Elliot forgot the Reluctant Vampires

by Ian Rowlands

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Sarah Kane in Psychosis 4:48 places herself ‘Last in a long line of literary kleptomaniacs (a time honoured tradition)’ thereby echoing T.S. Elliot who stated, ‘Good writers borrow, great writers steal’.  However I am uncertain as to whether Eliot had anything to say of those writers who feast on the very souls and base emotions of their acquaintances. I am such a vampire; a soul sucker – akin to Kane. ‘I am an emotional plagiarist, stealing other people’s pain, and subsuming it into my own… (Crave), though, it could be argued that her main pre-occupation was with autolysis to the point of nothing… silence.

I guess, we all aim for silence, thankfully, for my family, I have gone beyond the impulse of aiming for nothing. As a consequence, I will keep sucking. However, I am a soul sucker with a growing conscience. With each soul consumed (to feed my dramatic need), pangs of guilt wrack me. And yet, I keep sucking and writing. What else can a reluctant vampire do? I leech the souls of others, appropriate their emotions and lives and place them unashamedly in my own dramatic narratives (and in so doing, in the public domain). But, what right do I have to exploit the very being of others? “I am a writer” I claim. But, is this a defense? Increasingly this dilemma has led me to question my actions! And believe me, such self doubt is not a good thing for a reluctant vampire!

Let me present a case study – Fragments of Journeys Towards the Horizon.

Form: monologue. Theme: an exploration of friendship and cross-cultural collaboration. Sounds like slim pickings, but oh, how I feasted!

Background: I met Jeroen van den Berg, a Dutch writer at The Lark, NY. We were both International Associates of that development company. Twice, our visits to that city, coincided. Both times we bonded over sushi and Brooklyn Beer. Back in Europe we built upon our friendship – I visited Amsterdam, van den Berg visited my city. During each visit we would discuss collaboration; blood sharing! But, vampires are not natural collaborators. We are perverse beings who subvert the natural order; true collaboration is anathema and yet we set out with all good intentions to collaborate!

However, two years down the line, and despite our best intentions, our dreams of collaboration had amounted to nothing. Unfortunately, having received a grant from a funding body, I needed to produce in order to justify the grant – they wanted blood and I came under increasing pressure to deliver it.

Process as form: Lacking a shared vision, I used the very nature of our failed collaborative process as the basis for my narrative. However, early in the process, I began to feel that the narrative needed a juxtaposing strand with which to intertwine. And then, a friend from Ireland (a producer with whom I had collaborated several times over), died of cancer. The death of someone with whom I had historically collaborated, threw the current failure into broader relief. With my deceased friend placed both at the heart and the periphery of the text, Fragments of Journeys Towards the Horizon began to evolve into a deeper exploration of friendship – its presumptuous, fleeting and fragile nature. Below, the narrator recalls meeting van den Berg for the first time…

I stood, corner of fifty-sixth and eighth, outside the vitamin shop waiting for you. Yes, I waited for you! I am more empirical in time and place. You float through life like… like f****** Denver, outwards from a virtual centre! What? Yeah, you float. Ok, that’s how I imagine you. I said, I imagine; choose to imagine, maybe.  Ok, you don’t float. You appear to float… through life… it’s just my perception, ok! You probably perceive things of me. Do I censor them? Do I f***! Will you listen! Will you listen? You keep interrupting me, I’m trying to… God’s sake! Louder than a f****** train. Listen, (THEN CALMER) please…

Soul as content: Three lives collide in Fragments… – the lives of van den Berg, the Irish friend and my own. I took the facts of our journeys together – actual journeys. (In the case of van den Berg, a walk around the island of Terschelling, NL. In the case of my Irish friend, the last walk we made together, as I carried him to his grave in Galway, Ireland) and though the events (journeys) are placed in mythic relief, the core dramatic narrative is a true account. Play as document / testimony (inspired by Emily Mann’s Testimonies – though obviously Mann used testimony techniques to explore socio-political topics as opposed to my work which explores the nature of work itself).

The precedent for this model was well established. Whilst on periodic sabbatical in NY (between 2006 and 2009) I became increasingly fascinated by the process of ‘play reading’, in its myriad forms. Following personal experience developing Desire Lines at The Lark (later published and staged by Sherman Cymru www.shermancymru.co.uk). I wanted to write a play about the reading of a play.

It seemed, and still seems to me (especially reading Todd London!), that the majority of plays written, and playwrights in the USA remain stuck in the hell of ‘reading land’ – so little potential reaches kinetic (see Dramatic Entrapment in Reading Land, CTR Backpages Vol 21). Such unfulfilled promise; such fascinating and depressing waste.

As a starting point, Daniella Topol, the director with whom I have collaborated upon this project, initially suggested that I write the play within the play in its entirety. This could then be read by actors as if it was ‘the main gig’ (later read at the Lark and NYTW). Reactions to this text, Troyanne, and the process of reading itself, then formed the basis of Historia, the main narrative  – the play about the reading of Troyanne (see www.documenta.org.uk for an account of  development process of both plays. Also see Troy Story in 24 Gun Control Plays, (Ed. Caridad Svich, No Passport Press) for an account of the research process of Troyanne, a play based upon the testimonies of Ohio women and the effects of gun culture upon their lives – testimonies gathered in the true spirit of Mann).

I reference the above as, one day, prior to a reading of Historia, I was taken aside by a person who had participated in a reading of a previous draft of the play. That person stated that they had an ‘issue’ with the latest draft (and when a New Yorker says, in the calmest of tones, they have an issue, you have a problem!). The practitioner believed that a tragic event recounted in the text was a direct lift from their life (believing that they had shared the detail of that event with me in confidence). In truth, that was not the case. It was only after I had convinced that person that it was based upon another person’s experience, that the reading commenced. A vampire’s life is one fraught with issues. Once a person knows of your vampire tendencies, issues abound; whether real or imagined. Can a vampire ever be trusted?

