Little-kiss lives. I’m a sucker for broken alliteration and this phrase popped out of Ariel Stess’s play Mother Milk—an adaptation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia set amidst American college town domestic squabbles and at what seemed like a family frat party with brother and sister playing grotesque and hilarious drinking games—and tackled me, some Tuesday evening in the late winter of 2009. We were sitting around a table in Mac Wellman’s playwriting workshop at Brooklyn College. This was my first interaction with Stess’s work, and I was hooked by that phrase. It bagged me up and reeled me in, and I’ve been leaning forward and mining Stess plays since, on both stage and paper, for what they can show me about my own little-kiss life.
Little kisses are big moments in small lives. Small lives are gigantic because they’re all we have. I like the sound of this phrase Stess made, and I know Stess cares about sound, but I also like the substance of it, as I worry it in my hands and think about it as a winding road through her plays. This phrase echoes the zoom mechanism Stess is always working with, zeroing us in on her characters’ concerns, their singular importance, only to pull back and reveal these concerns as just a bit of red dust kicked up in the belittling vastness of the landscapes they inhabit.
The meaning and dissection of individual moments or perceived momentary states of being can be both a disastrous obsessive-compulsive minefield of subjectivity and specificity and the only possibility we have for transcending them. This precision push towards transcendence, or at least laughter (which makes for a nice way station on the way to transcendence) through words and sounds—and often through bursts of rhetorical interrogation that get narrower, cleaner, clearer, yet still remain ineffective and inconclusive as they pour forth—is a common drive for characters across Stess’s work, otherwise double-rainbow diverse—to nod to the New Mexico high desert sky that envelops much of it.
In Stess’s most recent play, I’m Pretty Fucked Up,opening at the Wild Project in mid-June as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks in a production directed by Kip Fagan, three high school kids—Dan, Jared, and Isabel—ditch school and chase that double rainbow, driving up into the mountains of Taos, while a threatening event lands their school under a lockdown. In between packing bowls and checking in with friends about class on their cellphones, they talk towards each other and mostly to themselves, trying to make sense of where they’re headed, beyond Taos or the bell at the end of last period. From I.P.F.U., in the van:
Do you know what I’m afraid, you guys? Getting older and just like giving up. And not that much later from now, not like old old, like young, and hot still but like boring as fuck. Like getting home and just like looking forward to watching TV, and like showering, and like eating health food. And just being like kind of content but not that content and not that upset and not that reflective and not that attractive and just like in a nice place, and like thinking about cleaning products to buy, and organic expensive face products to buy, and just like thinking everything is going really well when it’s really just the worst because it’s so boring, but I’ll never even know because I’m in a nice like routine, I wouldn’t even take the time to see if things were really okay.
I’m Pretty Fucked Up might be characterized as split stage juxtaposition of a school lockdown in the wake of a threat and an impulsive, hooky roadtrip. But, less reductively: it is also a play that strives to show us how close high school is, how close pain of any kind is, the unknowing that teachers try very badly to hide from their students, the way we talk, the way we listen, the way we want, the way we evade, the way we dream, the way our dreams are slowly changed and bent, the way child consciousness advances and retreats on its way to adult consciousness, and the way adult consciousness allows itself evasions and blindnesses.
During the lockdown on campus, Bobby and June, newly romantically attached after a few rounds of note-passing via Isabel, are huddled in the Spanish classroom portable, with June’s teacher, Ms. Gomez, after a dispiriting conversation about June’s participation grade. Stess’s precision and particularity make us see the hilarity in our casual constructions, as when Ms. Gomez tells June that she’s going to lose “participation points.” The Security Guard has just checked on them, and affirmed his commitment to protect them, especially Ms. Gomez, or “Yolanda,” as he missteps in the high pressure, formal setting of a school campus under threat.
Scary sounds outside. Unclear what’s going on. From I.P.F.U.:
[/ indicates where following line overlaps.]
June, he’s just a guy.
No, he’s a security guard. / So, we’re fine.
He’s an island.
June, my cousin is a security guard. He goes to work high all the time.
No, but he’s our security guard / so he’s seriously here to make sure we’re all safe at all times.
He’s an island. I don’t know what he’s doing. I try.
June wants to see the world clearly. Bobby and Yolanda (“Spanish Teacher”) know the world has some overlap, a lot of overlap. The Security Guard outside is interested in doing a good job—not because he’s so passionate about school security, but because, like a lot of us who want to do good enough at our jobs, he gets health insurance, and he’s really happy to have health insurance back. He just wants to get his life back in some semblance of order after a really rough year.
Stess sets the stage clearly, yet these places she drops us into—the “classroom portable” fence, smoking rock, Taco Bell, Taos, van, all—while clearly delineated—do not exist in vacuums. They are in relationship, deep complicated relationship, with each other—as are our private, professional, and romantic lives.
I ask Stess how the play started, since it moves between so many spaces and people. “The play started in two places,” Stess explains, “with three kids smoking a bunch of weed in a van ditching class, and with this handsome, sweet, respectful kid Bobby driving around blasting music.” Stess wrote her way between these kids’ experiences—she wrote them towards each other and into the high desert, from suburb-scape to splendor, and found the rest of the story along the journey.
I guess that I thought that I had two different plays but I knew that somewhere in there I wanted to write about adolescent crushes or falling in love. When I tried to write about falling in love, I realized that I was actually writing about falling in love with newfound freedom and independence rather than falling in love with a boy or a girl.
