A running meme in Whistler rehearsals has been the “Letters to the Playwright” section of our evenings: whenever we hit a particularly tricky section of a play, or a scene that we wrestle with more than usual or a piece of blocking business that none of us can figure out, one of us will stop, look to the heavens, and dictate our letter to the playwright:
“Dear Tom,” we will say, “could you perhaps have provided a diagram of what you wanted the set for Dogg’s Hamlet to look like that you required 4 planks, 12 blocks, 7 slabs and 14 cubes? Kisses, the Whistlers.”
Over the past few years, we’ve written these letters to Tom Stoppard, Howard Barker, Snoo Wilson, Wallace Shawn, Naomi Wallace and Biljana Srbljanovic, to name a few. Sometimes, these letters are courteous. Sometimes they are…well…let’s just say “aggressive”.
Since I wasn’t in the rehearsal hall every day for our rehearsals for Vinegar Tom, I didn’t get a chance to be part of whatever letters the company happened to write to her. So, here is a little letter of my own.
Thank you for the lovely day – you might not be aware of it, but we’ve been together all day. I started my morning with a four-hour rehearsal for our staged reading of Mad Forest, followed by the performance of the same. And now I’m house managing for our evening production of Vinegar Tom.
First: Mad Forest. It’s a play I’ve loved for a long time (it was actually the first production I saw at Middlebury College, when I was a freshman in 1997) but my love for it has always been mixed with a kind of terror of how hard it is. I mean, for Pete’s sake, Act III, scene 8 requires five pages of diagrams just to understand how the over-lapping works. Five pages.
But we started this tradition 3 years ago here at Whistler: at some point in our season, we take a show that we love, that we can’t imagine not diving into and exploring, but that we are absolutely terrified of, and we stage a reading of it the year before we actually produce it so that the director can learn more about it, and can grow with the play through the help of an amazingly brave cast. First it was Vampire, then The Europeans, then last year it was Vinegar Tom – and this year it was Mad Forest, a play about Romania.
(I think it is telling that for the past two years, it has been scripts of yours that we both love and fear in equal parts.)
I value so much how much you demand of participants in your plays – not just the actors (5 pages of diagrams of overlapping scenes) but also your audience (5 pages of diagrams of overlapping scenes followed by 5 minutes of un-translated Romanian dialog). During today’s reading, I enjoyed watching our audience (veterans all of Tom Stoppard and Snoo Wilson and Howard Barker) pull themselves as far forward in their chairs as they could to anchor themselves in the play. I think this might be the hardest thing we’ve ever asked of them. Harder even than Fen…
It’s always been part of our mission to ask a lot of our audiences – in fact, there’s a line from Howard Barker’s The Europeans that sums up our view on this pretty well. Starhemberg, when questioned about the kind of art he wants to exist replies:
“What I need. And what there will be. I need an art which will recall pain. The art that will be will be all flourishes and celebration. I need an art that will plummet through the floor of consciousness and free the unborn self. The art that will be will be extravagant and dazzling. I need an art that will shatter the mirrors in which we pose. … I ask a lot. The new art will ask nothing.” (Barker 100).
I ask a lot. And Whistler asks a lot. We’ve never been disappointed in our audiences, who always rise to the challenge of the plays we produce – and who always push right back at those plays. But working on your plays is a whole different kind of work-out. Brain, heart and soul – all of them get pushed to their limits.
So this is a thank-you. For Mad Forest, which broke my heart today, and for Vinegar Tom, which is challenging our audiences every night, and for Fen. And for teaching me to be a better director. And my actors to be better actors.