Following the Cinematic-Theatric
by Connie Congdon
with Sara Farrington
The first time I heard Sara Farrington’s voice, I was standing outside in the grass at The Great Plains Theatre Conference in an impromptu performance space, set up to stage her play Mickey & Sage.
Stirred by that ineffable something that interesting playwrights bring to their work, I asked, “Who wrote this?”
“I did,” came a quiet voice farther off.
I turned to see a small woman, not really hiding, but trying to be invisible as she watched her play.
“Wow,” I said.
She mouthed, “Thank you.”
Then we both returned our attention to this strange, funny, completely truthful play about a couple of kids who grow up, in real time, right before our eyes. It’s a tough play and has that “ineffable something” that marks the work of all good playwrights: voice. So I heard the voice of playwright Sara Farrington, and knew that she was another writer who could join this group of, as Mac Wellman calls us, “damnable scribblers.”
And now I’ve incanted the name of Wellman, her mentor, and wrangler of playwrights at Brooklyn College, where his ever-present Yes-ness (a term coined by Farrington when speaking about Mac) gives writers a place where they can write “bad” plays and please themselves—the most difficult state for playwrights to achieve—so they can emerge as artists who write for the theater, rather than as “providers of text,” those quiet schlubs who generate text so that the “real” artists can explore and explode this text. (Check out Sibyl Kempson’s work to see pieces written for the theater that are already exploded. Sibyl also graduated from Mac’s program at Brooklyn College.)
Sara said to me in a recent email, “I have always loathed the term text when talking about the theater. Text is what you find on the back of a cereal box—like nutritional facts.” (One of the perks of writing about writers is that you get to have them as correspondents.)
Sara writes relentlessly to “please herself.” Since Mickey & Sage, she has continued to write plays that spill all over the space they inhabit. And they do “inhabit.” Working with a real-life space and that essential element, actors, Sara’s recent play Leisure, Labor, Lust was inspired by Edith Wharton’s own tormented love life, which included a (somewhat imagined) closeted gay husband and a (definitely not imagined) bisexual lover. She developed and presented it in the Wharton mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts, called “The Mount”—a huge house and grounds which was also home to Tina Packer’s Shakespeare & Company for decades.
“The Mount gave us permission to use the space, furnishings, even objects, we needed,” Sara told me, of the organization which now runs the sight.
“Is it… haunted?” I asked gently, having heard all sorts of rumors about terrifying experiences of some people staying in the house.
“There is something in the walls, an energizing aura,” Sara answered, “obviously from Edith, I think, but maybe also from all the actors who have come through there over the years.”
Of course, Sara would respond to that actor energy. She started in the theater as an actor—training and then managing to have a short acting career before turning entirely to her writing. The biggest acting gig was as a company member with the former Jean Cocteau Rep for several seasons.
“I was really young, I rarely had a major role. I would sit in the dressing room, waiting for my cue and listening to these classic plays repeated over the monitor. I must have heard Ibsen’s The Wild Duck over a hundred times. And Pygmalion, The ThreePenny Opera, Mother Courage, Uncle Vanya—I was doing other things while listening for my cue, but all those lines, the delineation of characters, the working of the plot, those tropes? I internalized all of that,” Sara told me. “So, no, my work may not sound like Ibsen or Brecht, but I feel a confidence when I’m writing, the way an apprentice must feel after hours/days watching his ‘master’ make a shoe or hammer out a door hinge. Or it’s like doing a reproduction of a classic painting. I feel as if I inherently know what I’m doing. Now, that doesn’t mean I like everything I write—God, no, definitely not—but I trust the process. That’s the ‘knowing’ I’m talking about.”
Leisure, Labor, Lust is a trilogy, directed by Marina McClure. The play has been presented at The Mount twice, most recently this past January. That production was site-specific: presented in Mrs. Wharton’s own boudoir and bedroom. Sara has called what she did at The Mount “cinematic-theatric,” a technique she and Ms. McClure have been playing with in developing this piece. “We use the theatrical equivalent of jump cuts, flashbacks, close-ups, dissolves, crossfades, etc.; using only the actor’s physicality, style, tone, and language to get that across, no tech at all.”
This way of working may sound like “devised” work, but it is not. Sara made a point to tell me that—she will always have a complete draft of the play before rehearsals begin, and then continue to rigorously edit in rehearsals with help from her team. “But the playwright is essential” said Sara, “in these pieces I’m working on.”
This necessity became really obvious as she and her husband Reid Farrington began working on their current production, CasablancaBox, opening at HERE Arts Center, April 5 – 29. Reid’s background is as a new media artist, theater director, and designer—perhaps a way to describe his career is as an explorer of contemporary ways of storytelling. If he has a signature style, it is in the blending of live performance with projected images in ways I’m having trouble finding the words for: something that is beyond words, and yet of them. “Words are just one of the languages of the theater,” says Connie (to no one since she is typing this up by herself after interviewing Sara Farrington).
Back to Reid and Sara: CasablancaBox is their first collaboration from the ground up, and it has been a dramatic one. Varying versions of Sara’s script sometimes came out of frustration, doubt, stress, and fear. Aside from developing, writing, and workshopping this enormous piece together, they had their second child and moved to New Jersey. But they both found themselves asking a basic question about the project: “What are we doing? Casablanca is one of the most beloved films of all time. And this cannot be academic or an experiment for experiment’s sake or a reduction of any kind.”
And then Robert Altman arrived. Being dead, he was not corporeal, but, as with all artists, he was alive in his work. “Altman’s roving camera technique cracked it open for me,” said Sara. “We never use an actual camera in the piece, but the idea is the same. We follow storylines and characters in what seem like random choices, but never are because it’s all on this one arc of action—the making of this classic film.”
So, the structure arrived: “The script of CasablancaBox is a million little branches shooting off the spine of this movie,” said Sara. “We can be at an assignation with Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, a heartbreaking and scandalous happening, or a quick peek into Peter Lorre’s battle with morphine, or an extra’s harrowing tale of escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna—but we never stray too far from Casablanca itself. Everything has to relate to and return to the making of the movie. That was my rule. We jump right back into the making of the film.” For Sara, this theatricalized roving camera opened up a whole new way to include many stories, but not feel obligated to resolve them. “It also became a way to elevate this piece into the current world—the refugee crisis, the world at war then and now, the uncertainty and fear in the country, then and now. There are so many parallels. This was our direct, personal connection to the film, and now we had a way to explore that, tell as many stories as we could.”
Sara thinks over the process that has brought her here, poised to finally present this work in its most complete way: “I have been writing this play for over three years, and though it is never finished, I just press on, remembering Mac’s Yes-ness, letting the piece be whatever it is going to be. There’s a certain letting go that is a relief, finally. I think playwriting is extension of acting and, as any actor knows, you need to let go to achieve any truth in what you do on stage.”
“And about truth,” I said, “I have always hated that so many movies end with romantic love succeeding, as if that is the only ending that has value. So when I saw Casablanca, that first time, and romantic love doesn’t ‘win,’ and Bogie says—”
Sara supplied the line: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
“Is that in CasablancaBox?”
“Of course,” said Sara. “In all we have done in making this piece, we have never lost our connection and love for this film.”
CasablancaBox runs April 5 – 29 at HERE Arts Center (145 6th Avenue, New York).