Because the Humana Festival is perched between two worlds, one of process and the other of product, it provides a unique vantage on the American theater. And this slate of plays, the first chosen by the new artistic director, Les Waters, provides a glimpse into the state of Actors Theatre of Louisville.
What do these plays tell us about the American theater, right now? What do they say about the work developed by and for the regional theaters?
That’s where I began: “What does success look like for a new play?”
To my surprise, what I was confronted by was failure. Not of the plays … but of the artists represented in the plays: the characters.
It started innocuously enough with Sam Mark’s “The Delling Shores,” a drama crafted around three artists: three writers. We have a father and daughter who are both aspiring to unreachable greatness. For the young scribe, it’s a quest for a coveted internship with a famous writer who just happens to be an old grad school pal of her father. Now, Dad’s setup a trip to the successful writer’s country house to lock up the internship (note: it’s not talent that gets you selected, it’s connections). But Dad’s got his own agenda, he’s come in search of a publicity blurb from the same writer.
So a playwright writing about writers – nothing radical there.
What struck me was that writing wasn’t portrayed as something noble or heroic. The act of writing itself, captured in the dramatic center of the piece by “The Book Game,” (a parlor game they play, each choosing a book and then trying to trick the others by writing a false first line) was a process of waiting, dramatically inert. And more troubling writing was about deception, about lying. Even the famous writer, the one who was supposed to be a success, is accused of being a pedophile and a plagiarist.
Not a flattering picture of the artist, right?
But it’s just one play . . .
In Jeff Augustin’s “Cry Beloved Country,” we meet Edwin, a revered Haitian artist during the repressive regime of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Edwin is in a sort of exile, he’s presumed dead, and he’s living hidden from society. We’re told he’s a revered painter of the revolution but he can’t seem to finish his paintings, he doesn’t paint faces and . . . he’s not sleeping with his wife. He’s lost his passion.
Not a pretty portrait of the artist.
He finally meets a subject who excites him, a young man building a boat to flee to America. His subject has only one request: “You can’t draw my face.” He’s afraid that he’ll be revealed – not his emotional core, not art as revelation of soul – but art as mug shot. The regime might discover him. And what does our ‘noble’ artist do? He paints his face. Then to compound the betrayal, he turns him in to the authorities. The young man is killed.
The artist as betrayer; making art: an act of betrayal.
Surely in Les Water’s commission for the festival, an adaptation of “Peer Gynt” by Will Eno called “Gnit,” the artist will be a hero, right?
Peer, or Peter in this version, is less tragic hero and more petulant spoiled boy: a character who lies to his mother while he steals the sweater from her shoulders. Peter’s stories aren’t magical tales (his mother’s second line of the play “You’re a liar”), and far from a noble quest for self (a search that would provide the piece with a dramatic drive), this is a foolish storyteller on the run in a self-imposed emotional exile from commitment. Even his name Gnit (pronounced Guh-nit) “It’s a typo . . .Yeah, some mix-up from a birth certificate but we just decided to go with it.”
I didn’t want to find this theme but once I began seeing the exiled, displaced artist, they started popping up everywhere like people on the same ticket package at industry weekend: another show and there they were.
“O Guru Guru Guru or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you” echoes the artist’s search for self. Lila’s the daughter of commune living, hippie parents who dragged her to an ashram as a child. She’s trying to figure out who she is. She’s 30 and she’s lost. The playwright, Mallery Avidon, takes us from Spalding Gray-esque lecture, to a participatory meditation retreat, and finally breaks both conventions by shifting us to the imagined movie set of “Eat, Pray, Love” and an appearance by Julia Roberts (well …a character named Julia Roberts).
So far, so good, but . . .
Lila’s an actor, a failed actor, “I’m not an actor. Acting terrifies me.” And Julia Roberts? Well, even she doesn’t want to act. She’s just in it to pay her entourage.
And the image of acting, well it’s sitting around waiting for gaffers to adjust the lights. Perhaps more troubling, in the audience participation meditation retreat – audience members who joined the performers onstage to meditate, to breathe, to become present? They are dismissed as nothing more than extras on a film set; told to collect their belongings at the end of the performance.
