Category Archives: poem

My mother and Emily Dickinson

mom teen boy

by Stephen Sachs

It was my mother who introduced me to Emily Dickinson.

“I want to show you something,” Mom whispered one afternoon when I was boy, pulling down the thick volume of Dickinson’s poetry wedged on the family bookshelf in the den of our home. She patted the brown Naugahyde sofa, instructing me to sit beside down her.

“Listen to this,” mom smiled, opening the collection of poems, her finger hunting through its pages then hitting her target with a tap. “Here. This one. I will read this poem to you. Tell me what you think the poet is writing about.”

My mother then read to me the Dickinson poem, “I like to see it lap the Miles” When done, she looked to me. “What is she describing?”

I had no idea. It made no sense to me. I confessed my confusion.

“It’s a train,” my mother smiled. “Emily is picturing how a train glides across the countryside, chugs up a mountain, winds its way downhill, the sound it makes. Now that you know it’s a train, I’ll read it again. You’ll see and hear the train for yourself.”

She read it again. And I saw it. I heard it. And a world opened.        

My mother offered more of Emily’s poetry to me. Our routine was the same. Mom would read it aloud, then explain it, then read it again. Each poem was a revelation. My mother unlocking the door to each one. “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” was a snake. “A Route of Evanescence” a hummingbird. Soon, I was yanking the hefty The Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson down from the shelf by myself. Alone in the den. My mother nowhere in sight. Perhaps she washed dishes downstairs in our kitchen or lugged a blue plastic basket of family clothes into the laundry room. I was curled up on the couch in the den clutching Emily, her words launching me like a little boat on journeys inward and outward.   

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

My mother shared with me her green 1945 first edition of Ancestors’ Brocades, the memoir by Millicent Todd Bingham telling how her own mother, Mabel Loomis Todd, co-edited the first publishing of Dickinson’s poetry, announcing Emily to the world in 1890, four years after her death. Although Mabel Loomis Todd had visited Emily Dickinson’s home for four years by that time, she had never laid eyes on the reclusive poet in person except in her coffin.

Emily’s solitude, her expansive inner life, her monk-like self-ordination to the service of her soul has enthralled me to this day. I am as much enamored of her life as I am of her poetry. To me, they are one and the same.

My mother’s persona was more Donna Reed than Emily Dickinson. Mom was pretty, vivacious, classy. She wore pearls and black heels and Channel No. 5. She gave me her joy, her sense of style and fun. She gave me her intellect, her delight for the arts.  She gave me her love and her friendship. She gave me all of herself.

And she gave me Emily.

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre

On World Theatre Day: Long live the theatre. The most wondrous art form.

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Gilbert Glenn Brown, Suanne Spoke in “The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek” Fountain Theatre 

by Sabina Berman

We can imagine.

The tribe launches small stones to bring down birds from the air, when a gigantic mammoth bursts in on the scene and ROARS –and at the same time, a tiny human ROARS like the mammoth. Then, everyone runs away…

That mammoth roar uttered by a human woman –I would like to imagine her as a woman– is the origin of what makes us the species we are. A species capable of imitating what we are not. A species capable of representing the Other.

Let’s leap forward ten years, or a hundred, or a thousand. The tribe has learned how to imitate other beings: deep in the cave, in the flickering light of a bonfire, four men are the mammoth, three women are the river, men and women are birds, bonobos, trees, clouds: the tribe represents the morning’s hunt, thus capturing the past with their theatrical gift. Even more amazing: the tribe then invents possible futures, essaying possible ways to vanquish the mammoth, the enemy of the tribe.

Roars, whistles, murmurs –the onomatopoeia of our first theatre—will become verbal language. Spoken language will become written language. Down another pathway, theatre will become rite and then, cinema.

But along these latter forms, and in the seed of each one of these latter forms, there will always continue to be theatre. The simplest form of representation. The only living form of representation.

Theatre: the simpler it is, the more intimately it connects us to the most wondrous human skill, that of representing the Other.

Today, in all the theatres of the world we celebrate that glorious human skill of performance. Of representing and thus, capturing our past —and of inventing possible futures, that can bring to the tribe more freedom and happiness.

What are the mammoths that must be vanquished today by the human tribe? What are its contemporary enemies? About what should theatre that aspires to be more than entertainment be about?

For me, the greatest mammoth of all is the alienation of human hearts. The loss of our capacity to feel with Others: to feel compassion for our fellow humans and for our fellow non-human living forms.

What a paradox. Today, at the final shores of Humanism —of the Anthropocene— of the era in which human beings are the natural force that has changed the planet the most, and will continue to do so— the mission of the theatre is –in my view– the opposite of that which gathered the tribe when theatre was performed at the back of the cave: today, we must salvage our connection to the natural world.

More than literature, more than cinema, the theatre —which demands the presence of human beings before other human beings— is marvelously suited to the task of saving us from becoming algorithms, pure abstractions.

Let us remove everything superfluous from the theatre. Let us strip it naked. Because the
simpler theatre is, the more apt it is to remind us of the only undeniable thing: that we are, while we are in time; that we are only while we are flesh and bone and hearts beating in our breasts; that we are the here and now, and no more.

Long live the theatre. The most ancient art. The art of being in the present. The most wondrous art. Long live the theatre.

Sabina Berman, born in Mexico City, is a writer and journalist. Considered to be Mexico’s most critically and commercially successful contemporary playwright, Berman is one of the most prolific living writers in the Spanish language.

Today is World Theatre Day.

 

PHOTO SLIDESHOW: ‘Citizen’ author Claudia Rankine engages in Q&A at Fountain Theatre

 Claudia Rankine at the Fountain Theatre

Claudia Rankine at the Fountain Theatre

Author Claudia Rankine attended last Sunday’s matinée performance of our world stage premiere of her book, Citizen: An American Lyric, and engaged the audience in a Q&A Talkback discussion with the cast.  It was Ms. Rankine’s first opportunity to see the Fountain’s full production of the stage adaptation of her book  (she attended a reading of an earlier draft of the script two months ago). She was very moved by what she experienced on Sunday.  

Following the performance, Ms. Rankine and the cast addressed issues of racism dramatized on stage in the play and rendered in the book. Audience members shared their insightful comments and asked meaningful questions of the author and the actors. Rankine then signed copies of her book and a catered reception was served in the cafe immediately after.

Another memorable afternoon at the Fountain Theatre.

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Citizen: An American Lyric runs to Sept 14th. MORE INFO/GET TICKETS   

Photo Slideshow: ‘Citizen’ Executive Producers and Fountain Donors Enjoy a Special Night

The CITIZEN company

The CITIZEN company

Friday night was an exclusive gathering at the Fountain Theatre of special patrons invited to enjoy an early performance of the world stage premiere that they helped make happen. Executive Producers of Citizen: An American Lyric and their guests were welcomed to the Fountain for a preview performance in their honor, followed by a catered reception with the artists upstairs in our cafe.  It was a lively evening of thought-provoking theatre, energetic conversation, and invigorating food and drink.  

Two months ago, the Executive Producers attended an exclusive reading of Citizen,  the new project the Fountain was developing about race in America based on the internationally acclaimed and award-winning book by Claudia Rankine. Even in that early phase of development, those gathered  recognized the urgent need for this project to blossom to fruition and offered their financial support. Their contributions were essential in guaranteeing that Citizen would be produced at the highest artistic level possible and reach a wide landscape of audiences.  Thanks to the partnership made by our Executive Producers, the Fountain was able to increase its marketing and promotional campaign for Citizen, reach out to more schools and engage more students, and establish a greater range of associations with a diverse variety of organizations for the project.  

The Executive Producers of Citizen are Barbara Herman, Susan Stockel, Dorothy and Stanley Wolpert, Diana Buckhantz, Marjorie Goldman, Debra Grieb and John Mickus, Karen Kondazian, Sophie and Leslie MacConnell, Brenda and Brett Marsh, Dick Motika and Jerrie Whitfield, Dr. Ejike and Mrs. Victoria Ndefo, Rita Rothman, Barbara and Barry Shaffer, and Lois Tandy

Too often, many may view or experience the daily sickness of racism and ask themselves , “What can I do?” The Fountain Theatre and this community of extraordinary and generous people joined together as a family and made the decision to do something. For that, we are proud and will forever be grateful.

Enjoy These Party Photos! 

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Q&A with ‘Citizen’ Director Shirley Jo Finney: “To be fearless in the conversation and offer a place of awareness and healing.”

Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney is more than an acclaimed and award-winning director. She is a force of nature and spirit. To be in her presence is to plug into a deep flow  of energy, to be charged by her kinetic jolt of honesty, intensity, raw vulnerability and joy. It’s the reason why actors flock to work with her and why the Fountain Theatre so values its relationship with her. Although she continues to direct in regional theatres across the country,  the Fountain Theatre is her artistic home.

Prior to Citizen, her Fountain productions are The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, Heart Song, The Ballad of Emmett Till, Yellowman, Central Avenue and From the Mississippi Delta.  She has been honored with Ovation, LA Drama Critics  Circle, Garland, LA Weekly and NAACP awards for her directing.  

CITIZEN company surround Finney (center).

CITIZEN company surround Finney (center).

How did you first get involved in this project as director? How did it come your way? 

I had not heard about the book before it was brought to my attention and was asked by Stephen Sachs to direct the piece. He said he had read a review and excerpt in the New York Times about the book Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and felt that it had the makings of a theatrical work. He asked me to read it and give my impressions.

What did you think when you first read the book?

It was like walking through a door that I walk through every day of my life.

As director, what were the artistic challenges of staging the piece?

This is the third new work that I have collaborated on with Stephen. In the prior collaborations, Stephen had written linear story lines that had a clear three act structure. This did not. Conceptually creating a visual story that was non-linear was challenging. The book is poetry and reads at times like a narrative essay. The adaptation was created from the book with Stephen gleaning passages that would lend itself for stage.

Finney guides CITIZEN table work rehearsal.

Finney guides CITIZEN table work rehearsal.

How did real-life events affect the rehearsal process? 

Unlike most works, this story was being played out in “the theater of life” with the tragic deaths of so many black lives. The shooting of the South Carolina Nine occurred while we were in rehearsals. We were constantly being impacted by the headlines. There was no separating it from our daily lives. It heightened our awareness of everyday encounters with racism. We were all evolving as Citizens.

How did you confront and speak openly about racism with your multi-racial cast? Was that delicate to honestly navigate?

In the past, when I have dealt with projects that have themes rooted within the “American Wound”, the historic conversation, and racism, I find that as difficult as that conversation may be, actors must, as a company, face their own fears and come face to face with the dark side. Confront it. Acknowledge it. So they are free to tell the emotional truth in the work.

Sharing a laugh with her cast.

Sharing a laugh with her CITIZEN cast.

What kind of actors were you looking for in the casting process?

Their training. That when they say “yes” to a project, they are committed and willing to experience whatever discomfort the project raises. I have been fortunate that the Universe brought the right group of actors to this project. Creative, open-hearted, generous, intelligent and fearless.

Can you describe your process as a director? Your approach with actors?

As a director, it is up to me to create a safe place of trust. I love actors and I live for the process and playing in the creative playground with them. There is nothing like the relationship between director and actor. There is a zone, a dance, that is experienced through discovery of human behavior.

What kind of experience do you hope the audience will have with Citizen? 

We have created something we are proud to present, knowing that it will have an impact with our audience and do what Claudia’s book intended. To be fearless in the conversation and offer a place of awareness and healing.

The World Stage Premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric opens Aug 1st. 

MORE INFO/GET TICKETS

Claudia Rankine: With ‘Citizen’ hopes “to see my community, to understand my place in it, what it looks like, and yet stay on my street anyway”

Claudia Rankine reads at Shakespeare & Company, Paris.

Claudia Rankine reads at Shakespeare & Company, Paris.

by Lauren Berlant

I met Claudia Rankine in a parking lot after a reading, where I said crazy fan things like, “I think we see the same thing.” She read a book of mine and wrote me, “Reading it was like weirdly hearing myself think.” This exchange is different from a celebration of intersubjectivity: neither of us believes in that . Too much noise of racism, misogyny, impatience, and fantasy to weed out. Too much unshared lifeworld—not just from the difference that racial experience makes but also in our relations to queerness, to family, to sickness and to health, to poverty and wealth—while all along wondering in sympathetic ways about the impact of citizenship’s embodiment. Plus, it takes forever to get to know someone and, even then, we are often surprised—by ourselves, by each other. Claudia and I have built a friendship through consultation about whether our tones are crazy, wrong, off, or right; about whether or not our observations show something, and what. And, through frankness: a form of being reliable that we can trust, hard-edged as it can be, loving as it can be (and sometimes the former is easier to take than the latter). We are both interested in how writing can allow us to amplify overwhelming scenes of ordinary violence while interrupting the sense of a fated stuckness. This interview, conducted via email, walks around how we think with and against the convenience of conventionally immiserated forms of life and art.

