04 February 2017

Mac Wellman

[About a year ago, the New York Times published an article about playwright Mac Wellman (Antigone, 2004; Second-Hand Smoke, 1997; The Hyacinth Macaw, 1994; A Murder of Crows, 1992) as a teacher at Brooklyn College.  His teaching techniques and his tutorial points about playwriting are very reminiscent of his own writing—no just in his play scripts, but also in his essays about theater. 

[I‘ve seen three of Wellman’s plays (Sincerity Forever, 1990; Hyacinth Macaw; Energumen, 1985) and an anti-Iraq war collage called Collateral Damage to which Wellman contributed in 1991.  (I posted a brief report on Energumen in “I’m So Confused . . . !” on 4 July 2012,  Unhappily, there’s no report on Hyacinth Macaw.)  As part of my research on Leonardo Shapiro, the founder and director of The Shaliko Company on whom I’ve written many times now on Rick On Theater, I looked into another Wellman play, Whirligig, which Shaliko commissioned.  For that same research, I also read Wellman’s wonderful—but idiosyncratic—essay “A Chrestomathy Of 22 Answers to 22 Wholly Unaskable and Unrelated Questions Concerning Political and Poetic Theater,” published originally in Yale School of Drama’s Theater magazine (Vol.  24, No. 1, 1993).

[So I’m going to republish “A Mentor Whose Only Mantra Is Oddity” by Alexis Soloski below and then close this post with my description of Whirligig.  I hope you all will find both (or at least one, please) interesting.}

by Alexis Soloski

[This article first appeared in print in “The Arts” section of the New York Times on 18 February 2015.]

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Mac Wellman, the Donald I. Fine Distinguished Professor of Play Writing, sat at the head of a table in a Brooklyn College classroom. It was the first meeting of the semester, and he needed to arrange tutorials with his graduate students. He asked them to draw up a plan for the term’s work: something small, something secret. “Pick something you’re a little afraid of,” he advised in his gentle, raspy tenor.

“Pick something that scares you. Plays that are covered in fur, for instance.”

Since Mr. Wellman joined the Brooklyn College faculty in 1998, he has trained many of New York’s wildest and woolliest playwrights. Annie Baker, who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for “The Flick,” studied with him. So did Young Jean Lee, Thomas Bradshaw, Tina Satter and members of Nature Theater of Oklahoma and the National Theater of the United States of America.

This winter and spring [i.e., 2015], JACK, a theater space in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, is devoting much of its season to recent graduates of the program. The festival is called Damnable Scribbling, a nod to Mr. Wellman’s favored appellation, the one that graces his website: Damnable Scribbler.

There are other places to study playwriting, of course. And other professors to study it with. No one sniffs at a master of fine arts degree from New York University, a certificate in playwriting from Juilliard. But Mr. Wellman’s program has the distinction of turning out audacious writers with very little in common with him or with one another. Try to find the overlap of Ms. Baker’s empathetic neorealism and Mr. Bradshaw’s scabrous provocations. Look for the intersection between Ms. Lee’s canny deconstructions of identity politics and Sibyl Kempson’s rapturous nonsense. Keep looking.

Mr. Wellman, 69, came to playwriting accidentally. As he explained over a glass of rosé at a cafe near his Park Slope apartment, he was hitchhiking in the Netherlands during a junior year abroad when the Dutch director Annemarie Prins happened to give him a ride. He gave her a few of his poems, and she asked him if he had ever considered writing plays. “No,” he told her. “I don’t like plays.” But she persisted, and he obliged her, writing plays for Dutch radio.

In his own estimation, his early poetical plays “were really pretty awful.” It took him a decade of constant theatergoing and constant practice to learn how to write. Since then, he has won three Obies and numerous grants and awards and has completed more than 80 plays, some epic and one only a single word long (“Psychopannychy”). He has written history plays, mystery plays, biographical plays, political plays, science fiction plays and plays composed of gleefully bad grammar.

He loathes what he calls “the theater of the already known” — the predictable, the formulaic, the tasteful, the complacent. As a consequence, his work is strange. He favors, as an article in the journal Postmodern Culture suggested, “wrongness, ceremony and a bit of demonism.”

There’s an exacting attention to language — every sentence, every word, every syllable — that would seem exhausting if the works weren’t so mischievous, so exultant, so fun. (He signed a scheduling email, “See you tamale!” This was not a case of autocorrect.) And he’s fond of impossible stage directions like “something strange happens” or “a furry pause.”

