Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Shape of Time by George Kubler

George Alexander Kubler (26 July 1912 - 3 October 1996) was an American art historian and among the foremost scholars on the art of Pre-Columbian America and Ibero-American Art. This book was published in 1962 by Yale University.

I include this brief selection in my blog because it describes (though it does not directly refer to) in fairly certain terms the premise of the Deconstructive Project (e.g. the works of Jacques Derrida) and of Continental Philosophy as it might be compared to the American Analytic and Pragmatic philosophical traditions. What he says should at least provoke a note of suspicion with respect to  convictions and conventions of popular history as agonizingly displayed on a daily basis by our benighted political classes and their lapdogs in the media; and perhaps serve as an encouragement to humility for those of us struggling to, as it were, turn the tide of current affairs.

Le passe ne sert qu'a connaitre l'actualité. Mais l'actualité m'echappe. Qu'est-ce que c'est donc que l'actualite?

[The past only serves to know the news. But the news escapes me. What therefore is  actuality?]

For years this question – the final and capital question of his life- obsessed my teacher Henri Focillon, especially during the black days from 1940 to 1943 when he died in New Haven.  The question has been with me ever since, and I am now no closer to the solution of the riddle, unless it be to suggest that the answer is a negation.

Actuality is when the lighthouse is dark between flashes: it is the instant between the ticks of a watch: it is a void interval slipping forever through time: the rupture between the past and future: the gap at the poles of the revolving magnetic field, infinitesimally small but ultimately real.  It is the interchronic pause when nothing is happening. It is the void between events.

Yet the instant of actuality is all we ever can know directly. The rest of the time emerges only in signals relayed to us at this instant by innumerable stages and by unexpected bearers. One may ask why these old signals- stored like kinetic energy  until the moment of notice when the mass descends along some portion of its path to the center of the gravitational system- are not actual.

 The nature of a signal is that its message is neither here or now, but there and then. If it is a signal it is past action, no longer embraced by the “now” of present being. The perception of the signal happens “now,” but its impulse and transmission happened “then.” In any event, the present instant is the plane upon which the signals of all being are projected. No other plane of duration gather us up universally into the same instant of becoming.

Our signals from the past are very weak, and our means for recovering their meaning are most imperfect. Weakest and least clear of all are those signals coming from the initial and terminal moment of any sequence in happening, for we are unclear about our ideas of a coherent portion of time. The beginnings are much hazier than the endings, where at least the catastrophic action of external events can be determined. The segmentation of history is still an arbitrary and conventional matter, governed by no verifiable conception of historical entities and their duration. Now and in the past, most of the time the majority of people live by borrowed ideas and upon traditional accumulations, yet at every moment the fabric is being undone and a new one is woven to replace the old, while from time to time the whole pattern shakes and quivers, settling into new shapes and figures. These processes of change are all mysterious uncharted regions where the traveler soon loses directions and stumbles into darkness. The clues to guide us are very few indeed: perhaps the jottings and sketches of architects and artists, put down in the heat of imagining a form or the manuscript brouillons of poets and musicians, crisscrossed with erasures and corrections, are the hazy coastlines of this dark continent of the “now,” where the impress of the future is received by the past.

To other animals who live more by instinct than do humans, the instant of actuality must seem far less brief. The rule of instinct is automatic, offering fewer choices than intelligence, with circuits that close and open unselectively.  In this duration choice is so rarely present that the trajectory from past to future describes a straight line rather than the infinitely bifurcation system of human experience. The ruminant or the insect must live time as an extended present which endures as long as the individual life, while for us, the single life contained an infinity of present instants, each with its innumerable open choices in volition and in action.

Why should actuality forever escape our grasp? The universe has  a finite velocity which limits not only the spread of its events, but also the speed of our perceptions. The moment of actuality slips too fast by the slow, coarse net of our senses. The galaxy whose light I see now may have ceased to exist millenia ago, and by the same token men cannot fully sense any event cosmic storm which we all the present, and which perpetually rages throughout creation.

