By Javierantonio González, member of the 2011 Emerging Writers Group
I am in mourning for a gesture; a full-body motion that begins in the legs as they take a couple of steps toward the edge of a Subway platform—sometimes reaching the very end. The gesture then moves mechanically to the torso as it leans into the tracks, twisting, lifting the body’s weight off the rear leg, almost balancing on the front leg, and finally triggering the neck to extend all the way out as the eyes focus—again, mechanically—on that dark inscrutable tunnel, in expectation. Its intention is— in appearance— always the same: to check (often double check) if the train approaches and if so, to know how near or how far it is. Its intensity on the other hand varies, like any gesture, on its doer – on his or her agenda or circumstances.
With the arrival of the platform screens that tell you how many minutes until the next train, passengers have started staring at a ceiling-height, backward-counting monitor instead of at a dark tunnel. We stare at it in total stillness, seeing the future approach in that expectant way that only a backwards count can trigger. Eventually, there will be no need to approach the tracks, to bend, twist or balance, and there will be no need to stare at the dark.
I first became aware of this gesture in the Utica Avenue station in the winter of 2003, as I stepped, lost, out of a subway car in “any station” just to look at a map, (unaware that there are at least two maps in each car). There, I got to see and perform this gesture multiple times, in shivering cold expectation. Months later, my directing professor Brian Kulick asked us to take on a Greek chorus, and my classmate Pavol Liska did a short piece from the Bacchae in which people reclined against a wall, occasionally looking at their watches; then, one by one, sometimes overlapping, they performed the subway gesture as they delivered their lines. (My apologies for not doing the piece enough justice.) Since then, I have seen the gesture performed again and again, in plays, especially of the dance-theatre variety, in movies, and of course in real life. Eventually, it would become the catalyst for a play of mine about a woman who considers continuing the same motion past the platform edge and onto the tracks.
The gradual obsolescence of this gesture can instigate many conversations, from how theatre takes from life to post-modern dance; from how we’ve become a screen-obsessed generation to 1984; from the inside versus outside tension of a gesture to the need for less yoga. It makes me think of reading plays.
I was asked recently during an interview for a directing job to propose three projects. The one at the top of my list was a new play by this fantastic playwright I know. I only needed to describe the very basics of the play to get the attention of the interviewers, who were instantly charmed by the idea. Then I asked, “Would you like to read it?” having diligently brought along a copy. Silence. Looks to the ground. More silence. I think one of them looked out the window? It was up to me to keep the conversation flowing with, “It’s ok. You don’t have to.”
I sense a general disdain toward the act of reading plays, accentuated by how project descriptions and video clips have come to replace full scripts in applications – though perhaps I am naïve and believe that there was a time long before ours when plays were read more. There has been a lot of talk in the emerging writer community about theatres not reading blind submissions anymore, augmented by rumors about artistic directors never reading plays but having them read to them. Yet my interest here is not accusatory and least of all to complain, since as part of the EWG I am very lucky to have people (and not only people, but experts) read my plays, the good and the bad. I for one have always found it hard to read plays, and can even say I don’t generally like it. It is often unpleasant and awkward. There is always a sense that depending on the actors (miracle workers), the director (that charming man or woman who makes everyone feel good), and the space (that elusive variable on which the entire success of the production lies), this thing I hold in my hands that reads kind of terribly could (maybe) make sense; this monster, this tedious bundle or PDF, at times dramatic, often not, quotidian-sounding yet stilted and hard to follow, is a burden.
The problem is, that’s kind of the point. A good play can, though I wish to say should, be hard to read as many wonderful plays indeed are. I once tried to do an apartment reading with friends of Mourning Becomes Electra and we didn’t finish. And we are really into reading plays out loud. Eduardo Machado once pointed this out in a writer’s group and it has never left me. Of course the obvious reason is that plays are meant to be performed, but I think as significant is the fact that many scripts contain not only what is to be performed, but how. A stage direction can define a scene (and in the case of The Cherry Orchard, a play), yet in order to understand that definition I have to read the italicized, cold, mechanical, descriptive, funny-looking sentence. Then I have to imagine, a skill granted to all but maintained by few, how directions such as They stay in silence for three minutes or She picks up the tray with her eyes closed mean something completely different when performed live. Can’t I just read what they say, skipping ahead of the stage directions? Many do. I have heard of design professors who tell their students to ignore all stage directions. I had a wonderful teacher in undergrad who told me he only read the dialogue, without even looking at who’s talking. He said if he could tell who was talking depending on what they said, this was the factor that distinguished good plays from bad ones. He’s an extreme case, but at readings don’t we cut stage directions to a bare minimum, letting the dialogue flow in a snapity-snap ping-pong verbal routine that either ends in a punchline, a button, a cliffhanger, or a blackout?
Stage directions aside, plays are also awkward things because typically they are about human beings relating to each other (or not), expressing their feelings (or not), and thinking (or not) with enough difficulty to be put in front of an audience of, some would say, primarily white, bourgeois strangers who heard about it from a friend or the press or know someone in the show, and now they get to watch him or her and they wonder if the other people—those who don’t know the actor the way they know the actor—like him or her, and if in fact if they themselves actually like him or her. Add the intention of audience interaction, broken walls, occupied spaces, devised theatre—in my eyes, not necessarily at odds with written scripts—and the awkwardness of reading plays only grows.
Lastly, there is that intrinsic dialectic that most great plays carry with them: the hazy zone that links or divides good from evil. At the heart of this lies that duality that makes us care for and disdain Antigone and Creon at once, or take sides with a different character each time we see or read (back on Chekhov) The Seagull, a play that is like a child or a city that we visit every so often, growing more strange as it grows more familiar. To make people argue about political, social, human, moral or artistic ideas is a social threat, more so when in public. To examine in depth our relationship to love, work, death, revolution, to self-reflect is intrinsically political. No wonder a play is hard to read.
Then there are those days when the subway platform screens don’t work properly, when construction, an investigation or even a suicide has made the train schedule malfunction and we are stuck without a clear countdown. On those days I look into the tunnel and wait. I see one or two people dancing their way in and out of this dying gesture, while others stare at an empty screen.
Javierantonio González is the Artistic Director of Caborca. For information on past or future projects, please visit www.caborcatheatre.org
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.