QUALEY: One time on TV I saw this commercial, this old public service announcement which was from the ’50s about how great nuclear energy was and clean and everybody smiling happy "Hurray! Nuclear!" And all the kids running on the playground with the nuclear tower things right behind ’em, all cheery and white and I thought that’s kinda like here except waste treatment and black. And Spanish. And now a little bit white.
JOSE: My mother said after the ’93 World Trade attack, Mayor Giuliani built a bunker there with a hundred and thirty thousand gallons of oil, which people said Don’t! cuz if something happened again it could blow up and poison all of downtown with PCBs, which he ignored, and which it did. So we moved to Harlem.
—From Dual by Kia Corthron
A perennial New York issue that we can expect to be aware of during the Republican Convention is space, or the lack thereof. As I write this, protesters wrestle with Bloomberg over the right to assemble in Central Park, and we are likely to be exposed to countless other territorial battles. To New Yorkers, this is nothing new. Every day we negotiate the rigid etiquette of rush hour subways, desperately hold on to miniscule apartments, and navigate overburdened roads. But New York has other sides, not as well-advertised, full of creative, flexible uses of space, from stoop-sitting and community gardening to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge or dance floors in Williamsburg lofts.
In September, New Yorkers will get a chance to see another side of the City—six sides of it. Sanctuary Playwrights’ Theatre has assembled six writers (Sheila Callaghan, Kia Cothron, Lisa D’Amour, Sung Rno, Caridad Svich, and myself) and directors (Sarah Benson, Lisa D’Amour again, Lear deBessonet, Kip Fagan, Anne Kauffman, and Liesl Tommy) to create and mount site-specific plays for its "Six Nights" project. Each night one play is "home," while the other five are "guests." For example: Kia Cothron and Liesl Tommy’s project Dual (excerpted above) takes place at Riverbank State Park on the West Side of Manhattan. On their night, all six plays will be performed there. On another night, Sung Rno and Anne Kauffman’s project, Weather, is staged on a rooftop in Greenwich Village, and all six plays will be performed there. And so on.
The project was the brainchild of Sanctuary artistic director Bob Jude Ferrante (himself a playwright). "How will the context be transferred from a home site to a guest site? Each playwright/director team will answer this question and I think the answers will be brilliant," he told me. "Besides the general coolness factor, some things that appeal to me about this project are freedom of motion, a chance to go for something sacred, and a stronger connection between story and reality. And it’s cheaper." Sanctuary will spend the coming weeks assembling permission for the plays to perform in the sites—and preparing for the unpredictable.
KRIS: …David Letterman was a weatherman. Did you know that?
WILL: No. So what?
KRIS: I’m just saying.
WILL: I’m not trying to be David Letterman.
KRIS: I would practice writing backward.
WILL: I think I can do that.
KRIS: You think you do? The interview’s tomorrow. Do you realize how many people are trying out for that job?
WILL: You want me to write backwards?
KRIS: I was just suggesting.
WILL: Here. I’m going to write backwards.
(Will writes backward in the air, in giant letters, "GO TO HELL.")
WILL: See? I can write backwards.
KRIS: "Go to hello?"
WILL: GO TO HELL! I wrote, "Go to Hell."
KRIS: I was joking.
WILL: I need some air.
(He gets up to leave. Stops. Looks at the umbrella.)
WILL (cont’d): What’s the weather like?
KRIS: Ironic as hell.
—From Weather, by Sung Rno
This was a project that I personally couldn’t pass up. Here was a rare opportunity to work with some of New York’s most talented writers and directors—and then there was the location. I have long been obsessed with Roosevelt Island. The Island’s relative isolation, diverse population, and blocky, vaguely Soviet architecture gives it a weird sort of alternate-earth feel, and the Tram from Manhattan is reminiscent of an amusement park ride. But how would a play written for such a unique place play in the other locations? And for that matter, how would five other plays, by playwrights with unmistakably distinctive styles, play there? I spoke to some of the other writers about their inspirations.
"I chose the play first," Lisa D’Amour told me. "In my piece, Stanley Kowalski is searching for Blanche, because he needs really needs to ask her something. He’s been on the road since 1953, but he’s still very hungry and very sexy—that’s part of his personal purgatory. He’s wondering if he can find her in New York." Not every writer has approached the project with a specific mission in mind: "I’m not going to write it yet," Sheila Callaghan told me. "I’m building the piece from scratch within the space I’m writing it for. My play is going to be a direct result of a collaboration with my director and my actors, and my laptop."