In Historia, two actresses know one writer (the author of Troyanne). They are questioned about their relationship with that writer and his work by Drew, an interviewer:

Drew               Did the stuff he wrote about you, hurt you… personally?

Molly               Mmm… (SHE THINKS)

Anja                (SHE THINKS) … did it hurt me personally?

Drew               If you don’t want to answer that…

Molly               No, just thinking about it…

MOLLY AND ANJA ECHO EACH OTHER / DOVE TAIL ENDS OF LINES

Anja                … just thinking…

Molly               If I was honest,…

Anja                … honestly…

Molly               …then I’d have to say….

Anja                Yes…

Molly               and then again, no.

Anja                … and no

Both                (NOT QUITE IN UNISON) Put it like this. When you live with a writer, especially a vulture like him, you’re going to get picked clean at some point

 BEAT

 Molly               You’re gonna get betrayed…  and I’m not talking with other women…  I’m talking betrayal on a deeper level than that; a betrayal of your absolute self… your core….

Anja                He’d steal your soul, if he could. Bastard! And yeah… knowing he’d do that, hurts.

April 23rd 2013, Fragments of Journeys Towards the Horizon  was read in Galway, Ireland. In the audience were my friend’s widow, his daughter, brother, best friend and the Dutch writer, van den Berg…

… you’re not the only friend I have journeyed with, not the only friend! Who? Does it matter who? What do you want, a list? I don’t care if you believe me! I don’t f****** care! (BEAT) Ok, if you must know, his name was Fergus! Yes, ‘was’. His name ‘was’ Fergus, and he drove a car… What else do you need to know about him? Did I walk with him? (BEAT) Did I walk with him… I walked away from him…

It had been only a year since the death of the producer. In my mind, enough time had elapsed between the event of his death and its documentation. However, it became obvious post facto, that the loss was still raw in the minds of both family and close friends. After the reading, there was silence. The close friends and family were not angry – rather they were in shock. It was not that I had betrayed his memory (the play is dedicated to my dear dead friend), it was, that I had chronicled the truth rather than written a fictitious account of the man and our experiences of him. In their minds, I had stolen not only the deceased’s soul, but their collective souls. There was a vampire in their midst where once there was a friend.

The events related above have caused me to question my modus operandi and the moral obligations of a creative vampire. Even though I place testimonies / ‘real’ events into broader dramatic contexts, thereby creating juxtaposing metaphors, acquaintances still confront their ‘ truths’ in my drama; which, by appropriation, becomes my truth. I suck souls and spew them out barely digested / the source still recognizable.

Does this betray a lack of imagination? Obviously, I would dispute this; it is conscious stratagem. I exploit; myself primarily, and secondarily, those that touch upon me. Surely writers have always done this (one could argue, ‘subject rape’)? Am I any different? Is it just a matter of degrees of difference/ degrees of honesty? Is it therefore, possibly not an issue of content, rather one of form? Do people prefer to see the distorted mirror image as opposed to the true reflection? When true reflection is presented, is it rejected as it is not what is asked (or needed) of theatre? Does reality impinge upon the artifice? There again, perhaps it is a matter of format? Would a piece of literature – read in isolation –  have been more palatable than the communal dramatic statement? Unfortunately, I have always envisaged my testimonies in dramatic format. I cannot betray my own vision… ah, betrayal! In Fragments of Journeys Towards the Horizon, I wrote…

Is that why you, we, somehow fail to create a context between us? You were compromised once, you don’t want to be compromised again. (BEAT) You don’t want to lose another friend through collaboration? Sure, I can understand that. Damn right…. Why didn’t you tell me this earlier? I’ve been f****** pushing you…. I’m sorry. I just needed, I didn’t… sorry. (BEAT) So how did this so called ‘friend’ betray you? (BEAT) He stole your dreams, after you’d trusted him with them. I see. Well I can tell you now, hand on heart, I’d never do that, I tread softly; dreams are f****** personal things, I’d never take those from you -  borrow maybe, but I’d never steal them. F***, there’s a bond of trust between us. Between friends. And in my book, the man who breaks that bond, deserves a fate worse that cancer. Your, so called ‘mate’ deserves to be locked in a big black plastic box, and the insides should be completely covered in mirrors and shit, and he should be left alone for eternity to reflect upon his crime in a perpetual Droste effect of shame…F*** him!

 

(n.b. mark the obfuscation around borrowing / stealing, thereby disguising my true intention – to suck soul.)

Perhaps, it would be better if I f***ed myself; a self-staking to the heart of a reluctant yet voracious vampire. Unfortunately, I bear witness and I am compelled to document as the Greek proto-historian, Herodotus documented – with subjective truth. But surely, it is only the sum of all subjective truths that go to make up the objective truth. Ipso facto, all truths are valid, even the truths of reluctant vampires. My plays are my truth. Must I apologize for this? I cannot. I dare not. I feel a hunger upon me…

Ian Rowlands April 2013


Ian Rowlands is a writer / director who works in theatre, radio and television in his native Wales. In relation to NY, his play, Blink ran at 59E59 as part of the Brits off Broadway season (2008). Following that production, and with the generous support of The Lark, Rowlands developed Desire Lines (2009) and the two play project, Documenta (Troyanne and Historia) (2010-11). He is currently working with Daniella Topol and the producer Amanda Feldman to realise this project. Contact: ian@documenta.org.uk