On the occasion of the Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre's production of his new play A New Theory of Vision, playwright Bob Jude Ferrante virtually connects with Susan Bernfield (fellow playwright, and Artistic Director of New Georges theater company), over our shifting sense of reality, its representation on stage, and the dual role of being a playwright involved in producing one's own work.
Susan Bernfield: I’m flying in an airplane as I write this, which always brings up questions of reality for me—it just seems surreal, like I just shouldn’t be up there, it doesn’t make any sense to see clouds out the window. You seem to deal with lots of reality options in your play A New Theory of Vision, airplanes aside. Do you think that with all the new ways we’re trying out virtual living, our perception or concept of reality really is changing?
Bob Jude Ferrante: It’s kind of hard to be conscious of how one perceives reality, because the only thing to which one can relate that perception is to reality. “Who watches the watchmen?” Probably what’s happening now is our conception of “reality” is enlarging, starting to embrace things that in the past were seen as “unreal.” There is a real thing called a book that can hold words we could read to reconstitute sensations to evoke a story in a construct called “fiction.” Compound that with right now: We read a book on a computer screen onto which “real” things constantly find ways to intrude. So you’re reading online and a friend’s message appears over the top of the “book” you’re reading. Suddenly you are “chatting” with someone “real” over the top of the “book” and you happen to mention the ideas you’re getting from the book…This has all got to give Gutenberg a shock and make you, I don’t know, nauseous probably. Fifteen years ago, interviews were mostly done live, face to face, taped or steno’d, transcribed, edited and published. Someone had to come to you to interview you, and they wrote later. Now they are largely conducted with the interviewer emailing or chatting questions to the interviewee on a computer who writes the answers on a computer. (Full disclosure: How we did this interview.) Not face to face.
SB: How are you trying to capture that particular experience onstage? And what got you interested in that?
BJF: How Cat Parker (the director) and I tried to capture this constant unease was to find a verbal and visual grammar to represent things not typically seen as things. For example: memory. Memories are chemicals and electricity stashed away in someone’s brain, recording past sensations. Oh and by the way, everything onstage can only be shown in the now. And you remember in the now. So how can memory sound/be shown in the now, so a perceiver can automatically recognize its memory? We try this also with imagination and with perception, through visuals, concretes, music & sound, projection, performance, and through character, choice, and action. Lots of dimensions. What provoked interest in this weird subject was this growing agreement among us all that the future would be more about us watching ourselves than just, well, being places and doing things.
I just joined Facebook, rather late in the game. One thing fb lets you do is post these constant “status messages” where you’re always answering the question “what are you doing now,” which is instantly transmitted to your friends. Now, some people use status to prosaically state what they’re doing. For some these are a chance for post-modern poetry. They turn each moment into instant word art, with Facebook as broadcaster of either intention with equanimity. You want to try to come to terms with this merging of reality with the prosaic and the artistic. It gets complex; we adapt.
SB: You describe the philosopher George Berkeley, who appears as a character in A New Theory of Vision, as obscure. Not to me! I was a philosophy major—so there!—and I remember him well. I mean, not his ideas, I don’t remember anybody’s ideas. But I DO remember that it was really really important that his name be pronounced…not like the city in California where New Georges’ next show, Angela’s Mixtape, takes place, but with an “ah” sound, like the otherly-spelled surname of Charles, that basketball guy. How’d you find out about Berkeley and his philosophy and what hooked you into him? Since god knows I don’t remember, what was his thing, what was he all about? Is there something in what he said back in the long-ago day that presages your own ideas about human consciousness and virtual reality? Or is it just that the time period in which he lived makes for a really cool costume?
BJF: Same place—college philosophy class (though I didn’t major in it). George Berkeley was trying to get people to understand the only way they had to perceive reality was through their senses. Although the input from those senses might be due to sight, hearing, smell, feel, taste of things that were “really” there, it could also be possibly unreal, with input just fed to our senses. What’s truly trippy about Berkeley is he was more inclined to think the latter and that it didn’t matter; that reality is just the union of our mind and other minds.
Of course Berkeley was an Anglican Bishop making the point we’re all plugged into One Big Mind which was God. Kind of like the Matrix, where everyone’s brains are plugged into One Big Server running a program called “reality.” I think we’re all peer-networked; no One Big Server. Like the Internet. The other day a friend wanted to know where the computer that controlled the Internet was. When I told her that there wasn’t one; that it was a billion little computers all connected over a billion wires, it freaked her out: Nobody in control.
Yeah, the opportunity for a Cool Costume is always something of which playwrights and theater companies should take advantage, and the idea of a wig and lace shirt on a guy just gets everyone hot. It’s kinky. Think Sunday in the Park with a Different George. And you have New Georges. Congruence everywhere.