To Mr. Wellman’s annoyance and delight, his students tend to treat him as a cross between a favorite uncle and a minor deity. He teases them, mispronouncing their names or kidding them when they turn serious, but when he offers one of his playwriting koans — “The theater is a very strange and elusive thing to do,” he told his seminar participants — they reach for their notebooks.

Mr. Wellman and his colleague Erin Courtney, who graduated from the program in 2003, design an individual curriculum for each student. They’ll assign readings in philosophy, poetry, structural anthropology, nonsense or an early American novel about a murderous ventriloquist.

Ms. Kempson, who graduated from the program in 2007, wrote in an email: “He taught me that we have the right to read whatever the hell we want, and write whatever the hell we want, whether we’re smart, dumb, worthy, irresponsible, interesting, boring, pious, satanic or confused, and whether we ‘get it’ or not. And he’s right.”

He asks students to write bad plays, to write plays with their nondominant hands, to write a play that takes five hours to perform and covers a period of seven years. Ms. Satter recalled an exercise in which she had to write a play in a language she barely knew.

“I wrote mine in extremely limited Russian,” she wrote in an email. “Then we translated them back into English and read them aloud. The results were these oddly clarified, quiveringly bizarre mini-gems.”

Mr. Wellman explained: “I’m not trying to teach them how to write a play. I’m trying to teach them to think about what kind of play they want to write.”

Alec Duffy, the artistic director of JACK, enthusiastically described the work that emerges from the program as “plays that don’t really behave like plays, plays that feature an adventure in form.”

Mr. Bradshaw, who graduated in 2004, said in an email that Mr. Wellman is “an expert at helping you unlock your mind.”

“He’s not interested in getting you to write like him,” he added. “He never attempts to force a particular aesthetic down your throat. He wants everything that’s unique about you to emerge on the page.”

And once that singular voice emerges, Mr. Wellman will champion it. He follows the careers of his current and former students avidly. He mentioned a dozen or so in the course of an hourlong conversation. Then he sent a follow-up email mentioning more. Then a second email. Then a third. Then a fourth. At the end of the last one, he wrote that he loses sleep worrying about all the writers who haven’t yet received “the attention they deserve!”

Mr. Wellman’s own work no longer receives the attention it once did, although he’s still writing plays, as well as poetry, novels and opera librettos. He’d like to see these new works staged, though he worries about taking opportunities away from young writers like his students.

“I’ve had a lot of productions,” he said as he finished his wine. “I would like to have more. But if it means somebody I think highly of can’t get a production, I don’t need it.”

[Alexis Soloski is a contributor to the New York Times and the theater review-writer for the U.S. edition of The Guardian.  She’’s a reviewer former  for the Village Voice, and a writer for American Theater and Capitol New York. She’s a lecturer in Literature Humanities at Columbia University.]

*  *  *  *

[I’ve written many times now on Rick On Theater about Leonardo Shapiro and his work with The Shaliko Company, his East Village experimental theater company.  While the company began reimagining classic plays (Children of the Gods, based on several Greek tragedies; Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts; and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, included in the first part of my “Faust Clones,” posted on 15 January 2016) and ended with company-built pieces (Strangers, examined in “Shaliko’s Strangers,” 3 March 2014; The Yellow House; Mystery History Bouffe Goof), in between Shaliko commissioned works by contemporary playwrights.   In the spring of 1989, Shapiro staged Whirligig by Mac Wellman at the Cooper Square Theatre in New York City (producer:  MaryEllen Kernaghan, music:  Charlie Morrow, set designer:  Kyle Chepulis, scenic artist:  Polly Walker, cast:  Geza Kovacs – Man, Cecil MacKinnon – Sister, Elena Nicholas [Prischepenko] – Girl, Michael Preston – Bus Man, Cathy Biro and Tess Kahmann – Girl Huns).  The play premièred from 5 April to 7 May 1989, right after Doctor Faustus.  From my research on Shapiro and Shaliko, I compiled a brief examination of this sci-fi-based play.]

