CUT PIECE

By Sylvan Oswald
 

BECAUSE, REALLY, WHAT ARE PLAYS?
AND WHY SHOULD WE READ THEM? 

 

CUT. This is the complete text of Yoko Ono's most famous performance. "Cut." That is all. In her book Grapefruit, Ono notes she usually performs the piece herself, sitting on a stage with scissors, inviting an audience to "cut a portion of her clothing (anywhere they like) and take it." Many have ascribed feminist and anti-war meanings to this canonical work of 1960s performance art. Few would call it a play.

Theater people certainly would not claim it. Where are the rest of the words? As playwrights we are trained towards specificity. In the traditional model of theater, the script is a contract with our collaborators. Designers, directors, actors, and producers all rely on our careful notation of speech, motion, light, sound, and space to do their jobs - to illuminate our structures with their own vitality so that a shared project may be offered to and completed by an audience. Once after I expanded on a few lines from one of my plays, a collaborator told me that my interpretation wasn't supported by the text. "But I am the text," I insisted, immediately embarrassed. I knew that I was wrong. In traditional theater the text is the only text.

Much of the time I've spent trying to be a playwright in the American Theater, I have also spent loving Yoko Ono (and John Cage and Gertrude Stein). Their incompatibility, my resistance, is the defining tension in my work. Am I a playwright? It's not always enough. In recent years I have watched the art world's interest in performance explode. Occasionally a few poets and even fewer theater artists have been granted places in that new cosmos. Documentation of performance, artists' writing and performance scores (even plays!) receive much attention. Yet plays called-as-such by actual playwrights are never on offer. For the most part, these two spheres - art and theater - are almost magnetically opposed. We circle each other then repel, a kind of force field between us.

Because, really, what are plays? And why should we read them? Here are some of the ways I've come to think about those questions, offered as a somewhat personal and rather feminist context for independent publishing in theater.

*

"Cut," is a polygon, a many-sided shape in one's choice of dimensions: two, three, or time. To a writer like myself who has long been obsessed with how the materiality of words collides with the unwriteable "text" of performance, a one-word script is an exhilaratingly simple act of rebellion.

From 2003-2011 I published a journal of plays co-edited with playwright and screenwriter Jordan Harrison.

 
 
Play A Journal of Plays # 2 features a fold-out scroll in Theodora Skipitares' "Helen, Queen of Sparta." Design: ORG. Photo: still room.

Play A Journal of Plays # 2 features a fold-out scroll in Theodora Skipitares' "Helen, Queen of Sparta." Design: ORG. Photo: still room.

PLAY A JOURNAL OF PLAYS WAS DEVOTED TO "RETHINKING THE LIFE OF PLAYS ON THE PAGE," BY WHICH WE ASPIRED TO A LITERARY AND ART-PUBLISHING TRADITION THAT OWED MORE TO THE ITALIAN FUTURISTS, GERTRUDE STEIN, GROVE'S EVERGREEN IMPRINT, AND MCSWEENEY'S THAN TO, SAY, SAMUEL FRENCH.

Our four issues were lovingly unbranded, unplanned, and pretty much unmarketed. You could maybe sometimes buy them at the St. Mark's Bookshop (R.I.P.) or at the Drama Bookshop in Midtown when I had time to drop them off. Our greatest folly was a one-night stand with a major distributor which started off well, we thought, when our books landed in at least one confirmed Barnes and Noble. It ended abruptly when we learned that the distributor had pulped half of the already-modest print run of our most decadent issue (#2) because we made the rookie mistake of assigning it a magazine identification number, an ISSN, without also adding a book's ISBN. Magazines perish; books get a shelf life. Issue 2 quickly went out of print - only a few copies are still available.

We published genre-agnostic writers of fiction and poetry, makers of puppet theater, ensembles for whom authorship was fluid and text was procedure, though mostly the project was plays. We hoped to foster in the wider world something like what we'd seen at graduate school where visionary poets and fiction writers wrote not just poems or stories but lists, graphics, dialogues, games, and one memorable bestiary. We took each other’s seminars; attended each others' readings, and some of us shared apartments. We had our eyes opened to the world of independent publishing and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Keith Waldrop showed us his copy of Scenarios edited by Richard Kostelanetz, a mind-bending anthology of scripts, scores, and performance texts by artists as varied as Jack Kerouac and Philip Glass.

