Wandering Preachers, Holy Fools
Getting a Fix on the Modern Playwright: A Roundtable Discussion
The playwright today as itinerant preacher. Thinking about some of the playwriting talent gathered in Austin this autumn, that image rises up. Erik Ehn, Daniel Alexander Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Ruth Margraff -- these are not the monumental playwrights of yore, the Tennessee Williamses and Arthur Millers, at home on Broadway, their messages proclaimed in the grand temples of the theatre. They are playwrights who do not have a home on Broadway, who do not have a home anywhere. They have many homes, all across the country, in mostly small, mostly cash-poor theatres where they come, stay long enough to deliver their latest message, then are gone again, on the road to another community. Their remuneration comes largely in the form of hospitality: the room, board, and companionship of the places they visit. It's a very different existence from the life of the dramatist ensconced in the popular culture: the Manhattanite writing in his penthouse suite and watching his script come to life from the back of a packed house off Times Square. What does this wandering life of a modern playwright feel like? What does it mean for the theatre at this stage of American life? The Chronicle asked this of people with an intimate knowledge of this way of life: Erik Ehn, Bay Area-based author of Enfants Perdus, The Saint Plays, Anarchy in the Oklahoma Kingdom (AOK), and the Frontera-commissioned Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling, opening this week at Hyde Park Theatre; Daniel Alexander Jones, onetime Austin-based Frontera company member and author of Blood:Shock:Boogie, clayangels, and Black Barbie in the Hotel de Dream, currently back in town to direct Heavenly Shades; Ruth Margraff, New York City-based author of Wallpaper Psalm, Centaur Battle of San Jacinto, and The Cry Pitch Carrolls, which premieres December 4 at the John Henry Faulk Living Theatre, currently in town to teach playwriting in the UT Department of Theatre & Dance; Sharon Bridgforth, Austin-based author of blood pudding, lovve: rituals & rage, and dyke-warrior/prayers; Megan Monaghan, onetime Austin-based Frontera company member, currently New Plays Director at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis; and Vicky Boone, artistic director of Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre. The discussion was held at Flatbed World Headquarters.
Austin Chronicle: You've all traveled and presented your plays or seen your plays produced in many different cities around the nation. Do you feel like playwrights of many communities? Does the itinerant preacher image strike any chords in anybody?
Ruth Margraff: Well, Sharon doesn't know this, but the first time I met Sharon, it was a couple of years ago, and she came to Minneapolis and gave a performance. And we went out for ice cream afterward, and it was a complete epiphany for me because I suddenly realized, "Oh my god, I've become a missionary anyway." [To Sharon Bridgforth] You seemed so much like a missionary, and I grew up thinking I would be a missionary, and suddenly I realized I was a missionary. I got really depressed about it at first, but then I started realizing that this at least is what I believe in; we're preaching whatever truth it is -- and the truth keeps evolving -- but we have to preach that message. It was really clear because I heard your message so clearly when you were performing. It all made sense to me. And it was in a church. [Laughter.]
Sharon Bridgforth: I remember that. Isn't that funny? Beautiful, beautiful.
Margraff: Erik has always seemed like a preacher to me, too. So real and so true to what he believes and yet open to new things coming in.
AC: Does some of this going from community to community evolve from the mechanics of commissioning and producing new plays these days, as opposed to times in the past?
Erik Ehn: I don't think you can ascribe changes in the way theatre is happening as an industry or plays are happening from the vantage of writers to the world of theatre. The problems in theatre are a result of problems and pressures much larger than theatre. It's even in the language, like welfare reform, that theatre is supposed to "pull itself up by its own bootstraps," which, of course, just physically can't be done. The problem is that a culture has been assassinated in this country. The reason why plays don't function as they used to is not because plays are any different or there's less genius out there in the world; it's because the culture that once received plays has evaporated and that culture has been replaced with commerce. I know that sounds jingoistic or simplistic, but that's what my thinking boils down to, that the country can communicate information at great rates, with great facility, but it can communicate no wisdom because our sense of place and rate has been destroyed.
