Kate Benson’s Obie Award-winning play, A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, was produced by New Georges in 2015 and directed by Lee Sunday Evans. Benson’s next play, Porto, which will run at The Bushwick Starr January 10 through February 4, will again be directed by Evans. Benson is also most likely performing in Porto. Not only is Benson’s writing dynamic and always brand new and surprising in content and form, but Benson is also a totally compelling, powerful, and badass downtown actor. I have these great memories of her rigorously gesticulating, in the way that only Benson can do, while also keeping tabs on confusing and complicated rhythms during a workshop of a play of mine a few years back at The Bushwick Starr. Her approach to getting inside of a character, getting inside of a musicality, and orienting herself within new forms and new writing, from the perspective of both a playwright and an actor, have fascinated me for years.
Ariel Stess (Rail): In the Great Lakes script, there are no stage directions, which I find to be amazing and unbelievable because the production (I saw it at Dixon Place in 2014 and at Stage 2 at City Center in 2015) was incredibly athletic. The physical vocabulary, which oftentimes reminded me of a figure-skating show or a twisted basketball game (because of the way that the floor was demarcated, reminiscent of a court for some athletic sport) was mesmerizing. And of course the commentary from the Announcers, who sat in the booth, led to unending hilarity. How did you arrive at having no stage directions in the dialogue while ending up with an incredibly physically dynamic production?
Kate Benson: When I was in workshop [in Mac Wellman’s Playwriting MFA Program at Brooklyn College], people were writing kind of cheeky and idiosyncratic stage directions a lot, and because somebody was reading those out loud, there had been a comment a bunch of times [to Kate], “We should hear the stage directions, they’re really funny, those are great.”
And [fellow playwright] Winter Miller said this very smart thing once, she said, “You know I find sometimes directors ignore my stage directions unless I find a way to put them in the dialogue. I feel like if I know something has to happen, I have to put it into the dialogue.” And so when I started writing Great Lakes, I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to put the action in the dialogue, that’s going to help me get out of this kind of pontificatory mode of writing.” [But] because playwriting is a demon inhabited thing, that [the strategy of putting the action into the dialogue] betrayed me immediately, so that I was writing things that I knew couldn’t be executed on stage, or would be painful to figure out how to do. So there are no stage directions in the play, and that was the intention from the beginning, to figure out: how do I put all the action in the dialogue? And then it became very clear that because I had done that in this particular way, none of the action in the dialogue should be represented literally.
Rail: I’m excited not only about how your plays transmute traditional play conventions, like “stage directions,” but also how that transmutation seems to evolve from one play to the next. How does physical action work in your new play Porto? The character of “bracket”, i.e. , who is “a lesser god or a person of many genders who owns a bar,” seems to do the job of announcing physical actions on stage. You say in the notes that the character, “ gives people stage commandments not stage directions”. How do these stage commandments function in Porto?
Benson: I think that the stage commandments [in Porto] are like religious commandments in the sense of, “You must do this in this way,” and the characters may or may not do that. There should be, I hope, rebellion against those [commandments]. And I think sometimes there is grudging acquiescence [on the part of the actors/characters]. We have to figure that out because there have to be a few places of agreement. But then I think there also has to be a whole lot of rebellion against what they [actors/characters] are being told to do; which is a way that I also understand really good actors and really good theater is, that there’s an acknowledgment of rules about the form, and then, “Break all of those rules please, truthfully.” So that’s what the stage commandments are about to me, the necessity for rules, laws, and the necessity for breaking them.
Rail: Do you see certain fixations moving through all of your work, or some kind of evolution of fixations, or an evolution of types of questions your work is asking—throughout the plays you’ve written?
Benson: I think I started writing because I was feeling a little frustration with parts I was being offered, at the time, and I got really excited about trying to write roles for women that I really wanted to play and that I felt like weren’t occurring in front of me. A central fixation from the beginning probably is putting women on stage in a way that they are central and urgent and stranger than, well, as strange as the women that I know are. You know? I am really trying, in a way, to dismantle stereotypes or central fixations about what women are supposed to do when they’re performing.
Rail: Can you tell me a little bit about that from your experience as an actor? What have you felt are patterns or recurring expectations regarding what women are supposed to do when they’re performing?
Benson: Yeah it’s a little hard to get at because, in the perversity of the world, since [starting to write], seven or eight years ago, I’ve gotten to play increasingly interesting and exciting parts. So my needs were met in my acting life in spite of myself. I didn’t get to stage the revolution in my own plays. It was happening all around me, and I got to participate in it. But I didn’t feel like there were women who were allowed to have intellectual lives, who were allowed to have explicitly professional lives unless they were going to be preoccupied with: their male counterparts, romantic struggles, and decisions of whether or not to have children. You know, it always felt like the uterus vagina area was always more central to the action than the brain and the spirit and the personality. And I was getting cast in angry, frumpy, or depressed parts a lot, women who had cats, and I think the women I know who have cats are outstanding humans, I just mean that kind of awful stereotype of, “I’m single therefore I’m lonely, depressed, miserable, can’t find a hairbrush, and have cats,” you know? And there were some glorious rants that I got to perform but they were usually like, “I’m mad at you because you’re a man,” sorts of things. Yes, so there’s some feminism that I’m trying to work out, how to be a woman in this world […] And you know, please let the women on stage have brains, and please let them think for themselves, please, always.
