Company Creation Festival 2012 from Matthew McCray on Vimeo.

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When I’m asked to describe my work as a theater director (as anyone in this field is often asked to do), I make sure I use a few keywords: Viewpoints and Composition, gender, Epic Theater, performance of identity. When talking to artists with whom I collaborate, I sometimes say post-modern, and then I explain what I in particular mean by that.

There are other isms and ists. Feminist. Post-colonialist. I also use reconstruction instead of deconstruction. And I invoke Brecht, namely in the context of narrative (as opposed to plot) and history.

So it’s always interesting to go back to those sources and take a fresh look at what I actually do versus what the theory that inspires me asks me to do. I’m working on two unrelated productions at once right now – As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath and Rimers of Eldritch – and with both I have invoked “historicization” as a design and performance aesthetic. But what do I mean by that?

In answering that question, I decided to remind myself what Brecht (might) have meant. Historicization. “Perhaps the incidents portrayed by the epic actor need to be familiar ones, in which case historical incidents would be the most immediately suitable,” he says in “The Question of Criteria for Judging Acting.”

In “Indirect Impact of the Epic Theater” he espouses,

[Scenes] must be portrayed as emphatically and significantly as any well-known historical episodes, though without sentimentalizing them. In this epic theatre serving a non-Aristotelian type of drama the actor will at the same time do all he can to make himself observed standing between the spectator and the event.

From “On the Use of Music in an Epic Theater:”

The epic theater is chiefly interested in the attitudes which people adopt toward one another, wherever they are socio-historically significant (typical). … The concern of the epic theater is thus eminently practical. Human behavior is shown as alterable; man himself as dependent on certain political and economic factors and at the same time as capable of altering them.

I’ll be honest. I often choose historical subjects for productions simply because I think history is really interesting. I like having an excuse to learn as much as I can about a particular period – to devour the music, the images, the words and sounds of an age.

But I also chose to adapt Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath partly because its historical material so perfectly speaks to our current economic concerns. (Also partly because it’s brilliant and beautiful and the things he does with words are wow.) Part of my point is that we can learn from the ways history repeats itself – we can see ourselves in the past and understand that we can’t keep making the same mistakes. When we see how history repeats itself, surely we will realize that we have to change, or so my thinking goes.

Though I was sure I got the idea from him, Brecht’s take is actually a little different. He actually goes to great length to argue that we should perform history in order to show people how different the times are, not how similar. In a contradiction to his earlier thinking that historical material might prove most suitably familiar to the actor, in “Short Description of a New Technique of Acting” he argues:

The actor must play the incidents as historical ones. Historical incidents are unique, transitory incidents associated with particular periods. The conduct of persons involved in them is not fixed and ‘universally human’; it includes elements that have been or may be overtaken by the course of history, and is subject to criticism from the immediately following period’s point of view. The conduct of those born before us is alienated from us by an incessant evolution.

So whereas I want to use the way that things don’t change to convince the audience that we must change, Brecht wanted to reinforce change by showing all the changes we’ve already made. The endpoint, I would argue, is the same: to get the audience to think critically about the ways we behave. But the means are actually pretty different.

Now, if you’re still with me, you have either have some preexisting interest in me or in Brecht, so bear with me a little longer, because what’s fun is how these things manifest in rehearsal. For As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath, it’s in 4 ways in various combinations: what is historical, what is Steinbeck, what makes our political point, and what is good theater.

Two examples: the women actors in the show play both Women characters and a Used Car Salesman, a Truck Driver, and a Manager. They do not have time to change costumes (we can’t afford more than one costume per actor anyway), and the question came up of whether they should wear dresses. The dresses would be historically accurate when they are First, Second and Third Woman, but not as the other characters. So the question becomes what will the audience believe (“believe” in the sense of “be able to make meaning out of”), and the answer is they are more likely to believe Women in pants than Truck Drivers in dresses. So then the question becomes do I want to challenge what the audience believes? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. In this case, the gender of the characters is not the main point I’m making, so I’m not interested in defying the audience’s expectations with that particular choice.

