Theater In Dialogue
Wholehearted: Suli Holum and Deborah Stein
Suli Holum and Deborah Stein are co-creators of the solo play The Wholehearted, which begins its run at Abrons Arts Center Playhouse March 15th.
Our talk jabs and arcs. That was a cheap shot. By that I mean The Wholehearted is a solo performance of boxing, with songs, so writing about it in boxing terms is cheap. When we speak about the project and our work in general, the language we use is playful, intricate, dancing forward and back—revenge, gender and marketing, love and abuse, energy and collaboration, and the uncomfortable value of time. We are in the ring together. Another cheap shot. The three of us have known each other a while, and Suli and Deborah were beginning to work on The Wholehearted at the Orchard Project (Saratoga Springs, NY) a few years ago, when I was in residence there, too, so it is especially exciting to talk about the show now, on the brink of its NYC debut.
Suli Holum: Deborah’s and my partnership is like, “I know you so well. How can I invite you to do something you don’t know how to do, or that I don’t know you know how to do, or that we don’t know how to do together.” We’re going way out of our comfort zone as a practice.
Aaron Landsman (Rail): What’s that like?
Holum: Carl at ArtsEmerson [Boston] called our way of working “creative sprints,” which is getting together for intense periods of time to work on a single aspect of the work—to explore how video works, or what it means to be vulnerable—so we’re able to break down the work into component parts. It’s a slow accumulation. We started at South Oxford Space [Fort Greene, Brooklyn], and we bought this boxing manual, and Deborah was my trainer, and she was yelling at me.
And because of this way of working you have this arc of the project, and your lives are happening during that arc, and the project ended up being a lot about trauma. When we started working it was trauma we hadn’t experienced yet in our lives, and then as we worked on the piece we started experiencing that trauma. It’s a huge relief to me to be at this part of the process, where we’re not making the thing, and we’re not going through the trauma.
Rail: What is it like to jump into this thick piece, where you lived through a series of traumas while making it? What is the act of performing it now?
Holum: One of the things we discovered while making the work is me singing. The act of songwriting was always cathartic in the process. Deborah was doing all this incredible writing, and I was doing all this intense training, and then we’d get together with our composer James [Sugg] and write a song, which was cathartic. Like genuine catharsis, not like I’m performing catharsis.
Deborah Stein: When we started this project we wanted to do the opposite of our last project Chimera [Under the Radar Festival, 2012] in every way. The approach for that was very intellectual, so working on this project has been instinctual and anti-intellectual. There are songs in this play, and this thing we kept coming back to, of, “We need another song,” was rhythmic and dramaturgical. We didn’t know what the song would be about or necessarily even where it would go. We just knew we needed it. It was also amazing to then infuse the process with the work of Heather Christian [one of the project’s most recent collaborators] who really goes from the gut, especially that late in the process.
Rail: I’m gonna push back on only one thing—I’m really interested in this because I think I subscribe to it sometimes—which is that what you’re calling anti-intellectual is maybe just a different manifestation of smarts. I wouldn’t discount that as absolutely acute intellectual progress.
Stein: I think that’s part of what the play ends up being about. When I was the boxing coach—
Rail: Is there video of that?
Stein: No, thank god! One of the things I have always loved and been in awe of with Suli is her ability to improvise text, to compose on her feet. And all of a sudden, we were in the basement, and she wasn’t talking. And it was like, “Oh, this is a character who is in her body. She doesn’t have words the way we do.” The play is about how words and language fail her, and behavior is how she expresses herself. The play asks the audience to consider how that behavior is a form of communication and catharsis, and not judge her right away.
Holum: It’s not that we think this play is dumb. It’s researched and thorough. What I learned in my boxing training is that it is completely counterintuitive to lean in when someone is trying to hurt you. That is something you have to train yourself to do, to override your intellect in order to stay in it. And then once you’re committed to that, you have to be super smart. Your synapses are firing superfast. But you have to get over that initial thing of “I’m going to get hurt and I should leave.” And that sort of summarizes this process.
Rail: On a craft level, were there moments where you were like, “That’s a great section, but we have to take it out; or, that’s great music but it tilts the meaning too firmly in one direction.” Do you have conversations like that?
[A slight silence]
Holum: Deborah, I think you should talk about that.
Holum: Because you have done such a good job of calibrating.
Stein: There’s stuff in this that we love, that we never found a place for, and there’s stuff that we cut then found a place for three years later. Like, suddenly the car ride where we go see the deer is back. Ghosting. You’re chipping away at a block, and then things start to reveal themselves.
This process, I came with too much—I’d come in with fifty pages. Suli would lay it all out on the floor, pick two pages, and make it work with some other thing, something a designer brought, and somehow make a proposal for how they’d work together.
Rail: There’s a very rich collaboration at play when you can go, “Here’s way too much, you pick.” A lot of plays are developed in a much shorter time frame. I think a lot of what you’re describing has to do with the long process that theater makers like us have committed to. You’re evoking what that makes, that casting about, even if it’s not comfortable.
Stein: It was not comfortable! I brought in fifty pages that I thought were terrible, and thank god Suli could find two pages that were usable.
Rail: How have you seen the energy of the process carry into the performed act for an audience? What do you have to let go of when you step into performance mode?
