I’m standing in playwright Eugene O’Neill’s office when the tour guide says he wants to show us how quiet the room can get. “For the next 60 seconds, no one say anything,” he says. “Just listen.”
The silence is indeed engulfing. Out the window I can see the freeway across the California hills, but I can’t even hear a bird singing. When O’Neill built this house in 1937—now part of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site—his office was designed for quiet. To even enter it, you have to walk through two empty rooms first. The house is located on top of a mountain that at the time was only accessible by private road. O’Neill was not exactly a people person.
I’m relieved when the tour guide begins talking again. Being in this room for too long would make me nervous. Like many people who grew up immersed in technology, I’m uncomfortable with silence. For years, I’ve struggled with the fact that writing requires concentration, patience, and contemplation, things that work best in a quiet room. This office, with the plays written in it—most notably Long Day’s Journey Into The Night—can attest to that fact easily enough.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of O’Neill’s death. Today it’s easy to forget how he revolutionized American theater in the early 20th century. Before him, theater was all melodrama and vaudeville. O’Neill presented the first American tragedies, plays with realistic characters dealing with social issues and grappling with forces beyond their control. His work sobered the American theater in the 1920s, a decade not without similarities to today’s obsession with celebrity and money. He challenged the theater of his day to grow up, and over time, it did.
Even his furniture indicates a devotion to focus and work. The office has two large oak desks, each designated for a different work-in-progress. O’Neill would sit between the desks so that if he got stuck on one play, he could swing around to work on the other. When he moved to this house, he planned to write an 11-play cycle that would follow an American family through 175 years of history. He had the plays mapped out and had even written some drafts when he developed a Parkinson’s-like tremor in his hand that made it difficult to put pen to paper. Soon it became clear that O’Neill was losing his ability to write.
When he realized he was running out of time, O’Neill abruptly abandoned the 11-play project and turned his attention to a different subject: his past. In this house, he wrote The Iceman Cometh, about his dissipated youth, A Moon for the Misbegotten, about his alcoholic brother, and Long Day’s Journey into the Night, based on his dysfunctional childhood. The play follows the Tyrone family through a day in the life, exploring issues of alcoholism, illness, and cruelty against the ominous background of the mother’s morphine addiction. It’s a remarkable play, laying equal blame and forgiveness on all the Tyrones, including Edmund, O’Neill’s stand-in for himself.
The tour guide shows us a Xeroxed page from one of O’Neill’s drafts. It’s a testament to determination: hundreds of tiny words are jammed on the page, the lines of each letter crooked from a shaking hand. It would take a magnifying glass to decipher it all. There was emotional toll in writing this highly personal work, too. Carlotta, O’Neill’s wife, said of that period, “He would come out of his study looking gaunt, his eyes red from weeping. Sometimes he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning.”
For the last decade of his life, O’Neill was unable to write. His mind was sharp, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. For a man who built everything, even his house, around writing, this must have been devastating.
As the shuttle takes me away from the park, I find myself envying O’Neill’s focus and creative confidence. He said in an interview in 1930: “The playwright must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it–the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort one’s fears of death.” This is surely the root of O’Neill’s monastic creative life: he had a spiritual seriousness toward art that feels refreshing to me, a writer working today, as it was when it was new.
And I’m sobered too. While I have been conditioned to distrust and avoid silence, O’Neill sought it out at all costs. It provided the peace that allowed him to work despite health problems, mental illness, and alcoholism. Most strikingly, it was silence that helped him push the last plays out before he was forced to stop writing altogether. Compared to that, my difficulty focusing seems childish by comparison. The truth is, it’s too easy to blame my perpetual distraction on technology. It’s simply more comfortable to flail along the surface of ideas with a lot of noise to distract me than it is to summon the rigor necessary to take on issues like the ones O’Neill was talking about. And what, I think as the gate of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site closes behind me, would be different for me as a writer if I learned to love silence the way O’Neill did?
For some people, “serious art” is a compound word. They say it with the most severe reverence that is usually reserved for funerals and graduation speeches. These are people who think that good art can’t be silly, or that silliness can’t be sincere or profound.