Experimental work always forces us to imagine analogous genres around it: Citizen: An American Lyric , Rankine’s new book, has the same subtitle as her previous book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004). That’s one route to take. Each is like a commentary track on the bottom of a collective television screen where the ordinary of racism meets a collective nervous system’s desire for events to be profoundly transformative. Both books have tender, sustaining intimacies. Citizen also acts as a kind of art gallery playing out the aesthetics of supremacist sterility, each segment being like a long, painfully white hall we’re walking down, punctuated by stunning images of black intensity and alterity. And then come some moments of relieving care, not just with people but also in the very fact that an aesthetic encounter can make you feel that you have a world to breathe in, after all. Or that you don’t. In the director’s cut of Citizen , many pages ended with the forward slash (/) we associate with the end of the line in a cited poem. On Rankine’s page this / designated the previous writing as a line of poetry embedded in a history captured through citation. These slashes were deleted at the end of the process, but do not forget to read for the breathless cut and join of enjambment, as it figures the core intimate fact of relation in Rankine’s Citizen .

Lauren Berlant

Lauren Berlant

Lauren Berlant What kind of tone do you associate with the word citizen? I ask this because the book Citizen is so much about tone—of voice, atmosphere, history—the unsaids (James Baldwin’s “questions hidden by the answers”), the saids, the spaces within a conversation holding up the encounter both in the sense of sustaining it and of blocking it …

Claudia Rankine Tone is an everyday kind of maneuver. It disrupts and communicates aggression, disgust, dis- respect, and humor, among a myriad of possibilities, thereby allowing language to morph into a blanket or a gun. It helps me know how to read the spaces between things. One has an ear out for it always. It’s a thing to be translated. Yours is a good question because it presupposes certain expectations for tone in public encounters, places where equality and sharing are legislated to happen, places where one has expectations for justice, for evenhandedness, and for “we are all just people here” indifference. I don’t exactly expect disdain when paying for my bagel. Not at 9 AM in a café, anyway!

LB “A blanket or a gun”! What a narrow margin. There’s not a lot of laughter in Citizen. No doubt, that sense motivates your use of the word maneuver—it means, etymologically, “to work with one’s hands,” but it’s usually a way of talking about unsticking something, getting around an impasse or an obstacle course, or dealing with touchy subjects. It’s a word for the delicacy of manner that people develop while trying not to incite unwonted violence.

So yes, tone maneuvers. I might have said alternatively that tone adjusts, pointing to arcs of implied communication and to the spontaneous action of shaping the event while losing and regaining our footing. Your view of it is more intentional. For sure to notice tone is to experience it as a pressure on consciousness. You are very interested in what tone does. The action of the mind’s hands as they move through the air of the encounter. (Thoreau: “My head is hands and feet.”)

This must be what ballasts Citizen’s great phrase about your being “too tired even to turn on any of your devices,” which is metapoetic but also implies that the maneuver of tone is one of your citizen-actions, a weapon for resisting defeat and depletion in the face of the supremacist ordinary. The you that you use that also sometimes means I and we, needs such devices to defend, refuse, and reinvent the ordinary, despite, as you say, being sick with John Henryism and other maladies of the racially subordinated. The more devices the better—Citizen meditates on counter-uses of the pronoun, the metaphor, the catastrophic event, and the wedging phrase. Take the repeated tag, “What did you say?” It’s tone that reroutes the damaging verbal exchange from its target into the shared space of a disowned violence.  Continue reading

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Cyrano Has Been Invited to New York! 

But We Only Have 1 Week to Raise the Funds We Need. We are More Than Halfway There. Will You Help?
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We’ve launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise the support needed
to get our team to New York. Be a part of it! Everyone who gives is a winner! See our prizes! Any amount will help make this dream a reality.