SB: I’m a playwright and a producer, but for me it’s sort of shaken down that there’s separation of church and state—which meant that when we produced my play, I was exempt from strike! Whoo-hoo! But I can see the attraction of seeing your work through the way you want it, and we all need all the productions we can get. Are you finding the producing side satisfying in and of itself? Or are you just a control freak and the leader of a group of control freaks?
BJF: There’s no question who’s a control freak. What’s more, this condition has caught on to a whole group of people. It’s getting dangerous. Playwrights producing is still weird. As you observe, there’s typically that separation of the chairs—the art makers’ chairs and the business peoples’ chairs. Many companies are out there helping artists by making thousands of decisions, small and large, saying they’re taking the hassle away from the playwright, and the director, and the performers. These decisions are, metaphorically, presented as little mosquitoes that are going to keep biting the artists and they don’t want us to spend our time slapping and scratching as it will distract us from making art.
In a Sanctuary show, the playwright has to occupy both sets of chairs, sort of at the same time, and although the company gives them a production assistant and stands aside giving advice on schedule, process, and budget, ultimately the playwright has to make the material decisions. It’s about power really, empowering the playwright to make those decisions and to learn how they can make their play into a real thing, a performance people can see, and how they can coordinate all the details into a whole.
For example, I, this playwright, got to interview and to hire the director for the play. That’s rare. The playwright also gets to select and/or OK the designer, the PSM, the cast—everyone.
SB: I’ve heard you have a virtual set. Whoa. So you also have a virtual technical director and a virtual scene shop? Sounds cheap, an excellent solution for trying times —VERY smart producing for a playwright! What does a “virtual set” mean, exactly, and how does it reinforce the virtual reality themes in the play? Is it all thematic, or does it help solve some producing challenges as well?
BJF: We have a real technical director and a real production designer named George Allision who has very real ideas about how to solve a very real problem that I really created. Scenes in the play move inside a character’s head. How do you represent that shifting, dreamlike state inside someone’s mind? There are more complicated scenes where those insides have to be super-posed with a more conventional “reality” because other characters have to be present in reality simultaneous with the running of memory, thought, perception and idea inside one character’s head. It is actually hard to describe in words, but when you see it, it will make total sense.
SB: I’m happy to hear there’s a character with Asperger’s syndrome, because then I can easily categorize your play as a “disease play,” and I don’t think plays should EVER defy categorization! Seriously, that seems like an interesting way to bring up even more alternate ways of perceiving the world. What equations are you looking for here? Does this choice help the plot move along, or have some broader metaphorical value? Or is it just a bald-faced attempt at movie-of-the-week-style pathos?
BJF: I first heard about Asperger’s in the media about when most people did. I went around thinking of it as a disease, yeah, but I was wrong—it’s not a disease. It can’t be cured and it’s caused by genes. Genes are always messing around with us. Asperger’s is more a different kind of wiring in the brain. My son Gabe had a playmate diagnosed as Asperger’s, which demonstrated this different wiring first-hand. Playwrights are observers of human behavior—you want to understand why someone does something, so you go to Barnes and Noble or the library, you asks counselors who deal with it all the time, how its properties manifest. I shouldn’t go into too much of the metaphorical aspects of why a character in A New Theory of Vision has the condition as those are best left to the critically minded among us, apart from saying that by looking at something different and perhaps unfamiliar—perhaps a person with a brain wired totally different from your own—you then better understand how yours is wired, and perhaps come to understand that really in a sense none of our brains is wired exactly the same as anyone else’s. That as minds, we are all snowflakes.
A New Theory of Vision, written by Bob Jude Ferrante, directed by Cat Parker with production design by George Allison, produced by Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre. Runs March 18-April 11 2009 Wed-Sat 8PM at the Kraine Theatre, 85 East 4th Street, New York, NY (between Bowery & 2nd Avenue). Tickets $18; to purchase, go to www.smarttix.com or call (212) 868-4444.
Bob Jude Ferrante is an American playwright, director and producer, with over 50 productions and publications everywhere from Seattle to Kazakhstan in the past 10 years. His plays include THE NEW LIFE, TRAGEDY/A COMEDY, SUBCITY, HEMLOCK/A GREEK DINER TRAGEDY, FLOWERS OF WAR, and one-acts SCENE ANALYSIS FOR FUN & PROFIT, MEN'S, FUN CITY, and FLICK SEE GEARS IN THE SPARKLIGHT. He's also a founding playwright/producer in Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre.
Bernfield is the founder and artistic director of New Georges, a downtown theater company.