However, as any creator knows, art is entirely unpredictable and rule-breaking. Creating something good is like riding an endlessly bucking horse; if the artist wishes to ride any distance without falling off, they must learn to adapt to the horse’s movement.
Mediocre art is very easy to identify; it feels unnatural, restrained, sedated, in chains. A horse that doesn’t buck will never go anywhere interesting. It’s more like taking a pony in a circle at an amusement park.
For critics, there is little worse than making the wrong distinction between good and bad: mediocre art is sincere, however poorly executed; bad art is always insincere. While mediocre artists give us clichés and flat soda, they are not as dangerous as “serious art” snobs.
“Silly or serious” is not a dichotomy. Attend a wedding reception to see this in action; watch the bride and groom, hours after making “the most important decision of their lives,” get drunk. Watch their parents get drunk and start reminiscing about baby moments. Also, consider sex, one of the silliest acts. Intercourse is the only time when it is interesting and enjoyable to repeat the same motion hundreds of times, time and again. Yet this is what allows the human race to continue.
“Silly or serious” is not a dichotomy. When evaluating art, one must treat “silly” and “serious” as the primary colors of any good work. The mark of a brilliant artist is the ability to be both silly and serious.
This appears in all genres of art, and I’m going to take you through music, literature, and unframed art with such examples as Mozart, Lewis Carroll, YouTube, and Futurama.
I love Mozart. I love the calm-before-the-storm-iness of Mozart. I love the crystalline confidence of his scales. I love the catch of his melodies. I especially love how Mozart mixes silly and serious.
Mozart’s canon “Leck Mich Im Arsch” (literally, “lick me in the ass”), is one of my favorite examples of how silly and serious can work together to produce art that is unquestionably brilliant, even if it does make you giggle. Just think that without these lyrics, this would sound like a solemn ode to brotherhood.
Another of my favorite Mozart moments is from his final opera The Magic Flute. In one of Mozart’s most cheerful, upbeat, and memorable pieces, the Queen of Night asks her daughter to murder Sarastro, while exercising insane vocal techniques that singers have to dedicate their lives to attain. It’s a funny song, because the seriousness of the lyrics clash with the flowing lightness of the tune.
The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
It’s a scary song; listening to it, I get chills. And it’s a song that gets me through the day, one I love to sing over and over, under my breath, everywhere I go.
It’s not just the mixing of silly and sincere that makes these pieces great; it’s the undeniable humanity and sincerity of the music.
Now consider Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”Its linguistic brilliance and inventiveness is first class, as the beauty isn’t in the meaning so much as in the way the plot is actually understandable, despite the strangeness of its language. The atmospheric brilliance of the first stanza is inimitable:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Its specific nonspecific language allows us to imagine and feel anything, depending on how we enter the poem. Many would write this poem off as silly. Yes, it is silly, but I find serious and sincere qualities in its retelling of the hero’s journey. It is a metaphor for triumph over any conflict in our lives.
There is also the problem of unframed art. Some people tend to think that art must present itself as art, and that only certain kinds of art exist. Music, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, etc… What about TV shows? What about YouTube videos?
This YouTube video by user wendyvainity seems at first to be nothing but nightmare fuel, with dogs. Here is a full synopsis of the video: two dogs sing an auto-tuned song about being dogs while the hairs on their coats grow incredibly long and then shrink back into their body; they jump over each other, and then they jump over what is probably the River Styx. Even on the other side of the river, they keep singing, and their hairs keep growing and shrinking back. Yes, I’d say nightmare fuel with dogs is a pretty accurate term, but—wendyvainity’s video also engages the absurd and the nonsensical to speak about (or at least prime in our unconscious minds) mortality, change, identity, fate, self-consciousness, and the possibility of real connection. Oddly enough, it reminds me a lot of Beckett.
The animated sci-fi comedy show Futurama has proven itself capable of genius, but what really makes some of the episodes “art” is the show’s commitment to sincerity. Take for example my favorite episode, “Jurassic Bark.” The episode is a perfect blend of silliness and seriousness.