Our mentor Paula Vogel was preaching a gospel of "impossibility." This ethos fit in perfectly with the downtown theater I was introduced to in college. Yes we would write impossible plays! Plays that no one could produce!

Meanwhile, we playwrights were also getting schooled on how to enter the business of theater circa 2003.

Step 1, Write a play (in the proper format!).

Step 2, pack it in a manila envelope and mail it to a theater.

Step 3, Wait. Where "wait," strictly meant, "don't call us, we'll call you." 

As someone who had long occupied a then-nameless space between the gender the world said I possessed versus the one that felt true, I knew I would never win at the mail-order-bride game. If I hadn't made the life-changing realization in high school that I'd only ever be cast as a fat girl dancing in the back row of The Pajama Game, I wouldn't be here today. So why don't I just start directing plays in that other theater that no one is using, I thought to myself. And I did.

Vogel's "impossible" assignment was a playful way to break us out of what we thought a play was supposed to be. She had a rigorous agenda of defiance towards white male gatekeepers, or towards conservatives and self-righteous liberals of any gender. Her plays of the 1990s saw both sides of pornography, abortion, and molestation, sometimes to feminist dismay. Her radical politics were bent on raising up an army of pleasant, door-knocking proselytizers (her word) who would get invited into the plastic-wrapped living rooms of American Theaters and proceed to fuck their shit up. But she wanted us to do it more diplomatically than she had. Vogel's playwrights must master a craft  - building Trojan Horses.

It seemed impossible as Vogel came of age that a lesbian (or three) might hold the empathetic center of a Tony-winning Broadway musical (Fun Home). Or that an electro-pop opera based on War and Peace would be staged environmentally in a Russian supper club with free-flowing vodka and pierogies (Dave Malloy's Great Comet, which capped its long trek to Broadway with star Josh Groban, visionary design by our generation's finest, Mimi Lien, and the expert chaos of director Rachel Chavkin).

Like the master teachers of any age, and in ours she has few peers, Vogel's methods are so effective because she fused her own grief and rebellion with a body of knowledge that bears its own history of resistance. The Impossible Play was founded on her notion of Plasticity, a concept she translated from Meyerhold, the Russian Theater director, and filtered through Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist she first studied as a graduate student at Cornell.

Plasticity for Meyerhold meant rethinking the entire theatrical event. Instead of attempting, like his mentor Stanislavsky, to represent reality through meticulous reproduction of birdsong, samovars, and psychologically-based acting, Meyerhold's theater drew its charge from the energy of the actor's performance. Like the built environment of the stage, which he similarly liberated from the mundane task of playing a drawing room or some other bourgeois environment, Meyerhold wrote that he was interested in a physicality "which does not correspond to the words." This meant that an actor's physical actions need not illustrate what they are saying – and can even contradict the language – in service of revealing a deeper truth. He pursued a physically precise outside-in approach to acting that would radiate the essence of a role. Inspired by sculpture, Commedia dell'arte, and with some appropriation of eastern performance styles, Meyerhold went after a kind of shamanic presence.

 

VOGEL: PLASTICITY IS THE PLAYWRIGHT'S VOICE ON THE PAGE.

 

In Vogel's Plasticity she asks writers for the same. She speaks about cultivating a mise-en-page so specific that it could only belong to one writer on earth.

It is also, in her words, "everything on the stage that isn't language." This could mean furniture. But it could also mean energy or atmosphere, sound or light. How is such a thing described on a page? Through stage directions that transcend mere logistics (i.e. he crosses downstage) to function more like secrets whispered from the writer to the reader that an audience might never know. This is where impossibility resides.

Without reading these often-overlooked parts of plays, you might not otherwise appreciate the poetry of the main character of Adrienne Kennedy's The Owl Answers being named "She who is CLARA PASSMORE who is the VIRGIN MARY who is the BASTARD who is the OWL." (Note: all-caps are the standard format for character names in scripts, as opposed to an indication of shouting etc.) You might not know that a tense pause in Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog Underdog is the result of a passage Parks calls a "spell" in which the characters' names are stacked on top of each other. Some kind of heightened energy has overtaken the moment - cosmic or contemplative - she leaves it to the director to decide.

LINCOLN
BOOTH
LINCOLN
BOOTH
LINCOLN
BOOTH

Mia Chung's description of a character's flight out of North Korea in her play You For Me For You requires all hands on deck: "The Crossing is the fight of your life in which Time and Space are ground into pebbles so tiny they can slip through the cracks of an enormous fist."

