Tag Archives: Clybourne Park

Living in a World of Magic and Vastness and Wonder

Chauvet Cave

Chauvet Cave

by Eric Coble

Emerging from the One Theatre World conference on plays for young audiences, this past May,  life was pretty wondrous. And ringing in my head was a concept totally unrelated to any of what I’d just seen or experienced, except that it was perhaps at the very heart of the experience, and perhaps the heart of what theater, better than any other art form, can achieve. The concept comes from Jean Clottes, former head of scientific research at Chauvet Cave in southern France that contains cave paintings dating back 35,000 years:

People of the Paleolithic probably had two concepts which change [one’s] vision of the world. The concept of fluidity and the concept of permeability. Fluidity means that the categories that we have—man, woman, horse, tree, etc.—can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal, and the other way around, given certain circumstances. The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers, so to speak, between the world where we are and the world of the spirits. A wall can talk to us, or a wall can accept us or refuse us. A shaman for example can send his or her spirit to the world of the supernatural or can receive the visit, inside him or her, of supernatural spirits. If you put those two concepts together you realize how different life must have been for those people from the way we live now.

Exactly. Except not for all of us. Children are still remarkably, gloriously, frighteningly close to our Paleolithic ancestors. They have absolute faith and comfort in fluidity and permeability, in parents who can become animals and rocks that can speak to enlighten or deceive. The freedom of that worldview, the magic that this enables, makes writing for children’s theater both a joy and exquisite effort—one has to let go of rational plotting, of the need for explanation, while still honoring the rules of the universe being created. Which strikes me as being a valid way to live one’s life outside theater.

But here’s the thing. This universe is not just for kids. Over the three days of the festival, I witnessed adults, men and women from their twenties to their sixties, who totally bought that a Styrofoam ball and a gloved hand were a small man in a diving suit, one that they cared for, rooted for, and grieved with. They believed an obviously human hand moving through the air with a squeaking sound was a mouse that had seen enough injustice in the world and was finally taking action; that a plastic bag came to life and pursued its own agenda within our human realm. Inanimate became animate, fluidity was real. The edges of our known world became permeable. And, yes, we knew. We knew it was a puppeteer—there was no effort to hide the mechanics—we’re sophisticated and jaded and theater people for god’s sake. And yet we believed. We believed with our child/Paleolithic minds. Is there anywhere else besides theater where this can happen with such grace? Where the machinery can be in such plain sight and yet simultaneously break us free of our fundamental knowledge of the world? Paintings, music, dance, novels can punch us in the gut, remind us we’re human, open us to others’ experiences, but can they fundamentally revert our very perceptions to an earlier state? We’re in the same room at the same time with the creators, they are clearly as human as we are, and for minutes or hours at a time we are in the presence of something nonhuman, nonrational, yet viscerally real and true.

So what about plays for adults? Can their stories be just as filled with fluidity and permeability? I would argue that there is as much truth to those states as to any other, perhaps more so. Adults watch, transfixed, transported as leather and wood and wire shift form into a huge animal we weep for in Warhorse. And isn’t that sense of magic—knowing that we are witnessing transformation, craving it, the sense that something larger, more true is happening in the obvious falsehood—isn’t that so much more potent than having real horses on stage? It’s not just impressive, it’s fracking magic. The wildlife of the savannah in Lion King, the singing basement appliances of Caroline, or Change, the terrified blind gods in Equus, this is not just stagecraft—it’s matter transforming into other matter, or at least allowing us to believe again that that is possible. And our world gets bigger, more wondrous.

'Heart Song' at the Fountain Theatre

‘Heart Song’ at the Fountain Theatre

Even when physical objects are not transmogrifying, we can achieve stunning moments of permeability as something sweeping and unexplainable bleeds through into our world (or at least the world of the play). It’s not subtle, but when Tony Kushner has an angel descend through a ceiling to announce heaven’s plans…well, our Paleolithic ancestors (and children) would have grasped that more easily than understanding why Blanche Dubois loves paper lanterns. Lisa D’Amour’s Anna Bella Eema, Mickle Maher’s There Is A Happiness That Morning Is, my own early stabs at permeability in My Barking Dog—all of these stories take place here, now, but in a world where our narrow realities are enlarged and our understanding of life gets bigger. Brilliant plays like Good People and Clybourne Park speak ugly truths in graceful ways, but they are, by choice, creating a world that is the exact same size as life. We need those stories, but I posit that we need, perhaps even more, worlds that are unimaginably larger than the one we return to when we step out of the theater onto the sidewalk.

Sacred Space: the stage before the performance begins.

Sacred Space: the stage before the performance begins.

None of this is new, to be sure; theater likely was birthed from acting out the transformations (and perhaps thus gaining some control over them) believed to be happening in the world around our ancestors. Perhaps ancient theatrical techniques and modern technology may yet show us a way to resuscitate our art in the face of all encompassing digital entertainment by offering audiences something we can’t get anywhere else, something that forces us to do the work, to create (or allow) the magic, even as adults, in the face of what we think we know about our world. It’s one thing to willingly believe that Willy Loman is a real person in a real kitchen, but so many other art forms can trick us into that. Novelists can utterly suck us into their worlds, fantastic or not, but they don’t have to contend with our rational brains telling us we’re sitting in a room with strangers consciously watching other strangers tell a story and simultaneously that a live actor is becoming an automobile or a man has been impregnated by a coyote. By directly engaging this battle between our certainty of the real and our hunger for the might-be-real at such an unconscious yet obvious level, theater supersedes other art forms and is able let the bigger world of transformation bleed through.

