With 'Adam Sultan,' playwright Steve Moore again reflects on friendship and mortality in Austin
Listen to your name being announced from the stage. Now hear it followed by the year in which you will die and the cause.
Talk about feeling someone walk across your grave.
That was the chill I experienced a year ago when Physical Plant Theater presented a 20-minute section of a new play in development titled Adam Sultan. As time passed for the main character – who is based on and also portrayed by the Austin theatre artist and musician of that name – my passing was one of the events noted in his projected future. Now, I won't say that I've never considered my own mortality or when that final curtain might fall, but to hear it proclaimed publicly with such specificity was not something that had ever crossed my mind. It's the sort of prediction that will jump-start any superstitious impulses that lie buried in the base of your brain.
And I was not alone in knowing how that felt. My demise was one of many noted in that fragment of Adam Sultan, now completed and running in full production at Salvage Vanguard Theater this month. (For Wayne Alan Brenner's review, see p.32.) Colleagues in the making of theatre in Austin, friends, and my wife were likewise memorialized. Indeed, the piece began with Sultan and his future wife returning home from a wake for David Yeakle, the artistic director of Tongue and Groove Theatre. As the play fast-forwarded four decades into the future, the casualties mounted, until an elderly Sultan was the last man standing of what we know today as Austin's theatre scene.
Killing off the entire theatre community might sound like a ghoulish prank – wish fulfillment on the part of an embittered dramatist who's suffered one too many script rejections – or a satiric takedown of our town's pretentious thespians, that is, until you consider the source. Playwright Steve Moore is about the last person in the theatre community who'd want to mow down his peers and sow salt on their graves. He is as the breeze: gentle, serene, with a voice soft and whispery. What you glean from him, even in casual conversation, is deep thought and open affection, and those qualities have only been affirmed by the two decades' worth of original productions he's penned and staged in Austin. Layered into the dense, lyrical imagery of such dreamlike works as The Whimsy and The Kindermann Depiction, the political exploration of Islam in Kneeling Down at Noon, even the midnight-black satire of Not Clown, is a thoughtfulness about life and the manifold mysteries of existence, a comprehension of both its pain and beauty and of the necessity of love and friendship.
That said, death has long been a concern in Moore's work, and many of his characters have been forced to confront the loss of a loved one, have been pulled into grief's watery depths, have fought to fill the aching void in their lives. In Fatigue, written shortly after the suicide of Moore's longtime friend and Physical Plant co-founder Mike Martin, two men debate the appropriate way to grieve and how to move on. The death of a child drives the enigmatic actions of man, woman, child, and possibly monster in The Kindermann Depiction. And in Nightswim, Moore's most acclaimed work (full disclosure: This writer was involved in the play's workshop and premiere productions), the three figures we know from the Philosophers' Rock statue are given dramatic life in order to face death. Naturalist Roy Bedichek, newly deceased, resists passing over to the afterlife out of concern for his friends Frank Dobie and Walter Webb, who are devastated by his passing. So the deaths of so many local theatre people in Adam Sultan has no animus behind it. Rather, this is an author who has already contemplated death making himself look at the inevitable losses that he knows await him in the coming years: the people he works with, the people he cares for. And because people in this theatre community have "a lot of friends, and a lot of those friends are very close, when we're getting older, and we're passing away, I'm not going to have to say goodbye to just five or six people; I'm going to have to say goodbye to hundreds of people. It's going to be rough."
So how do you talk about the loss of friends? Moore has been trying to answer that question in his plays since Fatigue – "not every time I sit down to work on something, but it's hard to get it out of my mind," he says. "'Cause Mike's death really threw me for a loop. I was 26 at the time, and I'd never had a close friend disappear out of my life like that." The impact of that disappearance is evident in Nightswim, with its characters shocked and paralyzed by their losses of friends and spouses. But in the relationship behind the grief, in the camaraderie of the real-life Bedichek, Webb, and Dobie, Moore found the importance of both place and purpose. Those Philosophers' Rock scholars were bound by a mutual love of Texas, its geography, nature, and culture, and in a specific spot in it, their beloved Barton Springs. Being in that place together nurtured their fellowship and fed their work as educators, and Moore was able to capture that against the backdrop of the city they knew, Austin in the 1950s. It set the stage, as it were, for writing about the current theatre community in Adam Sultan.