ARE THESE REQUESTS ANY MORE IMPOSSIBLE THAN THE GHOST OF HAMLET'S FATHER OR THE CONJURING OF PROSPERO? OR JUST LESS FAMILIAR?

Impossibility may be those whispered secrets that evoke more than they explain, but it need not break the budget. Cheap stage magic: disappearing act = turning off the lights. Then there's showing what's been previously "impossible" to see, like the complex inner worlds of Kennedy's biracial heroines or gender nonconforming bodies onstage in the work of a trans playwright like Kate Bornstein, Mashuq Deen, MJ Kaufman, Basil Kreimendahl, or myself.

Vogel's Plasticity stems from her great love of Viktor Shklovsky who, in the early twentieth century, outlined ways that artists might maintain autonomy in a given political climate, not by openly progressive content, but by subtle choices in the way a story is delivered. When writers draw our attention to the seams of the writing itself, larger meanings of the work emerge. It is a practice of resensitizing ourselves to the world around us, and to those ills to which we become so easily accustomed.

It was from within this cauldron that Play A Journal of Plays emerged in 2003. Jordan and I tumbled out of graduate school, having just committed to writing the impossible. We two (not so much scrappy as neurotic) queers would somehow have to win at the mail-order game. Launching the journal was a way to grab hold of some agency. Instead of leaping and expecting that someone would catch us, we'd build a hovercraft.

The only other play publishers at the time used commercial models and still do. Samuel French, Dramatists Play Service, and Broadway Play Publishing hold licenses to the performance rights of the plays they print, mostly between plain paper covers. Theater Communications Group (TCG), the non-profit hub of our industry, prints fancier editions by writers who have achieved some renown. Back then, a few academic journals did print cool obscure things, but always formatted in penny-pinching columns. (As if it wasn't enough that there was a standard play format that a writer disregarded at the peril of her career, if she got so lucky as to have a play printed in a periodical, the graphic design would confine it even further. How I hated columns.)

Each issue of Play A Journal of Plays had a different design team ranging from me and Jordan and Microsoft Word, to the real deal Jessica Fleischmann of the LA firm still room. We tested the patience of designers David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey, then of O-R-G, who took a field trip to the Drama Bookshop then wittily proposed that we reference the Sam French/DPS house style in the design of the next issue. They were disappointed when we told them that our field might not get the irony. We were serious about play. We wanted to spirit our readers away from the familiar.

*

Bonnie Marranca. She's the editorial force behind PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, founded and run for many years with Gautum Dasgupta. She's also my publishing hero.

Among the art-historical watershed moments I wasn't around for, one of the most fascinating to me is Soho before it was Soho. To hear Marranca tell it, and I'm hardly hyperbolizing, she, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, Meredith Monk, and every other mother of us all were all in their twenties or thirties running around on the same floor of a hazardous loft space exchanging ideas. And then Philip Glass and JoAnne Akalaitis and Lee Breuer would drop by!

Soho had already been colonized by artists of all kinds, but for our purposes the most important of these was Fluxus, a band of raconteurs that included Ono, George Maciunas, Nam June Paik and many others. 

FLUXUS ARTISTS GENERATED A HUGE RANGE OF MATERIAL INCLUDING VIDEO AND EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC. BUT, SIGNIFICANTLY, THIS WAS A MOVEMENT THAT PUBLISHED. 

In a lineage with Dada and Duchamp, Fluxus put out manifestos, instructions, games, and mystery boxes. One of their chief influences was John Cage, a composer whose influence on the American Avant-Garde was amplified by a particular experiment in art education.

Cage and Merce Cunningham taught for a time at Black Mountain College, which itself came out of the Bauhaus in Germany before everyone fled. At Black Mountain College, Cage arranged the immersive, unhierarchical, "Untitled Event," featuring all of the arts plus Buckminster Fuller. Often considered the prototype of the Happening, Cage's 1952 Event has become the origin story for much of our thriving experimental music, theater, dance, and media arts of today. Mainstream behemoth Sleep No More bears a debt to the Happening.  

Marranca was a young critic coming of age in New York alongside her peers in the wake of this history, cutting her critical teeth on performances like The Wooster Group's Three Places in Rhode Island, actually a quartet of shows with text by Spaulding Grey. She coined the term "Theatre of Images" to describe the shift away from narrative playwriting. Artists like Wilson, Foreman, and Breuer's Mabou Mines were making meaning as the product of a field of stimulus created through language, sound, light, and non-realistic performance. Without her dogged efforts to publish, edit and sustain the journal and press over the years, many documents from that time would still be in suitcases under beds in the East Village. We would not have both a comic book and a boldly-designed performance text with photos of Lee Breuer's Animations.

