How to avoid storytelling in the theatre…

Part 1

Formal strategies are very important. Processes, too, are crucial. Choose them and trust them.

I found myself wanting to do something with verse. I decided to invent a line. I arrived at three iambs followed by three trochees:


And that would be followed by a line consisting of three trochees followed by three iambs:


I decided that if I had one line of one sort, it would have to be followed by a line of the other sort.

Will all the lines follow this verse form?  I reserve the right to not know.

Symmetry and isomorphism come to mind with this approach to prosody, but not in a way accountable to formal mathematical definitions.

To back up a bit, the reflected mirroring aspect comes from a silly two line poem I wrote:

Damn! Finish already.
Already finished? Damn.

That one led to another one, an imagined bit of chat between voices:

Did she?
She did.

And it’s inverse:

She did, did she?

That got me curious about symmetry in language. You can have it in certain ways, but in other ways, you can’t. Time flows in one direction with respect to how you deploy words. Sure, you can construct palindromic sentences, but can we perhaps say that meaning lies in the impossibility of certain symmetries in the domain of language?  Or can we even talk about the breaking of symmetries?

You do have symmetries with the shape of certain letters, however.  And maybe that I will also exploit.

So, to carry forward with this idea of reflection or twoness, I chose for there to be two speakers. Sitting in chairs. I impose an arbitrary restriction: they must remain in their chairs.

To shape how I ponder the implications of what I have so far, I give myself two words:


Associations to these words will help prompt and organize material.

Now, with me, there’s always this matter of what I’m going to call the “extra-textual” in a script. This is a germane issue in this instance because I want to compose something for two performers I worked with in grad school. I am thinking particularly of these two because it was a moment of work between them in a piece we did using the writings of Poe that was very much about defining the significance of the “extra-textual” component, so much so that it basically led to my own particular “Road to Damascus” transformation with regard to what I want out of theatre.

So somehow the work has to attend to this matter of the “extra-textual.” It has to have something built in that will allow for these two performers to have some opportunities for elaboration that they, because of their training, will know how to use to their advantage.

I’m thinking square brackets. At certain points I will place things in square brackets and this will lead the performers to explore “extra-textual” possibilities at that moment in the proceedings.

The gender of the performers, both female, will also guide certain associations.  It will underline, ultimately, a certain attitude toward reflection and symmetry.  At a certain point, perhaps, a certain attempt at balance is an attempt to define absolute intimacy.  So, too, I now realize, the scan of each line and the structured coupling of lines are also enactments of that intention.

So here’s the thing about story.  I don’t want to deny the audience the possibility of finding a story or speculating about a story.  They will attempt to clump together the strands.  As I associate within my strictures, moments of a storied temporality will emerge, but I refuse to let those take over.  It’s enough to trigger things for the audience.  I’m more interested in using language and creating a multi-dimensional realm of possibilities for the performers.

Part 2

I should play with some examples.  Here’s a couplet that illustrates my verse scheme:

Your tongue will sound a cold click before I finish
running lengths of twine all around your hands and heart.

Three iambs followed by three trochees in the first line, the reverse in the second.  This implies a two-fold mirroring, one between the lines and one within each line.  The challenge of composition with this verse form led me first of all to the question of the mirroring break in each line.  I knew I had to have two accented syllables next to one another in one and two unaccented syllables together in the other.  Cold click came first, free of context, just a collision of two unarguably accented sounds.  From that choice, I tried to let questions and answers regarding subjectivity, intimacy, body, and relationship, start to unfold.  Since a context began to emerge, it made it more challenging to determine the mirroring pivot of two unaccented sounds in the second line.  The twine was already in place trying to do double duty as both a tying action and a punning allusion to doubleness or twin-ness (not to mention a bit of promise for some comic sado-masochistic jouissance to come into play), so all around made for a possible solution with the all a- serving as the unaccented couple.  The somewhat idiomatic tone of that phrase also seemed to keep things light and gave me permission to indulge in the use of heart at the end of the line.  There is fun and grumpiness here, a familiar griping between intimates, perhaps, a domestic ritualization of the perpetual misalignment of desires.