For those who are not familiar with Futurama, the premise of the show is that Fry, a loser pizza delivery boy living at the turn of the 21st century, accidentally gets cryonized until the year 3000, and must adapt to his new life. A common theme is Fry’s attempting to reconcile his past life with his current existence, and the possibility of his own insignificance.
Why is “Jurassic Bark” such a brilliant episode? Because it confronts cynicism with sincerity.
Here is a brief summary of “Jurassic Bark”: A museum in New New York digs up the remnants of the pizza restaurant that employed Fry in the 20th century. In the exhibit, Fry finds the fossilized body of his old dog, Seymour. After making a show of protesting in front of the museum, Fry gets to keep his fossilized dog. Fry’s mad scientist boss, Professor Farnsworth, says that he can bring the dog back to life. However, Fry’s best friend, Bender, gets jealous and upset with Fry for spending so much time preparing for the dog’s revival.
The episode alternates between Fry’s preparation for Seymour’s arrival in the present, and flashbacks of the history of Fry’s experience with his dog. The flashbacks start with their first meeting, when Fry gets a prank pizza order and shares the unpaid-for pizza with the starved dog in an alley, who follows Fry home. The flashbacks culminate in Fry’s cryonization and the dog’s subsequent search for Fry.
Fry: “I have a pizza here for Seymour Asses.”
Man at Delivery Address: “There isn’t anybody by that name here. Or anywhere. I hope in time you realize how stupid you are.”
Fry: “I wouldn’t count on it.”
At the end of the episode, learning that the dog lived for twelve years after Fry got cryonized, Fry succumbs to the contagious cynicism of his coworkers, and decides, for the first time in his life, to be ‘emotionally mature’ and to let his dog stay dead. The last lines of the episode (as given by IMDB) are:
Fry: I had Seymour ‘till he was three. That’s when I knew him, and that’s when I loved him… I’ll never forget him…
[Picks up the fossil and looks into its apparent eyes]
Fry: But he forgot me a long, long time ago…
But the episode doesn’t end there. The episode ends with a montage of the twelve years Seymour spent waiting in front of the pizzeria for Fry’s return, accompanied by a beautifully sung rendition of “I Will Wait for You” from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Good writers are deliberate, and every detail in “Jurassic Bark” is necessary to the episode and has some poetic value. I am going to offer a few of the most striking motifs, and some parts of the episode that I think embody them. As a warning to the reader, many of these examples are extremely specific and require a familiarity with the tropes and characters of Futurama:
The buried past is still alive in some form: fossilized Seymour, flashbacks… False emotional showiness: Bender the magician, Leela dramatically stripping and running to the lava, Bender emerging from the floor like a volcano, Bender’s robot dog… Cynicism as a destructive force: Bender’s throwing the fossil into the lava, Fry’s parents ignoring Seymour’s barking at Fry’s cryonized body, Fry’s ultimate decision not to recover Seymour… Cynicism as learned behavior: Fry is Bender’s apprentice, Fry’s ultimate decision… Sincerity as something frowned upon: the crew’s lighthearted scorn of Fry’s three-day dance-protest to get his dog from the museum, Bender beating up Zoidberg after Zoidberg explains Bender’s magic trick to the audience, Bender choosing to believe that Fry’s emotions are fake and that Fry is only acting that way to make Bender feel bad… Sincere connection as a rare and valuable ideal: Seymour is weak at first but grows healthy when fed and given love, Fry is only happy when with Seymour, Fry and Seymour are lonely and outcast but fill a void in each other’s lives, symbolized by their ability to sing together “Walking on Sunshine”…
Many viewers, angered by their own emotional responses to the episode, have complained that the ending of “Jurassic Bark” is manipulative, and rightly so; like all great stories, we are tricked into feeling emotion for people that don’t exist and the decisions they make. Where the objectors are wrong, however, is in denouncing this manipulation. Yes, we are tricked, as many great writers have tricked us in the past. We are tricked into first believing that Fry is making the right decision (a triumph for cynicism), and then shown that his dog never stopped believing and just kept waiting. In the end, moved to tears and anger as many viewers are, we ourselves are the triumph of sincerity.