Bridgforth: I agree. I've been asked, "Are we losing theatre?" or "What's happened to Broadway?", all that kind of stuff. I think there have always been groundbreakers and people who have been doing very progressive and exciting performance art and have never been a part of the mainstream theatre, but it seems like all of a sudden mainstream theatre is scared, and they're like, "We're losing our audience" or "We don't have any money" or "What's happening?" I don't think that has ever had anything to do with us. [Gestures to artists around the room] And I think that part of the reason that people are now looking at what we do -- and part of the reason that I feel I'm getting to go more places than I would have five, certainly 10 years ago -- is that in society there have been so many changes. There is now language that didn't exist a while ago, language to talk about women's issues, homosexuality, issues of culture and race -- There's all this language and a lot of work that has been done to create bridges in areas where people have been oppressed historically. And because of this, and because the world of activism and art always crosses, there's this new lineage or this new legion of people who are ready to receive us. For me, that means my work is about bridging. So, in my mental picture, I may not be able to paint myself going to Broadway, which would be the Mecca for the playwright, but I know that my work is not about that. My work is about going into different communities and acting as a bridge. So the process is just as important as the piece, the personal conversation and the workshops are just as important as the performance, and it's really important that I maintain those relationships. With that in mind, my idea of what community is, my idea of what the theatre community is, and my idea of what my community of friends and family and peers is, is national. And I hope that one day it will be international.
Ehn: And that networks are made up of personal contacts with specific communities instead of a general contact with a general community.
Megan Monaghan: A key part of those networks are theatres like Vicky's that have a door playwrights can open over and over and over again. That there's a place where a roomful of people like this wind up together.
Daniel Alexander Jones: Looking at the playwright as itinerant preacher, I think there's this dual role we play: On the one hand, you enter the room and you're doing this bridging of communities and creating new spaces for work to happen, but on the other, you have this unspoken charge of being a carrier of this arcane knowledge of how to make this art that no one quite knows how it happened before and no one is quite sure if it's going to work in the same way it did before. There has to be a willingness on all our parts to -- like the old, old colored preacher, you know -- go in the room and wait for the spirit to come. And if the spirit comes, you use the resource that you have technically and the experience you have technically to manifest it in a way that can be shared. And you're very responsible for creating that thing.
But oftentimes things can fall awry. And that may be because of the financial component that's attached to work now; the risk is great in a way that maybe it wasn't before because there was never any money before and money didn't count in some ways. You knew you could get in the room and throw around whatever you needed to throw around. But now, even within the smaller theatres, even within the more experimental groups, money and the economics of art has become a factor, and the playwright has to deal with another whole set of expectations. So when the preacher comes in the room, he better bring the spirit, you know. [All laugh.]
Bridgforth: I feel like I'm part of the underworld, okay? Been doing the same thing, gonna do the same thing; I'm really not that affected by this other thing that's going on, the other thing being what I call commercial theatre. But now that more of the smaller companies and individuals are getting money, that question of "You better dance, Homer, you gotta dance -- " [All laugh.] -- it comes up. The thing is, that is being based on funders who are modeling this whole thing on something that has nothing to do with us -- our work or our vision or our audience. And the question that has to be asked is: What is theatre and who is it for? Before, it's not been a problem, because we haven't been in that boat. Before, theatre wasn't for poor people, it wasn't for people of color, it wasn't for women. And certainly people like that were not in a position to make any decisions about who was going to go to Broadway or who was going to be rich and famous. But now the people who are holding the purse strings -- who are also the people who are afraid now, you know -- are using a model of what theatre is, who it's for, why it's important, that doesn't fit us. And if we are not careful and if we don't stay clear, it's going to alter how we're able to do our work.
AC: For those of you around this table who deal as much with the funders as you do with the artists: Does what Sharon is talking about weigh on you?