I am suddenly surprised to see that the word finish, one of my orienting ideas along with nestle, has made an appearance.

I want to take the mirroring action further, so I decide to reverse the couplet:

[Heart and hands your round all of twine and running lengths
I finish click before sound will cold and tongue you.]

I made small adjectival adjustments, but tried not to interfere too much, just enough to conform to the inverse of the original couplet’s verse scheme (I did change around to round for that reason).  The line struggles with grammatical conventions, of course, but subject and object still seem to churn and insist. I tell myself there’s a bit of extra enjoyment seeping in with this uncoupling from the conventional requirements of sense. I wonder if this approach might have some “extra-textual” interest for the performers, so I enclose it in brackets.

The piece I’m interested in writing is for two performers, so I decide to mirror again, but this time from the point of view of the other presence implied by the first couplet’s address.  Again, I reverse the verse scheme:

Tie my heart and hands with at least two tightening turns 
to try and stop my tongue clicking cold indifference.

This indifferent responder’s use of the alliterative t‘s communicates an investment in some kind of overt and resistent physicality, more exertion than what is at work in the tying one, seemingly.  The word indifference, caught up in irony, also seems to situate the responder in a different place.

For the sake of completeness, I now mirror the responder’s couplet, again reversing verse rhythm:

[Indifference my cold clicking tongue stop try and
Tight at least and tightening hands twice heart and tie.]

Again, an evocation of the “extra-textual,” as if nestled within the attempt at a meaningful utterance is some other projected truth, something with a life in another dimension, an expression folded up and hidden away in the mirroring surface between the speakers.

These principles and processes are leading to some material.  Is this dialogue I’m writing?  I don’t know.  I think I will need to follow my processes for a while and watch material accumulate.

Part 3

Finally arrived at the thought of birds.  I got there by staying with this idea of symmetry.  After a detour into concepts of higher mathematics to find out more about a wondrous notion I stumbled upon in a “math for civilians” book:  homologic mirror symmetry (attaching myself instantly to a precise colloquial sense I found in these words that seemed to set out my poetic project in its entirety) and discovering, no surprise, in parsing the specifics, that I had no business traveling into this area, the notion that eventually developed, as I thought about symmetry with tempered ambition, was that it was what was needed to establish containment.

Symmetry is the essence of any holding structure.  Take a moment to visualize expressions of symmetry and you will see how trivially true that is.  Think of a circle, think of a sphere.  Fold over a plane and you have a pocket.  Can one go further and assert that with a fold of containment, the line of time gets bent back on itself, gets looped or knotted?  Symmetry asserts itself as something set off from the flow of time, perhaps.

Language seemed to both fit and not fit in with this.  Language can be likened to the flow of time itself, of course, with every word marking a notch on the timeline.  But can’t language also reach out into the world as part of an impulse to construct something that gathers in, holds, and preserves?  Then I arrived at birds.  You can perhaps see how.

When I ponder the mysteries of language, I sooner or later get caught up in a wish to lace together questions of what is within us and what is without us.  How, for instance, is language a natural result of a living organism engaging with its environment?  What part of the world of meaning is engendered by this odd muscular harnessing of acoustics with instinct and what part is an outside pressure pushing in on us like any other threat to the integrity of our cellular walls.  Language as both an is and an it, and what might we, as investigators, stumble upon if we can find a way to study things both ways?  So I drifted into thinking about other creatures that reach out into the environment to “express” containment.  I naturally came to birds building nests.  I then was immediately pleased with the fact that one of the guiding words I had chosen for my project was nestle.