So. What’s the takeaway? Why is any of this important?
Silliness is the most underrated aspect of art.
More than anything, sincerity is what counts.
Art doesn’t have to be serious to make you a better person.
The Dramatists Guild of America is hosting “New Play Development in the Phoenix Area” April 7, noon to 1:30 p.m. The event is open to the public and will feature local theater representatives and dramatists discussing new play development in Phoenix. So far, representatives from Phoenix Theatre, Theater Works, Childsplay, Space 55, Teatro Bravo, Black Theater Troupe, and Stray Cat Theatre have been confirmed.
Phoenix Theatre, founded in 1920, is one of the oldest arts organizations in Arizona. Their upcoming season includes many theater mainstays such as RENT, The 39 Steps, and Les Misérables.
Theater Works is a non-profit theater operating out of Peoria. They run YOUth Works, a program aimed at involving the valley’s children in the theater.
With an upcoming lineup including Uncle Vanya and a revolving all-woman show titled A Bitch in Time, there can be little doubt that Space 55 is up to something. The ensemble was formed in 2006 with the purpose of providing the valley with innovative theater which explains their interesting staging choices.
Childsplay is a theater company aimed at entertaining and engaging the valley’s children and families. In their 36th season, their upcoming performances include A Wrinkle in Time, Rock the Presidents, and The Giver.
If you are looking for a theater group whose purpose is to explore the rich Latino and Latin American landscape of Arizona, then Teatro Bravo is what you’ve been looking for. Teatro Bravo was named Arizona’s Best Ethnic Theater Company by The New Times.
Established in 1970, Black Theater Troupe’s aim is to produce plays that delve into the African-American experience and culture. Their current season concludes with The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin which will be held in their beautiful new theater.
In their 11th season, Stray Cat Theatre is bent on exploring theater’s most contemporary work while testing its boundaries.
The event will take place April 7 at noon. It is located at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus at the Nelson Fine Arts Center, Room 233.
Superstition Review intern Crista Jackson conducted this telephone interview with Tina Packer, the founder and artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. Her play “WOMEN OF WILL” is running at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival July 5 through Aug. 12 at the University Theatre on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. Directed by Eric Tucker. Created by Tina Packer. Featuring Packer and Nigel Gore. Part 1, July 5, 7, Aug. 10; Part 2, July 10, 14, Aug. 11; Part 3, July 17, 21, Aug 11. (7:30 p.m. curtain) Part 4, July 24, 28, Aug 12. Part 5, July 31, Aug 4, 12. Single tickets, $10-54. Special packages available. Info and Tkts: coloradoshakes.org or 303-492-0554
Superstition Review: When did you first begin acting? What was the first production that you were involved in?
Tina Packer: I first began acting in high school, although, not a lot. It was not like American high school where you do musicals all the time. I performed in three plays, or something like that, but I liked it enormously. Then I went off to Paris, and obviously, I could not act there, but I thought to myself ‘hmm…maybe I could stay here forever and become an actor.’ When I came back to England I applied to drama school. I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and studied there for two and a half years. After that, I did some television roles and went on to the Royal Shakespeare Academy. Essentially, I did my training and then went straight into professional acting. The first production that I was involved in was a television show called “No Hiding Place.” It was a thirty minute program that ran every week.
SR: When did you discover your interest in Shakespeare’s plays?
TP: I did eight plays in school and then I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company, which I had always loved. I suppose my real interest began when I started to work at a theater company that had very weird ideas about how to perform Shakespeare. In any case, I started to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company almost immediately after drama school. I was getting deeper into it but I kept encountering the problem of wanting to work on Shakespeare’s plays a certain way while they wanted to work on it in a different way. That is where I felt like I could see the brilliance of Shakespeare’s plays and that brilliance just grew over the years. I was in the regular theater as an actor for about six years and doing television when I thought ‘I’ve got to switch to being a director because I have all the ideas of what Shakespeare is about. Unless I’m a director I’m never going to have the power to put them into practice.’ I switched to directing at that point. The kind of directing I was interested in was how actors could go further than they were with their acting and their bodies. So, it was an ongoing process. There was a eureka moment when I set up my own company but there was no eureka moment concerning why I was fascinated with Shakespeare; my fascination just grew and grew.