Congratulations to Michelle Montooth

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Last week’s bonus contest winner! She won a romantic dinner for 2 at Le Petit RestaurantMichelle says:

Cyrano was one of the best theater experiences I’ve ever had. And since I’m a theatre junkie, that’s saying something.”

new_york_skyline3
The Fountain’s co-production of Cyrano has been invited to New York.   In just two weeks, our talented lead actors and artistic team will be performing for
The New York Theatre Workshop, the Tony-winning company that launched Rent, Dirty Blonde, Homebody/Kabul, Peter and the Starcatcher, Once,and more.  This will be a staged reading for NY producers and investors with the goal of launching a NY production. To make this dream come true, we need you. Join Us!

Our Sold-Out Award-Winning Smash Hit Drew  Rave Reviews and National Attention in LA  

WINNER! 4 LA Drama Critics Circle Awards 
including Best Play and Best Production
CRITIC’S CHOICE! – Los Angeles Times
  “Irresistible! Consistently beautiful!
Critic’s Pick! – Backstage “GO!” – LA Weekly
“Perfection!” – SoCalTheatre  
“A masterpiece!”  Examiner 
“A powerhouse piece of theatre!” – StageHappenings
 
The first 2 donors today of $250 win a full color  autographed Cyrano in New York poster!
 See Our Exciting Indiegogo Prizes!   
The Fountain Theatre is a non-profit organization. All Donations are tax deductible contributions.

Poet with Autism Shares His Words with all ‘On the Spectrum’

Scott Lentine

Scott Lentine

West Coast Premiere of Fountain Theatre’s ‘On the Spectrum’ Catches the Eye of Poet with Autism 

by Scott Lentine

I am a 25 year old man with high-functioning autism (PDD-NOS/Asperger’s) from Billerica, MA, a Boston suburb. I graduated from Merrimack College magna cum laude with a Bachelor’s Degree in Religious Studies with a Biology minor. I am currently an office intern at the Arc of Massachusetts in Waltham, where I try to persuade lawmakers to pass key disability resources legislation to improve the lives of people with developmental disabilities. I am interested in data clerical entry duties, hospital settings, autism non-profit organizations, and research type work.  I have some autism song/poems that I wanted to share with people on the autism spectrum and to musicians who support autism causes.

Just a Normal Day

Never knowing what to say

Never knowing what to do

Always looking for clues

Just a normal day

Feeling unsure

Totally perplexed with everyday life

Always on edge never certain

I wish I could lift this curtain

Needing to constantly satisfy my need for information

Always online searching for new revelations

Going from site to site

Obtaining new insights every night

Trying to connect with people my age

Attempting to reveal my unique vision

But ending up alone and unengaged

Feeling like my needs a total revision

Just a normal day.

Virginia Newcomb & Dan Shaked

Virginia Newcomb & Dan Shaked in “On the Spectrum” at the Fountain Theatre.

Can’t You See

Can’t you see

I just want to have a friend

Can’t you see

I need the same connections in the end

Can’t you see

I want a good job

Can’t you see

I need to have stability and dependence and part of the general mob

Can’t you see

I want to be independent on my own

Can’t you see

I want to be able to have my own home

Can’t you see

I want the same things as everyone else

Can’t you see

I want to be appreciated for myself.

Dan Shaked in "On the Spectrum"

Dan Shaked in “On the Spectrum”

The Ode to the Autistic Man

Try to understand the challenges that I face

I would like to be accepted as a human in all places

Where I will end up in life I don’t know

But I hope to be successful wherever I go

I would like to expand my social skills in life

Making new friends would be very nice

Stand proud for the autistic man

For he will find a new fan

I hope to overcome the odds I face today

Increased acceptance will lead me to a brighter day

By the age of 20, I will have made tremendous strides

I know in the future, life will continue to be an interesting ride

I have made new friends by the year

I will be given tremendous respect by my family and peers

I hope to get noted for bringing the issue of autism to the common man

So that autistic people can be accepted in this great land

Stand proud for the autistic man

For he will find a new fan

I hope to overcome the odds I face today

Increased acceptance will lead me to a brighter day.

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Marshfield Memories poem

Today is a beautiful day on the beach

There are plenty of people and dogs to see

The water is warm and the sky is bright

And seeing some people flying a kite

I am having a fun time with cousins and friends

Hoping that this day will never end

The ocean and sands are comfortable and feel so right

Taking a walk towards Brant Rock in the strong sunlight

Now it is the evening of the third of July

Watching the amazing fireworks from the seawall go by

Talking with family about the latest moments of the day

And meeting some new friends along the way

It was a great time on the beach today

Reading a book and going into the ocean on a bright clear day

These are moments that I will remember for a long time

Being on the beach on a nice warm day is truly sublime.