Birds also harness acoustics as part of an engagement with the environment, of course.  Can we see the impulse to sing and the impulse to structure containment as part of the same instinctual web of engagement?  I’m simply playing with conceits at this point, be assured.  I’m not trying to pass this off as any kind of scientific speculation.  I had already imagined my two performers sharing a relationship that involved nesting.  I had also seen them as lovers:  love birds.  So it seemed right to stay with birds and it followed naturally that I asked myself how two love birds might build a nest with words, the words emerging through a kind of singing…

After the bit of play with the symmetries of “she did” and “did she,” there’s an expression of enjoyment, I can imagine, followed by one performer asking the other if the pleasure is shared.  If it is shared, then I think there’s a symmetry evoked that contains that sharing of enjoyment, that sharing of enjoyment typifying for me an expression of intimacy.  Perhaps an erotic intimacy.

Very centering.
Sin entering.
Sin entering Sister Mary.
Merry Sister entering sin.

A concept from the quest for meditative wholeness leads to some fun with the clichéd trope of the naughty nun.  I had already had a notion of female mystics somehow pointing to a language source for this piece, along with two other words (the f in the word finish kind of prodding me to some choices) flowers and furniture. What if, in fact, the nesting love birds are former contemplative sisters?  Trying to story it so explicitly all of a sudden makes it seem a little silly, but I am interested in the idea.  Erotic and mystic union intertwining.  Via a balancing and reflecting of language.  Strange thought.  Where could it go?  Can I build something with this that can actually contain something?

With words, of course, there’s nothing really there.  What can you keep in a container that is not real?  Look what thy memory cannot contain…  Symmetry holding an absence, a mystery, a passion.  Maybe.  But then as we carry on to the thought of the mirroring reflection, the symmetry is no longer a containment.  We move to something else.  Absence is not contained.  Absence co-constitutes as a chimerical reflection.  And what does the bird sing for then?  Here, I think, is where the insurmountable conflict takes shape.  These voices trying to make words contain something that cannot be contained, to reflect what cannot be reflected.  Something is gone and can’t be gotten back.  Folding, reflecting, nestling, containing, nesting, singing, all insurmountably painful.  Pleasuring against life with what is lost to preserve who is lost.  Again that silly surge toward storying is there.  There’s a loss, right?  One of the love birds has flown the coop, taken wing.  Angel’s wings?  Now the nest is empty.  There’s the other aspect of finish.  These clear outlines start to get boring and I want to dive back into the play of the words, into the effort and the mad scramble of making.

L. 12. 1 Bear Hunt Song, or rules of creative conduct revised

  1. Be wary when it feels like a word association game.
  2. What is the form?  Form is the wheel you don’t have to re-invent.
  3. If it’s truly new, it should be somewhat off-putting, something you would just as soon skip past or avoid, like a stranger who a year later is an intimate.
  4. Today’s intensity is tomorrow’s regret.
  5. Welcome intrusions.

I have no problem with these.  I still feel cute as a button uttering them.  Shirley Temple cute, if I’m being honest.

Three gnaws a bit, though.  I want it to be more concise, more aphoristic, more…Lichtenbergian .  Georg is the Master!  I’m so happy the quote rotator is back up to speed, humming away.  In these dark days of diminished production quotas, it’s a reason to visit the site everyday.  I can fiddle with Three, maybe, in the spirit of Lichtenberg:

3.  The truly new is that troubling stranger who in a year’s time could easily become an intimate if you gave in to your instincts, but who would more likely reject you outright for understandable  reasons.

Shirley Temple is now disgustingly cute.  I think my more compact version is actually longer, but it feels more precise and even has a touch of storytelling verve, which is not usually my forte.  So it’s a keeper.  Bon bons at play…

But I’m also content to chuck all of them.  I don’t really believe in them as working guidelines.  I don’t really believe myself these days when I claim I create.  I have been revisiting the circumstances that first put me on a supposed creative path, and the truth is, I really cannot speak of  those circumstances in any other way than as an encounter with an impasse.  At a certain point in my development, I met with something I couldn’t understand or encompass or circumnavigate.  The instruments I normally employed to get at things were useless.

