Captain, TV should also strive to educate the American public.
Rob laughs. He can’t stop.
It’s our responsibility to bring complicated world issues into our viewers’ living rooms.
Tell me you’re joking.
You’re not the first to laugh at my aspirations.
Rob laughs some more.
Maybe I’m a total putz but I believe in the power of TV to do great things.
In some ways, I’m with Joe, one of the characters in Cusi Cram’s new play Radiance. Put another way, I believe in the power of story to bring complex issues to life. Cram’s work takes me on a journey in which I laugh, am moved, and made to think afterwards. Sounds simple, even fun. But my favorite part is that the last accomplishment is almost subversive. Joe says we should “strive to educate,” and his use of the verb “strive” is where I part ways with him: it conjures square pegs and round holes. Forced lessons rarely work, especially as entertainment.
I have an aversion to “being told stuff,” as a friend once pointed out. There is no more certain way to get me off the couch than to turn on the History Channel or a nature documentary. I care about how about people feel and the details of their lives more than straight facts, so I retain and am engaged in information delivered via story. This may sound obvious, like a variation on the golden rule of writing: “show don’t tell,” but to weave a compelling narrative that is also about big ideas is easier said than done. In Radiance, Cram has written a classic “guy walks into a bar” yarn that takes on the horrors of war, shame, personal responsibility, and forgiveness. It’s also a romantic, noir-ish mystery with a lot of humor.
I sat down with Cusi over breakfast before she headed off to rehearsals for the play, being produced by LAByrinth Theater Company, of which she is a member. Because part of the pleasure of the play is in discovering the specifics of who the stranger is who walks into the bar, and what he’s running from, we agreed to keep our discussion to the bigger themes. But here’s what you can know: It’s 1955 in a seedy bar off Hollywood Boulevard, and a stranger is seeking refuge from an over-eager producer for TV’s This Is Your Life.
Marin Gazzaniga (Rail): One of the things that excited me reading Radiance was that I was so caught up with these characters and my own “I can’t believe this is happening” feeling—in the best possible way. I headed to Google afterwards to see if any of it was true and was stunned to find out it was. How did you come to write this?
Cusi Cram: There was a really interesting episode of This American Life where they were doing the most ill-conceived episodes of the TV show This Is Your Life. This was definitely the worst. I was driving to work in L.A. and I almost crashed the car. I got to work and I looked up the episode. I couldn’t believe it. It became really clear to me that the guest was drunk. And it was fortuitous that I had to write a play for Cino Nights (a play series produced by Rising Phoenix Rep that takes place in the back room of Jimmy’s No. 43, a bar in the East Village). I’ve never been that interested in plays that take place in bars. I don’t know why. I like to go to bars. But it’s just not my métier. But I had determined that I wasn’t going to do a play in a tiny room in a bar and pretend it was a castle. It wouldn’t have happened with that constraint. So I started with a question: How did he end up drunk?
Rail: The play deals with a very big moment in history. Did you do a lot of research?
Cram: I did. One of the things that struck me was I knew so little specifically about this time and the names of the people involved. I took my own self to task for that and was drawn to knowing more. Everything you think about America today perhaps started at that moment. I found it really interesting and rich and complicated. Thinking about that time, where there was no real language to talk about shame and remorse. You were supposed to have just done your job. It was very pre-psychological—we’re at the beginning of Freud.
Rail: That idea of just doing your job is interesting, and how it relates to whether or not that protects—or absolves—you from feeling shame. It feels so relevant for soldiers serving today.
Cram: The big moral question that comes up for me is when you kill people, you have to call that into question. Especially in war, killing civilians. Many more civilians than soldiers have been lost in the last 11-12 years of war.
Shame is shame.
This won’t make it go away!
Imagine if it all just went away and I could be like I was. I was something. Not anymore.
Rail: The play questions the idea of whether every act can be forgiven. And the drive we have here for happy endings.
Cram: And to feel ashamed of feeling ashamed. We are supposed to get on with it. It’s a way of not really thinking about big sweeping tendencies in our country. We have a righteousness about what we do which comes from not really wanting to own it in some way. Just go on. Which leads to a short-term memory of history.
Rail: The “dame,” May, is dealing with shame on a different scale. Everyone in the play has some lie they are hiding. And it makes them feel unlovable.
Cram: They feel nasty about themselves but it’s in different epic proportions.
Reconciliation is a process, Captain.
Another dumbass phrase that means nothing.
Rail: Living with shame can be so corrosive. But is there a fix for it? Or do you have to learn to live with ambiguity and imperfection?
Cram: I was reading a pop psychology book about shame and one of the things therapists say is to immediately tell it to someone who will listen, to alleviate the feeling. It seems it gets worse if your experience feels so unique that it isolates you from other people so you can’t share things with others. But I also think there are things you don’t get over. And maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe there are terrible things you do that should make you suffer. It’s part of our chemistry: so you don’t do it again.
Rail: How does this play fit into your oeuvre?
Cram: [Overlaps] Oeuvre? [Laughs.] I do write a lot about television. From being on a soap when I was young and having written for different kinds of TV. This is my third TV play (Dusty and the Big Bad World and Lucy and the Conquest are the other two). I’m interested in media in our lives and how it affects us. But I’ve never really mined American history in any way. Doing this has made me interested in it as a jumping off point. I think a lot of writing you do when you are young is about figuring out who you are. Not that that ever stops, but now it’s more about where I am in the world. It’s an opening up. I’ve gotten a little tired of my own stories. [Laughs.] I’m interested in how my story intersects with historical or larger stories. And coming from two parents from different places and owning being American and what that means. Hopefully this will be the start of an exploration of that.
Radiance by Cusi Cram, directed by Suzanne Agins with Kelly AuCoin, Ana Reeder, Kohl Sudduth, Aaron Roman Weiner, runs from November 1 – December 2 at Bank Street Theater. For tickets: www.labtheater.org
CUSI CRAM's plays have been produced by Primary Stages, the Denver Center, the Williamstown Theater Festival, LAByrinth Theater Company, amongst others. She also has written extensively for television and film, most recently on Showtime’s The Big C, starring Laura Linney.
MARIN GAZZANIGA is a writer whose work has appeared on paper, screens, stage and the Internet. She lives in Gowanus.