Visit Scott Lentine on his blog

On the Spectrum at the Fountain Theatre. The West Coast Premiere of a funny and touching love story with a difference. Mac has Asperger’s. Iris has autism. An online chat blossoms into an unforgettable friendship. Not your (neuro)typical love story. March 16 – April 28 (323) 663-1525  MORE

This production is sponsored, in part, by The Help Group.

‘Cyrano’ Highlights New Play Festival at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis

“Cyrano” reading at Mixed Blood Theatre, MN.

Fountain actors Troy Kotsur and Paul Raci, director Simon Levy, and playwright Stephen Sachs were at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis last weekend to join local actors there for a reading of Cyrano, the recent smash hit Fountain co-production with Deaf West Theatre.  Cyrano was being read as part of Mixed Blood’s Center of the Margins new play festival.

The weather was cloudy in Minneapolis, a chilly 38 degrees.  The cast was lead by Kotsur and Raci, with nine local deaf and hearing actors creating the ensemble. Rehearsal time was brief. Director Levy and the cast had to work fast, quickly coordinating the complicated blending of American Sign Language, spoken English, and printed text projected on screens.

Cyrano is an  imaginative modern day retelling of the romantic classic Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand.  In this updated new deaf/hearing version, Cyrano is a brilliant deaf poet in love with a hearing woman who doesn’t know sign language.

There were two public readings of Cyrano at Mixed Blood Theatre over the weekend, on Saturday and Sunday. Mixed Blood Theatre holds 200 people and both readings were full. Audience response to the play was very enthusiastic.

Artistic Director Jack Reuler and the entire staff at Mixed Blood were wonderful hosts, welcoming the Cyrano company and making sure everything ran smoothly.

The acclaimed Fountain/Deaf West production of Cyrano earned two Ovation Award nominations: Best Lead Actor (Troy Kotsur as Cyrano) and Best New Play (playwright Stephen Sachs). The Ovation Awards will be held Monday, November 12th, in Los Angeles.

Snapshots from Cyrano Reading at Mixed Blood Theatre!

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“Something New” from Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard at the Fountain Theatre, Sept 2012

by Chris Thurman

The last time I met Athol Fugard, he was following a technical rehearsal of The Bird Watchers – his thirty-fourth play. Sitting in the auditorium of the Cape Town theatre that carries his name, Fugard leaned over and told me in an almost-conspiratorial whisper: “I’m working on something new.” The playwright’s eyes sparkled as he showed me a typescript of The Blue Iris. That script is now a performed reality (the US Premiere just concluded its run at the Fountain Theatre on September 16th).
Athol Fugard, who is based in San Diego, has returned to South Africa to take up a three-month residency in Stellenbosch and – you guessed it – he’s working on something new.

This time, we’re talking on the phone, but that same excitement is discernible in Fugard’s voice as he describes his “first attempt at Afrikaans theatre”. This may be surprising to many; after all, the work of this self-designated “half-English, half-Afrikaans bastard” (he grew up in a bilingual household) is peppered with Afrikaans phrases, characters and settings. His play texts have also been translated into Afrikaans, most recently The Captain’s Tiger/Die Kaptein se Tier by Antjie Krog. But Fugard himself has never penned an exclusively Afrikaans play, and he’s clearly eager to take up the challenge.

What is it, I wonder, that drives this restless creativity? What is the imperative that keeps an 80-year-old writing “compulsively”? In the past, Fugard has emphasised the feeling of both obligation and delight that accompanies his discovery or invention of characters and their stories: “Everything I have written is an attempt to share their secrets.” But watching The Blue Iris, I thought I discerned a darker (perhaps even desperate) impulse behind the author’s prolificacy.

Fugard outside the Fountain Theatre, Sept 2012.

