Object Lesson

In Sherry Kramer's new play, things that are ordinary become magical: flowers, Barbies, even the writer herself

Sherry Kramer
Sherry Kramer (Photo by Bret Brookshire)

Sherry Kramer has a theory about objects.

We were at Cafe Mundi, having just participated in Etiquette, by the British group Rotozaza as part of the 2008 Fuse Box Festival. It was sort of a piece of theatre – it had even involved a scene from an Ibsen play – but we had been the performers, directed through a story by a mysterious voice that came to us through a pair of headsets. The piece had included a number of objects, including a ball of blue tack, two tiny human figures, an eye dropper, and two glasses of water.

"Italo Calvino says that every object in a narrative is a magical object," Kramer explained. "And if you think about the Holy Grail, the Shroud of Turin, anything in the Harry Potter books, rings, crowns, cloaks, seven-league boots ... if you really start thinking – jewelry, your mother's jewelry, her jewelry box – they're magical, freighted, filled with significance." We were talking about the Rotozaza performance as well as about her own new play, When Something Wonderful Ends, which opens at the Off Center on May 15.

"These objects become metaphorical, because they become carriers of hope and desire and longing. That's what fills them up. And so they start having the ability to do things. They have agency."

Kramer's favorite part of Etiquette was when she opened her eyes to discover that I had been ordered to use the eye dropper to put water on my cheeks as if I had been crying. She laughed and laughed.

Magical objects infuse a lot of plays. Think The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams or The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. Or Sam Shephard's Buried Child, in which the family's dark secret is symbolized by an armful of carrots grown in the back yard.

"By the end of the play, you leave with a container; it's like a to-go container. It carries the whole play. You open your refrigerator, and there's Buried Child, in the crisper. It's an ambush." It's not a funny play, but she laughs again.

When Something Wonderful Ends, which premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2007, is described as a "one woman, one Barbie" show. It's about the history of American involvement in the Middle East, Kramer's childhood as a Jewish girl growing up in a decidedly Baptist community, and the loss of a parent. Ultimately, the play is about the end of an era. But it's not quite the era that you might think.

The writing of the play began in 2005. Kramer's mother had died, and her father was moving from the family home in Springfield, Mo., to independent living. She went back to help pack things up.

Kramer's life was then – and remains today – very mobile. She teaches at Bennington College in Vermont and frequently returns as a guest artist at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, the University of Iowa's Master of Fine Art program in playwriting, and the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, where I first met her. She drives everywhere, all over the country. In her own life, her primary object has for many years been her car.

So at the start of her journey home, she got herself a Book on Tape. And it happened to be about the history of American petroleum policy and U.S. involvement in the Middle East since World War II. "It just found me," she says. "This often happens. You walk into a library or a bookstore, and you just pick up a book, and that's that. You're writing a play about it."

Then, packing up the house, digging through rooms full of family memorabilia – her mother's history, her own history – she came across two huge boxes of vintage Barbie stuff from her childhood, which she decided to sell on eBay. This required research into the history of the doll and its outfits. And she realized something: 1964 was the year that Sherry Kramer got her first Barbie. It was also the year that the United States passed the Status of Forces Agreement, which gave diplomatic immunity to American military personnel for any crimes committed on Iranian soil. Iranians were incensed. Ayatollah Khomeini developed a vast public platform from the issue and eventually became the leader of the Iranian Revolution, instituting sharia. Obviously, the results of that history continue today.

Barbara Chisholm with Barbie in her Enchanted Evening gown
Barbara Chisholm with Barbie in her Enchanted Evening gown (Photo by Bret Brookshire)

So she's listening to the book on Middle East policy, and she's digging into her childhood memories, and she's bringing flowers to a particular corner in the cemetery, where her mother is buried and where she herself has a plot of her own. "And I'm taking pictures, for some reason. Largely because I know that when I move away, if I have these pictures I will still be able to visit her grave."

There must be some way to understand the death of a loved one, of your mother, the person who made you. There must be some way to understand how we have gotten to this point with the earth.

Sitting together at Cafe Mundi, she pulls out her iPhone and shows me the grave on Google Maps. Google uses satellite photography to generate these maps, and Kramer actually found her own vehicle in the photograph of the street. She points to the image. "I believe it's me pulling into the cemetery, because it's a black car. And no one goes into the cemetery but me."