In my own present, a thousand concerns of active business lie unattended while I write these words. The instant admits only one action while the rest of possibility lies unrealized. Actuality is the eye of the storm: it is a diamond with an infinitesimal perforation through which the ingots and billets of present possibility are drawn into past events. The emptiness of actuality can be estimated by the possibilities that fail to attain realization in any instant: only when they are few can actuality seem full.

Historical knowledge consists of transmissions in which the sender, the signal, and the receiver all are variable elements affecting the stability of the message. Since the receiver of a signal becomes its sender in the normal course of historical transmission (e.g. the discoverer of a document usually is its editor), we may treat receivers and senders together under the heading of relays. Each relay is the occasion of some deformation in the original signal. Certain details seem insignificant and they are dropped in the relay; others have an importance conferred by their relationship to events occurring in the moment of the relay, and so they are exaggerated. One relay may wish for reasons of temperament to stress the traditional aspects of a signal; another will emphasize their novelty. Even the historian subjects his evidence to these strains, although he strives to recover the pristine signal.

Each relay willingly or unwillingly deforms the signal according to his own historical position. The relay transmits a composite signal, composed only in part of the message as it was received, and in part of impulses contributed by the relay itself. Historical recall never can be complete nor can it be even entirely correct, because of the successive relays that deform the message.

The conditions of the transmission of signals nevertheless are not so defective that historical knowledge is impossible. Actual events always excite strong feelings, which the initial,  message usually records. A series of relays may result in the gradual disappearance of the animus excited by the event. The most hated despot is the live despot: the ancient despot is only a case history. In addition, many objective residues or tools of the historian’s activity, such as chronological tables of events, cannot easily be deformed. Other examples are the persistence of certain religious expressions through long periods and under great deforming pressures. The rejuvenation of myths is a case in point: when an ancient version becomes unintelligibly obsolete a new version, recast in contemporary terms, performs the same old explanatory purposes.

The essential condition of historical knowledge is that the event should be within range, that some signal should prove past existence. Ancient time contains vast durations without signals of any kind that we can now receive. Even the events of then past few hours are sparsely documented, when we consider the ratio of events to their documentation. Prior to 3000 B.C. the texture of transmitted duration disintegrates more and more the farther we go back. Though finite, the total number of historical signals greatly exceeds the capacity of any individual or group   to interpret all the signals in all their meaning. A principle aim of the historian therefore is to condense the multiplicity and the redundancy of his signals by  using various schemes of classification that will spare us the tedium of reliving the sequence in all its instantaneous confusion .  .

For the most part the craft of history is concerned with the elaboration of credible messages upon the simple foundations afforded by primary signals- meaning evidence closest to the event itself- though this may require a great expense of energy for its detection and interpretation (e.g. an archeologist tracing a buried floor level with his assistants spends about the same energy upon reading the signal as the original builders put into the floor in the first instance). More complex messages have widely varying degrees of credibility. Some are fantasies existing in the minds of the interpreters alone. Others are rough approximations to the historical truth, such as those reasonable explanations of myths called euhemerist (holding that many mythological tales can be attributed to historical persons and events, the accounts of which have become altered and exaggerated over time.)

Still other complex messages are probably stimulated by special primary signals of which our understanding is incomplete. These ( such as is found in Spengler and other hypothesis proposed under the rubric of ‘social Darwinism) arise from extended durations and from large units of geography and population; they are complex, dimly perceived signals which have little to do with historical narrative. Only certain new statistical methods come near to detection . . .

The survival of antiquity has perhaps commanded the attention of historians mainly because the classical tradition has been superseded, because it is no longer a live water; because we are now outside it, and not inside it. We care no longer borne by it as in a current upon the sea: it is visible to us from a distance and in perspective only as a major part of the topography of history. By the same token we cannot clearly descry the contours of the great currents of our own time: we are too much inside the streams of contemporary happening to chart their flow and volume. We are confronted with inner and outer historical surfaces. Of these only the outer surfaces of the completed past are accessible to historical knowledge

Saturday, March 22, 2014

From Our Place Behind the Wall by Joachim Fest

In early 1936, from our place behind the wall, my brother Wolfgang and I eavesdropped on a rare argument between our parents. There had been a strangely irritable atmosphere all day. My mother evidently started it, reminding my father in a few short sentences what she had put up with, politically and personally, in the last there years. She said she wasn’t complaining, but she had never dreamed of such a future. From morning to nighty she was standing in front of pots, pans, and washboards, and when the day was over she had to attend to the torn clothes of the children, patched five times over. And then, after what seemed like a hesitant pause, she asked whether my father did not, after all, want to consider joining the Nazis party. The gentlemen from the education authority had called twice in the course of the year to persuade him to give way; at the last visit they had even held out the prospect of rapid promotion. In any case, she couldn’t cope any more . .  .. And to mark the end of her plea, after a long pause she added a simple “Please!”