The kids in the play fall in love in different ways with rituals that establish for the first time their independence from their parents. The kids in the van fall in love with being able to make the choice to ditch school and take themselves wherever they want. Bobby sits under a tree on campus smoking cigarettes and no one bothers him. It’s his morning ritual, his private moment.
When I first met Stess she often talked about a desire to be both “facticity and transcendence.” And I couldn’t quite figure out what she meant, so I initially wrote it off as the kind of hipster goofus thing someone who went to Bard College and wore cowboy boots and a hat with a Franklin $100 bill face on it would say at a rooftop party in northwest Brooklyn. But I’ve been turning this imperative of Stess’s over in my mind for the past five years, and this dual-track standing ground and striving is really evident in every play of Stess’s that I’ve encountered. From the oddball word dissection experiments like Steven Alone (2012), which has morphed into Heartbreak (to be directed by Stess at the Bushwick Starr in the spring of 2015) to the big cast familiarly naturalistic plays like I’m Pretty Fucked Up, we are always watching characters struggle to plant feet firmly even as they hungrily flail towards more peaceful, enlightened, less lonely states.
The word consideration plays, what she calls “associative narratives,” that she’s been building with the endearingly deadpan stage struggler Maxwell Cosmo Cramer, often as some physically and emotionally Gumby-stretched version of Stess herself, to help her to laugh at her actuality, transcend her limitations, and see more clearly what she wants to do in her more narrative-driven work.What is—what actually is—is intensely considered in an effort to get past it, to get to something more clarified, more calming and settled. Generally the other characters can’t keep up, or are unwilling to keep up with these considerations.
From He Ate Quietly Into The Wall, which Stess directed herself in the summer of 2012 at Page 22, wherein a Male Stranger, a friend of the Female Stranger’s husband, visits the couple’s high desert home on a business trip, and both strangers find themselves restlessly awake in the living room in the middle of the night, her harping on a particular moment in a book, him politely and agitatedly trying to keep up:
Or did “he eat quietly” in general?
Or did he do something else “into the wall?”
And if so, what?
And was it quietly?
Or was it quickly?
And what is it to “eat quietly into the wall?”
How would you do this?
And what if it was “he ate quietly” just in general? Then what happened “into the wall?”
What was meant to happen at the end? Into the wall what?
What’s happened in there?
In the wall?
What went into it
And what did he eat “quietly” if not the wall?
see the dilemma.
And of course they’re all dead so I can’t ask.
And who would I ask if they weren’t?
Does the estate know? Do you think the estate looked that carefully into any of it?
There are these monologues of galloping questions in almost all her work. While Stess is invested, deeply invested, in words—the precise ways we use the words we inherit to get to the bottom of things—she is also hyper-conscious of the walls of sound we hit with words. The incisive questioning of one character is always running up against the startled drowning response of another character who can’t deal with the intensity of inquiry. The response is often sound—sound that is like word, but not quite word, sound that is between words.
An earlier version of I’m Pretty Fucked Up offered a dual title; it was also called The Howls and Sounds Play.
“The people in my plays try to talk to each other using language to communicate. They often fail or are failed by language, words, sentences, like we are in life. What they are doing looks and sounds like conversation, though,” Stess explains. This is where the “whofoos” and other word-to-sound morphologies that strike so accurately throughout her plays emerge from. “Sometimes an ‘mmhmm’ will work really well to express something quite complex. Sometimes a ‘pfff’ clarifies a character’s stance on some highly consequential matter. People also talk to each other between sentences and between seemingly sensical phrases,” like Steven from Heartbreak who stands in his hallway before his retirement party, thinking about his mother and remembering what she would do “h-allways.” To see and hear Max Cosmo Cramer meander the hallways of always is to wondrously imbibe what Stess is getting at, trying for: “It’s really exciting to see an actor take on a ‘pfff.’ If we, as an audience, hear in that ‘pfff’ the everything and nothing that the character is expressing, then the play is a success.”
Small sounds and small moments that make us recalibrate, take pause, breathe, laugh awkwardly. These are what Stess offers us, studied and generous small simulacra of the world we inhabit. Throughout I’m Pretty Fucked Up there are moments Stess has mystifyingly culled and distilled from her writing and directing language explorations, the “associative narratives,” featuring Max. “Directing helps me to write, helps me to edit, and throw things away,” Stess explains. Radical forms don’t have to profess their radicalism; they can rebel incrementally. Stess’s radicalism is democratically inclined, and what stays in the major plays is audience-tested, pushed out of her experiments with Max Cramer, yet untraceable, ready to be enlivened by her as playwright and Kip Fagan as director.
From I.P.F.U., BOBBY outside the fence, on his way back to that rock, SECURITY within the campus perimeter:
Where did you get that coke?
Oh, just over at Taco Bell.
Taco Bell opened back up again?
Yup, since last week.
Oh. Okay. Thanks a lot, man.
Not at all.
Oh one more thing.
How much is a large over Taco Bell?
Um, I think this one was a dollar-fort-nine.
Hmm. Pause. That’s cheaper than ah, Wendy’s isn’t it?
Yeah, by like six cents, I think.>
Yeah. Yeah. Alright. Thanks buddy.
No, not at all.
In this acutely observed little-kiss moment Stess elicits laughs with the attention to soda price points, but she also shows us something about our relationships: the way authority isn’t always exerted, the way composure and respect impress, the way we are awkward and strange and deeply involved with our own interior lives and yet ultimately seek connections with others over asinine things. And the way these tiny, asinine bridges of understanding over things fortify us, sustain us, in the way we hold them dearly.