I sometimes think if I write the word “innovative” in third person about my own work in one more application for a fellowship or a grant, I’ll lose all respect for myself. The word “innovative” has become as meaningless as “interesting” in describing the theater experience, yet we continue straining to fit it in project descriptions and play blurbs. Innovation has always been easily definable in science and technology and just useful products. A refrigerator was an innovation. Velcro was another. A cure for Alzheimer’s disease will be one. But what could possibly be an innovation in theater today?
I respond with kinship to Caridad’s desire “to see what happens” when theater artists are given resources to—well, see what happens. Because I think we are collectively becoming confused about the concept of “innovation.” Nothing most of us will produce in our lifetimes will be an innovation. Most everything has been thought about, written down, and experimented with by someone somewhere. To make innovation in theater a goal is like designing a great container without knowing what will go inside it.
But if I am right about everything imaginable already being present, then where do creative ideas and unusual styles that would enrich the field come from? I believe that the foundation for the theatrical exhilaration is our knowledge that we are actually doing theater and sharing this information with the audience. Why do we instead ask them to believe that they are in someone’s living room or a forest or a hotel room or at a riverbank or anywhere else except where they actually are—in the theater?
I don’t mean that playwrights should not set their plays in contemporary Africa or ancient Asia. But if we acknowledge that our purpose is not to make those locations seem real, but rather to make it clear that they aren’t, then everyone in the building would be liberated from having to pretend to be somewhere we are not. The sky is the creative limit at that point of honesty. After all, what we make is fabrication (which rhymes with innovation); therefore, no one could be mightier than theater artists or could live through more enchanted (or wretched) lives than the audience members—in the space.
I first got the taste of this powerful freedom from my friend, actor/director Paul Walker (1952-1993). Once, a group of his friends were hanging out (no immediate goal, just yakking), when he demonstrated a crying baby— which didn’t resemble any baby—and right there and then, he grew taller than his natural height, preached about the end of human existence, and roared like a dragon. He sat back down and said, “I think that’s good realistic acting.” That moment changed me. I knew the room I was in with him was the theater and I had just witnessed his entire personal history since birth. All the world’s a stage meant that the entire world was on stage. I miss Paul. He was an exception to the rule. He was an innovation.
There are other exceptions. Recently, I saw the Target Margin Theater production of The (*) Inn, a play written in the early twentieth century in Yiddish by Peretz Hirschbein, adopted and directed by David Herskovits. David is a director who reminds me of what Paul taught me so many years ago. In my view, he doesn’t make convincing containers. He continually leads the audience astray from co-inhabiting the place where his characters are, and instead shows us the theater where his characters live magically at that moment. Although my sensibility is very different from his, I’ve followed David’s work for decades in awe. The (*) Inn was a remarkable theater piece.
The play does not belong in the well-made category. It is a sprawling and mysterious journey. Accordingly, David’s direction encompassed many different styles in response to the unpredictable trajectory of the play. The production expanded and contracted at the same time, physically beginning downstage with a backdrop confining the area and actors going in and out of a tiny house. As the play progressed and tragedy permeated the family, the stage opened up wider and deeper until in the end the actors roamed the huge space all the way to the actual back wall that showed a roll-up steel door. In the most desperate scene when the bride leaves her wedding and runs away with the man she is drawn to, they end up in a desolate place—I imagine some dark field away from the town—and all colors are drained from the stage, except for the bride’s white dress. By the end of the play when a fire was set on the roomy interior of the earlier tiny house, the tone and the look of the production was so different from where it had begun, I had a feeling that I traveled not only the days the characters lived, but hundreds of years of history.
What added to this epic quality, I believe, is the fact that there was a noticeable amount of dialogue spoken in Yiddish. It is not an unusual practice to have another language in a play, but in this case, the Yiddish lines were spoken by African American, Asian American and Middle Eastern American actors as well as actors of Jewish descent. David Herskovits is one of a handful of directors who are committed to casting actors of color consistently in his productions. It is not blind casting; it’s a conscious color-aware casting that represents the city we live in. I would say that the ensemble was the most “natural” aspect of the wild ride of The (*) Inn. It certainly didn’t hold me back from experiencing the Jewish life portrayed on stage, but rather enhanced it for me—provided me with a license to own my personal recognition of it. I have no knowledge about Yiddish Theater, but my guess is that a multiracial production of a Yiddish play has not been done before. This, in addition to the directorial labyrinth I went through, could make me call the production an “innovation”.
However, David calls it simply his own personal love letter to the memory of the Yiddish Theater. He brought different stylistic ideas into rehearsal and the ensemble experimented with them and new variations and directions. Much of this “see what happens” work was discarded, but some of it was refined and sustained the performance. This is what Caridad addresses in her essay as “the testing of ideas and forms and signs in space and time,” a crucial part of the creative process.
I have been fortunate to have had an opportunity to do a bit of what Caridad advocates with David in a workshop of This Lingering Life—my play with 27 unnamed characters. It was very much about “see what happens” in the room for us, not having worked together before. Lots of things happened. The scene I thought was mean and dangerous between a woman and her stepson became a hysterical Technicolor movielike melodrama under his direction. Who knew I was such a funny writer? It will take another whole essay to discuss how out there David is as a director. The workshop was not an innovation, but I discovered hidden theatrical possibilities in my own play. In directing actors, David referenced the Old Testament, classic films from the early twentieth century, Greek mythology, etc.—half of the things I had no knowledge of. And during the week that we were working together, I knew that I was in the studio at New Dramatists which was also the world.
Chiori Miyagawa is a playwright based in NYC and a Resident Playwright of New Dramatists. She just looked again at the blurb that her collaborators have written for her play, I Came to Look for You on Tuesday . It says, “Reunion with her mother, who was swept away by the tsunami, is impossible for Maia. She hopes by swimming across the largest lake in the world to find her mother’s spirit. Along the way, we meet twenty characters, each of them longing to find someone they have lost in times of natural disaster or war. I Came to Look for You on Tuesday is a surprising and mythical story about our need to reconnect.” She is relieved that the word “innovative” is not in the blurb, though she realizes that once again she is writing about her work in third person here. I Came to Look For You on Tuesday premieres at La MaMa in September, directed by Alice Reagan. This Lingering Life will premiere in June 2014 at Theatre of Yugen in San Francisco. chiorimiyagawa.com