A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES
by Sam Pinkleton
Lee Sunday Evans with Sam Pinkleton>
I always fall asleep at plays. Good, bad, uptown, downtown, made by friends or strangers or famous people—no one is safe from my sinking eyelids of doom. Even shows that I have later referenced as transcendent theatrical experiences to friends—well, there was probably at least a transition or two that I didn’t quite catch. Perhaps it is the safety of darkness, the (unreliable) feeling of anonymity, the plush seats, cool temperatures, even the soothing perfumes of the white-haired set. Or maybe it’s just the luxury of a two-hour pause from a life that is mostly spent making plays of my own, plays that I would unquestionably doze during were I encountering them as an outsider.
Last summer, after a very long day, I saw Kate Benson’s A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, directed by my pal Lee Sunday Evans at the New Georges Jam on Toast Festival. I saw, with my (fully-open) eyes, every moment of it—from start to finish. I was knocked down. I told my friends and thought to myself, “How did Lee do that?”
I’ve been asking this question after nearly every encounter I’ve had with Ms. Lee Sunday Evans, whom I met on a blind friend/collaborator date (we took a dance class together, her suggestion—my crush was immediate). I was lucky enough to sit down with her in December and try to dig into the alchemy of the Benson/Evans collaboration, shout about my excitement for the return of Great Lakes (produced by New Georges at the Women's Project) this January, and figure out how she manages to keep everyone awake.
Sam Pinkleton (Rail): I looked at the text today, and I pooped my pants when the first thing that the playwright [Kate Benson] says is, “This is a play that doesn't have stage directions,” because it was one of the most visual productions of a new play I’d ever seen. So I'm curious about what the space between you and Kate was, because it doesn’t seem like something that came out of an old-fashioned play development process.
Lee Sunday Evans: Kate had this desire for the text to do the story-telling. So she knew that that meant there shouldn’t be any stuff—
Rail: Stuff like fake corn?
Evans: Exactly—a turkey, table, chairs, the objects that you associate with Thanksgiving dinner. So, Kate—and remember this is the first play she has ever had produced, so this is a doubly amazing thing that she did—she essentially said to me: I feel strongly about having no stuff, but I don’t know what this show should look like, so that’s up to you.
Rail: When did you guys start working on this?
Evans: She sent me the play in August 2013. We were given a production slot in New Georges’ festival in May 2014. Once we knew we had this production, we did two staging workshops of it and tested out ideas—
Rail: Staging workshops? Not readings?
Rail: Were there any readings?
Evans: We did one read with music stands, but the actors were doing all kinds of strange gestures and movement, and also they would get ‘benched’ at certain points.
Rail: Did that process choice come from you, or did that come from Kate?
Evans: Both of us. And New Georges. Having a producer who understood we needed that staging workshop time was key. I had hunches about how to do the production, but I didn’t know where it would end up. Our first approach involved this very strange idea that it all took place on this soundstage with microphones hung from the ceiling, and actors would speak into them as if dubbing their own voices onto a movie of Thanksgiving dinner that they had already shot.
Evans: It didn’t work.
Rail: Did Kate always have the Sports Announcers, who call the Thanksgiving dinner as if it’s a sporting event, in the script?
Evans: The sports element was always in the text. The text you read is completely conceptually true to the original first draft. Kate says this amazing thing about how it’s crazy that on a big family holiday, when we’re all gathered to spend time together, what you do is watch people on TV knock each other down.
Rail: I feel bored by how I understand new play development to work. And I feel like, particularly doing first productions of plays, the job of the director is sort of to be a servant to whatever the writer wants. Which is odd, because it establishes some kind of guru system that I don’t understand. You just said that this isn’t how the process of developing Great Lakes worked. And I’m wondering if that’s what you always bring, how you have always worked, how you would work if you ruled the world—it’s certainly how I would work if I ruled the world, because I feel like we work in a culture where you have meetings, you ask a lot of questions via email, and you do readings. The idea of theater turning into a visual medium, which I think it is, is the last possible thing to be considered. Is this how you always do it?
Evans: Because I come from a devising background where I am used to trying out staging and design ideas as the text is being developed, I have a strong sense of how visual ideas can inform the really meaty revisions of a text that happen when you’re in a workshop or rehearsals with actors. I agree that theater is visual—and it’s textual, you can’t separate the two. But yes, the typical new play development process prioritizes the text, and so the visual/physical world usually only gets one shot at working, which means usually you are going to play it a little safe in rehearsals. Since we got to do some wild experiments, we got to hone in on a really distinct staging vocabulary.
Rail: The play feels like one giant dance. Period. I mean there’s a production of this play that I don’t want to see—that’s like a play with a table, and it would be delightful, and that’s fine. I mean, I guess because this is intuitive to you this is hard to say, but it feels like a no-brainer to you?
Evans: The approach to the play?
Evans: Well, the idea of reinventing the family drama is definitely key. I know what you mean about the play with the table that’s been done so many times that it’s hard to make it feel really, actually fresh and new. But it did take me awhile to figure out how to do something different. When you take away the table, the forks, the recognizable ground plan, the blank canvas can be very intimidating.
