Shoes slip off. The floor is swept. Now it’s time to move.
Six actors intuit the need for a circle. They form one. The director joins, wearing black socks against the gray marley floor. This modest room within a Williamsburg, Brooklyn library has been repurposed for rehearsal space.
Quietly, one actor speaks: There’s damage to her foot, FYI. Another actor has a neck problem. Poor knee. Bad back. Someone else is just plain tired—the weather’s a bummer today.
Each subsequent voice chimes in with greater confidence about their restrictive body parts. “You all are clearly aware of what might cause you trouble or pain. I’m always open to modification,” choreographer lisa nevada assures, easing the group into a warm-up. “The idea is to work with your body. Not against it.”
To my ears, nevada’s wisdom gets at the heart of Buran Theatre’s latest show. Resist feeling superior to your body. Embrace its mess.
Running May 13 – 27 at A.R.T./New York Theatres’ Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre, the Off-Broadway premiere of Adam Burnett’s T.B. Sheets is one of several events celebrating Buran Theatre’s tenth anniversary. Devoted to vibrant, puzzling, pleasurable stagings of his plays, artistic director and resident playwright Adam Burnett often works in close collaboration with performer Jud Knudsen, designer Nick Kostner, and other founding members. That said, Buran productions pop up wherever kindred collaborators are found: New York, New Mexico, Kansas, California, Lithuania, and perhaps—eventually—on some other planet. Considering Buran’s splendid ambition, I wouldn’t be surprised.
With the exception of this year’s residency at A.R.T./New York Theatres, Buran has survived a decade of prolific, cross-country theater-making with very little institutional support. It earned its longevity over the years through developing hearty immunities to debt and doubt by engaging mainly with peers, not higher-ups, as core funders and collaborators. From Burnett and Knudsen’s Funding Your Own Imagination case study published on the company website, Buran reveals that it never expects “a monetary ‘return on investment,’ but rather a social return on investment: the sacred, undeniable transcendence that occurs in the presence of an invited audience.”
Fittingly, Buran’s latest production examines the radical caretaking that occurs within a community when, as Adam says, “Care is horizontal.” In T.B. Sheets, a tuberculosis ward embraces a foreign invalid named the One Who Comes from the City to Heal, played by Moira Stone. The ensemble-style care is horizontal, unconditional, and accepting of the One’s decaying state—despite the One’s denial of her body’s own needs. Both Buran’s overall artistic practice and its latest production share anti-capitalist ambition, the humanization of strangers into neighbors, and an unabashed impulse to ask for—and reciprocate—help.
A Buran show is hard to diagnose, hard to “know thoroughly,” in the verb’s original sense. Buran’s signature style might be its bold indeterminacy. Maximalists at heart, the playwright and his core collaborators often desire multiple creative options at once, embodied contradictions. Buran operates on the aesthetics of fever—the hot and the cold, the pleasure and the pain, the sweaty, shivery state of unachievable stillness.
Written and directed by Burnett, T.B. Sheets not only maintains the company’s feverish approach to scripts; fever is theme.
A peculiar community of terminally ill Ones pass the time—however it warps—at a far-away sanatorium. After the sickly Ones transform into saints, they leave earth on a spaceship, exiting their physical bodies on a vertical vector. In the world of T.B. Sheets, the fragile and febrile receive radical acceptance. Contagion is kinship, a taking-on of an Other’s condition. Is contagion the body’s attempt at empathy? The coughing Ones kiss to find out.
“Characters are always in a state of transition,” prefaces a playwright’s note to T.B. Sheets. As the characters are called after their state of being, name changes throughout the script reveal transformations. The One Who Is Dying, played by Maybe Burke, becomes The One Who Has Passed. The lack of gendered pronouns is another striking aspect of this show. In this surreal sanatorium, the absence of gender means less of a chance of hierarchy, less preferencing of bodies. Addressing each other as “they,” the invalids acknowledge a multitude of selves within one body.
The sickness becomes the great equalizer of all identities, and the enigmatic key to the sickos’ sainthood. Per the doctor’s orders: “Disrobe. Put this sheet on. You’ll feel more at home.” This home is a glimpse of communitarian living, where one’s productivity (as Doctor, Healer, Mother) functions for community benefit (horizontal), not personal advancement (vertical).
A prolific ten years in, it’s thrilling to see how Buran finds increasingly deeper ways to support their creative community. For one, playwright Cara Scarmack is now the inaugural CartHorse Fellow. The CartHorse Fellowship (as in “cart before the horse”) resists a traditional top-down mentorship model; it’s a horizontal move of indie theater scene solidarity. With two years of flexible development support, it places the emerging artist in the driver’s seat of their own exploratory fellowship. After a decade of focus on the artistic director’s original productions, Buran has stressed the importance of broadening its circle of support.
I joined this circle four summers ago. Burnett and I got lemonade on a hot day near the Bowery and bonded over our Midwesterness (he’s from Kansas, I’m from Missouri). He suggested that I join Buran’s Nightmares, a trippy show about the sublime, where the cast ran around in turtlenecks and underwear on a real grass turf.
“How should I pronounce Buran, by the way—is it Bu-RAHN or Bu-RAN?” I asked Burnett at that first meeting. “However you’d like!” he answered. These interchangeable options seem very on-brand. I still pronounce the name of company both ways.
The rehearsal I visited in Williamsburg didn’t begin with the warm-up. It began with the group’s second read-through of the ambitious script. At the play’s revelatory twilight, a musical procession honors a One’s departure. All the invalids sing:
My flesh is a halo
My halo a light
The light is the fever
And the fever is fine.
When the read-through ends, the room is still. Soon Burnett will lead a long discussion as the group susses out the slippery world of the play. But for now, silence.
Out the window, a beautiful thing: a flock of small birds rushes upward in flight. Everyone else misses it. Heads remain bowed over scripts, trying to diagnose.
Buran Theatre’s production of Adam R. Burnett’s T.B. Sheets, co-directed by lisa nevada and Adam R. Burnett, runs May 13 – 27, 2017 at A.R.T./New York Theatres’ Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre (502 West 53rd Street, New York).
SARAH MATUSEK writes and performs. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahMatusek.