The Wonders of Returning To Things You Love

Dateline, Oberlin, where we’re visiting our Isabel after 6 weeks of her being a freshman. We’ve bought a bike rack, a first for us, and not an easy find to fit the back of a Prius, and have transported Izzy’s 10-speed out—speaking of happy reunions: A Girl And Her Bike On The Flat Planes of Ohio—We are happy to be a four legged family once more. Something of that same returning-to-center; of the rightness in restoration coursed through the bloodstream this week as I reconnected artistically with the music that means the most to me and the musicians who make that music. I’m speaking about the music of theater language (and the actors who sing the song)—a dialogue of percussive precision and melody where each word has been placed there for a reason—Yes, we’re in Mamet-land where the meter always matters, as does every syllable.

And we’ve got great actors to render those melodies who are creating some lovely harmonies. To sit in rehearsals and fall in love all over with the achievement of dialogue is a kind of kick in the head: Where’s our dialogue been all these years? With all our emphasis on mission and story and family and character and history and politics, I daresay that dialogue—the sheer joy of it—the challenge of bracing theater language—has not gotten its due at the top of the food pyramid. We’ve labored over it, to be sure, on show after show—word shaving, cuts, trying to nail the perfect button—but truth be told, none of the plays we’ve committed to since Rich Greennerg’s Bal Masque have been plays that have led with language. But in Mametspeak, Dialogue Be King.

And guess what? It matters most to me too as a playwright. And how I’ve missed my own music, making it, fashioning playful poetry, and the joy of hearing it spoken aloud. I’ve been writing and rewriting plays set overseas—in Egypt, in Israel, in Austria and Germany—and I’ve been more reporter than poet—adapting and researching, shaping and shifting content—but somehow not really writing in the manner that I most love.

And so all this to tell you: Our reading of Love and Yearning in the Not-For-Profits (and Other Marital Distractions) on Friday night was a joy—something of a tearful one for three of us boys, go figure, and a very nice harbinger of good things to come, and of possible transformations awaiting. We decided to move to the theater and not the JCC library as the rich and luxurious leather couch sectionals were delivered from West Elm Furniture on Friday and transformed the set into the most comfortable upscale living room you’ve ever seen for a Hollywood set. It was the perfect pad for four actors to relax and read. Seven people heard the work, four read, Samantha did the stage directions. I want to report that, after several years away from this play and now hearing it afresh sitting next to the director and the producer next to her, I heard cuts, yes to be sure. And a repeated, dated reference to Beanie Babies that I’m gonna wanna get rid of.

But I also had much new respect for the writing and the depths to which this play goes to provoke pretty deep questions in each of the spouses about what they want in and out of their marriage; what makes them restless and why they might wander and what brings them back home to each other; and how much they tell each other about where they’ve been on each of their respective adventures, or encounters, if you will, with others who take them to new places within themselves. The writing is so frickin’ listenable, and I don’t think I’m saying it only because it’s mine; I’m saying it because it’s so naked; so revealing, and I haven’t written that way in a long time. For a lot of reasons. A lot of obvious reasons probably. I run a bigger and bigger theater, for starters. I haven’t found the space in which to speak as a private artist; the license; the mandate, or maybe just the sustained bravery and devil-may-care thick skin to outrun the reservations of writing in a manner than gives me most pleasure and speaks to a private compulsion to make art in spite of the scrutiny of a finance committee, a critical scold, or one’s own conflicted impulse to protect and not expose an entire flank of one’s public persona.

Yes. I have been protecting myself from making the wrong move, by not making enough moves creatively as an artist. I’ve pulled the plug and reconnected so many times on the current work so as to risk short-circuiting it. Hopefully, I haven’t. The lamp will still light up no matter many how many times I’ve plugged and unplugged it as I’ve been redoing the wiring on the innards of it. But pretty soon, I’m gonna have to screw the lightbulb in again and let the damn thing shine and see how much light it lets out; how lumens are in my lamp.

And so the reading, and the production we’re rehearsing, and the actors we’ve brought together, all portend a transformation: a rejuvenation of deep creative engines and a refocusing of energy inward. Even as the work of the theater takes us in many new and vibrant directions. There’s been some aspect of self-abnegation; of running away from one’s own voice; of one’s own responsibility as a creative artist; as a dramatist; to contribute with theater language (not just essays, and blog fodder, and curtain speeches and talk back banter) and add to the music that matters most as it comes forth from the stage. I’ve done seven of my plays at Theater J and have believed in everyone, but there hasn’t been anything in three long years. The question here isn’t why not, because that answer is easy – it hasn’t been ready and it still isn’t – Ali Salem’s nowhere near finished; in fact I’m starting over. But the real question is what’s been missing? What’s been missing from the theater itself? And that perhaps is the most personal of voices. The intimacy of revelation and of deep human connection between the artist and the audience. We’re not hearing that in the plays we’ve been producing—or well, yes, we have been, many and plenty of times. Even in the private politically shattering words of PANGS OF THE MESSIAH where our deepest collective fears have been voiced by characters who wind up being responsible for the potential destruction of the State of Israel as we know it. And we heard the most personal memory writing to emerge from the hearts and heads of Robert Brustein and Laura Cunningham in their respective family memoirs. But…? What was the problem there? The problem perhaps was that their writing was private writing and we were unable, as creative collaborators, to get that writing to speak most convincingly to the rest of us. We didn’t quite coordinate the language of longing and the imperatives of conflict – dramatic scenarios were not laced with sustained tension. In short, theirs were not inherently sustained dramatic riffs of personal poetry commanding the stage. They were, for me, memoirs for the stage to be proud of—I’m glad we have produced them and lavished time over them—but artistically, I was not in touch with an inspiration derived from them, or by them. And so, something magical, in the language, first and foremost, was missing. Language that carries us deep. And both Brustein and Cunningham and Keneally all are masters of language, and had beautiful passages in their plays, and some very witty dialogue too (especially in Sleeping Arrangements), but again, in each case, we knew something wasn’t perfect, about the overall coming together of elements.

In Mamet, the potential is there is to create a perfect synthesis.

That’s another one of our inspirational goals this year. To achieve the sublime; not just get a new play out of the box (which is hard enough, believe me, just to give birth—forget perfection—don’t get it right, get it written first, as the old saw goes—and we’ve been wildly productive as a theater company. Yes.

But I haven’t been wildly productive as a creative artist myself. And that’s the threshold of revelation and transformation at which I stand before you today, this first weekend of October, 2007. Resolved to transform, once again, my old relationship with this theater company and my own determination of what’s needed of me in this theater at this time and place. The theater needs me to draw deep from myself creatively. If not, we’re pulling a punch and not speaking as intimately, as deeply, or as powerfully as we can.

In short. The next big work begins. Or it’s been brewing for quite some time. But now in earnest, there’s no more hiding; no disguising. This is the year to produce.