Vicky Boone: It hasn't in my experience, because the people Frontera has received funding for have been basically the people at this table, and I don't think it's affected the product that they've been engaged to create. We've never curtailed our requests or edited our requests to be sensitive to imagined opinions of theirs.
Monaghan: Those who choose to invest often bend over backward to make it possible for Frontera to do what it does. My impression and my experience -- which is, admittedly, not terribly long yet -- is that those who choose to invest, invest with a whole heart, and they're a small group. But they're in a large funding universe that doesn't invest in that.
Boone: Right. I guess I don't really understand the funding world and I probably don't spend as much time trying to understand it as I might, because I feel we've had luck in what might be viewed as very conservative places, like the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts], receiving support for Sharon's work, support for Daniel's work, support for David [Hancock's] work, support for Laurie [Carlos'] work.
Monaghan: I do think there's a constant need for advocacy and education toward funders. And that's something that I get some opportunity to do at the Playwrights' Center. As we are sort of rising in the world of art, our contemporaries and our peers are rising in the world of funding, and right now we're engaged in the process of looking for each other. So the advocacy and education that I can do with a funder, saying, "You should know about this group of writers, you should know about this event," helps illuminate the search as we search for one another.
Bridgforth: And what I'm saying is, I worked in social services for 10 years, and 10 years ago, it was a different ball game. Social services is now big money, and what has happened is the people who provide social services are more or less grassroots nonprofits at their beginnings, usually for something very specific, for people who are not fitting in the mainstream. Well, they got money from organizations that were set up -- their structure, in terms of how they give money and what they give it for -- on a government model, and eventually that model begins to not work, which is why most nonprofits in the social services world are fucked up.
Monaghan: Or don't last.
Bridgforth: Or don't last. What happened was, they began to not discriminate against what they would do or not do. They started going with the trends, and in the world of social services that has caused great problems. I think that could happen in our world. That's why it's important to ask these questions now. So that later we're not being annihilated because we've depended so much on funding that won't fund us anymore or won't exist anymore as trends change.
Jones: To shift it away from the financial aspect for a moment, another thing has to do with presenters and with people who are in dialogue with playwrights. I'm talking about the beginning of a new lexicon around the work that's being developed and the way in which the work of people who were on the margin maybe in the last generation of people like ourselves, who are continuing the work or beginning to explore that work even further out from those places, requires new ways of applying production to the text and applying research to the text and applying different kinds of consideration to the text that aren't part of the traditional vocabulary for presenting work or producing work or commissioning work or workshopping work. There's a whole new way of making theatre that draws on the old ways of making theatre. You know, there are certain forms of development like having a play read, having it workshopped --
Monaghan: That are very effective.
Jones: -- that are very effective, but they no longer translate in quite the same way to this new kind of work, because people are no longer working within strict boundaries. People are employing musical styles and techniques to create language, and certain kinds of physical vocabulary to create work, and in order to even begin a discussion about a new play oftentimes, you have to come at it from places that aren't supplied by a traditional theatre background.
AC: Is there any connection between the kind of assassination of culture that Erik was talking about and this idea that we're stuck in the old lexicon? I mean, when technology comes along and creates a VCR or or the Internet, the culture absorbs that and changes its lexicon to reflect that relatively quickly. But when art produces innovations, the culture seems to resist them, even in the audience that may be interested, that may be receptive to the messages that are being communicated. I wonder, have we stopped accepting new ideas in culture?