I’m [also] preoccupied with “why is a play a play and not a film,” or a TV show, what does it mean to have a live audience in front? How are they invited into the event, and how is the event inflicted on them?
Rail: When you moved into the role of playwriting from acting (though I know you continue to do both, and you will probably be appearing in Porto, which will be so rad), do you remember any sensations in terms of having your writing on stage versus acting?
Benson: The first feeling was, I hate this because there is nothing to do; like, I don’t wear makeup in life, but the act of putting on makeup to perform is very calming because you’re nervous, and then you have to calm yourself down to put on the eyeliner so that it doesn’t end up on your forehead, and I just really like that task-oriented nature of getting ready to be in a play. And with writing that’s just not there. You have to smile and say hello to people, and you just kind of want to go. There’s either a feeling of “jump out of this burning building” or “please let me just hide under the covers.” But then, the first couple of things I wrote, there were funny things in them, but there weren’t big laughers. And with Great Lakes, people were laughing with this delightful recognition, and that was like crack […] And it’s terrifying still, too, it’s definitely not simple to sit in the back and watch—but I find it much more compelling and much less terrifying than I used to, because there’s just a lot to learn about how what you’ve put down on the page has been realized and then is being received.
But I love being inside the thing and having someone tell me what clothes to wear, and getting to go through the experience myself in this very unselfconscious way. I think performing is like, “I’m totally in control of everything” and then you get out there, and you do the whole performance and maybe your skirt is tucked up in your nylons. There are all kinds of things you reveal when you are performing that you don’t know you’re revealing. That used to scare the shit out of me, and now I think it’s really beautiful, and I’ve accepted my clownish, ridiculous humanity.
Rail: Regarding rhythm in your work: I was looking at your line breaks in Porto, and I was excited. For me, each rehearsal process I go through with a script is like rediscovering in the moment how to even think about whatever rhythm I thought I had made and whatever is being represented on the page. What has your experience been moving through different projects in terms of how you approach talking about the rhythms in your scripts?
Benson: Casting is very particular in that zone because I need somebody who has a real good feel for how to do something. It is like microsurgery. I like the halting awkward nature of human speech. I don’t want things to sound too smooth. The line breaks are where I think they are when I’m writing them. I tried writing Porto all the way across the page, that was one of the formal experiments, where the text goes all the way across the page and you’re not dictating where people make awkward pauses all the time, and I got about a third of the way through and I was just frozen. I hated it and I couldn’t read it and I couldn’t think it. […] I don’t know what it’s about. I do know that it is about helping myself think about it, and hopefully the actors. I really like actors who can think on stage—that feels like a part of presence to me, more than even really letting go of their feelings. As much as I love that stuff, that’s not exactly the full release that I write. There’s something more bottled up about it, and so it’s really important to me that actors have to think the thoughts. [Line breaks] felt like originally a way that I might cause them to have to think the thoughts, think about what they’re saying, whether it’s true or not.
The other thing about the line endings is that sometimes acting is a tough business, and its difficulty infects actors, in the sort of method acting style of: you play an intention in order to get something. The action is played with the assumption of failure built in, which is a very cynical and pathetic, in a bad way, thing to be around. It gets whiney, and its gets like, “Well I know you’re not going to love me” as you’re trying to say to someone, “Love me.” No. And it’s partly a vocal tic that is dropping energy at the end of the line, which is something that was hammered into me at drama school never to do. And my father also had a very firm no-whining policy. So I feel like line breaks are a nice airstrip for actors to really launch themselves at what it is that they want, or what it is that they’re trying to do or say, instead of the sort of terrible humping, “nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh,” vocal stylings that might occur in more regular sentence-oriented texts. So I think in spite of my desire for openness and total collaboration, I really know how it [the text] sounds, and I’m pretty unyielding about that and will rewrite lines if I never hear them the way that I want to.
Rail: If the actor isn’t able to say them the way you want to hear them?
Benson: Yeah. Sometimes my instinct is like, “Well if you can’t say it that way, if that’s not how it’s arranging itself in your brain, I’m going to write a line that you can say another way,” because something about the collaboration between the two of us is not coming out the way I want, which is terrible! [laughter]
Rail: No, I do that too. Yeah.
Benson: Yeah, I love working on your work because I feel like you know exactly how it should sound. I don’t know if theater people are failed musicians or not. I know plenty of very talented musicians in the theater, but all plays are songs that we all agree to sing together, even if there’s a great big fight. That’s agreed upon. There’s so much consensus in it that is the kind that musicians need. Not the kind where you’re polite or you agree, but where you are going to do this thing together, whatever that means.
Porto, by Kate Benson, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, runs January 10 – February 4 at The Bushwick Starr (207 Starr Street, Brooklyn). For tickets and further information, visit thebushwickstarr.org.
ARI STESS is a Brooklyn-based playwright and director originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico.