Wednesday, October 31, 2012

theatre notes.

In the spring of 2011 Mike Daisey, in town for his Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, gave a benefit performance of an earlier work, How Theatre Failed America. The Rep, who was producing Agony, let him take over the stage for an extra night to raise money for all the people who had lost jobs next door when Intiman closed down, barely into their 2011 season. It was a beautiful, heartbreaking work, which I've talked about before, but what I remember more clearly was the fury I felt when I walked back to my car that night. There had been a roundtable discussion after the performance, between local actors and directors and producers and us, the audience. People stood up and shouted. There was anger and despair and disgust. "I want to get better at acting," said Hans Altwies, then finishing up a run of This, also at the Rep. "But I have to make enough money building cabinets so I can afford to 'lose money' by acting." I could see from my seat in the second row that the director Allison Narver was still pained by the closure of the Empty Space Theater, five years earlier. I thought to myself, I am not seeing enough theatre. I am not doing enough. I am not pushing myself and my mind and my heart enough.

That was eighteen months and seventy plays ago.

It started slowly. I already had an ACT pass, which lets you see just about everything produced at ACT Theatre for a piddling $25 a month. I got a Today Pass from the Seattle Rep, which gives you a subscription of day-of seats for $22 each. I kept my eye on Strawberry Theatre Workshop, which produces two or three plays a year, and New Century Theatre Company, which usually puts on one production a year. I found the New City Theatre, in that hinterland between Capitol Hill and the Central District, tucked away in what looks like an old coffeehouse. News came that Balagan would be moving from their basement space over to the Erickson, three blocks from my apartment. I discovered that the Hugo House had a theater attached to it, that tucked away behind an auto-body shop on my way home from work was the Odd Duck. The Central Heating Lab at ACT brought in a couple of intensely brilliant productions by smaller companies - A Lie of the Mind, from Collekter, and Dog Sees God, from Balagan. The Pinter Fortnightly series continued apace, picking up speed for the festival to come.

The new year, this year, brought with it an explosion of energy that has continued unabated. I found the Washington Ensemble Theatre, a crazy little space wedged into a narrow storefront. Besides all the theaters I had loved for years there were now new things to explore. The Annex, also on my way home from work. West of Lenin, which turned out to be a little farther west and perhaps a bit more north than I expected, which left me sprinting, panting, five minutes late into a performance of Maldoror. ACT kept bringing more things into their lineup - or perhaps they were there all along - readings and one-man-shows and musical nights. Murmurs reached me of The Seagull Project, who would be spending almost a year working up to a production of The Seagull, set for next January. Some weekends I see two or three plays. One record week contained five performances, four of them at ACT. This was at the height of the Pinter Festival (more on that later). The Fringe Fest came back to Seattle after a nearly decade-long absence. Ticket stubs and programs littered my pockets and piled up on the seat of my car.

Quite recently I found myself at an all-female production of Titus Andronicus, led by the glorious Amy Thone. Four or five years ago I saw her in nearly back-to-back performances as Anne Frank's mother and then as Leni Riefenstahl. This production was so cleanly stripped down and purely done that I was ready to throw up from the intensity of it all. Some weeks later I saw Thone in the audience at Superior Donuts at what used to be the Bathhouse Theater on Greenlake, now reborn as Seattle Public Theater. Onstage was Jena Cane, and her voice sent a shiver up my spine. It was strangely familiar to me. And then I realized that at How Theatre Failed America eighteen months ago hers was one of the voices that stood up and shouted.

The other night I walked home after The Skriker, my third play in a row after the Ramayana, ACT's 2012 season closer, and A Mouse Who Knows Me, up the hill at the Annex. The Ramayana was a lush, romantic epic, with demons and demigods and otherworldly beings; three hours passed in a flash. A Mouse Who Knows Me is a new musical about genetically engineered mice, laboratory intrigue, and a touch of romance, vividly funny. And The Skriker was mesmerizing, difficult, fascinating, fluid, moving between story and dark fairytale and dance and back again, circling round and round like a windmill...The burning anger I felt in the spring of 2011 has given away to a fierce pride and joy in my Seattle, where art is being created every night in every corner of this city. Art is made by people who do it out of love and more than that, out of a compulsion, a need that is almost an ache. To be a part of this, if only for a few hours, is a gift, a privilege, a touch of grace.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

you must live until you die.

“He remembered her words: “You are a good man.”/He did not quite believe it. Lyric poets/Usually have - as he knew - cold hearts./It is like a medical condition. Perfection in art/Is given in exchange for such an affliction.”*

The poems of Czeslaw Milosz kept echoing in my head as I read Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton. ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ repeated itself, like the swishing of waves against the shore, as Rushdie talked about his four wives, his two sons, all the friends who helped him hide in plain sight during the years of the fatwa.

I was not quite nine when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in February of 1989. Later that year would be the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the trial and execution of Nicolae CeauČ™escu, all events that remain vivid in my mind, standing out against the insular worlds of school and home. For a man in hiding Rushdie was constantly photographed in the years that followed, at the heart of the literary scene, a celebrity who partied with Martin Amis and Nigella Lawson and who became so famous he had a cameo in one of the Bridget Jones’ Diary movies.

Meanwhile he was married four times, the last time to the then-model Padma Lakshmi who did not want to be in his shadow and was determined find a place in the world for herself, which she did, as a cookbook author and then as the host of Top Chef. His ex-wives painted him as a selfish monster who had affairs and cared only of himself. Probably all this is true. I remember asking my mother, years ago, when talking about a poet friend who liked to believe the world revolved around him, as perhaps it did; “I suppose we must make allowances for poets.” She laughed so much she had to pull over to the side of the road.

Marriage to someone whose life and work are all-consuming and intertwined - not necessarily confined to artists and writers, but mostly so - requires a superhuman strength, patience, confidence, and yet a lack of ego. The tunnel vision of creation builds a vacuum of selfishness around the creator. It must be a lonely kind of life, intensified by the unpredictable claustrophobia of constant security and frequent moving around from house to house, always wondering if the snipers would find you somehow.

I read Joseph Anton in a ravenous gulp spanning two days. As with Umberto Eco, who became friends with Rushdie after the latter wrote a terrible review of Foucalt’s Pendulum, I find his nonfiction easier to read than his fiction. But there is something otherworldly about his story, written in the third person. Joseph Anton is the name Rushdie chose when he went into hiding, so he could open bank accounts and credit cards without revealing his true identity. The third-person voice gives the story a sense of unreality, of inhabiting a netherworld between Salman Rushdie the man and Salman Rushdie the heretic who must be assassinated for the greater good and Salman Rushdie the writer who would become such a celebrity that his invisible face became as recognizable as Ronald MacDonald, perhaps, or Mickey Mouse.

Throughout the story is a single thread: love - love for his sons, which warmed and humanized him, the way the faceless Eurydice does in Milosz’s poem, the need for love which drew him to all sorts of women even when he was married or otherwise entangled with other women, love for and from his friends who surrounded him in a protective circle more impenetrable than any security shield. This is a story about love, about truth, about the nature of history and literature and writing. About the choices we have to make when there seems to be no choice at all. “You must live until you die,” says Joseph Conrad, from whom Joseph Anton takes his name. It is a repeated refrain.

*Milosz, Czeslaw. Orpheus and Euryidice. Second Space. Ecco, 2005. p99.