My father replied a little too wordily (as I sometimes thought in the years to come), but at the same time revealed how uneasy he had been about the question for a long time. He said something about the readjustments that she, like many others, had been forced to make. He spoke about habit, which after often difficult beginnings provides a certain degree of stability. He spoke about conscience and trust in God. Also that he himself, as well as my brothers and I, could gradually relieve her of some of the work in the household, and so on. But my mother insisted on an answer, suggesting that joining the party would not change anything: “After all, we remain who we are!” It did not take long for my father to retort: “precisely not! It would change everything!”

My mother evidently hesitated for a moment. Then she responded that she knew that joining the party would be a lie “to those in charge,” But then let it be a lie! A thousand lies, even, if necessary! She had no qualms in that respect. Of course, such a decision amounted to hypocrisy. But she was ready for that.  Untruth had always been a weapon of the little people against the powerful; she had nothing else in mind. The life she was leading was so terribly disappointing! Now it seemed to be my father’s turn to be surprised. At any rate he simply said, “We are not little people, Not when it comes to such questions!”

Head next to head we pressed our ears to the wall in order not to miss a word. But we did not find out what happened in the long intervals, amidst the clearing of throats, the adding of fuel to the tiled stove, and, if we really did hear it properly, occasional sobs. My mother said something about the reproaches of many friends, according to whom my father was too inflexible and only thought of his principles. My father, however, replied that he could not go along with the Nazis, not even a little bit. That, exactly that, was how it stood. Even if their expectations of life had been disappointed as a result. It happened to almost everyone that their dreams ended up on the rubbish heap. Once again there was a pause before my mother replied, “My dreams aren’t in danger. I’m not talking about them! They were shattered long ago! Don’t fool yourself!” Both of them knew that nothing would change in their lifetimes. They would never get rid of Hitler again. And at the very end, after another of those long delays which were impossible to interpret: “It is just so hard to make that clear to oneself every day.”

Years later, after the war, when I asked her about this argument, my mother remembered it immediately. She had considered every word for some time and had to gather up all her courage to speak, since she knew what the answer would be and that my father would be in the right; it had taken her a while to get over it. The ten years of their marriage before that had been untroubled. Then from one day to the next everything had turned “dark.” She had only been in her early thirties. The argument I was talking about had been the beginning of a second phase in her being-in-the-world. After her eternally beloved young days with boarding school, piano and Eichendorff poems, and the early years of marriage, she had been forced to learn that life showed no consideration; more or less from one day to the next everything had been turned upside down. For her girlish mind it  had been a catastrophe. Sometimes she had thought the rupture would destroy her life. “But we saw it through,” she said after a pause, which I did not interrupt, “even if to this day I don’t know how wee managed it.”

                                        .  .  .  .  .  .

In the early 1960s my father died. On the day before his death I spent several hours by his bedside in the hospital, and we talked in broad terms about his times and life. Some of what was said has found its way into these memoirs. Reviewing those years, he managed one of his characteristic play on words which Wolfgang has called “parsing syllables.” “Ich habe,” he said, “im Leben viele Fehler gemacht. Aber nichts falsch.” I have, he said, made many mistakes in life. But I have never done wrong.

Part of the time we spent talking about the whereabouts of old friends and those we had lost in the turmoil of war .  .  . I told him that with Mother’s help and despite all the mishaps, he had made our youthful years happy ones. Then he said, as he was fading away into some state of half-awareness: “Please tell me a story! Any story!” And some parable about life came to me, a mix of constructed things tread and invented. It was probably pointless to base the narrative loosely on the Odyssey, but I thought he, being a Prussian Bildungsburger, might find it pleasing.

