The “Not Lost” series: five prominent Bay Area theatre makers reply to American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff’s recent essay, “The Loss of the Old,” on classical work versus new plays and playwrights. Where should American theatres invest their artistic focus and resources - and why? Today's respondent: California Shakespeare Theater resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly.
Of Prisms, Palimpsests, and...Cupcakes?
by Philippa Kelly
I love Carey Perloff’s idea of developing old and new plays side-by-side. My comment is less a direct response than a segue. We know that our perceptions of the old are inflected by the new, and that what is new is inevitably shaped—whether visibly or not—by where, and who, we’ve been before. I see a lot of theater with my friend, designer Annie Smart, whom I got to know through our work at the California Shakespeare Theater. We often talk about the parameters of “new work”: what makes it authentic, or “real,” to human experience? You might signal the 1920s by playing “Rhapsody in Blue” and displaying a foot-treadle sewing machine and a battery-powered radio. But this doesn’t mean that the piece you make will have any authentic relationship to the past. This is why Annie and her husband, director Les Waters, came up with the term “cupcake theatre”—it’s the kind of new work that thinks it’s speaking to large, provocative, historically-inflected themes, but in fact it’s mainly icing. When you poke your finger far enough in, there’s almost nothing there.
Art is a prism through which we see life differently—art can make us feel in a way that goes far beyond literal expression. In this sense, dramatic art, in all its ambiguity, is both less and more than the words through which it’s scripted. To have the similitude of history is just a clever ploy—but to make history live in a new work is the challenge. The director looks not for the similes, but for the metaphors—for those ideas that draw attention to the past as a living vein in a new work, whether it (the past) pumps quietly away, or whether it explodes with compressed feeling, threatening to burst the veins that are trying to hold it. This is when you get “new work”—it’s “new” because it makes the past different, and because there’s something at stake in recognizing that difference.
At Cal Shakes, where I serve as resident dramaturg, new works are developed not side-by-side (we don’t have a second stage), but rather on the back of a Shakespeare play. When I say “on the back,” I mean that rehearsals for the new work will begin while the Shakespeare play is on-stage, but also that both of the two new works we’ve developed so far have used the shadow of an older play—like a palimpsest—which is glimpsed beneath the new work. The palimpsest could be paper-thin, as in “The Verona Project,” or it could be quite substantial, as in “The Pastures of Heaven.” But in both cases, the past work grants richness, complexity and ambiguity to the experience of the work on stage. The new work can live alone, but when you feel the presence of an older play, the new work feels all the more intriguing. Why have these choices been made? Do I like what’s been done? Do I feel anything of what I felt when I saw the older play (or, in Steinbeck’s case, read the story), or are my feelings completely different? Jonathan Moscone recently directed Tony Taccone’s play, “Ghostlight.” In this new work the shadow of Hamlet lurks like Shakespeare’s ghost: provoking, questioning, ironically pointing out the futility of the protagonist’s attempts to make sense of the universe, let alone stage a play. And now we’re doing “Hamlet” at Cal Shakes some months after “Ghostlight,” so the new work will throw its own modern shadow back onto Shakespeare’s play. Next up on our stage is Patricia McGregor’s production of three Zora Neal Hurston short stories, adapted in the 1980s by George C. Wolfe as a show called “Spunk” (the title of one of Hurston's stories). So three points in a century collide—the 1920s, when Hurston’s short story, “Spunk,” was written; the 1980s, when it was adapted into a dramatic triptych; and 2012, when the production is granted the full force of music, movement, text and expanded theatrical space. What does this add up to? In the hands of a vigorous director like McGregor, more than a cupcake.
Philippa Kelly is resident dramaturg for California Shakespeare Theater.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.