Always an exciting moment, of course.  And, in my case, I think, traumatic.  Every encounter with an impasse is something of a trauma, I might assert.  The moment of defeat makes an impression and sets the stage for a lifetime of re-visiting, of rehearsing the fatal encounter.  Exciting, traumatic, and, ultimately, therefore, essential.  Because, as I said before, you are not equipped.  You lack savoir faire.  There is no help.  You become a moment of possible extinction.  Such a threat, a loss, a lack, touches on the essential, on you, on life.  You can’t find a ring to grasp.  You plunge.

Here’s a version of the Bear Hunt Song as thoughtfully preserved by a helpful Boy Scout troop.  The song is basically a guide to using prepositions in one’s various encounters with the world.  It is the prepositions that function as the working codes, the symbolic formulas, that afford you the chance to move on Reality, to engage it, to establish meaning and possibility.  Reality as a set of known possibilities is, in fact, mapped out in the song.  But here’s the interesting thing:  at the heart of the song is an encounter with an impasse.  And that moment, really, is the essence of the song.  The key moment, the thrill, is when prepositions aren’t worth a damn.  And that is why it is fun to perform the song.  Repeatedly.  The Bear.

To put it briefly, my particular preoccupation with “creativity” and all that it promises and withholds is due to meeting a Bear.  My continued engagement is a rehearsal charted by a particular practice, a particular way symbolic reality works and then unravels.  I flee and re-approach.

I was lost in a Baroque tangle and baffled by words.  That was the Bear.  At the time there were no friendlier words to begin to characterize the predicament or the effect.  I then began to collect related objects that seemed to want to adhere to the initial mysterious mute monstrosity.  The “creative” path took its place as a possible connection to that mute kernel, along with others.  All within a family drama, of course, and surrounded by various figures of interest.  And so I orchestrated more and more elaborate meetings with the thing in the cave.

What to do?  What will this new clarity tell me about how to proceed?  I’ll keep you posted.



Never become a Christian

I was going to email everyone this, but I think it’s time we had a good old Lichtenbergian discussion right here.

It’s a brief interview with the Indian mystic known as Osho. Although  he seems to have fallen prey to the traditional impulses of cultic leaders in his later years, I think what he says in this interview is brilliant.

Read—attack—defend, in comments.


We’ve been watching the original Dark Shadows on Netflix Instant View.  (No, we’re not hip enough to have known that Depp and Burton are doing a remake.  Found that out later as I looked for links. It was truly just a desire to relive childhood memories.)  As the vampire Barnabas Collins made his entrance into the action over ten or so twenty-minute segments, I became quite preoccupied with his politeness.  Something about the totality of it–its comprehensiveness.  Obviously, he wants to be accepted into the family at Collinswood and not arouse suspicion.  It pays for him to be on his best behavior.  Soon enough he will be making some pretty significant requests of folks, so it’s not to his advantage to upset anyone.  Charm is his skeleton key.  But there’s more to it, I think.  The character Maggie, already under a certain amount of hypnotic influence, notes how his “old world” manners seem linked to a profound sense of loneliness and isolation.  What she doesn’t know this early on, of course, is the true nature of this separateness and the true depth of it.

I am struck by how this simple soap managed to create something dark and palpable through such rudimentary and minimal means.  I found myself nodding along with Barnabas as he spoke in various scenes to various characters he wished to charm and influence.  I, too, was appreciating what was at stake as he reached out from a position of absolute separateness.  I was in the game, and there was not one special effect to lure me along through its magic.  Barnabas is nothing but what he can say, and he gets nothing except through what he can say, so he must say it in a very precise way.  The script at times even has him discriminating properly between the uses of who and whom. What we are witnessing is Vampire Minimalism crafted wholly through language.  Sure, soon enough there will be teeth and biting and fluids, and we know something is afoot behind the veneer, but the essence of the vampire is in the words.  As if seizing upon a spoken politeness that is palpably archaic, or dead, he extends a powerful reach into the world of the living with its unsuspecting casualness and neglect and its trivial cares.  His banishment from us and his appetite for us are expressed in his strange, antique precision.