When man first stepped onto this earth he had to get to now the gardens, the animals, and the bushes –just as we did in the Hentigstrasse. One he had become reasonably familiar with all, he might do well to explore the city near and far, as we did when driving to Unter den Linden, to Potsdam, and to the Stechlinsee. At some point he will find himself a wife, start a family, and sally forth into the world where many challenges await, perhaps even a war, albeit not like the one Hitler had started so willfully. On that and other similar occasions he will encounter a lot of useless things and even lose his way. I continued, increasingly leaning on the Odyssey: At some point everyone has to deal with a modern version of Polyphemus – the world was stilled filled with monsters, taking on technological or hierarchical shapes nowadays. Later it would behoove one not to submit to a magical Circe, to pass through Scylla and Charybdis and whatever else one might encounter, not to forget the graceful and barely resistible Nausicca and her tears. And once one returned to one’s home, some stranger or other is occupying it, strutting about, and when they have finally been removed –then what? What was there to add? Then ennui awaits. Nor is there end to travail –that much, at least, I had grasped. It seemed as if my father, lying below me on his pillow, slightly tilted his head. It seemed to me as if he smiled one more time.

A short time later my mother asked me to write down her recollections of the Nazis years. She was willing to help me record them, which neither my father nor younger brother Winfried agreed to do. Our conversation lasted all evening. Once or twice it seemed to me that she regarded her life as a failure. I suggested that she had born a greater burden than my father, but she firmly denied it. “It was his decision,” she said, “his responsibility.” She had borne nothing but external burdens, whereas his life had been destroyed. Did one suffer more at the hearth, she asked, or from the utter lack of prospects imposed on one’s life? That depends on how one looks at it, I said. Her life, too, had been ruined. She replied that she had never seen it like that and did not want to do so, either. “Ruined”: was in any case the wr5ong word. Only her girlish dreams had been smashed. But where were they ever fulfilled anyway. No matter how much she tried to downplay her own role, I could tell she was very far from having come to terms with the Hitler period, even if it had been long ago by then.

After this conversation my mother chose to say nothing more about the Hitler period. She remained stubbornly silent, as if she had erased it from her memory as a final sacrifice. However, when read a draft chapter of my Hitler book, she was moved top observe that, from a distance, world events seem rather grand, whereas if one looks at the fates of individuals, one discovers a great deal of shabbiness, powerlessness, and misery.

Some time later she fell ill. When I visited her in the hospital for the last time, a few days before her death, she had begun to lose consciousness with increasing frequency. She talked unceasingly and ever more quickly. With every word that could be understood the misfortunes of her life burst out of her. It was the first time I heard her quarrel with fate. She spoke about never-ending worry, the constant shortages and making do, the informers everywhere, and, above all, how much she suffered losing a son in Hitler’s war. From time to time she returned to the world from her confusion, became aware of me, and managed a sign of acknowledgement by raising her hand rom the blanket. After that she fell into a semiconscious state and damned the world and her botched life. I had never heard her curse before, but now it seemed to me she was making up for it –all those years of repressed bitterness. I took her hand, but she hardly noticed and went on cursing. It lasted for hours. When it had already grown dark, she managed some coherent words, Once she said, with lengthy pauses, “The days are no longer lost .  .  . God knows they are not! .  .  . They count again .  .  . Each one is another twenty-four hours less! .  .  . That’s what I always tell myself!  .  .  . That is my comfort.”

Two days later nothing was left of the rebelliousness which had haunted her semiconscious state only hours earlier, and she passed away in her sleep .  .  .

Adriano's Bomb Magazine Interview

Adriano Shaplin
by Katherine Cooper

    Katherine Cooper speaks to playwright Adriano Shaplin about baffled audiences, favoring amateurism over professionalism, and what The Crucible got wrong.

While I was living in Philadelphia, I encountered Adriano Shaplin’s piece “Freedom Club” as part of the Fringe. His theatrical work disturbed and perplexed me. Not in a bad way—it was uncomfortable and I liked it. I was nervous to speak with Adriano. He is famously candid in interviews. I had heard he was “out there,” "political," "kooky.” The frontality and alienation of his work reflects an incisive point of view on theatrical convention—one that I wasn’t sure I shared but that I was extremely curious about. I’m drawn to art and artists that are defiant and sensitive and I sensed that in Adriano and his work.