One more thought from Mssr. Clottes:

Humans have been described in many ways, right? And for a while it was Homo Sapiens and it’s still called Home Sapiens, “the man who knows.” I don’t think it’s a good definition at all. We don’t know. We don’t know much. I would think Homo Spiritulalis.

The theater has given us the unique tools to take us back to our most primitive basic reality, whether one wants to call that a child’s mind or the mind, now forgotten, that launched our species on our current course. We know what existing in the world created by logic and physics feels like. What about living in a world of magic and vastness and wonder again?

What a gift. What a challenge. What art.

Eric Coble is a playwright  born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado. His plays include The Velocity of Autumn, Bright Ideas,The Dead Guy, Natural Selection, For Better, and The Giver and have been produced Off-Broadway, throughout the U.S., and on several continents. This post appeared on HowlRound.

A Playwright’s Career Doesn’t Make Cents But Has Deeper Value

Michael Elyanow

by Michael Elyanow

We hear it a lot about playwriting—that there’s no money in it. Whether or not that’s actually true, I had the opportunity to talk about this issue recently when I met with a young playwright, a senior at Northwestern University’s Creative Writing for the Media Program, who wanted to pick my brain about how I’ve managed to make it as a career playwright.

But first: let’s try and define make it.  I, like a lot of playwrights, struggle. I struggle to write, and to write well. I struggle to get productions, workshops, grants, commissions, and more. Like hundreds of other playwrights, I spend days putting together applications to get into conferences, festivals, and residencies. And, like hundreds of other playwrights, I receive many more rejection letters than congratulatory calls.

Second: let’s define career. If you mean a reliable paycheck—nope (see above). If you mean health benefits or financial security—not a chance. If you mean a profession that steadily moves forward, increasing in stature and scope and visibility… possibly… depends… could happen one day. As writers, so much is out of our control.

In 2010, New York magazine ran a brief piece on Bruce Norris (and his then-new play Clybourne Park) that’s always haunted me. To this day, I remember it vividly thanks to the number $19,000. This was how much Mr. Norris said he earned the year before. Earned. All year. This, from an acclaimed and brilliant writer, who’s had plays produced across the world. To me, this announcement was not only a brave thing to declare publicly, it was a revelation. After Todd London and Ben Pesner’s incredibly insightful Outrageous Fortune, David Dower’s years of field study… there it was again, in bold print. In New York magazine. A monetary truth exposed.

It is indeed the rare playwright who gets to announce playwriting as a job, a real-life, full-time gig.

And I know this, I do. I knew it going into this field. And still, when this Northwestern student sincerely asked me “Is it worth it?” I found myself nostalgic for the days when I used to immediately answer that question with an unqualified, urgent, booming Yes. But these days, with a kid and a husband and responsibilities and more, my answer has grown in complexity. And, especially with young playwrights, I want to share open and honestly about where I am today with this notion of worth—of value.

Half of the time, and especially in a country where The Arts (and arts programs) are in a constant struggle for survival, my belief that the value of art trumps the value of cash remains unshaken. But then, the other half of the time, when the mail comes in and my school loans are due or my son needs a filling that isn’t covered by insurance…well, that’s where things get complicated. At what cost are we choosing to live the lives of playwrights? Or artists?

“Is playwriting worth it?”  My answer to this student was: financially? For where I am today, right now? No. But… in almost every other aspect: yes. Playwriting is worth it. But why? With the amount of energy I spend on writing, the time away from my family, the funds I shell out to attend readings and workshops in other states with no guarantee of production, no guarantee that if I do get a production another one’s coming along, what is the value of playwriting? Or better yet, what can’t I put a price on?

“The Children” (2012, Theatre@Boston Court)

For me, it turns out the answer is collaboration. Or more specifically: a collaboration that works. The experience that I had working with director Jessica Kubzansky and dramaturg Emilie Beck on The Children couldn’t be measured in dollar signs. I was fortunate enough to work with two artists who attacked the play with great care and sensitivity, who asked incisive questions, who challenged my every line but never lost sight of the origins of the play’s beating heart. When collaboration works, you leap together. You dig together. You forgive together. When collaboration works, you learn to become a better artist, communicator, listener, leader, and follower.

How many other professions make this kind of deeply personal exchange possible? Where the work includes sharing who you are and why you are? And how do you place a value on that? Can you put a price on that conversation? That dialogue? That sharing of your core identity in pursuit of a common purpose and goal?

Collaborators build something together. We hear the phrase “the theater community” used often. And that’s what this collaboration built for me. A community. A home—for myself, for my play, for ideas and emotions and a mission. These are all things I greatly value—it’s what I hold dear.

Here’s what I want to say about the money part: wherever we go, we pay for the privilege of community. Governments have taxes. Clubs have fees. Religious organizations have tithes. It’s not exactly analogous, but maybe playwriting is like Social Security. It’s something you will always pay into because it provides you a social safety net. You contribute—with money and time and sacrifice—to a community of artists who shore you up, challenge your evolution, and provide you a place in the world. In this instance, the word value can literally mean a bargain.

Michael Elyanow  is a playwright. The Children was produced in 2012 at The Theatre @ Boston Court.  A Lasting Mark, commissioned by Hartford Stage, was part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2011 7@7 Reading Series. The Idiot Box, published by Samuel French, was produced at Open Fist and Naked Eye theatres. Ten-minute plays Banging Ann Coulter and Game/Over were Humana Festival finalists. Michael is currently writing a play commission for the Carleton College Department of Theatre & Dance.

This essay first appeared on HowlRound.