Director Katherine Brook and playwright Liza Birkenmeier have crafted successful careers as experimental theater artists in New York City. Birkenmeier is a member of Ars Nova Play Group and a New Georges Affiliated Artist. Her work has been performed at Dixon Place, Rattlestick Jam, The Catch Series, and other venues, and she is currently a member of the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater. Brook recently directed Trish Harnetiaux’s How to Get Into Buildings at the Brick, Laryssa Husiak’s Billie Jean King tribute, She is King, at Dixon Place and Des Moines Social Club, and Gertrude Stein’s Pink Melon Joy at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival and Prelude.13. She uses the label TELE-VIOLET to refer to collaborative work with other artists interested in experimenting with acting and dramatic form.
Birkenmeier and Brook met in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon and collaborated on a piece that used transcriptions from a WPA archive recording (Voices from the Dust Bowl) as a base text. The resulting American Realism was a reenactment of that historical material in a play about contemporary labor and community that played in New York at The Invisible Dog, and then at the San Diego Museum of Art and at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in 2011 and 2012. This process of translating an archival document into a performance involved the fruitful collision of a number of concepts, including fact and fiction and truth and illusion. “Reenactment” implied a performative engagement with historical behavior. It was a useful term that engaged with the concepts of representation and mimesis. American Realism was an important piece for both women. It provided a show that they could readily perform in New York and around the country, and it established a way of working and a vocabulary that would inform their future collaborations.
Brook and Birkenmeier’s latest collaboration, Tragedy in Spades is, like American Realism, a reconfiguration and reenactment of archived material—in this case, a transcript of a true crime documentary. However, the documentary never existed: Birkenmeier has invented an intricate and detailed copy of words and images, captions and sounds that might have appeared in a film about a brutal crime in rural Missouri. This fictional transcript is presented by a group of actors somewhat in the style and flavor of historical battle reenactments. Reality, History, and Memory—what is and what appears—are confused and interrogated in this play. Birkenmeier has expressed a preference for writing about “things, that if you put them directly in front of people and their mirror neurons have to respond to it, they’d be a little bit confused [ … ] or EXTRA-ENGAGED would be the hope, not just confused.”
Birkenmeier’s intentions bring to mind the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s use of literary devices that make things “strange.” They allow us to see that which has become habitualized, as new—“to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” Strangeness allows for a heightened sense of perception and requires the spectator to attend to the event with rigor. Brecht later appropriated these ideas for his own theory of alienation or distanciation. Brook and Birkenmeier’s confusion of real event and fiction pushes the spectator forward on her seat to try and understand the logic or code of this dark and alluring piece. Additionally, it is a bloody crime mystery, a genre which has brought audiences from the Greeks, the Jacobeans, Grand Guignol, and, most recently, the podcast Serial, to the palpable pleasures of suspense, dread, and anticipation.
Here is a sample of Birkenmeier’s script, which was developed over a two-year period. It was completed before rehearsals began, but there have been a few preliminary workshops during the last year. The text on the left is spoken by a “narrator” to another actor who is about to perform a character. The text on the right is spoken by a character.
Lorna Das in her kitchen.
A teakettle hisses.
A small metal fan oscillates on a cluttered counter.
A cat is frazzled on top of the refrigerator.
Lorna Das says
Shoo, Elephant get down off’a there.
in a shadowbox in the corner of a hair salon.
Lorna’s voice is heard under the footage
I met Holly Spade when she took an
Interest in animals when she’s a pretty little
—from Tragedy in Spades
In the early rehearsals that I attended, the collaborators were exploring ways to manipulate the focus of the actors in order to highlight the idea that the audience is watching a group of actors recreating a documentary. The focus of most of the actors is contained within the circle where the reenactment takes place. The audience is observing this activity, and a fourth wall exists between them and the performers. The character of Holly Spade (the murdered girl) is the only one who directly addresses the audience. Katherine Brook has established a number of conventions that allow the audience to both enjoy the process of translation and also be involved emotionally in particular characters’ development. “We mostly treat the downstage center position as the camera’s POV (where Lorna Das sits) meaning that the staging is in reference to that position,” explains Brook. “We use the planes of the stage to make close-ups, mid shots and wide, and sometimes we divert from this too. Sometimes the camera POV changes as well, but always consciously.”
Katie Rose McLaughlin, the choreographer, is heavily involved in the rehearsal process and along with Brook establishes lanes of movement and a kind of hieroglyphic gestural vocabulary that enables the actors to portray many of the natural and man-made objects that Birkenmeier has used to describe the setting of the documentary: hanging spoons, scars, and flags.
The company Brook has assembled is made up of veteran performers she has used before and younger actors from University Settlement performance programs. This provides an intense ensemble experience for both groups. In rehearsal, there is an aura of rigor and focus that is admirable and attractive. “What I love most about the varying experience levels of the cast is that it requires a new and obvious sort of trust and communication in the ensemble,” Birkenmeier writes. “They have to support one another; their dynamics and symbiosis are as important as the rigor of performance. It is impossible to forget that generosity is the center of the process, and their varying skills and perspectives render the most important presence—that of a community uniting—honestly.”
Brook points out that the group is constantly witnessing each other in an active process: “They are all in a flow together, supporting one another, so even when they are not representing a particular character, they are still playing participants in the overall reenactment ceremony.”
The idea of a reenactment ceremony has a ritual sense to it and, as the rehearsal process continues to develop, the behavior of this eclectic group of actors might become as strange and attractive as the piece they are reenacting. The documentary is not real, but the performing of the reenactment is actually happening. This is a group of people who gather together to translate and recreate fictional events. Their involvement with the characters they play and the events they narrate is informed by the degree that their performances are believable. Are they representing these characters? Are they evoking them? Why are they doing this? It could be because it provides these actors and reenactors a certain kind of pleasure, and it allows them to create a space where life is lived more intensely. Another distancing conceit is that the performers are aware of being observed but do not acknowledge the spectators. People presumably enjoy watching and witnessing this type of performance, and the circuit between the audience and the spectator is mutually appreciated. The story of these people is being imagined and developed in rehearsal and collaboratively created. Who they are and what they are is in the process of being discovered. Birkenmeier’s lush and elaborate text is a kind of mystery in itself, which requires Brook and the cast’s technique and sensibility to attempt to interrogate and solve it.
Katherine Brook & Liza Birkenmeier/ TELE-VIOLET’s Tragedy in Spades runs April 1 and 2 and 7–9 at University Settlement’s Speyer Hall. For tickets and further information, visit UniversitySettlement.org.
ROGER BABB was for many years a playwright / director with Otrabanda Company. He worked as an actor for Joseph Chaikin, Jim Neu, Julie Taymor, Merideth Monk and many others. He taught at Princeton, NYU, Swarthmore and most recently at Mt Holyoke College.