THE DEFIANT POLITICS OF COLLECTIVITY: The Assembly’s SEAGULLMACHINEby Adam R. Burnett
SORIN: Yes, but… we do need a theatre, don’t we?
KONSTANTIN: Yes! But we need it under a new form.
And if we can’t have that… honestly, we shouldn’t have it at all
In July of 2011 I attended a production called HOME/SICK at the old Collapsable Hole in Williamsburg. It was sweltering hot, the humidity was unbearable, and in the hallucinogenic haze of heat, I was enraptured by the lucid storytelling and clean, but dangerous, theatricality of The Assembly. I was hooked and have continued to follow their work over the years.
What has always struck me about The Assembly is that, despite their shifting lead artists, the core remains consistent, as does the sound structural components of their narratives. Rarely have I seen group collaboratively built work come across with such singular cohesiveness. The stamp they make upon storytelling isn’t showy or fantastical—it is solid, confident, and intelligent.
The Assembly’s projects marinate. Typically, each production will take two years to generate, create, produce, and present. Their newest project, SEAGULLMACHINE, running at LaMaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre from April 14 – 29, has taken four to eight years—depending on who in the collective you ask.
This production comes on the heels of The Assembly’s tenth year anniversary. I was able to jump on the phone with the three lead artists of this production: Jess Chayes (co-director/generator), Nick Benacerraf (co-director/designer/generator), and Stephen Aubrey (dramaturg/generator). Indicative of The Assembly’s multifarious capabilities, Jess was calling in from South Carolina where she was directing a production of Annie Baker’s The Flick, Stephen from the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accompanied by a chorus of wailing police sirens, and Nick from his apartment in Brooklyn.
The free-wheeling discussion traversed many territories, below are a few of the more pertinent and compelling moments of our exchange.
EVERYONE GETS TO PLAY HAMLET
Adam R. Burnett (Rail): I’m thinking about The Assembly’s past works—in particular, HOME/SICK and That Poor Dream—and the use of multiple sources, whether they be events, documents, interviews or, in the case of That Poor Dream, adaptation and personal narratives. For SEAGULLMACHINE you’re using The Seagull [by Anton Chekhov] and Hamletmachine [by Heiner Müller] as source documents; can you talk a bit about what techniques you’re employing to translate or adapt these texts?
Nick Benacerraf: Both of these texts—The Seagull and Hamletmachine—are interpretations of the Hamlet story, which is the troubled, artist-intellectual in conflict with society. And specifically, both of these texts are about the role of theater in society, and from very different perspectives. The Seagull has a lot to do with how we fight about our chosen aesthetic at the detriment of the overall form, and that distracts from what is really important. While Hamletmachine is a reckoning with the failures of theater and idealism, and of intention to bring about world change. Together they are both optimistic and pessimistic, they are like weird mirror images of each other, and frankly, they change each other so much by putting them in conversation with each other.
Jess Chayes: Delving more into the Hamlet story and the iconic relationships within it, revealed a question of “protagonist” and how people of different genders are cast in narrative in our western canon. We have this incredibly diverse cast of thirteen, [...] and working on this show has made us question the idea of the protagonist who is usually cast as a white male. So, we’ve been exploring how each member of the ensemble can be the protagonist, and how anyone can play Hamlet, and how important that feels to us now: to put everyone in the Hamlet position.
Stephen Aubrey: Bringing them together there is also the sense of scale and intimacy. I mean, The Seagull is such a show about people’s everyday lives and how beautiful and tragic and full of meaning these small individual lives are. And Hamletmachine is this huge thing, that barely has characters, that is about all these ideas. I love how both these pieces are about how much the personal and political—the big and the small—all matter. It’s really neat to have something so abstract, and then something so personal, talking to each other about the micro and the macro.
Benacerraf: I would also add that the subtext of a lot of these struggles and these stagings of the struggles is us: our community, our cast, our creative time. It really is refracted through a contemporary lens and shows how we use these old stories as crutches, and we dive into them and make them real as a way of infusing what we are dealing with right now, and by the end of our show everyone does play Hamlet. We try to engage in other kinds of ways of being together that are drawn from our personal aspiration and our fears and how history repeats itself. So I would say that the ensemble is another source.
Chayes: You might even play Hamlet
Rail: I? I play Hamlet?
Chayes: Yeah, you.
Rail: Oh, wow. When I come see the show I’m gonna play, or have the opportunity, to play Hamlet?
Benacerraf/Chayes: You may.
Rail: That’s thrilling. And terrifying.
A PLACE FOR MESS
Rail: I know each Assembly production is generated by different lead artists—like YOU WILL LOOK FORWARD TO THIS was technically written by Kate Benson and Emily Perkins. But a hallmark of y’all’s work is that it always feels, despite the multiple voices, like a singular, cohesive voice behind the text. Unlike a lot of, what you would call, group-generative or collaborative or devised or whatever you want to call it, where I’m constantly feeling the multiple voices; but The Assembly is able to present a fully realized text that is singular. So, I’m curious, since with this piece you’re dealing with translation, adaptation, and generation—how does this work? How does this process work for the three of you with this piece?
