Sometimes the greatest revelations can come in waiting, We try to find that balance of humor and existential crisis, We have to be careful so that things don’t go off the rails – which can easily happen. There’s this idea that – it’s in the theater so let’s just act Crazy. Just look at the elections – this is real life happening now. This is not Punch and Judy. This is not Boulevard theater.
When we first started in 2006, people asked is there enough Theater of the Absurd to keep people interested – which was a fair question because most people only know the classic works. We’ve now gotten to a point where what we do on the stage compares to real life. I love the Esslin quote. I love our audiences so much because they are willing to come and hold that mirror up to themselves and their lives. They have to bring their imagination and their heart. We see that in how they are willing to go on the journey with us. Our audience enjoys the journeys these authors from this loosely defined school from Eastern Europe and America take them.
Our plays are personal to the audience. There’s not one ending to the play or one meaning to the play. Our Walnut Street state is a little bit of a too small venue because we have more demand than seats - but the smallness does help make it personal.
The Absurdist movement has many European playwrights such as Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello, Pinter, and Genet. There are also American absurdists such as Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee. Arnold Aronson wrote in The Cambridge History of American Theatre “Whereas Absurdism in Europe seemed a logical, almost inevitable response to the irrationality of war, the analogous elements that surfaced in American drama seemed more a response to a materialist society run amok. The American-style Absurdism seemed to spring full-blown out of television advertisements and situation comedies, which had become new myth-making machine.” Is Aronson’s analysis correct?
In the case of the American, Albee, you can see characters that are easier to connect with. We just did one of his plays called The American Dream. A mom, dad, grandmom? Husband and wife. From that, he creates a dissonance. It’s a familiar environment.
Pinter, the European, is known, in part, for the information that isn’t given – the Pinter pause. What is the menace that is happening in the room that is not being mentioned.
Many of the characters in Absurdist plays are minor characters. They’re not the kings, queens, or aristocracy. They’re not the professional class. Why do absurdist playwrights like to tell their plays from the viewpoint of these offbeat minor characters.
That’s a great question. I don’t have an immediate answer. Emotions are emotions. The clown does make itself into the work of Beckett and Ionesco. As I mentioned, the regular theater bored Ionesco – he could string all the strings in it. He loved the Punch and Judy shows. With regular theater, we were seeing something we already knew. Absurdist theater pushes the audience out of their complacency, their everyday numbness. Maybe it just doesn’t work to show kings and queens. Many of the characters are impulsive. There isn’t an emphasis on the lack of psychological underpinning of the characters. They’re more impulsive instead of thinking through everything. I guess it’s easier – that minor characters make better foils.…
That’s why Bill Irwin and Billie Whitelaw have been successful absurdist plays performers. Billie Whitelaw was an actress in many Beckett plays.
Do absurdist plays have stage directions that control the play? Where do you say – I have to be true to the script of the play and where do you say – I can put my own views into the staging of the play?
There are a lot of interpretations. When you use a trashcan (as Beckett did in Endgame), what kind of trashcan are you going to use? A hefty one, a steel one. There’s a lot of range. I do think you have to honor the writer’s words and I do. At the end of the day, a trashcan is a trashcan with a container and a lid.
The way I go about understanding the play and getting it up on its feet is you really have to focus on what is NOT said. What is the situation, the emotion? The words are the endgame of that anxiety, that existential crisis. The physicality, the movement, and the timing are as important as the words.
Different playwrights are different. Ionesco was different, for example, He wrote that he’s going to say what happens, that I’m going to put all these ideas on stage because I can do that as a writer. I will trust that the director can bring all the elements into play. With him (and his Estate) it was about getting the “incredible lightness of being” of it. The key is to get the play in the air and keep it there like a ball in gym class. Ionesco saw his plays as sports, he loved sports. Plays should be like sports in that we show up and we don’t know what’s going to happen other than two teams are going to play and keep the ball in action. It’s that excitement that drives sports and any good theater production. So with Ionesco, there is more freedom. In The Chairs, we didn’t cut his text. I am considering some longer Ionesco plays where I would edit some of the text. Most absurdist plays aren’t that long – an hour and hour and half.
Many plays have been successful movies. Do you think it’s possible to make a great movie of a theater of the absurd play – or is the absurdist play unique to the theater?