Adriano's young, but maturing career has already taken many twists and turns which he commented on very honestly as we spoke. He has found a home of sorts at the Flea Theater in SoHo and recently premiered his latest show Sarah Flood in Salem Mass there. The play muses on topics near and dear to my heart—witches, morals, and New England. I had seen it the night before—a cacophony of movement, razor sharp language and moments of beautiful sensuality. Who was the guy who conceived of this world? Where did he live?

When I arrived at the apartment in Jersey City at noon on Saturday I walked down a long dimly lit corridor with about five closed doors all along one side. The image that came to mind was of an underfunded mental institution or an abandoned beach hotel circa 1940. The floor creaked. It smelled like sleep.

I emerged into a sunlit living room with a wingback chair. I found myself falling into it with ease—the frayed arms, the brown stain where a thousand times a woman with an Aqua-netted bouffant must have rested her head. My apprehension dissipated. The place felt lived in—that wing back chair, a half drunk beer, a pair of antlers on the blood red walls entangled with green ribbon from a party that had ended days (weeks?) ago. Like Adriano himself, the apartment was not afraid of its own mess.

Katherine Cooper So we were talking a little bit earlier about teaching, and it’s something near and dear to my heart. What do you think a young artist or a young person who wants to be an artist, can get from an institution at this point in time, or what should they be getting outside of an institution for that matter?

Adriano Shaplin And by institution you mean—

KC A school.

AS School. Right. (sighs) I mean, I know what I get which is that schools give me the artistic freedom that I don’t have in the larger industry. In a university context, I can definitely make whatever I want without any restrictions. Since the first sort of “collapse” of my “career,” schools have been the safe haven for me.

KC What was the first collapse of your career?

AS This is the part I’m self-conscious talking about. But, I sort of had a play that took off and toured the world for a year, and that show led to commissions, agents, and ultimately being playwright-in-residence at the RSC. And the show that I made there was, in terms of my “career,” a complete disaster. The whole process of working there was flawed and difficult and not something I was prepared for, at all. I went from working only in my totally idiosyncratic context, to just straight up working for the biggest theatrical bureaucracy on earth.

KC Right.

AS And I was not prepared. But yeah, it’s been universities: Princeton putting us up for a semester to make a work, the theater magazine at Yale publishing one of the plays, working at Swarthmore, working at Drexel. Those four schools have been essentially undergirding what I’ve been doing in the five years I’ve been back. But god, institutions in general? When I was at Sarah Lawrence I did not dig the theater department. I was surprised that it was so geared towards pre-professionalism. It was bizarre. I was in the middle of getting switched on to Phillip Glass, John Cage, Meredith Monk, and the theater department was doing Grand Hotel. And they were 60s radicals but they had accepted this idea that, “We gotta get ‘em pre-professionalized and train them up to be ready to do all kinds of square work.” That wasn’t all of it, but at seventeen my reaction was like, “What the fuck is this? I’m so angry about this.” And so I left the theater department and started the Riot Group.

KC The Riot Group was formed from Sarah Lawrence?

AS Oh totally. The first show we made was during my freshman year when I was seventeen and Stephanie and Drew were eighteen and nineteen respectively. That was the first time we all worked together. We made five shows at Sarah Lawrence, three of which we took to Edinburgh on summer vacation. That’s how I got stuck over there in London. But so, what can students get from institutions? The Flea basically gives young actors free school, except they get to figure out their craft in front of an audience instead of in some rehearsal room. Becky [Wright] says, “You can’t teach directing!” Because you’re sitting in a room pretending to direct. You can learn all these kinds of abstract techniques but you don’t really know the battle you’re in for.

KC But you are a teacher right? And you do teach at Princeton and Swarthmore? Do you put up a show with these students or are you teaching a technique class? Is it both?

AS It’s been both.

KC What do you say on the first day of class?

