Fresno State’s new production of “Absurd Masterworks” opens Friday, and director Ruth Griffin — always a thinker — has been working her brain overtime in recent months as she prepared to present classic titles from the Theatre of the Absurd canon. I offer a preview of the program, which includes works by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, in Friday’s 7 section, and a longer think piece in my Sunday Spotlight column.
I caught up with Griffin via email to talk about her show.
Question: How long have you wanted to dive into the Theatre of the Absurd at Fresno State?
I think the Absurd playwrights are a good fit for artists interested in Clown Theatre as I have been. I have pursued these interests studying at the Dell’Arte School and with clowns like Bill Irwin and the Russian Clown Slava. Beckett himself loved Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Ionesco was enamored with Marionettes (Puppet Theatre) and the Marx Brothers. The Clown is always poised on the existential head of a pin. Since returning from teaching London semester in 2006 I have been committed to diving into staging absurdist work. I had seen Fiona Shaw in Happy Days, which I will describe in answer to question 8. I had become passionately interested in Samuel Beckett and traveled to Ireland to track down his family home and his Dublin and then to Paris to the Pompidou Gallery for the 100th Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett I learned of his psychoanalysis with Wilfred Bion and his interest in Carl Jung. I am fascinated with psychoanalysis and in London did research into Bion and his theory of “O.” “O” being the unconscious infinite resounded into the mindscapes of Beckett’s work.
You must have thought long and hard about which works to include. How did you end up with the three on the program?
I proposed in Season Selection “Play” by Samuel Beckett and “The Bald Soprano” By Eugene Ionesco because of the device of repetition. “Play” has a complete da capo repeat and “The Bald Soprano” ends by going back to the first moment of the play with Mr. and Mrs. Smith but switches Mr. and Mrs. Martin into their parts. Both plays were expressing cyclical time. In my trip to the Pompidou Gallery for the Beckett retrospective I had seen a film of “Quad” and was amazed. This summer when doing my sabbatical research I found the score and then resolved if the designers agreed I would add “Quad” as the transition work between “Play” and “The Bald Soprano.” ?Play” happens in stillness with rapid-fire intersecting monologues. “Quad” is pure movement with no text and “The Bald Soprano” combines both.
Albert Camus coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd” in a 1942 essay, writing that the human situation is basically meaningless and absurd — that people inhabit a universe with which they are out of key, its meaning is indecipherable and their place within it is without purpose. Do you share those views to any degree?
I do feel out of key with our consumerist society and concerned that people are loosing a sense of an inner life free of social media, cell phones, I pads, etc. It seems more and more people treat each other as objects for use as opposed to subjects to contemplate. However I don’t sense it would help me to live if I believed that my life was without purpose. I do believe in the healing capacity of art and its ability to retrieve the human soul. Does meaning have to be deciphered to connect with one’s life and in so doing connect with others and with being here on this fragile planet? I do not feel out of key to live with mysteries and keep striving. Camus also wrote, ”We have to imagine Sisyphus is smiling.”
Language is a key theme in these works. Explain how.
The language in “Play” is deceptive. In the first part of the work the language of the three characters recount a banal affair, which may appear to be simple however the voices are reconstituting a “place of remains”. This quote from Samuel Beckett’s ”For To End Yet Again” captures the quality of the monologues in the first section:
Place of remains where once used to gleam in the dark on and off used to glimmer a remain. Remains of the days of the light of day never light so faint as theirs so pale. Thus then the skull makes to glimmer again in lieu of going out.
In the second section Man, Woman 1 and Woman 2 directly talk to the light. Language becomes more intimate charged with feeling and questioning as in Man’s question, “Am I as much as being seen?”
After writing “The Bald Soprano” Ionesco commented that he had written “a tragedy of language.” He systematically and progressively throughout the play dislocates language from meaning. This is his explanation, My plan was to empty words of their content, to designify language to abolish it…I was trying to find the most worn- out clichés. I was trying to express ontological absence, the void; I was trying to express the inexpressible.
Do you consider the Theatre of the Absurd a historical movement? Are there “new” playwrights joining the canon? Are there works today in contemporary/pop culture that might fall into this category but go by another name?
There seems to be an avoidance to categorize the Theatre of the Absurd as a historical movement however it has influenced many playwrights writing now. A few prominent playwrights are: Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Vaclav Havel, Tom Stoppard, and Caryl Churchill.
Audiences are fiercely interested in narrative. As a director, does staging these works involve any sort of internal conflict in terms of wanting to balance the needs of the playwrights and the audience?
As a director I live in a torment of self-doubt and anxiety and then survive it. I put the audience and the space where the audience sits in my imagination right away and endeavor to see it from their perspective throughout the entire rehearsal process. I am persistently dreaming this communication forward as I stage. All crafting choices: music, choreography, kinesthetic design, articulation of text, tempi are for the purpose of integrating an audience’s unconscious into the experience. I don’t believe I have all the answers and I never want to impose form on the actors. Through choreography, improvisation and process I move through the darkness of unknowing crafting the play with the actors. I trust them and their connection to each other and ongoing invention with each other. I am looking for the intrinsic motor of the play with them. My research helps me enormously with this.