Again, it depends on the play and playwright. In most absurdist plays, we’re trying to share something with the physical audience. We try to be very aware of the audience and the energy they’re giving you – even though we don’t formally speak to them. Each performance is different every night. The actors and the audience (my words) do play off each other. For the Mostel work, while sections were funny, I thought it lost a lot of the power of the play because a lot had to be cut. The Chairs would never translate to film. The interplay with the audience is just too important.
The most talked about play this year is Hamilton. In many ways, it’s a traditional play. We know what happens because it’s a biography of a Founding Father. It’s based on a book by Ron Chernow. It’s a musical, a favorite American staging technique. And yet it does go against expectations in many ways. Nobody in conflict or even in love really breaks out into song or dance. The performers of the white Founders are mostly black. None of the Founders ever knew of rap music. It’s a fun play about someone who many think of as a boring banker. And the idea of a duel between the leading figures of the day seems – well patently absurd. What does the Theater of the Absurd have to say about traditional theater?
Hamilton is showing what audiences desire. Today things constantly shift, news is available at all times, our politicians can say one thing and then turn around and say another thing. Audiences now want to be challenged in the same way.
I saw an amazingly taught production of a three and half hour play with three intermissions last year. It had absurdist elements as well where expectations were being changed. I can understand people reading the Bald Soprano or The Chairs and saying I had no idea what was going on. Well, they’re largely visual and felt plays. Those elements are now finding their ways into Broadway plays. Audiences are enjoying seeing expectations shattered because that’s what’s happening in real life. We had our first black President. We might have our first woman in the White House. We’re ready for change. The millennials are totally buying it. We have a huge audience of younger people.
Can you talk about your audience?
It’s a diverse audience. The common denominator is that they’re very adventurous – in an emotional spiritual way. They’re looking to be entertained but also looking to be challenged. They want to sit in audience with different people of different ages. We have high-school students, college students and older. They’re well-read but some/many haven’t visited these plays for a while. There are also the people who love it and want to know when the next show is. We try to introduce plays that aren’t as well known and to push the envelope on modern playwrights. Charles Mee s a modern playwright in NY. They’re poetic and spectacle – large scale. The Wilma does him well.
Which play would you love to do – but you don’t because of production limitations?
We were considering doing Pinter’s The Hot House but the Lantern got it and did a great job with it. Absurdist works either have two people in them or they have a village. They’re about silence or calamity. A sparse setting or the multiplication of things/objects. Another play I’d like to do is The New Tenant by Ionesco about a man and all his belongings are being brought in. The entire play is about the movers bringing in all these things. Before you know it, the stage is filled with all his possession while he’s trying to have conversations with band and manage his life. Another Ionesco play, Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It, is where a husband and wife have a conversation, and never leave their flat. She’s an old-time switchboard plug-it-in receptionist and he’s a writer with all these balled up pieces of paper. He can’t ever get going. There’s mushrooms from underneath the floor because they haven’t left the apartment for so long. The premise is that there is something in another room that they keep checking on – another person who keeps getting larger and larger and breaks through the wall as the play progresses. Some of the larger-scale spectacles I’d love to be able to do.
One of the challenges with a small theater is that with the right designer, you hang some Christmas lights (as you’ll see in our November show) and create something – as long as the audience is willing to bring their imagination to the table, you have a chance at success. We have to take the play down to its essence
What productions are you most proud of?
All my plays are like my children. In Studio 5 at the Walnut, sitting in the back row is a much different experience than sitting in the front row even though the whole theater is just seven rows. I love to hear the audience response. Many people ask why this play now – most of the plays are old. But when I turn on the news, the plays seem relevant to me. Going back to the audience question, my audiences are willing to examine their world. For the opening night of The Chairs, for example, the audience got the play – you could feel it. What was odd was one review cited the response of the people around them – wondering why they seemed to get the play, to be joyous about what was a sad situation in the play (the two people) and the reviewer didn’t. I think a lot of it comes down to being open to a different experience – which the reviewer didn’t seem to be.
How many plays do you do a year?
We do three big plays each year – two at the Walnut and one at L’Etage. We have our series called Into the Absurd – which are plays that we read and then discuss.