Ehn: Here's my big theory. The preface is, there seems to be a cultural concern or anxiety amongst the old guard as to who will replace the center, the flower at the center [of theatre]. The Arthur Miller flower has died. Not to speak ill of the living, but who will bloom in that exact place? I don't think the center will be reoccupied. I think that center is gone, and here is a model of how the center has disappeared. I think there are differences in the way that war, wealth, and art are all organized now. War once required an ideology and a monumental national will. But war today happens without our will and without our ideology and is generally based around -- transparently around -- economics, though in the past that was buried. Wealth is different today than it used to be. Where you used to have the monumentally rich, who took upon themselves to be responsible as a class for the caretaking of other classes. But now there are just a bunch of very rich people, like your annual list of 400 wealthiest Americans, and a bunch of horribly poor people who are poor in ways too complicated to combine as a class. It's impossible often to perceive who's poor by standard definitions; poverty is everywhere in our society. So there's an absence of the monumental in war and an absence of the monumental in the way wealth gathers, and naturally enough then, there's an absence in the monumental in terms of art. Since the culture doesn't gather around issues of political philosophy, since the culture doesn't create a sense of aesthetic privilege that's linked to financial privilege, there is no concentrated single place in which a cultural artifact can rise to prominence. So it almost doesn't matter how you define art or explain art, because we aren't writing in a centralized way anymore, we're not writing into a single tradition. For better and for worse, we're fragmented, we're marginalized.
But [Daniel came up with an] image of the margin where you have the image of the margin being on fire, like a corona. So it's like now there is coronal writing, where we're scattered, we're on the perimeter, but we're passing energy around on the outside. I don't think we'll ever get to the center. I think the buildings, the wealth, and the politics are defunct for us now. We need to stay outside, but we need to make it a very energized outside. Which means a multiplicity of voices, critically speaking.
AC: Which parallels other parts of the culture, if you look at something like the Internet as being a place where there are many, many voices, almost none of which dominate. And also the idea that the Internet is something that people have in their homes; it's very close to them. In terms of theatre, it's like rather than having all these great temples of art -- the grand theatres or opera houses of past eras -- we now have these smaller theatres, the kinds where a lot of your work is staged, that seem closer to home in a sense; it's a part of the community. Hyde Park Theatre is a neighborhood theatre. I go there and feel that I'm in a neighborhood and that the work there is part of a community that I can get as close to it as I want.
Ehn: Just a note on the Internet: The Internet is evil. It's a part of the problem. It's like Thorazine language. You have equality replaced with equivalence; everything is at the same level of affect, so racist language and advertisements for books and e-mail, it's all at the same temperature. I agree with you that there has to be an Internet of theatres, but it operates above the photonic level. Information is conveyed with much greater difficulty and much more personal investment, so I don't think you could have -- maybe I'm wrong, but I don't you could have an effective old-time preacher on the Internet because it would just be more language. You need the heat of the body in a room.
Jones: The thoughts that led me to that corona image generate out of the visceral feeling of watching the work of the people I consider to be my mentors. And I'm going to speak about Laurie Carlos and Robbie McCauley particularly here because I think that they're really important in this context. They have been doing what we're doing for so long and, along with a few other artists, were instrumental in shaping some of the forms that have become templates for many of the things that we're doing. They basically did the work they wanted to do, made the art they wanted to make, whether it was in somebody's living room, whether it was in an abandoned community theatre, whether it was down the street in the bar. They made the art, just made the art in these really remarkable ways and flared off. Then, somebody went over here and flared off in this direction and somebody went over here and flared off in this direction. And what was similar was the act of flaring, the act of going somewhere and creating this live art that was an immediate expression that drew on the vocabularies of the communities and the individuals who were part of those small communities. The connection -- the corona, the catching on fire -- is an aftereffect, a by-product, a result. It's a lovely result, but I don't think it was the intent of the artists. Nor do I think that for any of us in this room, it was our intent to connect with other writers. It was our intent to write this play, it was our intent to make this world, it was our intent for many of us to break out of a box that we had been put in, maybe in school or with the experiences that we've had. That flaring set off heat that catches.
Margraff: There's something you can actually feel between people of like mind that is a fire -- it doesn't have any mass, it can't be deposited. And what we're doing, it can't be contained, it can't be commodified, it can't even be articulated. That's why we have to go with it. We have to be there, we have to be in the room when it happens or convey to people we trust how it happens. That's very different than the Internet, where things can be kind of captured into little pockets of information that can be distributed. I think distribution is a big part of why Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams are the monumental people that they are. They've had this national exposure, and I guess it comes from regional theatres doing their work and advocating and educating the audience on "This is Arthur Miller. This is what he's done." I was talking to Daniel and Erik this morning about how we don't have our plays even in a form that can distributed.