AS I usually declare that I’m not a believer in such a thing as good and bad art. Sometimes I tell an anecdote about one of my first playwrighting teachers at Sarah Lawrence (and this is one of the reasons I dropped out of the department). I handed in my last play. He didn’t say anything. Finally in our last meeting I asked him what he thought and he just said, “It’s not really my thing. I’ve read stuff like it before and it’s not really my thing.” That’s not how I work. I don’t care whether or not your play is “my thing,” I care whether or not it’s your thing. I want to help you do your thing. This year I told them, “Write your play on Twitter. Write your play and have it not look like a play!” I send them out on the first day to record overheard dialogue and I’m like, “OK double the length of this but don’t let us know which part you recorded and which part you made up.” Since working at the Flea I've come to realize that my life is about working with young people. That’s who digs my work. Old people don’t really dig my work. Of course, there are many extremely hip and happening cats that are “old” and like my work but as a general rule of thumb, a traditional theater-going audience who is over sixty tends to be baffled by what I’m making a lot of the time.

KC Why do you think they’re baffled?

AS I believe it’s because I’m presenting a different moral landscape than what you see in other contemporary plays. I think the valuations of good and evil are kind of “off” for some people. They’re on for me, but for other people they’re off. Some people feel alienated by the presentational style, which is I guess part of the point, Brechtian Alienation. People will say “The actors never make eye contact,” but I’m always like, “Yeah, except with the audience the entire time.” To me, standing three quarters and pretending to see each other across the space in a naturalistic way—it doesn’t feel true to me. Facing the audience feels like a more truthful approach. For some people, it can come across as if someone is intentionally undermining naturalistic conventions in order to alienate them from the story and the action. I’m not experiencing it that way.

KC I’m very interested in this process where writers devise work with an ensemble. I’ve been a part of that kind of process and I think that there can be something really fruitful about it. I’m curious to hear about how that started for you. You describe yourself as this hybrid artist, and yet you are dealing in words. You’re not a director. First of all, when did you start this kind of process with your writing and also why is it still words that you come back to?

AS Early on, I did the more traditional thing of writing the play, finishing it, and handing it to my collaborators. Wreck the Airline Barrier was the first play, in junior year, where I was just writing it each day that we were rehearsing. So we would have these little fragments and then we would keep adding more bits and changing things around. All the plays since then have been made in that way, using a version of that process. But for instance, devising the thing is not like we’re all in there designing and sewing our own clothes. I’m the tailor. I’m bringing all the text to the table and shaping the roles for the actors. I bring the sound and the text to the room the way the actor brings their body, the way the set designer brings their knowledge of the plastic arts. But there are exceptions to every rule, like when I was banging my head against the wall trying to figure out the ending of Sarah Flood. I’d been working on it for two days. So I go to Matt who is playing the narrator and I’m like Matt, Matt, Matt—write a draft of the ending for me please. He writes it on a napkin on a corner of the piano in the lobby, brings it into me, and it’s fucking great. It’s a monologue of him saying everything that happened to the characters in the play. So I take the template of what he wrote and substitute his language with my own. I’m just sort of mad-libbing my own language in. And then I start dispersing it and interweaving it with the other scene we have.

And then I'm also working with movement—trying to mold characters to what I see as their clown, my exaggerated sense of who they are. Like if we were going to work together, I’m looking at you, I’m looking at your morphology. You inspire certain things in me. I’m looking at the details. I’m looking at how you move. I believe that I have an intuition for your lung capacity. I think I know how you breathe. But I also don’t really know you. I have just enough information to imagine what could pass through you to the audience. It’s based on you, on personal details, and impressions. You might make a joke and I’ll use that. I’m going to take a piece of who you are and I’m going to flip it up and put it back in your mouth. But all along, I want the text to be single-voiced on a certain level. That’s the really challenging balance. And part of that is developing my own personal slang and rules for how language will work in this world. Like in Sarah Flood, I banned the words God, Jesus, and bible from the play. I’m also going to Becky like 48 hours before the rehearsal and being like “Can you put these scenes in order?” That’s what’s happening. I have all the fragments, all the pieces. Hold on. I’ll show you. [Adriano went to get his handwritten draft for #serials at the Flea and we all looked at it together for couple minutes.]

AS You guys don’t smoke do you?

KC I don’t smoke no.