IMG_4917.jpg
Cover and spreads from "Red Horse Animation" from Animations by Lee Breuer, edited by Bonnie Marranca and published by PAJ (1979). Graphic design by a young James Lapine, who, five years later, would write the libretto for and direct Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. 

Cover and spreads from "Red Horse Animation" from Animations by Lee Breuer, edited by Bonnie Marranca and published by PAJ (1979). Graphic design by a young James Lapine, who, five years later, would write the libretto for and direct Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George

It bears mentioning that what Marranca was promoting was not the play-as-we-know-it. These artists were post-play. They were, in Hans-Thies Lehmann's pivotal phrase, postdramatic. They would no longer bow before the primacy of a play script or the authority of a playwright. They were the text, or part of it. They were auteurs. They cut up language ripped from the capitalist environment, commissioned text by an autistic writer (Wilson), interrupted everyday speech with abstract thought or gesture, wrote for an ensemble without distinguishing who was speaking, transcribed improvisations, or they didn't write at all. Events proceeded in circles, spirals, or dots - anything but a straight line. They were triumphantly undoing the conventions of drama. As Lehmann writes in Postdramatic Theater, this was a generation shaped by the knowledge, now irrefutable because they saw it on TV, that human barbarity was not ancient history. The apotheoses of cruelty were fresh. At least, it was a startling set of wounds for White America.

And certainly Wilson, Foreman, Breuer and peers were not the first to deconstruct theater through performance and the printed page. Marranca's publishing project diagrams those roots through her ample coverage of twentieth-century avant-garde performance. A tour might start with Futurist Performance then move on to Last Operas and Plays by Gertrude Stein, which features Marranca's preface, one of the most artful intros to Stein that we have. She is the exclusive publisher of Maria Irene Fornes, a woefully underknown master American playwright most active in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. And finally, among the recent highlights there are plays by Elfriede Jelinek, operas by Robert Ashley, and coverage of performance festivals from around the world.

Marranca's performance texts are the strange children of auteurs and ensembles, novelists and composers. Like Yoko Ono they show us, if we care to disorient ourselves, the infinite possibilities that exist outside the frame. 

*

The advent of print sparked the evolution of the play script from hand-written sides to its now standard format. Julie Stone Peters in Theatre of the Book, 1480-1880: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe, looks at how print created the theater industry. There were no theaters that exclusively presented plays before dramatic literature entered circulation. Even placing character names before dialogue (called prefixes) and where prefixes should go on the page was a printer's question and not, initially, a playwright's. The fact of a printed play also meant that plays could be produced independent of the troupes that originated them. A theater could produce a play. An actor could live somewhere other than a rickety wagon rolling from town to town.

Complementing Peters, W.B. Worthen in Print and the Poetics of Modern Drama shows how the technology of print transformed drama on the page and in performance. Worthen observes that some of Beckett's plays, which contain stage directions, "add a set of 'notes,' usually in a different font, and often on a different page..." The directions in the play proper are simple and evocative. The notes that follow are excruciatingly detailed. From a playwriting point of view, I read that as a desire to separate the almost spiritual unity of the play from the mundane housekeeping of how to put it on. 

If everyday life was central to anyone it was Gertrude Stein, who left most of its labor to Alice, but deployed what Sherwood Anderson called "little housekeeping words" in dozens of plays that challenge even the most advanced reader. Having always felt ahead or behind the story at the theater as a child, Stein wrote plays that made linear time irrelevant. She called them landscape plays, and like landscapes there was a vastness to the view. All things in the same frame - the present. Stein mingled dialogue and actions with thoughts on her own process. If time is in the present, then it is always the beginning, or, "Scene 1," Stein might repeatedly announce.

Stein found a tension between the spiritual and the mundane in her approach to her own work. The writing she considered her best shone with a quality she called "entity," a sense that the text was a kind of closed loop, referring only inward towards itself.  Writing intended for the general public, like her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, had what she called "identity." In her identity writing, there's an awareness of the audience, a self-consciousness that we might say led to a kind of performance of the self.  

