Begetting Charleses: Carl Holderby Ying Ying Li
Playwright Carl Holder was running late to the first reading of his own play.
Some friends had generously offered to host it at their apartment, and had even cooked dinner for everyone.
“I was late. They’d already made dinner. Everyone had already eaten dinner,” Holder recalls sheepishly. “I sent a text, like, ‘I’lllllll be there!’”
He takes a bite of his cruller. (We are at Donut Pub, which is exactly the kind of establishment its name suggests, on West 14th Street.)
“It was just awful, so rude. Everyone’s there, ready for a reading, and the guy with the play didn’t show up. It’s monstrous, it’s a horrible way to behave.”
Though it was just an informal reading to help him work through some knots, Holder had taken the whole day off of work to “look at it all day long, right up to the last minute.”
It was at that last minute that he came upon a startling realization.
The play, Charleses (opening at The Brick Theater on April 17 and co-produced by The Tank and Glass Bandits), is ostensibly about three generations of men who struggle to communicate as their family line grows and ages. But about halfway through, the piece cracks open like a piñata at a rowdy kids’ birthday party, shifting into something bigger, badder, and better.
“The second half, where it starts getting weird, wasn’t as complete as the first. I just knew that if they read that last part, it would turn into a notes session where everyone tries to talk me out of what I really wanted to do. So I sort of chickened out,” Holder explains, elaborating on his pre-reading epiphany. Instead, they read the first half, then the playwright talked them through the rest, “in all its weirdness.”
Holder’s instincts proved to be correct. “ALL the feedback was like, ‘I think you should just tell the story between the father and sons.’ So I knew a challenge I was going to have was earning that kind of leap and doing it in a way so that people wouldn’t question it. It has to go far enough away from the fathers and sons to make you realize that’s never where we were supposed to stop in the first place.”
Armed with the feedback from the first reading, Holder rewrote the rest of the play, making it even bolder than before. He realized that the second, more abstract, part of the play would have to “go to the moon and back in a way that really makes you let go of the first part.”
When I read the script before meeting with Holder, the shift towards abstraction caught me by surprise. Then its measured and poignant execution pulled me further into the play. It felt like when you know you’re dreaming, yet you still care a lot about what happens next. Or, as Holder puts it, “You keep being relieved of one confusion, which is then replaced with another.”
Every character in the play—and there are many—is a Charles: there is Charles, of course, and a Charles 2, as well as “a Charles ” and “a Charles 2.” There’s a Leather Charles, a Lonely Charles, and all sorts of other Charleses. Charles is a carpenter, and the scenes between him and his progeny Charleses have a Biblical quality to them. Holder nods emphatically when I ask if this was intentional. Raised Catholic, he is “haunted by religion. The Bible is an explanation of creation, and that’s what this play is. The play has a clowny way of begetting, like the Bible. This is where we come from, and this is where we can go.” I point out that there are no women in the play, save for one who walks wordlessly by a flock of Charleses. Holder nods knowingly. “We spend so much time [in rehearsal] talking about the women who are absent from the play. It’s almost like a weird equation kind of thing. What do you get when you do a creation story and force out one of the most important elements?”
In contrast to the all-male cast, the production is helmed by an all-female design team. “I’m so excited by this team. Our designers are insane,” Holder enthuses. This will be Holder’s first time working with director Meghan Finn (The Offending Gesture, Doomocracy). At the time of our interview, the team has just wrapped their first week of rehearsal. So far, the experience has proven to be a perfect partnership. “The play demands very particular things to happen on a dime very quickly. It’s a tricky thing, elusive. It’s not just words. That’s what’s so wonderful about collaborating with Meghan,” Holder tells me. He admires Finn’s desire to have conversations about the play, asking for everyone’s input. He likes that she is playful, unintimidated by the material, and “has faith of something there.”
For many storytellers, the election on November 8 and its ongoing aftermath rendered their prior works and works-in-progress irrelevant, almost gratuitously genteel, from a bygone era. New works were needed to speak to the current political climate. Although Charleses does not directly address government or politics, there’s something about it that feels distinctly post-election. But Holder tells me that he had written the play in the summer of 2015, after the dissolution of a six-year-relationship. I press him for an explanation as to why the play feels so current.
“I have a tendency to question everything within an inch of its life,” he offers. Holder, who grew up in Florida, posits that this passion for interrogation “is rooted in growing up queer, not fitting in and trying to figure out why. This questioning always begins from my outsider’s perspective.” He is intrigued by the challenge of understanding someone that seems so not understandable.
Similarly, following the election, “people are having trouble understanding each other,” Holder observes. Post-election America has many people asking questions from their own outsider’s perspective.
I think that’s like my thing to talk about, that’s kind of what I have to offer, I’m this kid from this family that’s very, very normal, boring normal, and yet I’m a freak. And so developing that kind of empathy and understanding has been my whole life. That’s sort of the skill I’ve developed. There are people that I love that I don’t understand what they’re thinking right now. And the play goes at that.
Yet a sense of positivity, of unforced good cheer and upbeat thinking, permeates the play. Holder is more circumspect: “I hope the play unpacks in a way that’s hopeful. The ultimate conclusion is continuous, and I hope it’s hopeful.”
He looks at the donut crumbs on his empty plate. “Optimism is hard for me.”
I point to the part where the dispirited grandson, Charles 3, asks his father and grandfather, “Does this ever make sense?”
In response, the grandfather says, “You make sense for yourself,” and the father says, “This was a first. You gave it your all.”
They both tell Charles 3 that he will keep trying until he gets it.
It’s hard to deny the “can do” attitude in these lines. But Holder reminds me that beneath the outward optimism, there is a “cruel irony” at work here. Namely, shortly after the grandfather says “you make sense for yourself,” he suffers a stroke and his speech no longer makes sense. He is a man with conviction who shouldn’t have any. “The play celebrates the human spirit at times, but it also asks you to question it,” Holder says.
I ask him whom he would like to see in the Charleses audience. He thinks for a moment, then says, simply, “men.” I ask him why. “Because I think they’d be surprised,” he says, his voice softening. Charleses “depicts a vulnerability in the male id that’s usually overlooked or just called stoicism.” Holder hopes to challenge the usual depictions of men “so differently and so bizarrely that it opens the conversation in a new way. I want to see men awakened by that conversation. I want them to say, ‘that was weird,’ and not know how to process it.”
More broadly, Charleses is Holder’s attempt give all audience members the experience of what he likes most about theater, “which is to be transported, lifted to what’s happening. Buoyant engagement. Forget where you come from and where you’re going next. I don’t want them to start unpacking it until it’s over.”
Charleses, by Carl Holder, directed by Meghan Finn, runs April 13 – 29 at The Brick (575 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn).
ContributorYing Ying Li