AS I agreed to write for Serials [a raucous late night play competition hosted by the Flea] last week. So this is how I’m working. These are the actors that I have. I don’t even know their names. I put the director and me on there to remember that we could be in it too. Then I start some writing, and try to follow it through. There are no characters yet. I keep the actors names in the script for a long time. My texts are very spare. There are no stage directions. Whatever stage directions end up in the script are added after we finish the production. I feel like a lot of contemporary playwriting puts the meaning of the play directly into the text. I’m always pursuing a perpendicularity to the direct meaning. It’s kind of like don’t say the word God. Don’t say what the play means. But a lot of contemporary plays do that. It’s like an essay: here’s my thesis. I hate that. [both laugh]

AS Is it gonna bother you if I smoke?

KC No. Of course.

AS So I’m feeling OK with pursuing my vice right in front of you.

KC No problem. It’s your home!

AS Thanks.

KC This is a bit of a meandering question so stick with me. You’ve said, “In my heart of hearts I’m an amateur”, it made me think about actors, and how sometimes the best actors who come into an audition are the ones who don’t give a shit on a certain level. They desire you, but they don’t need you. So in some ways there’s an erotics of amateurism, right?

AS Yeah. This is corny, but I really latched onto that phrase when I found out what it meant “to love.” I was like bong bong. I don’t believe in professionalism or careerism as something that should be a part of what I’m making. I also think that when you become a professional you sign your own death warrant, maybe. It can be a path toward artistic irrelevance. I’m choosing to gamble that having a body of work that I believe in and that is sustained is going to “pay off" more than a pursuit of someone else’s definition of what I should be pursuing. Amateur is your own thing. It’s a craft. You’re making it for yourself and for your loved ones. And that is basically what I’m doing, very much to my “professional” detriment. I’ve been encouraged and pressured to ditch the ensemble. I have been told not to act in my own shit. I've definitely been told not to direct, which was true. I shouldn’t have been directing. I did try. It’s not my thing.

KC So you work with a lot of young people. What advice would you give to your 22 year old self?

AS Oh my god. It would be things like try and remember that nobody cares as much about you as you do. Everybody cares about themselves as much as you care about yourself and think about that before you talk to people. In a way it would be, remember that you’re as unreal to other people as they are to you. You know what I mean? You would want to work a whole lifetime on letting other people be fully real. I think that’s the challenge of life: Let other people be real to you.

KC It’s hard.

AS It’s a lifelong project.

KC Yeah. Definitely. That’s good advice. So, moving more towards the content of Sarah Flood. I’m also from New England. I grew up in Massachusetts and spent a lot of time in Maine with super liberal parents who were awesome. But I still feel like there is a puritanism that’s hard to escape when you grow up there. Do you relate to that? What do you think about New England in relation to this project?

AS The puritan work ethic. I can be intellectually opposed to a 24-hour work culture or a culture that lionizes work all the time. But I definitely feel like it’s a virus that’s implanted in me, so that I perceive every moment as an opportunity to “work” and that not working is essentially a sin. I don’t know if it’s just a New England thing. I grew up in Burlington Vermont—the people’s republic of Burlington. I mean our mayor was the only socialist politician in the country—

KC Bernie Sanders.

AS Yeah! It was very liberal where I grew up but I had know idea it was beautiful. It was just the shitty town I was growing up in. When I came back in my 20s, I was like, “This is where I grew up? This is uncommonly beautiful!” Does that New England stuff, does that like—

KC I feel pretty haunted by it.

AS By which aspect of it?

KC Well, the work ethic you were talking about resonates. Every hour of the day is a potential work hour for me basically. I think that it breeds a messed up relationship to pleasure in a lot of ways. Pleasure becomes a distraction from work. It’s a waste of time. So then for me, in my lowest moments it’s like “Fuck you! It’s all about pleasure,” which is also not that productive because it’s wasteful. Work and pleasure in my mind (in a New Englandy sort of way) are split. But in my life I want them to be completely integrated. And so that’s a conversation that I have a lot with myself.

AS I also felt from my research and reading that the portrait we’ve gotten of Salem is exaggerated. A lot of the perceptions I learned about the sexual mores of Salem were wrong.

