It’s Annie, back for The New Classics. In this blog, I’m going to get real about my past. I have a confession to make, guys: In high school, I was a theater kid.
I was, like, really a theater kid. I made all my friends during improv games, all my memories from behind the curtain. That was high school for me. Girls in the same ensemble would form cliques for the semester-long duration of rehearsals, then slowly reshape as the next production started rolling in. Nights would be spent in the wings of the stage, shuffling through costumes and gossiping in dressing rooms so the boys couldn’t hear. Tech Week posed a particular stamina test, coinciding with tests and homework despite the 10 p.m. dismissal. We commiserated offstage, but, of course, we young professionals never let that affect our craft. We were connecting with something, finding our energy, projecting it out into the world. Sixteen-year-old me thought that was pretty awesome, and, honestly, though I don’t act anymore, I still think it’s pretty awesome.
In my final year of high school, we got the news that we were going to be putting on the play “The Three Sisters” by Anton Chekhov. Of course, any veteran of theater with an MFA and a season to set will try to get Chekhov’s name on the program, and my teacher was no different. He boasted plans of wrangling with the text, of digging your teeth in and getting to know the characters from the inside out. He sung praises of the provincial tales, calling the personas of Chekhov’s repertoire some of the most complex emotional journeys in staged history.
I, on the other hand, was bored. And there are a thousand reasons I can point to. Yes, sure, “Chekhov is the best,” and “no one understands the power dynamics of an old Russian family like he does,” but the language was so dense, dry, like a piece of bread that tears up your mouth as you chew. That’s the feeling of Chekhov to me–a feeling sacrilegious to a whole cult of theater kids and English teachers alike. Yet, nevertheless, I still tried out, because what else would I do from the hours of 3 p.m. until late if all my friends were held in that hallowed blackbox studio.
I played Natasha, the nasty sister-in-law who seems just fine and dandy when the estate nearly burns to ashes. She’s an emasculating wife, a domineering housekeeper, a manipulative new member of the family. Of all the characters, she definitely had the most bite, the most IDGAF attitude. She was a boss in her own right. But especially when I had to speak her lines about a million times, I found myself losing meaning instead of finding it. It became really quite taxing.
Until one day, those familiar names popped up on a Barnes and Noble bookshelf. A play called Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. And the playwright, Christopher Durang, is not a step short of a genius. When I began reading, it was clear that just about nothing normal was going to happen in the next 150 pages. After getting stuck in my little Chekhov rut, it was exactly what I needed. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike pokes fun at the classic Chekhov characters by introducing a new persona into the mix. The play reconsiders how these trite archetypes would function in the modern day, toying with provincial themes of the cherry orchard and loss of an inherited family home to illuminate the comedy in such hardened lines.
Reading this text began my complete obsession with absurdist plays. The genre of absurdism, in essence, pits the orderly against the chaotic, parodying the innately human tendency of trying to apply reason to an increasingly reasonless world. Some older examples that might ring a bell would be “Waiting for Godot” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” both of which were staples in my senior year English class. I delved into the works of Christopher Durang and became mesmerized with his comic style and whimsical scenes. It was so new, so fresh, so unlike anything I’d ever seen, read, performed in.
So I’d like to metaphorically pour one out for my inner theater kid, and give you a pitch for why I think theater is a constantly evolving and inherently literary field. We can’t shrug them off for claims of performativity and trite morals. Time and time again I hear people talk about how they hate plays, and while I can’t argue that all of them are worth seeing, there is an infinite list of those that are. We are constantly presented with innovation in the vein of absurdism, reminiscent of the diversifying trajectory of modern literature. New faces, new stories are gracing stages and pages in texts that are worth reading, feeling, analyzing and contemplating. Theater is inherently literary, a whole new world of consideration to be found in stage notes, dialogue, spoken word.
Now, in New Classics fashion, I’m going to give you two more must reads to tide you over till the next blog. “4.48 Psychosis” is an avant-garde, more experimental play about a young woman’s relationship with mental health and her therapist and the push and pull she feels between devolution and resolution. I had the pleasure of seeing this play at the Berkeley Art Museum, where characters moved freely in shades of white performing in the center of a circle of seats. The words were interspersed with bouts of silence and calculated movement, with two bodies often representing the same character and lines scattering themselves between identities. The script actually doesn’t specify which actor says what but instead flows as a train of thought speech, so each production varies so significantly, and each is just as moving as the next.
I definitely want to add a content warning on this one, as it does not tread lightly around topics of major depressive disorder and self harm, but if you find yourself in a place where you can handle those subjects, I couldn’t recommend this play more highly. The playwright, Sarah Kane, actually linked a PDF on her website, so I’ll paste it for you right here: http://rlmalvin.angelfire.com/KaneSarah448Psychosis.pdf
And, finally, I can’t in good conscience end this blog without telling you about “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia.” It’s definitely more of a classic than it is new, but it is my absolute favorite play, and perhaps one of the strongest literary works I’ve ever read. Edward Albee is one of my idols. This play has a Tony award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist spot under its belt and both are well deserved. The play opens in media res when a wife approaches her husband about his illicit romance with, you guessed it, a goat named Sylvia. As silly as it sounds, the infusion of existential crises with hilarity and petty arguments really does stir up some inquiries about the borders of our morals, taboos, and the extent of a liberal attitude. It’s funny and honest, embracing a completely insane plot; I was in the moment from the start.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!