Toward a Neo-Cubist Alamkara Vocal Art for Playwriting

by Ruth Margraff

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

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A writing practice for working-class operatic cadence, character vibrato, and richer palettes of emotion

When I first started writing electric and hysteric operettaswith punk bands down in Texas, I tried to draw what I thought language could sound like onstage. I came up with the illustration “Back of the Dollar Latin”because I was worried about how the new dollars were getting simpler and harder to fake. I liked the strange secrets lurking all over the old dollars and the packing in of symbols and overwrought curlicues.

I thought it was possible to banish that horrible sound of actors projecting their voices into abject space. I wanted other things to course through the voice and body, like emotional vibrato and cry pitchesand raging vampire fugues4. And I proceeded to write madcap barroom brawls5, martial arts operas6, and black box recordings of classic disaster7.

I keep returning to this drawing to measure what I’m writing now. I realize I have slipped a little away from American black box theatres into music. Festivals abroad have less of a stranglehold on psychologically-correct lines flung into painted darkness. There’s a cadence you can hear in a New York playwright’s sneer for anything theatrical. The most celebrated “experimental” work mocks itself with a smug wink as it strips down into the effortless nothingness of expensive high-tech multimedia. Or skits its skim of tweet-like text.

There is no poetic density. No fruit. No root or secret or ornament whatsoever.

This yearning for ornamentation has led me to bastardize the opera rather than the theatre many times. I’ve come to understand multilinear plot to be political because it offers more than one point of view. The way people talk in plays is supposed to mirror life—so why is it that every time I transcribe real conversation I find sheer poetry?

Can we give privilege to voices not valued by the market? By writing uncommon folk music or forgotten stories as operatic in scale? Or working-class operas8? Can we celebrate the virtuosity of obscure (to most Americans) Ottoman café music as akin to Greek blues sung by refugees and outcasts? Thereby confounding boundaries of east and west, rich and poor, Eurocentric/Americentric/Greek and Turk? Could we, in the theater, catch up to the commercial tools of painting: by valuing what is non-figurative, without horizon lines and vanishing points, to confound the frame of what is deemed exceptional?

When I studied Romani9, “gypsy” style music with Svetozar Djula Milosavljevic in Chicago, Tutti Srbja in Belgrade, and with the Gurbeti tribe in Valjevo, Serbia–I didn’t find realism. I found a deeply human desire to be theatrical, to dress up, to transform out of the daily drudgery of life into something grand. To take on some other voice and escape for a minute into elsewhere. I’ve come to see the wink of nothingness without theatricality–as the privileged voice of those who are content with keeping their lives the way they are.

I think it is the poetics of adornment that bashes me up against the glass ceiling10 of American realism. Why are we so afraid of pretension in the art of pretending? What are we pretending not to pretend in the shackles of formulaic realism and stifling reality programmed seasons pumping the same narrative into us over and over? That one story we dare not get tired of! Where the hero we choose to like (because he represents ourselves) wins capitalist success by eliminating everyone else.

I came upon the Sanskrit word alamkara when I was in Kolkata, India, working with theatres11 that are part of the Seagull Foundation. I was struck by a bolt of epiphanies. It means “enoughmaking” or an ideal ornamentation, and comes from a Hindu belief that “unadorned is not enough.” Any doorway or dress or margin of a manuscript has to be embellished to be truly pure because it is incomplete unless it overflows with florid decoration and metaphor. I thought about the Russian film Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven and how the trills of Romani music use all five fingers on the accordion working as hard as a hand can work–in facets of tone between frets of melody.

If I had to draw what I think language could sound like onstage now, I would strike your daydreams with cubist layers of paint, brushstroke, and texture. Last year, in my play Anger/Fly, Trap Door Theater director Kate Hendrickson and I explored an Ionesco tramp as gypsy, communism as cyclical utopia, and marriage as manic ritual. We used silent film, lazy susan foxtrots, and the roll of player pianos to explode a kaleidoscopic orgy of live painting.  The streaks of red, blue and gold marked traces of passion, unique every night to our absurd farce of daily wrath.