Even the Acting apprentice show isn’t immune to this leitmotif.
In the second of three one-acts that are strung together to form “Sleep Rock Thy Brain” playwright Anne Washburn spins a sophmoric tale of a young actor, our artist, who betrays his ensemble by letting go of the rope after getting drunk before rehearsal. (You see the, unifying gesture between the three acts is an elaborate flying rig that has the actors spinning and twirling above the stage. Is this a hint that Actors Theatre thinks the next generation of actors need to bring more spectacle to the theater? We can cynically imagine the decision ’emotional truth is done with. Let’s have them fly!’).
Again the crisis, or the nightmare of a crisis, is built around the irresponsibility of the artist.
The poster? In a festival famous for it’s festival art, is an image of a smashed mask. Crumbled not to reveal a new form, as this festival with the exception of “Guru…” was not formally daring, but simply leaving a pile of broken shards.
The most complicated view of the role of the artist, and art, is offered by Branden Jacob-Jenkins in his play “Appropriate.” Mr. Jacob-Jenkins, an African-American, writes the story of white southern family congregating to auction off their ancestral plantation. Where does the playwright’s experience appear in his own work? The only African-American appearance in the play is through old photos of lynched slaves that the dead father collected. Ironically these photos, these ‘artworks,’ these images of death are the only valuable inheritance the family has:
Writers who lie by writing. A painter in exile who commits the ultimate betrayal. Stories as lies and excuses. Actors who don’t want to act and those that do show up drunk. Appropriated artwork that gains value through the death of others. The image of the artist in these plays is not only unfulfilled – it’s profoundly dark.
What does all this say about the new play development process in America? About the machine turning out these plays?
What does it say that the playwrights who have been through it, and arguably made it to the other side, that these artists are writing about the failure of art and more specifically the failure of the artist?
Collectively, this is not the view of the artist as troubled, noble hero, a la Rothko in “Red.” This is artist displaced by forces outside of their control. It should trouble all of us in the theater when writers, consciously or not, are envisioning the role of the artist as displaced and the role of art making as either dramatically inert (as the writing in “The Delling Shore”) or as lies (the fanciful stories in “Gnit”) or as outright betrayal (“Cry Beloved Country”).
It’s understandable in a country scraping to find it’s way out of recession and an arts community decimated by budget cuts that these playwrights might give voice to a sense of displacement, a belief that perhaps they’ve found themselves exiled from a culture that celebrates reality TV more than live theater.
What does this say about the power of art? What does this say about our broader culture? Where is the hope in this Pandora’s box?
Comedic redemption is offered in Jonathan Josephson’s ten-minute play “27 Ways I Didn’t Say ‘Hi’ to Laurence Fishburne – Based on actual events . . . sort of.” Here the artist is a doppelganger for the writer himself: an aspiring playwright who can’t find the words, or the courage, to say hello. Even here the artist’s fails. We watch as he keeps failing – 26 times.
Only once does he find his voice and succeed . . . only to discover that his success is nothing more than a dream, another failure,
Jonathan Josephson – “It’s just shitty – that this is a dream”
Laurence Fishburne – “Pretty shitty”
But in Mr. Josephson’s play, for this artist’s failure – we laugh.
We come together as an audience. We laugh cathartically and our demons are exorcised . . . if only for a moment.
And maybe that reminds us of the role of theater – and the true strength of the Humana Festival. What the festival truly excels at is creating an artistic community, an artistic ecosystem. Whether it’s the 21 acting apprentices who are filled with innocence and aspiration; or all the playwrights, directors, designers and staff that balloon Actors Theatre’s staff to twice its normal size for the festival; or the hundreds of ‘industry’ professionals who flock like pilgrims to the festival; or simply the people of Louisville who become audience members: theater is about community.
Perhaps our role, as a community, is to bear witness. To come together as a group and be present while these playwrights capture what it means to be an artist in this culture in this particular moment of the twenty-first century. To listen.
Then, having heard, maybe we can create our way out of this mess . . .