There's no way of really giving a household name to [us]. We're not on TV, we're not doing soap operas. Half the people I meet, I tell them what I do, and they say, "Have you done anything on Broadway?" "No." "Off-Broadway?" "No." "Well, what are you doing then? You better find some way to make a living." You have to find a way to link up to the households, and that's what the computers are doing, but we aren't interested in that.
Ehn: Yeah, it's like we don't want to go abroad; we want to go home. Place to place, we're looking to get home. I'm trying to get home in Austin. I'm trying to get home in Minneapolis. I'm not trying to get out -- outside.
AC: What does it take to get home in these different communities?
Ehn: We have to keep circling back to the same specific people. It's not like an aesthetic context. It's a personal context.
AC: Which is another parallel to the itinerant preacher. I keep flashing on the image of the preacher riding up and people coming out with the casserole, telling him, "Here's where you're gonna sleep while you're here." It's about a welcoming in and that connection from person to person. It sure feels to me like everyone at this table, regardless of your street address, is a citizen of this community. The contributions you have made individually and collectively has deepened the life of the community.
Bridgforth: I think that's because the home is Frontera. It's one of the few places that does provide the nurturing space to genuinely support and lift up the playwright. So we can have a moment to breathe, create new work. I think the Playwrights' Center is like that, but there are very few places where they're going to support new work, where you're not going to have to fit in somebody's box, and where you'll get to see the thing done. I know that a lot of time when I'm brought in places, they're bringing me to do a workshop and they're more concerned about the workshop than they are about the piece. A lot of times they don't even do the piece. Because they're funded to do community workshops. That is the trend now.
Bridgforth: Luckily, I love doing workshops and I've figured out how to get people to make them community-minded as I'm out there. Luckily. But you know, fewer and fewer of the funds allow for the playwright to write. [Laughs] I feel really fortunate that I have Vicky as an advocate, who is looking out for those things for me.
Jones: Our house was the place on the street everybody came to. There were all these other houses, but at seven o'clock at night, all the kids would be in our house. And I think it had to do partly with my mom being just the kind of person that let everybody come and play. And Vicky, I think you're like that; you let people come and play, and you don't come in the room and say, "Johnny, put down that toy."
Bridgforth: "Go home, Johnny." [Laughter]
Jones: You're like, "Come play." I haven't had quite as much traveling experience as a playwright, but sometimes it's like you get invited to somebody's dinner and you have a really nice dinner and they give you dessert, and then you don't hear from them again.
Bridgforth: Ever! [Laughter]
AC: Let's go back to Sharon's comment about the difficulty of just being a writer, having enough coming in to enable you just to sit down and concentrate on the next play. Is that a difficulty everybody feels? Are you all able to write as much you want?
Bridgforth: All right, who wants to take that one on? [Laughs] I'm just coming out of the depths of a bitter, dark hole, you know. [All laugh.] I mean, Vicky basically saved my life, 'cause I was feeling like, "Well, I just won't do this anymore." But that really wasn't a choice, you know? Not writing is not a choice. This lifestyle is so difficult, and yet you have to do it. And for me, I knew that I had to keep making myself available to travel, which meant I couldn't have a regular job anymore -- although I did that for a while: had three or four jobs and traveled. So I had to be available to travel. I had to keep producing new work, writing new work, and I had to keep getting it produced. It was like juggling bowling balls. I did that for a few years, then my arms got tired. I couldn't do that anymore. So I was telling that to Vicky and she got some grants for me. So it's like we need an advocate, we need that person or that group of people in different places that will provide space, that will provide the tangible monetary things that you need 'cause we're people, you know, we're living, breathing people and we have bills, but then we also have to do this work. As I started getting support, it got better and I was able to be more focused. But even focused and even with support and even with the knowledge that I'll be doing this, this, and this, it's still very hard. It's a hard life.
