about the struggle being more important than whether we all get to write Angels In America. That’s a whole different story. But theater is about attempt. Attempt at action and trying to do something, and not about trying to knock everybody down.