Poking Holes in Performance Publishing: Brooklyn-based 3 Hole Pressby Erik Freer
While the term “three hole press” may conjure an image of a machine which cuts a row of apertures into hard materials or pieces of paper to be placed and bound, the new American independent publishing platform for performance works called 3 Hole Press,which started publishing as of 2017, aims to cut open the distribution structure of the contemporary literary world. 3 Hole Press reasserts the importance of performed works as literature, rendering scripts from emerging playwright-iconoclasts outside of and around the normative conventions of dramatic publishing. Based in Brooklyn, and led by playwright and author Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, 3 Hole Press reconsiders how scripts can look and feel, demanding the theater world to take stock of its own consumption, publication, and distribution of dramatic literature, while inviting a general readership in—a hybrid model which fosters a new community, both challenging and making accessible new works.
3 Hole’s publications amplify powerfully prescient new dramatic voices; from Will Arbery, playwright of Wheelchair, a script which explores the Williamsburg apartment of a Jewish man in his 60s who sufferers from severe spinal problems, and what becomes of him and his objects, to Aleshea Harris, playwright of Is God Is (an Afrofuturist-Spaghetti-Western-revenge epic of sorts about twin sisters, Racine and Anaia), who playfully explores how language can be used on the page à la concrete poetry, as seen in the example on the next page of this article. Alexander Borinsky’s Brief Chronicles, Books 6-8 takes what seems like segments of looped speech extracted from a broader narrative—discourse which feels as if it has been cycling ad nauseam; between same-sex lovers, mothers and sons, strangers on vacation, a marching band—and splices these segments together into a single column of racing speech, resulting in an experience that is both as reflective as it is deeply isolating, akin to dancing with a ghost. Daaimah Mubashshir’s The Immeasurable Want of Light brings together a selection of Mubashshir’s theatrical writings on blackness, and the black body, which the playwright sees as a “cauldron of text that can exist outside industry constraints.” Immeasurable Want is an intergalactic journey through identity politics; the turn of a page is a slipping through spacetime, a warping of gravity and a bending of perception.
Of course, more than ever, a polyphony of voices needs to be amplified, a diversity of stories needs to be distributed and told. The lack of narratives we have outside of those which reify the oppressive structures of hegemonic masculinity and white supremacy today in America is certainly pathetic. 3 Hole Press confronts these problems head-on. Beyond the texts they’ve chosen to print, 3 Hole makes these works accessible through Trojan-horse-style book designs created by design studio Omnivore. When picking up a 3 Hole book, readers may miss these paperbacks’ sly pastiche, riffing on ubiquitous publishers like the Dramatic Publishing Company, Samuel French, and Dramatists Inc. 3 Hole’s books are scaled to the human hand and easily readable, always wrapped in a gentle palate of pastel hues to fit in with the rest of the shelf. And so far, the works published are in nonchalant cool colors, greens and blues, with each cover sporting three eponymous die-cut holes in varying zig-zag configurations, apertures indicative of the incandescence held within. Furthermore, the books are released outside of the structure of conventional theatrical production schedules, eschewing the publishing of scripts as they coincide with performed theatrical premieres.
Hybridization enters through 3 Hole publications’ introductory texts and collaborative interventions as well, highlighting voices in adjacent artistic fields, such as musicians, visual artists, and academics. By consuming shared perspectives from other disciplines, readers are jolted and primed for new experiences in stark relief to their usual consumption. For Mubashshir’s The Immeasurable Want of Light, American historian Nell Painter chose to respond with a series of visual artworks, arresting digital collages which were then interspersed throughout the printed script. Amauta Marston-Firmino, interdisciplinary artist and dramaturgical scholar, who wrote the introduction for Mubashshir’s script, reflected on his experience responding to a 3 Hole text: “I think I was inspired by Daaimah’s willingness to develop a writing ritual that allowed her to spin these cosmic musings outside of the constraints of what she calls the industry, but what I understood as physical reality. Often when reading and writing plays, the reality of these actions and bodies and words in space hovers right over the page. But Daaimah’s text was way out there, and that was really liberating.” In Arbery’s Wheelchair, American singer-songwriter Bill Callahan’s deadpan introduction to the work punches through to the importance of our collective reckoning. He writes, “Plays represent possibility. Like the knock on the door . . . a play isn’t about who we were or what we might become. A play is about what we are right now at this moment because a play is as alive as its audience . . . We’re living without addressing those things that would open up the door to insight into the things we are talking (poorly) about.” These scripts prove that plays are in fact literature that can work on the page just as well as the stage, shining light on new potentialities, exploding language through structural exploration, adventurous typographic experimentation, and original thought. The Brooklyn Rail sat down with Kauder Nalebuff to discuss how 3 Hole Press explores what plays are now, and how we access them.
Erik Freer (Rail): Can you describe the origins of 3 Hole Press?
Rachel Kauder Nalebuff: I was working in the literary department of a theater and was confused about the journey of most plays, which go from a playwright to a literary department to a drawer. Plays that take a true formal or political risk require a financial leap of faith, which most theater companies don’t want to make. Then I saw a play by Aleshea Harris that suspended an audience so completely between grief and celebration. I read a play by Alex Borinsky that made me feel wonderfully alone. I wondered how people in and out of theater could encounter these works. My friends in the music world produce each others’ records. So I made 3 Hole Press as an experiment to see if I could distribute plays by my peers and, on a small scale, to create the kind of theater world with a culture of support that I’d like to grow into.