At the same time, because I am adapting text that was not written as dialogue, I have the opportunity to assign lines by gender in ways that empower the Women characters. My choices here have also involved going against historical assumptions, though in a different way. Together with the actors, we have created three distinct man-woman marriages, in some of which the women are equal partners with the men, and in all of which the women have genuine thoughts, feelings and opinions and take genuine action. But here I can argue that though it was not the norm, inevitably some women in 1935 had fairly equal relationships with their husbands. Inevitably some women lived as the subjects of their own lives. I can therefore justify the fact that in the adaptation I create a world in which that is true. (I cannot similarly argue that some truck drivers wore skirts.)

But in making these sorts of choices, am I in fact perverting history? Am I encouraging people to believe in a falsehood? Am I “Oliver Stone-ing” the Okies? This is a work in progress, but right now, I’m thinking no. And here’s why.

My work is Brechtian. I’m not actually trying to convince the audience that women wore pants in 1935. Nor am I suggesting that they actually had social or economic power. I’m actually assuming people know the truth on both scores, and that they know that this is theater and therefore a fiction. And I am hoping that in seeing real women with their own thoughts and motivations living in 1935 circumstances, we can get closer to understanding how absurd assumptions about gender are in all times.

Or maybe my work isn’t actually Brechtian at all. Either way I’ll leave you with this: Women always have been and always will be fully human subjects of history. How we document that, as far as I can tell, has always been pretty much up for grabs.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had time to write because I’ve taken on a new project: As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath, an adaptation of selected chapters of a certain great American novel, will be presented as part of Son of Semele Ensemble‘s Company Creation Festival in January and February. In the novel, which is set in the Great Depression, the author essentially tells the same story twice: the bulk of the book focuses on the personal experiences of the main family’s journey from Oklahoma to California to find work, but the interstitial chapters paint a picture of the collective Okie experience by retelling the same story in broader terms. Our adaptation focuses on those chapters and thereby attempts to show that the scourge of poverty infects whole societies, not just individuals.

As with most theater, on this project the producers, the company of actors, a designer and I are working for free. The production currently has no budget and no resources other than the rehearsal and performance space provided by Son of Semele. Why, you might ask, would we want to travel from our day jobs during rush hour to the theater every night and on the weekends to rehearse and perform a piece of theater that will, in the course of its 10-performance run in a 35-seat theater, be seen by a total of 350 people at most and not get paid?

Because we have something to say. And the theater is a good place to say it.

The play, like the book, begins by illuminating the consequences of an unregulated home loan industry; we then follow the collective Okies as they are swindled by used car dealers, forced to beg for bread to feed their children, denied pay for work they have already performed, and kicked off the one piece of land–the Hooverville–they have chosen to occupy.

People will not believe that the words of this theater piece were not written about current events. The problems these families face and the conclusions they draw are separated from those of the Occupiers only by time, not by sentiment. Our collaborative process of creation is not quite as egalitarian as Occupy’s General Assembly–I lead the company as adapter and director, my husband co-produces, and the text was written a while back by a more skilled wordsmith than any of us could ever hope to be. But together we are turning the narrative of the book into a company-created playworld with the intention of historicizing the Great Depression and revealing its connection to today.

We believe that there is power in telling stories and that awakenings can happen when people witness the real human struggles of poverty, hunger and oppression, if only in performance. In this piece, we hope to embody the spirit and goals of the Occupy movement, to reinforce the necessity of collective action, and to warn the powers that be that revolution is coming. For where the people come together,

[T]here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. [T]here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning–from “I” to “we.”

Check out our tumblr of images from the Depression and from Occupy and add your own (in pairs, please). And come see the show in LA: January 11, 12, 13, 28, and 29 and February 8, 9, 10, 25, and 26.