SR: You have authored several books, how has your experience as a writer differed from your experience as an actor and director?
TP: It is a completely different medium. When you are an actor you use your entire body and you are in a state of being. You are being as truthful as you can with the whole of your being. When you are directing you are directing other people to be as truthful as they can. You are absorbing all of their energy and their emotional state of being. So being a director is quite painful in a way because you are absorbing other people’s energy. When you are writing you are imagining what is going on and you are getting it on paper as fast as you can. It is just a different state. Of the three mediums, acting, writing, and directing, I find acting the most organic. I like directing because it really spins my brain and forces me to think through what every character thinks; what the overall shape and form is and how I can best represent it. Being a writer you only have yourself. You do not have an audience that is going to react to you and say “this is good. That is bad.” You do not have a load of actors trying to do what you are saying; all you are doing is imagining it and writing it down on the page. You have no idea whether it is any good or not.
SR: You were quoted in another interview as saying “the actor’s job is to speak that which cannot be spoken.” Can you explain the concept of the actor as a messenger?
TP: Yes. The function of theater, I think, is to articulate those things which are hidden. They are hidden because they live in the subconscious mind. All art, whether it is painting, music, dance, etc., functions to bring those things that are subconscious to consciousness so that you can see them. Well, with the actor you have to take it a bit further. Especially in Shakespeare, it is the language that makes the difference. There are things that are not being said, either because they are suppressed by the powers that be or the people have just absorbed those ideas as thinking ‘oh, that’s reality,’ but it is not reality it is the way reality is depicted. You know how in the ’50s movies they presented a kind of very innocent, un-embodied sexuality? The films would always present a certain kind of sexuality which was the form that society wanted to think about sex in, or was comfortable with. With the ’60s came a whole turnaround that showed the ’50s as a misrepresentation of what humans are, of what marriage is. So really, in a way it was theater’s job to point out that that was not how things were. That is an example of how theater articulates a further truth.
SR: What inspired you to explore the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays?
TP: I had done about two-thirds of the canon and I suddenly saw that there was a progression in the female characters. It came to me one day when I was watching one of my own productions. I had done different parts of the canon by then; the beginning, middle, and end. Suddenly, I realized a pattern in the female characters. Once I got the idea I wanted to explore it further, because obviously, I am a woman and Shakespeare’s relationship to women is very important to me.
SR: What do you mean when you say that Shakespeare’s writing embodies or explores feminine qualities?
TP: As a rough categorization we ask, what is masculine? Well, masculine is much more linear, based on glory and is going to have an aggressive streak to it. The cliché of what is masculine is going to be goal oriented rather than relationship oriented. It is going to be cerebral. That is what people usually consider as masculine. What are usually called feminine are relationships, feelings, allowing your intuition to take hold. If you have got a goal it is usually related to a relational goal. For instance, you want your family to be really happy or you want everybody to get along. It is similar to how I felt when I wanted a deep collaboration with everybody, not wanting some people to be stars and others not. Those characteristics are usually called feminine. So if you think about what an artist uses, whatever kind of artist, what they use are feminine qualities. They are very much to do with feelings, intuition, and relationships. Whether the relationship is paint on a canvas, of one color against another, or whether it is how your characters relate to each other on stage. The attributes are very much feminine. When you think of the embodiment of female sexuality and physical function it is very internal. Menstruating, being pregnant, etc. Whereas, masculine is much more exterior physicality—who runs the fastest, throws the ball the hardest— it has more to do with action than female physicality does. So if you are embodying a role like actors do it is a much more feminine attribute regardless of the actor’s gender.
SR: What do you think of the evolution of Shakespeare’s female characters? What caused the transformation of his early characters from the false dichotomy of modest virgins and harlots to more complex, multifaceted and realistic female characters?