Rail: Terrifying. Oh, horrible. Did you guys talk about that loaded history of plays with tables? And also, what clicked for you that made you know this approach was the one?
Evans: Kate didn’t want anything to do with a play with a table. But she wanted to make a play about a family. You might say that we’ve reached the apogee of a certain kind of family drama plays, and where do you go after that? August Osage County was so iconic. It was a culmination of the 20th century conventions in a lot of ways.
Rail: Yeah, and sort of delivered that form with a twist in a way that was both familiar and also—we can never do that again.
Evans: Exactly. So I was thinking: if those ultimate family dramas have been made, what can be revelatory? The moments when I felt that it was working were the moments when I could see the actors connecting the emotional life of their characters and their relationships to each other in the choreography that I would build. They would start adding these little details, connecting to it not on an intellectual-conceptual level but intuitively. Little tiny strange things that are hard to describe—like in the way Nina Hellman would add her hands when I asked her to take a step forward with one foot and hold. In the way she added her hands into that move, you could tell she was interacting with the way she felt about her sister as she stopped herself from interfering with the way her sister was cooking—even though the literal action of cooking is nowhere to be seen.
Rail: But she’s working within a physical structure that you’ve imposed.
Rail: I saw Ivo van Hove talk at BAM. People grilled him about his weirdo, abstract process, and the thing that he wanted everybody to walk away with was, “I’m just trying to get to the heart of whatever is happening moment to moment. That’s it.” I feel like that’s what the movement in Great Lakes is doing. I mean, none of it feels like smarty-pants experimental theater, which is, like, a drag.
Evans: As I was developing it, you could tell when there was something extra, and it really would stand out as an “idea.” This gave me a really clear way to keep from adding flourish on top of the staging, because the staging is all very practical in actually a very traditional way of looking at dramatic action. The staging is a series of tasks these people are doing. And because it’s not naturalism and you don’t need people to take up time with behavior while they’re talking, they sometimes have to nothing to do onstage—they’re still, watching, listening. So it strips away all that busy-ness, and you’re left with something emotionally essential embodied in a stripped down way.
Rail: I’m wondering about how you’re thinking about harnessing that energy that made the show at Dixon Place feel like such a sporting event when you do the re-mount.
Evans: One thing that I feel super proud of about the piece is that I think it’s surprising and definitely jarring, but it’s not punishing—it makes itself available to anyone who sees it. I think you can come and watch the play and have a really good time because there’s pleasure in watching it, but also you don’t have to be literate in any experimental theater traditions to be able to understand the rather unusual event that’s unfolding in front of you.
Rail: Do you think you should ever be literate with experimental theater traditions to enjoy what’s in front of you?
Evans: I’ve had amazing experiences watching fairly esoteric, experimental theater where part of the pleasure of watching it is because you understand the conversation and legacy that it’s a part of. But I think it’s very, very important that people don’t feel alienated from theater because it seems like you have to know all this history and artsy stuff to understand what you’re watching. No one wants to feel left out. That’s basic and primal—we pretend that as adults we’re not sensitive to that feeling of being left out, but we totally are.
Rail: I just read something that Kate wrote. It was like, “All that I care about is that it’s not boring.” I feel like you guys have made something that isn’t boring. Smartypants, sure—and so admirably full of layers to dig into. But never boring. And that’s really fucking hard to do.
Evans: Yeah, Kate and I are really sensitive to when something feels alive or dead. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be alive in that moment, it can’t be signifying something that you as an audience member are supposed to understand is going on but doesn’t feel like it’s happening in front of you. Also—when you take the table away, the audience has to complete the story. The actors are doing this movement, and they’re saying these words, and the announcers are using text to describe what they are doing. But the audience has to actively put those pieces together to experience the story, and that’s a big part of what makes it not boring.
Rail: That’s also part of what makes it live theater.
Evans: Yeah. Kate and I felt like we’re on the right track when you could feel the actors in the room laughing out of recognition. When the text and the movement would come together in a certain way so that it was expressing something acutely real—the language is so razor sharp, you know. But that only really lands if you can see the physical life of the characters onstage bringing something to meet the language. So when the composite—of the text and the movement—makes something recognizable, there’s laughter of recognition. Or the uncomfortable moment of everyone taking a deep breath [laughs].
Rail: Right, right, right.
Evans: And the movement was definitely inspired by sports—particularly the sense of football prepping, the moment of prep before the big offensive play, that feeling of intensity in a sports game—I stole that. I think that family members feel that intensity, even though they don’t often put it into their bodies the way that sports players do.
Rail: Oh yeah, there’s a great stage direction: “Go fast because there’s no time to waste and we’re all going to die soon.” Come on! It’s amazing!
Evans: That’s the best. Kate Benson everybody.
New Georges in association with Women’s Project Theater presents A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, by Kate Benson, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, January 12 – February 7. Performances will be at Stage II at City Center (131 West 55th Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further information, visit www.NewGeorges.org or WPTheater.org or call 212-581-1212.
Sam Pinkleton is a New York City-based theater director and choreographer.