Chayes: In the way that we often write collaboratively, or write based on assignments, we did put together a new translation of The Seagull collaboratively with all the members of the company. We took a literal translation and tried to rewrite in the style of the ensemble, in 2018, rehearsing a production of The Seagull backstage. So, we tried to create a more modern and accessible translation, and something that felt like it was coming from the voice of the artists and characters. We had each actor translate their lines and we’ll continue that journey while we’re in rehearsals. We’re trying to give the ensemble ownership over the words that they speak. Expressing something as the ensemble is what we aim to do.
Benacerraf: In a way that it’s bigger than the sum of its parts. The particular and peculiar challenge here of working on Hamletmachine is making sense of it. Müller wrote it as an attempt to destroy theater, and Bob Wilson and many of the folks who’ve staged it went to a post-theatrical vocabulary in rendering it for the stage. But we’re very excited that this play really can destroy The Seagull—it’s a prism through which we can refract all these Seagull perspectives in a new way. So, the text process has largely been led by Stephen with the intent to find the original meaning and what our production can do to make sense of it.
Aubrey: Yeah, as a dramaturg I am stubbornly insistent that Hamletmachine has to make sense. I recognize a lot of it is nonsense, but even nonsense has a logic.
Chayes: I feel like if the world is a mess, then there’s gotta be a place for mess, you know?
Aubrey: Exactly, yeah.
Chayes: There’s gotta be a place for confusion to have a real voice, as opposed to someone just saying, “I’m confused.”
Chayes: I dunno.
Chayes: Many of the ways we are making sense and forging a meaning, within the rapidly shifting society of 2018, are being made through design and staging. We’re finding a way for these questions in Hamletmachine to resonate deeply, you know, with what is the role of theater in the world gone mad? Who is the protagonist; who gets to be the protagonist? What are the roles we cast each other in? It’s a pairing of Hamletmachine text with design and context that makes the play leap off the page as a piece of live theater. If we had tried to figure out, “What is a traditional production of Hamletmachine?” we might still be sitting around four years later.
Aubrey: There’d be a lot of glitter, that’s all I really know.
Rail: Maybe there’s an uber meta version where it’s just two hours of glitter.
Well, that’s my offering.
Chayes: Thank you.
PROBLEMATIZING THE PLAY
Rail: When talking about all these different roles, the roles you play—director, designer, dramaturg—the roles we all play; how you all identify in the generative roles, as well as the identification of your cast. I’m curious to hear y’all talk about identification—in regard to the play, and individually.
Benacerraf: This is a meaningful production for me because this is the first lead role I’ve taken, where the idea was in my head, and I was given this space as a designer. That’s rare for a designer. There’s not a lot of encouragement for designers in this way. I hope I can encourage other designers, who identify as leaders and facilitators, to find their own customized structures to make original work. For me it’s meant teaming up, in a radical way, with Jess—where we talk about every single decision, all the time.
Chayes: For many hours.
Benacerraf: You’ve no idea how many video calls we’ve had this week!
Chayes: Oh yeah.
Benacerraf: It has also meant embracing and acknowledging my limitations. The collaborations [within the company] have helped me grow politically and personally.
Chayes: We’ve gotten really good at listening to each other and how best to support each other.
Benacerraf: The act of doing this, of finding a collective voice, is a political act. It is a difficult but defiantly optimistic thing to do in this age in American history, where we are so isolated and dispersed. All incentives go towards efficiency rather than integration.
Chayes: When you first reach Hamletmachine you encounter a lot of machismo and violence against women, and misogyny within the text. Part of excavating that text in this project has been to try and complicate or problematize some of the perspectives behind Hamletmachine. That’s been an exciting journey for me, trying to identify ways that we can change the narrative, how this play written in the 1970s has strong existing narratives about the treatment of women and how we can use this production to both acknowledge the prevalence of those narratives but also to problematize them, skew them, for the better, forever.
Aubrey: I just want to say that, we have worked to be a group of individuals who can collaborate and make space for each other. It comes down to trust. And talking about identity specifically—we’re saying anyone can play Hamlet, and that any kind of artist can be a director—these are the kind of gestures we’re interested in making in our work and in our process.
Benacerraf: As Jess likes to say, this is the only show of SEAGULLMACHINE that this group of people can make. That’s something radically contingent upon the people in our collaborative team.
SEAGULLMACHINE, created by The Assembly (conceived by Nick Benacerraf, co-directed by Jess Chayes and Nick Benacerraf, and text by Anton Chekhov, Heiner Müller and The Assembly), runs at LaMaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 E 4th Street, Manhattan) from April 14-29. For further info and tickets ($30), visit http://lamama.org/seagull_machine/. For more about The Assembly, visit https://www.assemblytheater.org/.
ContributorAdam R. Burnett
ADAM R. BURNETT is a playwright. In April, he will facilitate The Ecstatic Unknown, an environmental workshop for writers and performance-makers. adamrburnett.com