From the demons of Hell in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shaliko shifted to demons from space in Whirligig, commissioned from Mac Wellman in 1989.  Described by photographer and writer Allen Frame in a Bomb interview of Shapiro as “William Inge meets Rod Serling meets The Three Stooges,” Shaliko’s Whirligig was a display of pyrotechnical language and sight gags featuring a green-haired runaway girl at a bus station (Elena Nicholas) who meets a metallic spaceman (Geza Kovacs).  Visiting Earth to discover why we are so happy, the Man, known as a Weird, had escaped a marauding band of female space warriors, the Girl Huns (Cathy Biro and Tess Kahmann), and the Girl had run away from her goody-goody, materialistic sister (Cecil MacKinnon).  Alisa Solomon characterized the play in the Village Voice as Wellman’s “wry look at our hopeful fascination with the final frontier.” 

Not that the plot was so easy to follow, or so significant to begin with.  (The Village Voice’s Michael Feingold disparaged it as “nonsense . . . like having the first act of The Tempest suddenly followed by two reels of a schlocky Cinecittà flck about women warriors.”  The Show Business reviewer, Martin Blake, dubbed the plot “whimsical” but “at times unfocused.”)  It was Wellman’s language and the political satire, biting if sometimes obscure, that drove this production.  As James Rasenberger wrote in City Paper: “As a respected poet, Wellman understandably delights in linguistic trickery: his characters speak with twisted eloquence, turning the American idiom inside out and upside down.”  Calling the play’s language “an amazement,” Martin Blake insisted that Wellman “is a poet of formidable power and biting wit,” asserting, “Poets can make great playwrights if they pay as much attention to form and structure as they do words”—though I’m not convinced that Wellman would buy the caveat.

Like all Shaliko work, Whirligig is political—the bus stop in the middle of nowhere is Wellman’s stand-in for a fascist universe.  When the Girl describes her sister, she is describing Wellman’s idea of the American middle class:

This is my good sister, Jennifer.
Jennifer, meet Xuphus.  Xuphus meet
Jennifer.  Jennifer is a normal American
cunt.  She can’t stand the idea someone
might not want to be like her.  She hates
anybody is different, or looks different,
or aspires to strange gods.  She thinks
the Arabs should unilaterally accept UN
resolution 242.  She thinks South Africa
is America’s best friend in Africa.  She
believes in god, Somoza, Swaggart and Margaret
Thatcher.  Look at her, Xuphus, she’s a closet
religious maniac who wants to be reborn so
badly she’d blow the world up gladly.  Pleasure
is lost on her, simple fun means nothing to her.
Human life horrifies her unless it’s a famine
on TV that reminds her how much America is not doing. . . .

Further on, in a speech by the Man, Wellman evoked what is clearly his vision of the rules governing American society:

God curse those who do what is
Forbidden.  And chief among the things
which are forbidden are the combing of hair
not our way, the eating of food not to our
taste, the enactment of dramatic scenes not
to our liking, and the rubbing out of our
very being, when we have merely been
engaged in the working out of our destiny,
as described in the Big Book of Tlooth,
who you may not reckon as amounting to
a pot of piss compared to your god
Tengri, but I assure you it is not so,
because Tlooth [. . .]
is called Tlooth for good reason.  For Tlooth
is truth made manifest and angelic and eternal.
And the truth is eternal, that is why it is
called truth [. . .].

Politics aside, Whirligig was also a very physical play like much of Shaliko’s work.  The small cast included Cecil MacKinnon and Michael Preston, veteran circus performers, and Wellman created a piece for this group.  The playwright had actually been working on something very different when Shapiro told him Shaliko had gotten a grant to commission a play from Wellman. 

I met with Leo’s company, which at that time consisted of the two women, Cecil and Elena, and basically talked with them about what they wanted to do—what sort of theater they liked to do—and tried to figure out a play that . . . .  Both of them were fairly interested in physical theater.  Cecil in particular: she has a background in clown work.  So I tried to figure out something that would do that and then also allow me to do what I wanted to do with language.  And we worked on it, and the result was Whirligig.

The production was also loaded with special effects—low tech, though they may have been.  A body, for example, manages to turn up repeatedly and inexplicably in bus station lockers—among other sight gags.  Show Business’s Blake characterized the FX as “remarkable, featuring an outerspace ride to rival the Hayden Planetariums’ [sic] splashiest shows.”