Other writers are combining the two approaches, using the City itself for aesthetic effect. Caridad Svich: "My piece has as much to do with interrupted possibility as actual possibility, and I think that is a quality especially true of NYC. I was thinking about Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and how she was able to capture states of being, how she makes the reader slow down and understand a different way of perceiving the world."
Of course, environment always reflects on our work, whether we are consciously creating for it or not. "I’m from a small town in Maryland—the town that houses the military base from which the infamous Abu Ghraib torturers came from," Kia Cothron told me. "I’ve lived in New York sixteen years, the last nine in Harlem. I think my language is partly a fusion of my hick roots and my inner city adulthood."
For most, the site-specificity was a significant part of the project’s appeal. "Besides the fact that site-specific work opens up a load of visceral possibilities and engages text in a totally different way," explained director Anne Kauffman," I think that the most rewarding aspect of it is how it engages an audience. I think it gives an audience more agency somehow, more ownership, a more immediate sense that anything could happen."
Some of the writers are more comfortable with creating theater for non-traditional locations. Lisa D’Amour, for instance, has been experimenting with this genre for some time. "While the transient nature of the production was related to the content of the piece," she said, "the fringe benefit is bringing audiences into spaces they wouldn’t normally visit on an average day. When the audience is taken out of a ‘usual’ theatrical setting, they often relax their expectations a bit…the new space brings with it a new set of rules and surprises."
Part of that adventurousness involves restaging individual productions in locations for which they were not intended. "This project is more of a site-(un)specific project," said Sung Rno. "You can’t fall back on sound or lighting tricks to do your work. The language and physical action has to do all of it. But I like the feeling of stripping everything down." "It’s unnerving that we won’t have control over the space, but on the other hand, that lack of control can be kind of enticing, too," Anne Kauffman told me. "The specific challenge is to not try and make every space conform to the parameters of the space chosen for our particular piece." Lisa D’Amour is even planning on incorporating the portability into her play: "On my night, Stanley is looking for Blanche in the lobby of a fancy hotel. On the other nights, he’ll be looking in the other locations, trying to guess, I suppose, what places she might want to visit in NYC."
I think what you have to remember is we’re at war.
I mean, you can’t just walk around like…
I know you know… I know, but…
Everything’s not all right. That’s all I’m saying. That’s all.
You can’t expect things to be like they were. They’re not.
We’re like everybody else now. We’ve joined the fucking world.
No, I’m not being armchair… I’m not armchair…
How can you say that?
I’m here, right?
Today, tomorrow and the day after that…
I haven’t gone to Berlin.
What? Do you see me going?
Well, if it’s a job… yeah… we all would, if it’s a job…
I mean, wouldn’t you?
That’s all I’m saying.
But it’s not the same as wanting…
…wanting to live elsewhere.
That’s ex-pat, right?
Do they still call it that? Christ, am I out of it? Am I?
I’ve got to keep up. No, I have to. I mean… we could be at war and I…
With some other country… or countries…
There are other countries.
I’m not being… How could you say that?
I travel, don’t I? I see the world.
Christ, you make me sound like…
I’m not. One of Those.
—From A Short Time After by Caridad Svich
Finally, I asked some of the artists what appealed to them about this sort of theater. What does a site-specific play have to offer that a "normal" play doesn’t? Sung Rno, again: "I think legit theater has become ossified in the way that jazz is now part of Lincoln Center. There is not enough chaos happening inside theaters. I think that theater can create an intensity and complexity of experience that other media can’t. But it’s extremely hard to make that happen."
"I worry that people are losing their ability to be curious, to explore the unexplored, to meet places and people who are different from them," said Lisa D’Amour. "The fear manufactured by the current administration encourages paralysis and inactivity. I want to fight that."
But Sheila Callaghan perhaps captured it best: "And why not? There are dozens of reasons not to take risks in the theater—fear of losing money, fear of alienating audiences. But risk is precisely the reason why theater still appeals to people in a way that few other art forms can. Creating the piece on the fly, in collaboration, is sort of like juggling on a high-wire, without a net. I don’t know how it will turn out, and we might fall, but that’s exactly what makes this whole experience thrilling, for us and for the audience."
Sanctuary Playwrights’ Theatre’s "Six Nights" Project will be performed Sept 23, 24, 25, 29, 30, and Oct 1 in various locations in New York City. For more information, visit http://sanctuarytheatre.home.pipeline.com/sixnights.htm
Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.