"Nightswim, which I'm so proud of, was in some ways the warm-up for this play," says Moore. "When I was working on that, I knew that I wanted to talk about the community in the past, how friendship becomes a foundation. [structures] are built on relationships and an urge that friends had to make something together. [With Dobie Webb, and Bedichek, the University Interscholastic League] is built on that – and the Michener Center for Writers. Enthusiasm about folklore in Texas is built in some sense on those friendships. And I sense that now about this community that we don't always sense about ourselves. Not every show is great, not every relationship is beautiful and warm, not every rehearsal process or day of rehearsal is fun, but in aggregate, I really do believe that what's happening in this community in terms of theatre is historically interesting. Whether it's what Bonnie [Cullum] is doing, which I don't think anybody else in the world is doing in the same way, what the Rudes are doing, what we're trying to do, what St. Ed's is doing, a lot of things are coming together, a lot of lines of force, so that when people look back on the history of American theatre, they'll be like, 'There was some amazing stuff happening in that town.' It's worth celebrating that, and the only way to get perspective on that is to go into the future and look backward, and to realize that it's founded on friendships. That's part of what we were doing with Nightswim, from the present looking back on the past. How do you take that same energy of looking over your shoulder and seeing how far we've come and what we owe to those people, and cast it forward, and look back and think what we owe to ourselves or each other in the moment?"
Moore had an idea, and it had to do with jars. During his time in Chicago, he'd become fascinated with the Field Museum of Natural History, which had thousands of specimens sealed in jars, everything from seaweed to bugs to rats to fish, says Moore. "I was struck by how it could be so full of death but every object was being preserved and considered because of a curiosity and fascination about life. We want to save this because it was once alive and we want to know how life works. It made me think about myself and my friends, what would be the thing that could be preserved in the years to come that would point as urgently to the lives we led as these objects are trying to do to the lives of those creatures."
Moore envisioned a stage filled with jars, each one holding some object that represented the life of a theatremaker in Austin. The objects would need to be specific and personal to the artists they stood for, and where better to obtain such items of personal significance than the artists themselves? Moore extended invitations to people throughout the theatre community, asking each for an object that is important to them in their life in this community and would tell their story if they were gone. To make it easier for people to get their objects to him, Physical Plant hosted a pair of Jar Parties, where the material could be cataloged for return to the contributor when the production was finished, but also where Moore could collect information about the contributor's life for use in the show. (The second party, with veiled, black-clad interviewers recording your information, a photographer documenting each contributor holding his or her jar, and refreshments and music for the soon-to-be-late theatre scenesters, was a production all its own.) But Moore underestimated the scope of the effort. "I thought there might be 300 or 400 people I'd want to get in touch with, surely no more than that," Moore says. "We got in touch with 700 people. We ended up with something like 300 jars, and I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface of the theatre community in this town. There are whole swaths of it, from Sam Bass [Community Theatre] to ProArts, that I barely made a dent in. Really, thousands of people do theatre in Austin."
Moore has been floored by the response of the public. "It's been really moving. The recordings that people made, asking what they might regret at the end of their lives – gorgeous, painful stuff. And there are a few jars – James Devery, who passed away; Annie Putnam, who passed away – friends of theirs came forward with objects that they wanted to contribute and made recordings about them. Those are heartbreaking. For people who listen to the recordings of people they know, it will be a nice surprise to hear your name mentioned or something you did that stuck with that person. We don't have an opportunity to tell each other that small thing very often and to know that we all have had this impact – this subtle but powerful impact – on each other and that the web of these interactions is very strong and very deep for a lot of people."
The care with which people have selected their objects and opened themselves up to the Adam Sultan creative process has given Moore a "greater sense of care and responsibility" regarding the project. "I want to do it right," he says, "which means walking a line between a kind of macabre or bleak point of view in the play and an overly sentimentalized one. I want it to [be] very human and honest and caring but not fall onto either side of that spectrum. What's been my fear is that people will think something about the attitude toward death is cavalier or casual. It really isn't intended to be cavalier or casual at all. It's not meant to be overly heavy either, but I would hate to think that people thought of it as a lark."
Zeb West, who's been Moore's co-conspirator and co-director on Adam Sultan, notes, "There is a very personal relationship with that mystery of 'What is after my life? Where does my consciousness go?' Everyone has that. There are moments in the play where you're invited to contemplate that, that touches the theme in a way that's gentle and available. That's what makes it not a lark."
No, no more a lark than Our Town, with its third-act graveyard scene in which citizens of Grover's Corners speak from beyond this mortal coil. In that play, Emily in death gains new appreciation for life, and so it is with Adam Sultan. "It's a play about death, but it really wants to be a play about how inside of all conversations about death there is essentially a conversation about life and a celebration of memory," says Moore. "In a way, the simplest thing [the play] is doing is asking people to imagine that it's 40 years from now and all these people that you love so much are starting to fade away. What are you going to do now if you know that's coming? The play kind of asks the question at the end: How are you going to love these people better? This is your chance. That chance doesn't go on forever."
Adam Sultan runs through April 13, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd., with two additional performances as part of Fusebox Festival, Thursday and Friday, April 18 & 19, 7pm, at SVT. For more information, visit www.physicalplant.org.