TP: Well, this is what I got a Guggenheim for. I spent a whole year finding out what the answer was and the answer is in “Women of Will.” The best way to have this question answered is for you to come see “Women of Will,” because I can’t do it justice but I will have a go. Basically, what I believe happened to Shakespeare is that he started off as most young men do, being full of sexual hormones and feeling that women had the upper hand or did not have the upper hand. He didn’t really associate with women; he projected onto them. In part one, women were usually either shrews or virgins on a pedestal. During this phase of his writing he either over idealizes them or makes them into marauders. That is a very early Shakespeare. Suddenly, he seems to fall in love himself and becomes passionate and suddenly the women like Juliet have as much air time as the men. He begins to explore the female characters as deeply as he explores the men. They are allowed their full sexuality, their full voices, they are whole people. So suddenly, he is not seeing women as something he thought he had to control or deal with, instead, he is seeing women as human beings and that might be because he grew up, fell in love, and therefore saw women differently.
The only way men and women can have real, deep relationships is if you have power to give up. You cannot have a deep relationship, then or now, if you don’t have power to give the other person. So what you see out of this is that Shakespeare starts using women to tell the truth about what is going on because women are always outside of the power circle. They don’t particularly have power; they get power through the men they have associated with, the exception being Cleopatra, of course. So, by and large, women are looking at power much more deeply than men are. So we go into the third part of his writing life where women are really trying to tell the truth about what they see. Here if they disguise themselves as men, if they live underground, they can say what they like and everybody responds to them and that is just fine. Then at end of the play they can say “oh look, I’m really a woman,” but by that time they have organized the society; everyone gets married, procreates and it is all well and good. If they stay in their frocks and they start telling the truth about what they see they get killed or kill themselves so their voices are useless. So you really see what women are up against.
In the fourth section, the women take on power the same way as men, like Lady Macbeth, the eldest daughter in Lear, etc.,the women have power just like the men do. They want power just like the men, they start going after power in the same way that the men do and the country ends up in chaos. In the fifth part he finds a way out of the killing cycle which he has been telling for so long and it is by the daughters revealing the fathers and the art of acting. He shows that art has to come into life somehow, otherwise, we will never be able to stop the killing cycle. That is the sixth part, when Shakespeare has gone back to live in Stratford and he is with his daughters again who he has not seen for 20 years while he has been in London working. So it is all about how the daughters can redeem their fathers. That is the briefest of outlines.
SR: After four decades of studying The Bard of Avon are you still mesmerized by his writing? Do you still find yourself gleaning new epiphanies from the texts and plays you have become so familiar with?
TP: Yes, because texts which hold big truths, you tend to see differently at different points of your life. You might read something that you never thought anything of and then all of a sudden it holds some significant meaning because you have reached a new place in your life. So you can see things you had not seen before. For example, a hundred different books have been written on “to be, or not to be, that is the question,” and it is still the question. People still come out with a whole host of answers about what it means. It is the exploration which is important not the answer. That is true of all of Shakespeare’s plays or any great poetry; it doesn’t give you the answers to life, it breaks life open.
SR: What are the unique benefits of theater as compared to other forms of art? Is there something special about using the body as an instrument of communication?
TP: Yes, there is something special about theater but it depends because different people are awakened by different art forms. If you are the type of human where music awakens all of your sensory perceptions then maybe theater isn’t going to do it for you. So it really depends on the human being but why theater is very important is it is really trying to recreate life as a whole so it can include music, dance, poetry, and all of the other art forms. It is really trying to use life itself as the art form. So that means there is a huge demand on the body because you are putting your own body there. With your own body you are trying to recreate life. All art forms awake sensory perception, which means that you see the world more clearly; you have got more tools to look at the world. What happens to me when I am acting is that I get to feel more consciously what it is that I am feeling. It is not just the body; it is the body and the voice together that make theater so incredible. The body looks like it is solid and it feels solid, the voice is ephemeral and it is coming and going.
SR: What about the difference between live theater and broadcast theater? Is there something lost in the intimacy between the actor and the audience in broadcast theater?
