Societies everywhere, like the individuals who come together to form them, tend to desire a clear sense of identity and purpose. People don’t spend so much time thinking about these things on sunny days. But on bad days, whether it is simply gray and rainy or a natural disaster has struck, people suddenly feel the need to have a mission they can lean upon, a place to go, a ritual they can perform when there is nothing else to be done. It is healthy and natural for societies to look to their minds, memories and imaginations to explain the unexplainable, and this tendency in people and communities to want to root themselves in a better idea of their identity, to provide a context for good and evil, to offer space for hope and comfort in despair, is one of the origins of the theater.
Whether we’re talking about America as a whole or a community of monks in the mountains of Tibet, societies strive to establish a set of values and an interpretation of their own history that will underpin the actions they take internally as well as with respect to the wider world. Often this happens in reverse. None of us is unfamiliar with the notion of a society that seeks to justify questionable or controversial actions—say, going to war or damaging the environment—by reinterpreting history, adapting old rituals to new purposes, or, in essence, restating its mission.
When a society gets as complex as ours—with as many cultural, spiritual, philosophical, historical, aesthetic and intellectual components struggling to find a unifying rubric—it becomes more difficult to explain why bad things happen, why some people have more than others, and what kind of social equation has the capacity to benefit the most people. I thought about this a lot last week, during our 15th annual Playwrights’ Week event. That was the week that the stock market suffered its largest drop in history, Congress was paralyzed by politics and the public didn’t have a clue what was happening—either to its wealth or sense of national identity. Lots of other bad things were going on, too, as usual, but the economic crisis was causing all the experts to stutter and flip-flop as they tried to right the boat and explain the complexities of what was happening in simple terms, which, it turns out, they couldn’t. The world is just not simple enough for one paradigm to be enough to explain it all. Newtonian physics can’t explain many of the questions that Einstein asked, nor does the bible explain how to solve world hunger. It is naïve and dangerous to expect that the multidimensional global challenges we face today can be understood and overcome without opening our eyes and ears to what we don’t yet know, in new ways. “Look for a solution out of the box,” the saying goes; trite as it is, a saying is a saying because there’s a lot of truth to it. To me, history’s biggest lesson is that we’ve successfully met challenges in the past though education and open minds.
So, during Playwrights’ Week I was thinking a lot about the difference between the experience of an audience member who came to only one or two of the 11 plays that were featured and my experience seeing them all. I would never expect most people to commit themselves to seeing 11 plays in six days, but I know what it meant to me to be able to see 11 freshly printed snapshots of the world superimposed as a single complex organism. Each separate piece, to me, seemed to mean more because of the presence of the others. And because I also attended many discussion sessions that involved all of the playwrights meeting to talk about their work, I got the feeling, for a few moments at least, of having my finger on the pulse of humanity. Right now. In this moment in history.
Most people had a wonderful experience of Playwrights’ Week seeing one or two plays selected from among the many options that were listed on our colorful Playwrights’ Week postcard, with its distinctive cover image (designed by Jeff Jackson) of the earth cracking open like an egg and lots of words and ideas splashing out into the world. They really knew what they were choosing, too, if they had shown up for the Playwrights’ Week’s launch event, “Meet the Playwrights,” which was hosted spectacularly by literary agent and connoisseur-of-playwrights Morgan Jenness, and was like sampling a flight of wines from 11 regions, both domestic and international. Participating writers read aloud small morsels from their own works-in-process with the wonderful humanity that only an author can plumb.
But there were a few other people, like me, who put their lives on hold for the week and experienced Playwrights’ Week as total immersion. This was true of the 11 participating playwrights and many of the directors. It was true of our staff, of course, and there were others there, too. Because the launch event was so seductive, alluring, charming, disarming, inspiring, and profoundly intimate, it encouraged a number of people who intended to see nothing to get more immersed.
“Total Immersion” people at Playwrights’ Week exist in a state of literary-social-cultural-historical intoxication, attending two readings a night, eating out between shows, and hanging out with playwrights at bars. They put a lot into it as Total Immersion requires significant energy and focus. It can feel a bit like a stint in a sweat lodge, including, on the one hand, profound insights and spiritual growth, and, on the other hand, disorientation and disturbing dreams when you go home each night after seeing two plays. And even the plays themselves are moving targets: each play in Playwrights’ Week is, in the playwright’s own estimation, not yet “finished,” still seeking to find itself. The purpose of Playwrights’ Week is to support writers in setting their own goals to deepen and strengthen their work. Taking in 11 plays in six days which was not for the faint-of-heart.
There was MIDDLEMEN by David Jenkins, almost prophetic, literally performed on the day that Lehman Brothers fell and Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s frightening and compact political thriller, BENEDICTUS, about high-stakes negotiations between an Iranian politician and an Israeli arms dealer, followed by a multinational panel composed of the people who had commissioned and nurtured this controversial play. Ismail Khalidi’s TRUTH SERUM BLUES shared an American perspective on the Middle East, in a play originally developed as a high-tech one man touring show ambitiously transformed for Playwrights’ Week into the moving and ruefully funny inner monologue of a torture victim at Guantanamo Bay—in a technologically unadorned five-actor ensemble piece. Later, we saw Dano Madden’s IN THE SAWTOOTHS, in which the audience became a troop of eight year-old girl scouts getting advice about taking a camping trip from three young Idaho men, followed by Allison Moore’s SLASHER: a funny, campy, but ultimately dark take on gruesome horror films exploring America’s shattered value system, family dysfunction, and brutality between men and women. James McLindon’s FAITH centered on a 13 year-old boy, obsessed with Christian martyrdom, who meets a real but ambivalent angel in the Walmart parking lot, and WILDFLOWER by Lila Rose Kaplan looked at adults—and teenagers—in arrested emotional development that has stunted their capacity to truly love or accept another’s love. THE TWELFTH LABOR by Steven Gridley also looked at love and responsibility, what it means, whether a mentally retarded woman is capable of parenting, and when a parent has the right to make decisions for a grown child. THE NOISEMAKERS by Mark Borkowski was cruelly funny, exploring the breakup of a couple beset on both sides by family insanity, including a father who insists that his carpenter son crucify him in front of assembled guests. CHARM by Kathleen Cahill was a funny, fictional and poetic take on the life of feminist Margaret Fuller, a person with a powerful vision of the future, an unshakable sense of fairness and justice, and a hunger to live in her body even though such sensuality was considered an enormous social threat at the time. And finally, Lina Patel’s SANKALPAN was a unique and ingenious version of THE THREE SISTERS so perfectly adapted to India in 1904 that the universal themes of love, power, justice and happiness glisten freshly and originally in the air, as though it had been blessed by Chekhov who could have never written this play himself.
With this injection of images and ideas, I lived in a nearly hallucinatory state for seven days, and am finally coming out of my blissful immersion in ideas, feelings, thoughts, images, and imagination. While each play was remarkably satisfying as an individual experience, they collectively presented an amazing gallery of artistic expression, historical perspective, and vision for the future.
Not that I recommend a theatrical binge like this, but there is something important about understanding the role of theater in society as something of continual and continuous value, an ongoing conversation between artists and audiences, and a platform big enough for all of us to stand on and reach for the stars we can see together.
John Clinton Eisner