Rail: What a sentiment, to build the world we want to live in, to place language on the page . . . But where to begin? What does play publishing as it exists today look like to you? What are the problems?
Nalebuff: In the US, plays are published accompanying major productions— as a token for audience members to return to or for actors to use. Meanwhile, plays that are artistically daring don’t get produced because they aren’t seen as commercially viable—but also because their playscripts aren’t available. It’s a closed loop where only published things are performed and only performed works get published. So we are left publishing Broadway plays and reprinting Shakespeare and Chekhov. Imagine a fiction section of a bookstore that was 90% Moby Dick, 5% Dan Brown and 5% everything else. But then the drama section is not even a part of most bookstores!
In the US, there’s a small interconnected landscape of independent publishers—like Ugly Duckling Presse, 53rd State Press, Play: A Journal of Plays, and Wendy’s Subway—doing work to archive experimental performances and support interdisciplinary artists. I wanted to join these with 3 Hole, to publish performance texts regardless of production and create a bridge to a literary audience. Anyone who enjoys reading poetry, translated works, who engages in the act of interpretation, should have access to today’s new plays, scripts, and scores.
Performance that’s meant to be read is actually pretty ancient. It stems all the way back to Greek philosophical dialogues. In the 1800s there was a genre of plays called “closet dramas,” which were basically too radical and politically destabilizing to perform, so they were all published directly. The abundance of experimental scripts today, circulated among playwrights as PDFs, that does not try to exist for the stage is a contemporary continuation of that history.
Rail: Inside 3 Hole’s publications, readers travel rapidly through new narratives and structures. Aided by formal and typographic experimentation, the unaware consumer is met with a friction in the form of embedded cross-disciplinary discourse that encourages them to slow down and pay attention more closely to the language presented. The thinking behind John Cage’s 4′33″ or Pauline Oliveros’ instructions for deep listening comes to mind. Can you elaborate on how you see performed writing exist today in context with other art forms and why this is so important?
Nalebuff: I was reading this interview with publisher Martine Syms where she brings up the idea of books as being for everybody, but not for everyone. Performance literature might not be your thing, but the works should be accessible. Performance—by inherently considering live bodies and real time—brings so much to the conversation. How can you think about social structures or intimacy and not read performance texts? As discourse around identity evolves, performance offers urgent embodied perspectives—and performance texts, unburdened by logistics, can point the way to what’s next. How could you study disability without reading Wheelchair by Will Arbery? How could you think about color and color of skin without reading The Immeasurable Want of Light by Daaimah Mubashshir? I suppose my bewilderment about this explains why I am in theater.
Rail: It’s no surprise that in the increasingly disembodied world we live in, new performed literature has oftentimes been left out of the canon. Do you feel this way?
Nalebuff: People don’t know they can read plays or scores. People don’t know that artists are innovating in these genres. Live performance is too expensive, geographically inaccessible. Temporally limited. People can’t access these works. So inaccessibility entrenches itself.
Rail: Each of the works published by 3 Hole is distinctive and important. How do you select works to publish?
Nalebuff: Anything that is readable performance is up for consideration. We are too tiny to take open submissions through the website, so it’s mostly through dialogues with artists who encounter work on the page that excites them, and then recommend work to the Press.
Rail: Lastly, I have to ask, can you speak to the choices made for the design of the publications?
Nalebuff: It’s exciting to see you articulate what’s happening as a graphic designer —because you’ve noticed the mechanics. The books are designed by my friend and graphic design mentor Alice Chung to draw in unsuspecting strangers! Most people don’t think to read plays, so the graphic design does the work. Yes, they’re slightly squatter than most plays, so they have the thickness of at least a novella. They’re printed on thick paper with pleasing colors and typography so that people want to pick them up. And then once someone opens the book, it’s too late. They’re hooked reading a performance text! The three holes are a reference to the kind of three-hole binder that holds a script.
The uniform and vaguely institutional aesthetic cuts right to the center of the Press and my practice as a publisher. It’s an expression of how I think theater and performance ought to exist in our society. I wanted these books to feel like they are an everyday part of life. Like a composition notebook or a Penguin paperback. Like they’ve always been around and easy to access, but maybe you’ve just never noticed them. Like they are a commonly acknowledged good. In the US, it’s wildly aspirational, but also, actively working towards this place. I am also playing around with what it means to be part of the institution of publishing. The design recognizes a history and cannon, but the books are trying to break it as well. My sister Zoe, who used to run a bookshop and is my collaborator on everything, thinks through this paradigm with me and helps me poke holes at the rigidity of institutions. I see the institution is its own kind of performance, one that I can take on as a role to support artists. At the same time, it’s also a sincere inquiry. Why shouldn’t an institution be built on friendship and support?
Rail: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time and energy on this project, I have high hopes for 3 Hole’s future. Would you like to add anything else?
Nalebuff: I used to think books and records were more like commodities. Now, understanding the financial reality of how most independent publishers are non-profits, I see them as expressions of people supporting each other. I’ve gotten weepy, walking into good independent bookstores.
For more information about Brooklyn-based 3 Hole Press and its titles, visit http://www.3holepress.org/.
ERIK FREER’s creative practice encompasses art, design, and writing. He works as an educator and design director. He is based in New York City.