Before I begin auditions I have immersed myself. I did not have difficulty in staging “Play.” I determined from my research into the first production with George Devine how I would rehearse the actors. That was the biggest hurdle. I chose to begin in the first rehearsal with the stage manager sitting behind the actors when they were on book tapping them to cue speech. The actors are in an extreme situation of physical restraint within the Urns and facing front responding to a light not to each other. When the lines were learned I directed the stage manager to conduct the actors from a music stand in front of the actors. And then we had the lights in rehearsal. We determined that for this work the stage manager would run the light board. I approached “Play” from my background as a singer and thought of it as Oratorio with directives towards pitch, timbre, and tempo.
“Quad” was determined through analyzing the drawing made by Beckett and his instructions regarding the entrances of Players 1,2,3 and 4. In my interpretation I chose to stylize the walk to be that of Noh Theatre to give the performance a sense of ritual. From an essay “Quad” And The Jungian Mandala by Minako Okamuro and Minako Okamura I learned the relationship of “Quad” to the Alchemical Mandala. This became a part of the development of the lighting design by Elizabeth Waldman and her sound design. This was to heighten its ritualistic effect. These staging decisions were to clarify the form for the audience.
I understand the hunger for narrative but all three plays fiercely avoid a proscribed narrative and development. They are worlds unto themselves to be in relation to. “The Bald Soprano” caused me the most consternation. It is a satire that doesn’t behave as a satire. It self-destructs and then reinvents itself. I threw all kinds of styles into it’s staging: Vaudeville, Clown, Commedia Dell’ Arte, Biomechanics, Melodrama, Stanislavski Actions, and Mime. I thought of visual non-sequiturs to track the verbal non- sequiturs and the moments of lazzi. In vaudeville a lazzo would be called a bit and in The Bald Soprano lazzi abound. I felt concerned I hadn’t arrived at a unity binding these forms and then I read an essay of Martin Esslin’s about Ionesco’s love of Fairy Tales and dreams. That did it! I approached “The Bald Soprano” play-world now as a fractured fairy tale and that gave me the idea for the Fire Captain as a cartoon hero. I had also read that Ionesco thought of the characters in “The Bald Soprano” as “Suffering Marionettes.” The audience may notice that the movement theme of Marionettes reoccurs in terms of a mime phrase. I know I am taking a risk doing these plays in our reality based culture but I actually trust the responsiveness of audiences to relate if from the conception and continuously through the development of the performance they have been considered and imagined.
What is your most meaningful moment as an audience member viewing an absurdist work? Set the scene for us.
My most meaningful moment as an audience member in an absurdist work was in a performance of Debra Warner’s production of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” with Fiona Shaw playing Winnie at the National Theatre in London. I must admit I was worried about the visual of a woman being buried up to her waist in Act I and then up to her neck in Act II. Beckett images can stick inside your brain and emerge into your dream life. However it was not the case. I was mesmerized and dare I say ‘happy’ at the finish of the performance. As I watched this production of “Happy Days” I became aware of where the freedom was in this woman’s survival. In Act I it was in the contents of her purse and in her torso as she reached and swayed within her restraint. In Act II the freedom was in Winnie’s voice and I had the most astounding experience of the text of the play being one with the content of my own thought. In actuality I experienced her ruminations as my own. I was not an outside observer. There was no me observing. Winnie’s voice supplanted my inner monologue. I was awake.
Tell us a little about the design of the shows.
I was tremendously assisted by the design team comprised of Maggie Srmayan for set design, Lauryn Moles for costume design, Elizabeth Waldman for Quad sound design and lighting design, Daniel Vaughn for Play sound design and Aubrianne Scott for makeup design. In a meeting in November 2013 I spoke with the set designer about Surrealism. An exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London called “Surrealist Things” had thrilled me. My idea was to place the Smiths’ home in a Surrealist world. As I engaged in my research I discovered the extent to which Beckett admired the visual artists of his time. I believe that he was a scenographer crafting every aspect of his vision for the stage. I encouraged my designers to be equal partners in creating the world of the plays. We evolved the concept of the floor peeling back layers like an onion from a black void to a white square to the bright world of the Smiths. Elsa Schiaparelli had been a friend of the Surrealists and at the Surrealist Things exhibit I saw her haute couture on exhibit. It was whimsical incorporating the dream reality of the Surrealists. The costume designer took her lead from Schiaparelli’s designs. The upside down shoe of the Fire Captain is inspired by Schiaparelli’s high heel hat. When you are not in service to realism all the designers can be freed to create the play world as equals.
What advice do you have for audiences seeing these shows?
My recommendation is to bring forward the dreaming mind and have confidence in the associations that arise. When listening to a work of music I do not believe we want to figure out the meaning. We allow ourselves to be moved by the waves of sounds. These plays are waves of sound, light, text, and movement. They have environments that have been carefully crafted to locate vistas of the imagination. They are seeking to dislodge your expectations of theatre by establishing a relationship to you through the worlds of their being and to enliven your imagination.
Pictured top: Matthew Rudolf Schultz, Michael Anthony Dixon Jr., Amanda Marie Valdez and Breayre Shaunice Tender in the Fresno State production of Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano.” Bee photos by John Walker.