TP: Acting in front of an audience gives you incredible energy and focus. When acting for television and film, you have a more internal focus; you don’t have that huge blast of energy from the audience. What happens to you when get the focus of all those people is that it starts transforming the energy and something starts happening, that you have no control over, because of the energy that you receive from the audience. In that respect, theater is an incredible medium. You feed off of the audience’s energy and it takes you places that you didn’t know you could go.
It isn’t that film and television can’t do some really good work, they can, but it is much more self-representing than when you have the audience. I think that a large part of it is the acknowledgement, ultimately, that you are all in the same space. You just pretended something and maybe everybody wept and laughed and you have done that together and there is a real sense of unity in that which you never get on television or in film. In film the camera is picking up your performance and then translating it and you are never in the same space with the audience. It is a different experience and I think that it lacks the sense of community that theater builds.
SR: The story behind the founding of Shakespeare and Company is incredibly inspiring. You began with 20 homeless actors and a couple thousand dollars. What was going through your mind? Was there ever a moment when you thought of giving up?
TP: What was going through my mind was the kind of theater that I wanted to do. I was just seizing the opportunity of having a house to live in and having a few thousand dollars so I could pay everyone. All I was thinking was ‘okay, so we can get a Shakespeare play up in this amount of time and we can do the kind of work that exemplifies what I am talking about. Then we can invite everybody to see it. They will get inspired and give us more money to work on more projects.’
SR: Do you think Shakespeare had a special message he was attempting to convey to fellow artists?
TP: No. I think that he was doing what all artists do; he was not sitting around trying to think up special messages. Artists try to find out what the truth is and try to figure out what life is about. To the best of their ability they try to see how power structures work, the way in which we deal with our families, etc., and how it affects everyone else. You know, all the big issues of life they were simply trying to tell the truth about. What he did in his later plays, when he got back to Stratford, he started trying to tell the truth about the impact that daughters have on their fathers.
SR: How important do you think it is for artists to teach and pass on their art?
TP: I think the desire to pass on what you have learned is natural. I think that if you are an artist it does not work until the audience is there. Whether it is theater or someone looking at your painting, reading your poem, it does not work until somebody else interacts with you. Then if you find it at all exciting your next reaction is to start telling people how you did it so they can do it too. I think all creativity has been a continuous stream from the very first time people were creating plays around the campfire or doing paintings on the cave walls.
SR: Do you have any advice for novice actors, playwrights, or directors? Were there any words of wisdom that helped you through the dark hours of your career?
TP: Keep on honing your vision. If things are not working just persist and keep on looking to see what is keeping the communication, from artist to audience, from happening. It is all about persistence.
SR: What are you currently working on? Do you see yourself writing anymore books?
TP: I will write some more books on methodology in Shakespeare and Company but the writing is really an expression of the acting and directing so I will write about those subjects. Right now, I am so immersed in the struggle to get “Women of Will” up and the book out that I cannot think further than getting it all done.
On November 8th the Superstition Review Reading Series will feature Melissa Pritchard at Arizona State University’s Tempe Campus. Her reading will take place at 7 p.m. in the Memorial Union’s Pima Auditorium. Pritchard has published several books such as Phoenix: A Novel, Late Bloomer and Devotedly, Virginia: The Life of Virginia Galvin Piper. She has also published her essays Finding Ashton and A Woman’s Garden, Sown in Blood in O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Collagist 4, respectively. I had the opportunity to discuss the upcoming reading and Pritchard’s latest novel The Odditorium.
Superstition Review: How is The Odditorium different from your other works?
Melissa Pritchard: The Odditorium is a collection of seven stories and a novella. Most are based on unusual or enigmatic historical figures, all look at the ways architecture exerts subtle or unsubtle pressures on human consciousness. So they are different in those ways from most of my previous stories. More than half of them do not approach narrative in a traditional or conventional way. I experiment in one story, “Watanya Cicilia,” with a pastiche of historical documents, songs, research and fiction, contrasting the Wild West Show and the real, genocidal story of the West. “The Hauser Variations,” based on the life of Kaspar Hauser, a German boy kept in an underground dungeon throughout his childhood and then mysteriously released into a second tragic fate, is based, in terms of narrative strategy, on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. In another story, “Patricide,” two sisters meet in a haunted hotel in Richmond, Virginia, its courtyard said to be a place where Edgar Allen Poe once played as a child. In this hotel, one of the sisters goes mad. So I was less interested in the traditional structure of plot and expected emotional release than in ethics, history, architecture and the effects of these upon both historically based and purely imagined characters.