Holum: In its DNA, this piece is functionally a dare. There’s super-difficult choreography, with super-precise tech linked to it; there’s the song Heather Christian wrote that hits the note above the top of my range and the note below my range. And then there’s playing three different characters in an hour, where I’m seeing the audience the entire time. There’s an element of improvisation, so there’s no way for me to lock this thing in and push play. Every time an audience comes I’m starting a new conversation with them, which then I want to continue after they clap. But I am asking, every time I perform it, the questions that are central and that are unanswerable. Like “Is non-violence a privilege?”
Rail: That’s a good question.
Holum: Right? It’s a good question!
Rail: I think about the ‘Act IV’ of something I make as the conversation I want you to have on your way home. I sometimes try to facilitate that in the room where the show happens, and often it doesn’t work. Are you making that happen in some other form than a talkback? Or is it like, “Here you guys go, have that talk out in the world”?
Holum: It’s been interesting to navigate that with different presenters. Carl, at ArtsEmerson, felt the need to have that conversation, and just gathered the audience in the lobby every night and said, “Let’s talk.” In San Francisco, we experimented with having a panel related to themes in the show. I’d come out and do a lot of listening. Audiences at regional theaters are trained with new work that the talkback is where they get to talk about how the play should change.
Holum: At one space that happened, and I was like, “Wait. I appreciate your suggestion, but I want to start with the understanding that I think the play is good enough. I think it’s done its job enough that we can have a conversation.” Then it’s a conversation we’re all having together about things like female aggression, sex, and violence. People are talking about those things more now. The energy around the piece and perception of it shifted this fall.
Rail: I thought that might be too obvious a question to ask.
Stein: No. It’s so wild because for years we’ve been trying to get this out in the world, and now presenters are like, “Yes, this is the conversation we want to be having.” For years, though, it was female and gender non-conforming presenters—Diane Rodriguez, Lisa Steindler, Carl have been the main champions of the piece. I think Craig Peterson at Abrons is the only [cis] man.
Holum: I did realize that if you make something that actively seeks to make people feel uncomfortable you shouldn’t be surprised that people have a hard time programming it. I’ve also had people come up and be like, “I don’t believe in boxing. I’m not going to program something about boxing because I don’t believe in boxing—”
Rail: Talk about non-violence as a privilege.
Holum: —Or there’s the tricky thing of, “Oh we’ll do this thing because it’s medicine. Like, social justice medicine.” We’ve poured our hearts into making something that is actually uncomfortably enjoyable. You can’t make something that has no pleasure in it.
Stein: It’s been a really interesting negotiation with marketing departments. Because they want to sell it as something “necessary” and “important.” It’s not a moralizing show. I really want our Act IV to be questions. We want to leave you in the questions. One of the ways the play functions is that it’s a revenge story.
At Abrons there is an opportunity to engage young people. The play is about a seventeen-year-old, and it’s hard to get those people in the theater. I want their help to go to them and say, “What do you think?” Abrons is the perfect place to do that, because they do both. [Henry Street Settlement, of which Abrons is part, has a vibrant youth and community outreach component.]
Rail: Maggie Nelson’s book of essays The Art of Cruelty is on my mind. She takes to task the idea of confrontation—she’s looking at people like Sylvia Plath and Francis Bacon, and even snapshots from Abu Ghraib—this mindset of, like, if I show you how bad things are it will force you to change your mind. And it sounds like what you are saying is that on some level revenge is valid, and you’re not trying to sugarcoat it.
Stein: Which is where the gendered thing comes up again. Because Hamlet is a revenge play, but nobody sits around and goes, “Does Hamlet have the right to kill Claudius?” That’s not the question we ask about Hamlet. It is the question people want to ask about this play.
Holum: A big thing for me is: if you don’t have the power to change the thing, is it really consensual? From my teachers telling my 2nd grade girl that this boy is harassing her day in and day out because he likes her, to Uma Thurman making space around these guys who we are told can’t control themselves because they have all these feelings for her. And then we learned very early in this process that the definition of love is subjective. It’s based on what you are taught love is. If love is violence, then that is love. And the flipside of that is that’s not love if it doesn’t hurt.
Stein: That’s part of where country music comes from in the play.
Holum: We’re looking at murder ballads, as a genre.
Rail: What did you find? I’m so fascinated by murder ballads.
Holum: There’s this beautiful recording of Dolly Parton singing, I asked my love, to take a walk… and she’s singing it from the man’s point of view [who is about to murder his betrothed]. And she’s radically vulnerable. It’s pointedly uncomfortable.
Stein: We have to wrestle with the fact that female victimhood is celebrated by everybody. When we’re growing up, reading books and watching movies, we’re learning how to be in the world. I have a very clear memory of going to the library when I was thirteen and knowing somehow that On the Road was the thing to read, and then I couldn’t get through it. Like, “Who is this man?” And then going through my twenties and thirties trying to find myself in the books and songs that were supposed to be about me. I made this “women’s empowerment” mix for a friend of mine once, and in most of the songs the women were the objects.
When we were trying to find a narrative for The Wholehearted, the closest we came was Thelma & Louise, but at the end of that they die. They can’t be in the world. When Suli and I started working together it was about wanting to put onstage stories we weren’t seeing.
Holum: And also running the room.
Stein: Yup. I’m just writing the stories I want to spend time with.
Holum: We want to push at why it works, and then make people think about why.
Stein: It was rewarding to be interviewed by Theaterforum.
Holum: It let our work be in conversation with a body of work about form. And it is rare to have earnest content and experiments of form to go hand-in-hand.
Rail: I’m going to frame the statement “It’s rare for earnest content and experiments of form to go hand-in-hand.” You should make a plaque.