I’m getting ready for my first rehearsal for another incarnation of American Medea tonight, and my stomach is full of butterflies. One of my teachers, Anne Bogart, always says that being nervous is a good sign – it means that you’re invested and that the work is meaningful to you. I agree, and for the most part the butterflies are fun; they are part of the pleasurable anticipation of doing my favorite thing. But there’s always insecurities, too. What if the actors don’t like the play? What if they don’t like me? What if they don’t get it? What if I can’t explain it? What if it doesn’t actually do what I want it to do?
The piece is a collage of Euripides, Seneca, the Bible, the SCUM Manifesto, Southern idiom, and the court transcripts and real media responses to Susan Smith, Andrea Yates, Darlie Routier, and Deborah Green. As a result the plot is really subordinate to spectacle, rhythm, and diction, and the characters, combinations of various real and fictional people, hardly stay on the same thought for more than a few seconds. The idea is to draw out similarities between different versions of a similar story, and to show the cumulative effect of social and cultural forces on our conception of what it means to be a mother.
But in practice, actors have to, on some level, make sense of the moment-to-moment of what they’re doing. If they cannot know why a character changes, they must at least know exactly when. Without a coherent plot or characters that are consistent within themselves, actors must find something else to hang their hats on for the course of the play.
And the audience does, too. The question I always ask myself as an artist when working in this medium is “What connects the dots for the spectator? What are they watching that takes them from the beginning to the end, even when the beginning to the end is not a chronological journey? To what extent do I want them to be confused and to what extent do I want to relieve them of that so that they can focus on something else?” A laser focus on a moment or person can bring clarity, but confusion can also be productive, particularly when the point is that an issue is more confusing than we think.
That’s what I think about this story, and about these real women, and about motherhood: the forces shaping our understanding of these things are so many and so contradictory with one another that the result really is rather confusing. The tendency to make female biology a sacred force that somehow makes motherhood perfectly natural and perfectly fulfilling obscures the complex reality composed of values, socio-economic circumstances, and psychology that is different for every woman.
I guess I will try to rely on that belief to assuage my fears about this evening. If the play doesn’t make sense, if I can’t explain it, if the actors can’t understand it, well, a little confusion can go a long way towards revealing the truth.