SR: What has in been like working with Bellevue Literary Press?
MP: We are in the earliest phases; I accepted their offer to publish The Odditorium in January, 2012, and had a lengthy phone conversation with the publisher, Erika Goldman. I was so impressed with her aesthetic understanding of the collection, her excitement over the departures I had taken in terms of subject and form, I became convinced this was the proper home for these pieces. The BLP website is terrific, too, as is their history with Bellevue Hospital and New York University’s Medical Center. They publish elegant books at the nexus of art, science and medicine, and only publish two fiction titles a year. One of this year’s fiction titles, Tinkers, by Paul Harding, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, resulting in a flurry of attention for the press, with articles and interviews in The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and other media venues. It’s a tiny press operating out of Bellevue Hospital, and they do terrific work. I come from a family of surgeons, doctors and nurses, and have always been fascinated by science, medicine and the history of medicine, so this could not be a better place for this book, as a number of the stories deal with medical histories, issues and questions.
SR: How has your time at ASU influenced your writing?
MP: Because my time to write is limited, I have to be disciplined. Sometimes I find it quite difficult, having time and energy to both write and teach. A fragile balance at best. On the other hand, teaching keeps me awake to current trends in literature, to remaining relevant to students year after year, and I am blessed to work with some incredibly gifted students, both graduates and undergraduates. I always say my students teach me in equal proportion to what I teach them. At least I feel that. Also, ASU has always been tremendously supportive of my outside work–traveling for research, traveling to conferences, traveling for reportage or for humanitarian work, which I also do. I am extremely grateful for the university’s support.
SR: What are you most looking forward to as the Superstition Review reading draws near?
MP: I have a background in theater, in acting, so I always love reading my work aloud in a public setting…for me, it is as close to performance as I come these days. I love an audience and I love hearing the piece I’ve chosen come alive in the room, seeing the reactions of the listeners, answering questions afterwards. It is truly a wonderful exchange. This past summer at The Glen, a writing workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, part of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA Program, I read my collection’s title story, “The Odditorium,” to a full house. It is a comic piece about Robert Ripley of Believe It or Not fame, and other audiences have responded with laughter and lively commentary afterwards. This audience was dead silent. The room was dark, I couldn’t see anyone. I kept reading, on and on, by the little glow from the podium light. Afterwards, no one even asked questions! I was horrified, sure I had failed, sure the story had been a failure…I wanted to crawl under a carpet had there been one. What I found out later, was that the story had gone over so well, people couldn’t react, they went silent–stunned. I won’t repeat the praises I later heard, but then I became overwhelmed the other direction–was my story really that good? So one never knows, and one always doubts. Also, I’m always a little nervous before a reading, hoping it goes well, that I don’t disappoint people who made the time and effort to come to my reading when there are dozens of other things for them to do….I am also always scared no one will show up, and thrilled to pieces when they do. Finally, I’m looking forward to meeting all the staff and interns at Superstition Review. They’ve even managed to arrange to have copies of A Public Space #11 mailed from New York to be available for sale on the night of the reading. (I’ll be reading a story, “Ecorche, The Flayed Man,” from that issue.)
SR: What are you currently working on creatively?
MP: I’m in between three pieces right now…a non-fiction piece about my miniature dachshund, Simon, a speech about Sr. Airman Ashton Goodman and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project that I will be giving at the Air Force Institute of Technology in December, and a novella set in 19th century Florence, Italy.
SR: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
MP: Read voraciously. Read the best work you can find. Read what interests you. Be observant. Practice empathy and compassion. Know that what you write ultimately reflects who you are. Write every day, even if only for an hour and be humble in your practice while aspiring to greatness. Be gentle with yourself, and always reward yourself in some small way after a writing session. Leave the writing at a place where you are eager to return the next day.