Ehn: A lot of writers complain -- and it's completely understandable, their lives are consumed with complaint -- that the marketplace isn't taking care of them. And I think the answer must be that the artist is in an argument against the marketplace. The reason why we're not making money is not because we're not good enough, not even because the market isn't good enough; it's because our job is actually to dissent against conventions. We want to live life on our own terms, and that's unacceptable to the business environment. So I accept that I've taken on a task that will thwart my material interests. And to underscore and endorse something Sharon was saying, forgive me for saying this and I mean this in the best way, I think we're all fools. We're holy fools. We're irresponsible, though serious about our craft. We're extremely vulnerable, though armed with our convictions. We are people who desperately need to be taken care of, and that's one of the gifts we offer society. We're not going to be independent contractors in the classic model. We're going to be fools, wandering outside the city walls with no shirt on in the pouring rain. [All laugh.] And somebody's got to come take us inside and make us a little soup. Then, as soon as they turn their backs, we're going to be out there in the rain again.
Margraff: People ask me if I miss New York, and of course, New York has been my home for six or seven years, so of course I miss it. But you're always set apart, no matter where you live. Really, all of us are set apart, and I think an artist even more so. So whatever community it is that we have, it's also important to have that solitude and that individual space that you have with yourself and your work that doesn't have anything to do with an audience or any collaborator or anything. And I think that's really hard. It's hard to maintain that solitude, it's hard to be in that solitude when you've pulled three or four all-nighters in a row and you're with the text and you have to keep going because you have a deadline but you're trying to juggle everything you're doing on top of it. It's extremely difficult. And at a certain point, you have to realize that you have to take care of your personal health. [Vocal agreement around the room] Or you'll keel over and die. I mean, I was literally getting dizzy and losing my footing in New York and almost fainting. I really needed to just sit down and breathe. So you find those little places where you can do that. You have to or you won't make it. And that happens to a lot of artists. They don't make it, for that very reason: They burn up and burn out.
Jones: It's a real delicate balance. My grandmother always said to me, since I was little she said, "God never gives you any more than you can handle." And I do believe that, on some level. And sometimes it's a lot. Sometimes you're like, "Damn --" But the truth is, until you're dead, you can handle it. There's a level of extremity to our lives sometimes because we're standing at the edge of this thing willingly, and we are asked not only to do this work but to take care of one another in a way that can sometimes feel like it's a superhuman request. The same place we have to go to with the art, we have to go to with each other as artists. And we have to go to the depths of humor and forgiveness and generosity and willingness, and keep going there. And some days you wake up and you're like, "Hell, no, I'm not going to that." Sharon and I talked so much a couple years ago, and I keep going back to this one conversation, which should not be on the tape, but we were like, "How we gonna get some money? How we gonna do this thing?" And we were bitter-bitter-bitter-bitter-bitter, because you just knew it's not gonna get any better in the marketplace, as you're saying, it's not gonna get any better in America for the artist in particular. And I don't believe that people should be poor. I don't believe that people should be without energy and resource. I don't believe that things are fixed and limited in that way, 'cause the world is full of abundance. People have locked down the abundance is what the deal is. And our job, what we do is we cut through and tap the creative abundance, we tap the imagination, we tap resources that we don't have to make art happen with one another. And it happens all the time in these little dark rooms with 75 seats -- all of a sudden this thing happens that shouldn't by all logical explanations happen. We still do this thing, and we keep doing it and we keep doing it, and if anything, we need to accept our lot in life, accept being the fool so that we can be the fool who's empowered with the knowledge that the fool is a fool. That's where the power comes from in the trickster, the legba. You are the one who does that thing. And when you go, you'll be gone, and you won't know that you burned it out.
Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling runs Nov 18-Dec 4 at Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd. Call 452-6688.
The Cry Pitch Carrolls runs Dec 4-19 at the John Henry Faulk Living Theatre, Fourth & Brazos. Call 454-TIXS.