KC Say more about that.

AS They were actually very open about sex. Once you were married, you could have sex, and what was allowed was pretty wide. There was partying. They drank in celebrations. And also, the literacy rate for men and women was extremely high. More so than anywhere else in the world at the time. The idea of this being a superstitious or backward culture is wrong. I choose to see Salem not as something strictly of the past but rather from the perspective of, “They were the city of the future.” There's something really futuristic about the literacy. They’re reading this book and for them it contains every story in the world. Their whole life revolves around the stories in this book. To me, it was like, this is us now. The Bible was their internet. They all went there. They turned their lives over to the word and the book, and then the other half of their lives was hard physical labor. Seeing them as futuristic was part of what I wanted to do in the play. I didn't want to fall into the trap of representing “pastness” in a coherent way, as if it is something that can be fully recreated. It’s kind of flipping what Arthur Miller did, because he’s doing a sort of “Here’s how Salem relates to today!” thing with the trials. I try to show that there can’t be a one to one relationship between past and present. I’m trying disturb the idea that the past exists at all outside of the totally contemporary moment to moment perception. The past exists only as an unfolding right now in the present, so the idea that there’s any coherent thing to reach to—which is kind of what the future girl's journey is—they’re trying to reach to a coherent past and it slips through their fingers. The past does not behave for us. You can try and force it to do something but it’s more interesting to let it off the leash. To let it haunt you. Like the idea that a ghost is something that comes from the past. To let the past be this active thing. It’s not frozen in amber.

KC You have described this as “The Crucible but better and more feminist.”

AS The woman who plays Sarah Flood described it as that, on Facebook. And I posted her Facebook status. I liked that a lot. I was really resistant to mentioning The Crucible a lot of the time. But when Kate wrote that I just thought it was so ballsy.

KC So the question that I wanted to ask you and, now I know those weren’t your words so maybe this changes the question, but I think I agree with that statement—my question is, to you, what is feminism right now?

AS The best thing I heard about feminism recently was from the guy who wrote The Game of Thrones.

KC Awesome.

AS Someone had asked him, “How is it that you have these strong female characters?” and his answer was, “I have always labored under the controversial opinion that women are people.” [both laugh]

KC That’s amazing.

AS That really summed it up for me. There’s another way of putting it too. The yin to that yang is like, there’s no such thing as a woman. It’s not different from what I am. It’s not this other thing that I have to hunt like a rhino in the forest. What a woman is, is me too. I like to write about the specific conditions that men and women face in a cultural context. Certainly there’s a lot in the play that’s about gender and the very distinct choices and ways that the men and women are speaking and allowed to speak in that world. But the idea that they would have some sort of distinctive or special interiority that is separate from me because I’m born male is something I try and resist in the writing. And the dirtiest way of putting that is like, people ask you, "How do you write strong female characters?" And the answer is, I don’t. I just write the same way I’d write for myself, for any actor. And it’s more about them as an individual, what they’re putting across. What’s dirty about it is that one way of saying it is, “The way I write a good role for a woman is I write it for myself.” But also, I think one should know and be aware of the different conditions that men and women face. Certainly I don’t think it’s smart to be in denial of them.

KC Awesome.

AS I really feel like the Salem girls got a bad deal. There was no fucking faking going on. They were sick and no one knew what do to and they were forced to make those accusations by their parents. I’m afraid to say, The Crucible, in my opinion, gets it almost exactly wrong. I don’t deny that it’s a great play in many ways, but it’s not the story of what happened. From my reading of the history I just felt the story had not been told. My weird version is my truth. [bagpipes play outside] Or my best attempt to recover the truth. And there isn’t one answer as to why it happened. There’s this thing I’m trying to go against in contemporary dramaturgy, the idea that in the contemporary play there are two sides to every story, but only two sides. I’m always thinking, how are there always more than just two sides to any story? How is this story a cube, an octagon? How does the truth resist being schematized by drama?

Katherine Cooper is a Brooklyn-based performer, writer, and director with an MA in Performance Studies from NYU. Recent work includes Healthcare (Farm Theater Company), Love in the Seventh Kingdom of Wrath (FRANK Theater), and W.H. Salome (Dixon Place).