A book, a box of dolls, a marker in the ground, a handful of flowers. Her own car. Her own body. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Kramer found that she was suddenly, unexpectedly writing a play full of magical objects. Suddenly, unexpectedly, she was a magical object in it, as well. "Never written for myself before. So that was a surprise." Then she laughs. "I wrote this play more quickly than I've ever written anything. It was a lot of research, too, so it was like writing like a 17-year-old."

The play has had a fast but celebrated developmental history. It was selected for the 2005 PlayLabs festival at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis and then the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and Ojai Playwrights Conference, both in 2006. That same year, while teaching at the Michener Center, she presented an early draft of the play through the UT Department of Theatre & Dance. It became one of the Top 10 theatrical moments of the year for Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires. By the fall, she had lined up the premiere at Humana.

Kramer talks about the way the text came together: "Sometimes when you have three things that you're doing at the same time, it's like a triangle, and something happens, a relationship starts." It's also as if she's talking about this Austin production, which stars Barbara Chisholm, who is also co-producing with the help of the Rude Mechs. (Full disclosure: Chisholm is a Food writer for the Chronicle and is married to Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires.) The play is directed by Katie Pearl, with set design by Michael Raiford and visual elements by Lowell Bartholomee. It's sort of a dream team that feels almost preordained. Kramer had Chisholm in mind as an actor from the start, although she initially performed all the public readings herself. While in Minneapolis for PlayLabs, she had lunch with another former Austin resident, playwright Carson Kreitzer, who said to Kramer, "There is this actor in Austin that would be wonderful for this piece." She was talking about Chisholm. Then, Raiford was headed to Humana in 2007, and Chisholm suggested he make sure to see the production there. He came back saying, "I thought about you." Both of them had thought about Katie Pearl. Pearl had read the play and was thinking, "Oh, my God, I hope she asks me to direct."

Pearl has only recently relocated back to Austin from several years living in New York, but she has a powerful track record in the local theatre community, having collaborated with writers like Lisa D'Amour and Steve Moore. Both are also fascinated with magical and often inexplicable objects – kitchen implements, say, or a vast number of dead leaves.

Pearl and I met at a different local cafe. The waiter forgot about her small chicken salad and so brought her a bigger one. Pearl has a way with objects, also. "The way that I enter into plays and start understanding them is keep asking why of the play," she explains. "My assumption is that the playwright is pretty smart and has reasons for doing what she's doing and that it's sort of a detective job to figure out why. So then I start thinking of why – not only why she's talking about the history of oil and why she's talking about her mother's death at the same time, but what are the charged moments of transition? – I assumed that Barbie was the bridge."

Barbie has been around for 50 years. She is iconic, ubiquitous, a clear signifier of the American baby boomer childhood. She is made, however, in Japan and influenced by Germany. ("Oddly enough," notes Kramer, "our two primary enemies in World War II.") And as a mass-produced piece of plastic, she contains petroleum products.

"We all have magical objects from our childhood," Kramer says. "The thing about the Barbie is that she is a magical object that so many millions of people shared. So that you can tell your own story, and you're telling the story of so many other people, as well. It turns women, everyone near my age and younger, into this community. It makes this experience a neighborhood experience. If you played with Barbie, you grew up with me. And now I'm going to tell you what we were doing when Barbie was created."

Suddenly, unexpectedly, we realize what era it is that Barbie comes to signify: It is the end of the era of cheap oil.

Kramer and I have a 30-minute experience with the Rotozaza performance of Etiquette, and we discover that the small figurines are references to the Henrik Ibsen play A Doll's House. We have to use the figurines to act out a short scene, and even though Kramer has an almost visceral dislike of Ibsen, she stuck it out, and by the end, we are both a little bit exhilarated. I wipe the droplets of water off my cheeks. We put all the figurines, the blue tack, the vial of blood, which was really only fruit juice, back to their rightful places, in preparation for the next audience participants.

Kramer walks back toward her car. She now drives a hybrid.

"The objects interact in the world with us," Kramer says. "The play gives that normal part of our lives back to us, transformed."  

When Something Wonderful Ends runs May 15-June 1, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 5pm, at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. For more information, visit www.rudemechs.com.

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More Sherry Kramer
Research and Development
Research and Development
Back in the performance laboratory of the David Mark Cohen New Works Festival

Robert Faires, March 27, 2009

Arts Review
When Something Wonderful Ends
Sherry Kramer's play is heavy-handed when discussing America and oil but funny and moving when discussing her late mother

Hannah Kenah, May 23, 2008

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Sherry Kramer, When Something Wonderful Ends, Katie Pearl, Barbara Chisholm, Michael Raiford, Michener Center for Writers

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