When no one else would, Stein resorted to publishing her own writing under the imprint Plain Editions. The Autobiography, however, was serialized in Atlantic Monthly and found an outside publisher. By the time Stein took her famous tour of America, she had became an international sensation and the subject of window displays at Gimbel's and Bergdorf Goodman. "Identity" was a compromise, but one that brought her long-sought satisfaction.   

Stein's internal entity and external identity are useful in thinking about my own push-pull with playwriting. I want to write entity. Doing business requires "identity." Whether or not it is really true, I fantasize that text in the vein of art performance has that purity unto-itself. It is not pretend. The performers are not characters, but themselves. We are in a venue, not a Russian manor house. I want plays to be real.

When theater artists take up publishing for themselves, it is a gesture towards entity. 

*

The rebellion that art performance and postdramatic theater both enact is a distrust of, among other things, what might be called "theatricality," or "falseness." What I suspect lies at the root of this skepticism, other than exposure to old-fashioned or sub-par shows, what people mean when they say they hate theater, is that they distrust illusion.

Before I even knew what trans was, I knew I wanted to see my world reflected - along with my then-ambiguous gender expression. All of us need to see ourselves reflected in one way or another. It's how we know we're not just monstrous creatures on our own little planets struggling to invent wheels and fire. We all struggle; and we are not alone, but we each have personal taste in how we'd like to be reminded of that.

It may no longer seem possible, safe, or advisable to willingly suspend our disbelief. Our nationalities, politics, identities, and aesthetics inform our terms of surrender. There are real reasons, even if we can't name them, behind our refusal to tacitly agree that a human we know is an actor is now this other figure, a character. Or that a chair is a throne; that a pattern on the floor is dappled sunlight; that it's time to feel scared because scary music is playing. Because, what then? To what other kinds of manipulations might we now be subject? Agreeing to pretend, the suspension of disbelief coined by Coleridge in 1817, is to consent to letting go. It means to permit one thing to represent another. In Ancient Greek it's called mimesis: to imitate. It's the imitation, or representation, that some people find troubling. When illusion gets equated with theater, plays too become suspect. 

The debate goes back to Plato, the "anti-theatrical prejudice," that to pretend is to pose a threat to civilized society. Theater critic and historian Miriam Felton-Dansky relayed this concept to me, describing an out-of-print title by Jonas Barish. "The ways that people reject or censor theater are like a photo-negative of the times," she explained. "Every time [politicians] were trying to close the theaters, you know that meant the theater was doing something at least a little threatening." Consider your favorite mid-century artist challenged before HUAC during the Red Scare or the NEA Four whose funding was revoked in a witch-hunt led by Jesse Helms during the AIDS crisis. It's no coincidence that Ancient Greek tragedy is the genre presided over by the god of sex, wine, and chaos, Dionysus.

Anti-theatrical prejudice, like anti-intellectualism, has come down to us like an atmosphere we don't even know we're inhaling. The distrust of theater is magnified by the fear of looking stupid. 

THE TENSION BETWEEN ART'S DISTRUST OF MIMESIS AND THEATER'S ADDICTION TO IT CREATES A MAGNETIC FIELD.

While independent poetry and fiction presses have occasionally published performance texts or poets' plays, the last fifteen years has seen increasing text-based efforts from artists with theater and performance backgrounds. Publisher Karinne Keithley-Syers has been gathering writers and artists under her imprint 53rd State Press for almost ten years. Now partnered with agent Antje Oegel, 53rd State has generated an impressive catalogue of award-winning artists who are un-making theater for our generation. Many of her artists hail from Mac Wellman's playwriting program at Brooklyn College or NYU's Tisch School of Drama and Experimental Theater Wing. They were the students of, among others, Annie B-Parson and Paul Lazar, David Neumann, and Erik Ehn (53rd State has worked with Lazar and Ehn too).

As of now, Play A Journal of Plays is on indefinite hiatus. Thankfully, new projects like 3 Hole Press, with its unique mission to bridge art, literary, and theater landscapes, are venturing into this charged space.

No one asks anymore if the theater is dying. A more interesting question to me is how can we convince everyone outside theater that plays belong to them too? There is no single definition of a play. To publish plays is to insist on an economy of ideas. To read plays, and I hope you will, is to receive a manual for the impossible.

 


 

Sylvan Oswald is an Assistant Professor of Playwriting at UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television and an alum of New Dramatists. Play A Journal of Plays is now on sale at McNally Jackson books in New York and at playajournalofplays.com. For more information, sylvanoswald.xyz.