Sibyl Kempson and the Secret Life of Potatoes
When she was nineteen or twenty, Sibyl Kempson began to see cats everywhere she went. They would “just sort of come around corners,” or be sitting in small groups along the path when she walked in the woods. She saw so many that her father worried she was suffering schizophrenia. According to Sibyl, “He asked, ‘Are they talking to you?’ No, they’re not talking to me, they’re cats! Cats can’t talk!”
They couldn’t talk, but the cats did open an early fissure in her understanding of the relationship between what is happening and our internal recognition of what is happening. “It almost took on this similarity to thought, because of how much they would show up and the way in which they would show up…. But it was something that was happening outside of me that didn’t have anything to do with me, and it could have been a little touch of paranoia—making the assumption that the things happening around you have something to do with you.”
Sibyl would later read Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, in which a chapter called “Is This Real Or Am I Crazy?” explores the choices we make when faced with phenomena such as Sasquatch or El Chupacabra. “The literature of the fantastic rides that fine line between this strange phenomenon being real—defying something about the world as we know it, the laws of physics or whatever—OR—it’s inside of me. I’m seeing this because there’s a problem with me, with how I’m seeing things,” Sibyl explains. “What Nelson posits, as far as I can tell, is that it’s both. What you are seeing is real, and you are also crazy.”
They are convinced it is all an illusion, produced by the dullest prosaic influences like: a nervous condition or overwork. And, to be factual, their nervous fluids impregnate their garments, the very sheets and furniture, or soil on which they sleep, an opposite polarity subjugating them to the terrible and contradictory truths placed within the realm of their attention, but out of reach of their faculties of judgement. But they are still too incredulous, too stupefied by an empirical education, and they leave things as they are.
Sibyl’s play Potatoes of August, which opens the new Dixon Place from December 5 to January 12, is among many other things a fugue on this idea, in both the musical and psychiatric senses. In Potatoes, two couples on their way out of middle age encounter a sack of sentient, highly educated potatoes. Sibyl says, “This thing happens with these potatoes and there’s a choice. All these people react to it differently, this strange happening. Bethy sees the [potato] brain and she says, this is a challenge for me. I think Fern really takes it on herself to allow what’s happening with the potatoes to inform something in her—for there to be a relationship there. The other characters deal with it a little differently.”
While the play possesses what might be called a plot—as the quartet meets the potatoes, gets abducted by the potatoes, escapes, etc.—plot is not here an overarching structure that orders and develops, but the incidental product of whatever situations best fit the characters’ states of mind. The play shifts, quickly and without explanation, from a medieval forest to a doctor’s office to an underground meta-psycho-vegi freakscape. Even the genre of the play itself is subject to psychotopographical bending, with one later scene shifting everyone to the Manhattan Theatre Club, complete with cocktails and doltish banter. As Sibyl puts it, “What is a place where what is happening with them can be possible? Oh, it puts them in the doctor’s office, and then there’s a sack of potatoes disguised as a doctor, and then they abduct Bethy. Or they’re in their home, or they’re back out in the woods now, but it’s not medieval anymore, they’re just there.”
Fern, alone in a personal thoughtscape.
When I was a little girl everything was so perfect. People did what they were supposed to do, and they did what they said they were going to do. Not like now. Shoving dildos up inside each others’ rectums. Nobody does what they’re supposed to do. They do something else. Usually some kind of evil. Something with other people’s bodies, or you know, with their money. The money of the other people, that doesn’t even belong to them in the first place.
[Bethy is seen either running through the parking lots and streets, clutching a paper examination robe around her, only one strap of her purse to her shoulder so that its contents spill out in a wake behind her, or still on the examination table, her forehead perspiring. Or both---? We hear Bach’s Contrapunctus IV from Art of the Fugue on an aggressive little harpsichord coming from somewhere.]
[shouting over the din of ten thousand potatoes thumping and rolling across the stage plus the Bach]
What is happening right now? What am I supposed to be feeling something?
Is my mind is supposed to be bigger than what I am faced with right now?
When everything before right now was going just fine?
How the goddamnit am I supposed to understand? What criteria?!
What means of judging am I supposed to employ to gain some understanding here?
Because whatever I’ve got? It’s not enough! It’s not enough! What have I done in uncovering this...this MESS! This horror of a challenge! making me a refuter!
And all other sane humans—punishment for our investment in the power of reason! Of logic!
Of! Of experience! Of! Of! Of! Reassurance!
Bethy, the voice of science, is disturbed because she cannot find her way from a particular specificity (the sentient potatoes) back to a general law. Sibyl’s writing moves in the opposite direction, snatching the specific out from under the nose of the general in a way that depends less on linguistic hijinks than on an appealingly democratic kind of discernment—one that operates by observing not that this spud is better than that spud, but that this spud is this spud, with a certain shape, certain spots, and a certain spiritual hunger. Her work as a writer seems to lie in presenting things as they are and uncovering the relationships between them: “I did make a quilt one time and that quilt had more of me in it than any of the plays. I’m just following this thing, this path of associations, and the thing pulls itself together in kind of a creepy way.“
Sibyl, who has long been a popular downtown actress, took a playwriting class as an undergraduate but felt so shut down by the subservience of details to Aristotelian structure that for a long time she didn’t believe that she could write plays. Then, eight or so years ago, Judy Elkin asked her to write a play for the newly founded Little Theatre. Sibyl remembered a play called This Property Is BAUHAUS!, which she’d written as a joke with a friend but “did not seem viable or valuable.” She remembers, “We were rehearsing it in full preparation to just be left with disapproval and silence… and people loved it. And then I thought, well maybe, there was this rebellious way of writing a play that I could do that’s just about making a room full of people that are having a good time—like making a party in your imagination.” She went on to write and produce many more plays, including the remarkable Crime or Emergency, and graduated from the Brooklyn College Playwriting MFA program.
Sibyl is both acting in Potatoes of August herself and directing it. In the hands of other directors and theaters, her plays have occasionally fallen victim to their own charms: “It’s not like, ‘Oh, it’s so advanced,’ but it’s doing something else than what they’re used to, and it uses what they’re doing as a vehicle to get to this other thing. So they get tricked a little, because oh this is so funny! Oh the relationships!” For Sibyl, “Directing is also, I feel, part of the writing too, because that’s when you start to see all the connections: Oh, this happens and this happens! Oh! Oh!”
With performers Kristen Kosmas, Laura Berlin Stinger, Anna Foss Wilson, and Greg Zuccolo, Sibyl has worked to create a staging in which Potatoes of August’s extreme theatricality is a motor that lights up its more subtle, difficult ideas. But whatever happens, Sibyl says, “I’m starting to think that it’s just important to write them. I realized I don’t have to figure this out in my lifetime. I can just write them and as long as they’re written, someone else can do it later. It’s OK if I die without figuring it out. “
It’s like, how do you know that that is the natu-real or logical course of cause-and-effect events? People are telling a story: this happened and then this happened and I wanted this and SO I got that, or I wanted this BUT INSTEAD I got that, or whatever, the answer to my prayer came in the mail the next week, that kind of thing, as if they have any idea about what is the significant thing that happened. Which of the countless big and little events is the one that means something. […]
From now on, I’m only telling stories using the insignificant details. I’ll tell the story of the new western by the chickens I’ve seen walking through the frame in the background.
Potatoes of August runs from Dec. 4–Jan. 12 @ Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie St. $15. For more info and tickets, www.dixonplace.org.
Amber Reed, a writer living in Brooklyn, has also written about playwrights Sibyl Kempson and Kelly Copper for the Rail.