Reading too much into it due to my own alienation?   target=”_blank”>See for yourself.


We all have come short

This is from today’s Writer’s Almanac.

Today we celebrate the birthday of dime novelist Ned Buntline (books by this author), born Edward Zane Carroll Judson in Stamford, New York (1813) — probably, but not certainly, on this day. As a boy, he got in a fight with his father and ran away to sea. He started out as a cabin boy, but as a teenager he rescued the drowning crew of a boat, and President Van Buren was so impressed that he appointed the young man a midshipman, a low rank of officer. Some of the other officers refused to eat or socialize with him because he had been a regular sailor. In response, he challenged 13 officers to a duel in one day, and seven of them accepted. He wounded four of them and was completely unhurt himself, and after that, everyone accepted him.

After a few years at sea, he decided to take up writing sensational adventure stories. He took his pseudonym, Ned Buntline, from the “buntline” knot that went at the foot of a square sail. He started out writing about gangs and violence in New York — he had firsthand knowledge of that world, being involved in gang wars himself.

After years of setting his popular dime novels in the seedy underbelly of New York, he took a trip out West, and realized that it was the ideal setting for the type of stories he wanted to tell. He met Buffalo Bill Cody, and adapted his adventures into wildly popular and exaggerated stories, a series called Buffalo Bill Cody — King of the Border Men. It was so successful that he made the stories into a play, Scouts of the Prairie, and he managed to convince the reluctant Buffalo Bill to come play himself in the play. Buffalo Bill and Ned himself were terrible actors, and the critics weren’t impressed — the drama critic for the Chicago Times wrote: “On the whole, it is not probable that Chicago will ever look upon the like again. Such a combination of incongruous drama, execrable acting, renowned performers, mixed audience, intolerable stench, scalping, blood and thunder, is not likely to be vouchsafed to a city for a second time — even Chicago.” A critic for The New York Herald wrote that Buntline played his part “as badly as is possible for any human being to represent it.” But despite the opinions of the critics, Scouts of the Prairie was a commercial and financial hit, and it toured all over the country. Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill parted ways after that, but Buntline had made the western hero so famous that he was able to open his own show, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” and Bill’s story had set Buntline on his path to earn more money from his writing than any other author in the country.

Buntline’s life was one big adventure, and he didn’t slow down even after he became wealthy and famous. He fought in the Everglades in the Second Seminole War, and was an officer in the Civil War until he was given a dishonorable discharge for drunkenness. He went around preaching temperance despite his own outrageous drinking habits — he interrupted every show of Scouts of the Prairie for a temperance lecture, and he was frequently drunk during those lectures. He was thrashed in public in the streets of New York City by a woman who was the target of gossip in his magazine. He incited several riots. He got in plenty of trouble with women, too — he was married seven times, and was jailed for bigamy. At one point he was flirting with a married teenager named Mary Porterfield. Her husband, Robert, challenged Buntline to a duel, which of course he accepted, and he killed Robert Porterfield. The angry townspeople attempted to lynch Buntline, and in fact they strung him up hanged him from an awning post. At the last minute, his friends cut the rope and he managed to survive.

As Ned Buntline lay dying, he wrote a poem, which ends:

“Counting time by ticking clock,
Waiting for the final shock —
Waiting for the dark forever —
Oh, how slow the moments go,
None but I, me seems, can know
How close the tideless river.”

He died in 1886, by which time he had already sent out several false obituaries, further exaggerating his life and claiming that he had been a colonel in the Civil War. At least three of his wives or ex-wives attempted to claim that they were his official widow.

When you read about a life like this, what is your inner reaction?