My Greek/Ottoman tavern opera Three Graces, which just ran in the 2013 Pivot Multi-Arts Festival (Chicago), is painted in streaks of Greek blues much like Picasso’s blue rose period of paintings. The cry of the laments and rebel songs lay bare in the bruises of the voice. Meaning radiates like rich fragments of an icon painting peeling from the wood in Mediterranean heat. I imagine the figures between Picasso’s blue rose stage and cubism and  write/sing in time signatures that split and ripen, ferment and blossom anew like grapes. Without hurry, this cup of trembling for the everyday, self, other, and real…might lift us very near to heaven–A moment of splendor in the fracture of ornaments.

Because I yearn like hell for a cubist tremor in the theatre, in the voice, in space and time. The affluence I drew in the distance is still far away. As much as it is here, now, in this sentence. There’s a hidden balcony, flat as a jpg, from the Margravial operahouse in Bayreuth that folds and unfolds like peacock wings in a palace of Rajasthan. If I don’t climb on other people’s necks to seize it for myself–I could be its pilgrim.  I could wander these words as worlds of time and life.  And share with you a gift.  A play, a song, an hour.  A frame for what you wanted me to say. Or never wanted me to say. Written timeless as a veil of gypsy sequins I bought in Belgrade for a dollar. I carry it like a treasure everywhere I perform–Tied onto my mic stand.

The secrets of you, your face value…as beloved, are unfolding now.
More marabou, in a harlequin12 mask.

And I think we need our masks of music and infinity.

To nude our counterfeited blasts of heaven.
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An earlier draft was published by Ruth Margraff as a “Provocation” for The Drama Review 53:3 (T203) Fall 2009. 

This version will be published in the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Poetic Playwriting forthcoming in Fall, 2014.  

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1. Wallpaper Psalm (1996): an electric & hysteric operetta.

2. Inspiring a phonetic text with headphone-driven composer Joshua Fried called Spell for Opening the Mouth of N (1997).

3. The Cry Pitch Carrolls (1998): a nativity operetta set in a nostalgic nuclear winter.

4. Night Vision (2000): a third to first-world vampyre opera.

5. Centaur Battle of San Jacinto (1999): an extended barroom brawl.

6. Voice of the Dragon 1, 2, and 3 and Deadly She-Wolf written with composer Fred Ho (1997-2013).

7. The Elektra Fugues (1996): an 8-track polyphonic punk operatic black box recording of classic disaster.

8. Three Graces: a Greek/Ottoman tavern opera (2011-13); Wellspring: a gypsy opera for the troubadours of Sarajevo (2007); Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling: a working-class opera set in a neo-biblical coal mine (2001).

9. Café Antarsia Ensemble albums with composer Nikos Brisco (since 2004).

10. Red Frogs (2002): a burlesque mirror for the summer house purgatorio.

11. Swayam, street theatre by women who have survived domestic violence; Kalam: MarginWrite, a poetry collective of youth from red light districts, trafficking, slums, and shelter homes; and Peaceworks, a cross-caste theatre collective formed in response to the Gujarat massacres of Hindi extremists against Muslims in 2002 (India).

12. Harlequin: a play without music written in two movements, Providence and Calendar.


RUTH MARGRAFF has written 5 martial arts operas with composer Fred Ho’s VOICE OF THE DRAGON 1,2,3 (Brooklyn Academy of Music, Guggenheim, Apollo, CAMI tour), NIGHT VISION (Here Arts Ctr, Cooper Union) and DEADLY SHE-WOLF ASSASSIN (acclaimed by the New York Times, etc. at LaMama in NYC) and co-wrote SEVEN now touring worldwide, introduced by Hillary Clinton at the Broadway Hudson Theater (NYC). Her critically-acclaimed ANGER/FLY premiered last season for Trap Door Theater (Chicago) and she’s been writing in France, Serbia, Turkey and Austria for the 2013 Pivot Multi-Arts Festival and the Shapiro Ctr/Link’s Hall, as her CAFÉ ANTARSIA ENSEMBLE (Innova Records) tours all over the world. Ruth’s first book RED FROGS & OTHER PLAYS is available from NoPassport Press. She’s taught playwriting at Yale, Brown, UTAustin, and is now Chair of Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.