With a backdrop painted by artist Polly Walker and real bus station lockers designer Kyle Chepulis found somewhere, the production ended with what City Paper reviewer called “one of the most transporting theatrical sights I’ve ever seen.”  In an interview I did with the director in 1992, Shapiro described that moment as we looked through some production photos:

The end of that show—you can’t see it, the pictures don’t show it because it was so dark . . . .  The Ride of the Valkyrie thing was done . . . .  The backdrop, you see, is these stars which are—I don’t remember what they are.  I don’t know if there were holes in the canvas or light bulbs.  I think they were light bulbs.  Anyway, at the end what I did was, I had a strobe go off and over the whole set we dropped black, velvet drops—covered the whole set.  The set disappeared [. . .] and they were covered with stars cut out of glow-tape.  And we had hit them with two strobe flashes so that it lit them as stars for five minutes.  And the last scene took five or six minutes and it was done totally in the dark with these stars, and it was totally illusionistic.  Nobody had any idea how we created this.  Nobody would have guessed it was glow-tape— something so low-tech.  And they did their choreography . . . .  They had helmets that were made out of plexiglass with tubes that had light-emitting diodes in them so their antler-things were lit.  And there was a little light on their eyes that was made by a little, tiny flashlight inside the helmet.  So their faces were lit and their antlers were lit but you couldn’t see their bodies at all.  And they’re in this infinite black and their riding horses.  [. . . .]  And the horses’ heads were hollow and they had a light inside—a colored light—and they were made by Polly.  So you could see the glowing horses’ heads and the faces and the antlers, and they’re doing this sort of riding choreography.  But they’re floating in space.  One is on a chair and one is down and low, and you can’t tell where they are, and so there’s an illusion of infinite space with these things.  It was really beautiful, but it doesn’t show up in any photographs or video because there’s literally no light.  There’s no light that goes out of anything.
The press, however, showed little interest.  Frame felt  that Shaliko’s Whirligig, a “highly original satire of the American scene,” was “a sleeper” that had been “underrated by critics.”  The playwright thought that had Whirligig been delayed until the fall of 1989, after he had done Bad Penny in Central Park, Whirligig would have attracted much more press attention.  After liking his first play, Wellman contended, the New York Times “didn’t like a couple of things, then they wouldn’t review me for four years during which time I did Whirligig.”  After Bad Penny, however, Wellman’s work had gotten good coverage. 

Those reviewers who did come, including Feingold of the Voice, mostly conceded that they did not understand the play, but some enjoyed the theatrics anyway; Feingold was not among these last, though Wellman recalled that other Voice critics—Erika Munk and Alisa Solomon—liked the production but did not publish full reviews.  Solomon published a capsule notice in the “Voice Choices” section of the paper in which she described the production as “[b]ending language like blues guitarists bend notes.”  In his notice, Feingold declared that “Whirligig, like earlier acts of Wellmania. rapidly reduces itself to repetitive trash entertainment, in this case the comic-book scit-fi kind.”  The play, lamented the Voice reviewer, “could have been developed into something witty, scathing, painfully true.” 

In City Paper, James Rasenberger affirmed that “the play fully lives up to its title: its plot is convoluted, its meanings obscure—Whirligig is dizzying.”  The reviewer continued, “But this is not the kind of stupefying experimental theatre that leaves one feeling numb.  You may not ‘get’ Whirligig—I sure didn’t—but it is so entertaining and electrifying that it doesn’t matter.”  In TheaterWeek, Neal E. O’Hara wrote that “boy is my head spinning” and reported that once MacKinnon’s Jennifer “arrives on the scene, the dramaturgical fireworks ignite.  And it’s not even the Fourth of July.”

Show Business’s Blake asserted that Whirligig succeeded “mostly because of [Wellman’s] masterful and imaginative use of language.”  He specified: “His monologues are not merely emotional episodes or opportunities for  character development, but twisters of words that fill the theater and set the atmosphere.”  The trade weekly’s review-writer pronounced, “The audience is hypnotized . . . .”  Comparing Whirligig with the work of Twilight Zone’s Serling, “whose influence is palpable,” Blake applauded how well, through Shapiro’s direction and design, the play “communicates a marvelous creepiness.” 

[My quotations from Whirligig were taken from the unpublished text used in the 1989 Shaliko production, but Wellman’s play was published in 1989 by the Theatre Communications Group as part of its Plays in Process series and subsequently in The Bad Infinity: Eight Plays (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).]

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