The play is a different kind of “first”. Fugard’s work bears evidence of a range of influences, from Beckett to Camus – but, he tells me, “Before Blue Iris I had never written a play directly in response to a particular piece of writing.” The writer in question is Thomas Hardy, who is best known as a novelist but who turned away from fiction towards the end of his career and produced a series of poems that Fugard considers “among the finest in the English language”. Hardy wrote them after the death of his wife, Emma, from whom he had become estranged (he subsequently married his secretary): they express grief, regret and longing for an irrecoverable past, ultimately paying tribute to the relationship.

The Blue Iris is, in turn, a tribute to Hardy’s poems – an encomium in which that curious love triangle takes on a South African incarnation, in the Karoo landscape so closely associated with Fugard. We find Robert Hannay and his sometime housekeeper, Rieta Plaasman, camping outside the ruins of a farmhouse that Robert had built for his young English bride, Sally. It stood for decades until, one night, it was consumed by fire after a lightning strike. Sally died shortly afterwards, but her spirit haunts the place; Rieta has stayed with Robert during his unsuccessful attempt to recover items lost in the fire, hoping to exorcise Sally’s ghost.

Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris” (Fountain, 2012)

In the opening dialogue, Robert admits to Rieta that his recuperative efforts remind him of an old story about “some arme ou skepsel who, as punishment for something bad, is made to push a big rock all the way up to the top of a koppie. But just when he gets there, he slips, the rock rolls back down the hill, and he has to start all over again. And so it goes, on and on…” This is, of course, the tale of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to an eternity of futile labor – a likely comparison, particularly given the prevalence of ancient Greek myth in Fugard’s oeuvre.

Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris” (Fountain Theatre, 2012)

Yet the allusion is given a different resonance as, during the course of the play, we learn that Sally was a talented artist. She spent years painting the flowers of the Karoo, partly out of a wish to locate herself within a landscape to which she felt foreign and partly to reconcile with Robert, from whom she had grown distant as the strain of farming under conditions of drought took its toll. The blue iris – the ‘bloutulp’, Moraea polystachya – was her first subject: a beautiful but poisonous plant, surviving the harshest conditions but deadly to animals. The painting was the centrepiece of her collection, but we hear Sally’s ghost shriek, at the climax of the action, “I didn’t get it right!”

I put it to Fugard: does this aspect of The Blue Iris reflect his own frustration as an artist? Is the relentless desire to create new plays, to write new stories, a Sisyphean curse? “That’s a fair interpretation,” he replies. “When I look back on my earlier stuff, there is always a sense of ‘If only I’d known then what I know now…’ And yes, I think I am more critical of my own work than anyone else.”

He notes that, along with The Captain’s Tiger (1997) and The Bird Watchers (2011), Master Harold … and the Boys (1982) makes up a trio of “portraits of the writer – from arrogant little schoolboy to adolescent ambition and finally a playwright wrestling with the material of his own life. They all have the same concern: what does it mean to be a writer?”

Fugard at the Fountain Theatre

I ask Fugard what he makes of the other ways in which his plays have been grouped together. Some critics have noted, for instance, that The Blue Iris continues a pattern established in Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001) and Victory (2007), in which much of the dramatic tension stems from the age and race of the main protagonists: an older white man and a younger coloured woman.

“Any writer,” Fugard concurs, “has only a handful of themes. You don’t invent a theme every time you write a play.” We talk about the conscious echoes in Blue Iris of earlier plays, such as Boesman and Lena (1969) – the trope of homelessness is underscored when Rieta complains, “We are living out here like people in one of those plakker kampe outside PE” – and A Lesson From Aloes (1978), in which a character affirms that studying Karoo flora “makes me feel that little bit more at home in my world”.

Indeed, Fugard takes the idea of “categorising” his plays even further. “Look at Blood Knot (1961), Boesman and Lena and Hello and Goodbye (1965), which together examine the primary relationships in a family: between siblings, between spouses, between children and parents. I didn’t set out consciously to do that, but it happened.” And, of course, there is Fugard’s “sustained romance with the opposite sex – in my work, I mean. Blood Knot is the only one of my plays in which the dominant, most powerful presence is not a central female character.”

This is certainly true of Boesman and Lena, which has been ‘updated’ by director James Ngcobo for a current staging at the Baxter Theatre. Fugard says he’d like to go and watch the show “with a disguise on”, just to see how it has been revised. “My plays are like my children – they must make their own way in the world.”

Chris Thurman is Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg (South Africa); a freelance arts journalist, academic and editor.