Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Seattle was a place for making rough, wild art, and during that time myself and four others co-founded an experimental performance group called Run/Remain. We made theater out of what happens on a bus, words we liked or that stuck in our heads, characters from Shakespeare, American history, a pan of brownies, medical conditions, song-and-dance, collapsible beds, dreams… Just pieces of life, really, that we would try—intuitively, impulsively—to discover ourselves in. That might mean learning the accordion, or building a giant papier maché solar system. It was a thrilling and uncomfortable process, and I became more and more bewildered. The collapsible bed was surprising and beautiful, but why a collapsible bed?

After a while, I conveniently fell in love with someone who was headed for Spain; joining him meant quitting the group and, taking my unease as evidence that I was not really one of them, I reckoned they’d be glad. Instead they were puzzled and disappointed, and a couple of years later, when another member left to form her own experimental dance/theater company, she asked me to join. Untrained in dance, I said yes anyway, and a year or so along was stricken again by confusion and self-doubt. Dancing was fine, I just didn’t get what we were doing, and was partly relieved when the company dissolved.

Twenty years later, the soupy, swirling indeterminacy of life still flusters and confounds me, but gradually that’s seemed less like a problem to solve and more like extreme arts & crafts – knit a tea cozy out of jello and light bulbs!. Or like one of those shows we used to make. The question of why life’s a collapsible bed turns out less interesting than what that bed moves, surprising and beautiful, in me.

Kristen Kosmas, an especially intrepid innovator during that period in Seattle, has never had trouble surprising herself as well as her audience in works that are presented, most of them anyway, theatrically. Some of these she considers unstageable—or, and amounting to the same thing, infinitely stageable—which would seem to be the kind of theater (and self?) she likes best.

What follows are excerpts from a 2014 interview with Kosmas while her play There There was being staged at On the Boards Theater in Seattle. There There is described as “a wildly unpredictable theatrical roller coaster about being the completely wrong person in the totally wrong place at the exact wrong time saying and doing all the most wrong things.” Elsewhere Kosmas outlines the work as “a monologue for two actors, a bilingual performance duet that happens simultaneously in English and Russian. It’s inspired by the completely unsympathetic character Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. He’s the one who says he’d fry Natasha’s baby up in a frying pan and eat him if it were his child.” Here she mulls over the unexpected virtues of failure, self-interruption, starting over, and really bad theater.

Larissa Tokmakova with Kristin Kosmas in 'There There' at the Chocolate Factory (NYC). Photograph by Brian Rogers.

Can we start with There There? Can you tell us a little bit about the piece?

KK: I was in grad school when I started writing it and a lot of people for a couple of years before that had been comparing my writing to Chekhov. Which I found totally absurd… So I started reading his plays again…and when I was reading Three Sisters, my first sort of inspiration about the play was the character Captain Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony. There There is basically his monologue–-that’s the foundational conceit.

In Three Sisters, everything he says brings every single conversation to a grounding halt. Everything just dies every time he talks, and the whole play has to start over again. As a playwright, I found it hilarious and fascinating that Chekhov would—is he doing that to himself or is he allowing himself to do that?—like use a character as a structural device. I’m sure he didn’t think of it like this at all, but I thought, “He’s using a character as a structural device for the purpose of like interruption and like beginning again, like fail start over, fail start over. Interrupt—disaster—start over. Non sequitur, nonsense. Okay, start over.” And I thought it was really funny and fascinating structurally, and so I set out to make a play that had that structure. That was just like constant having to begin again.

Somewhere in the middle (it took me three years to write it), somewhere in the middle I realized from dwelling in the play and in the character—I realized that another part of my attraction to it and why I was doing it was that I relate to being that person in the real world. Every time [that person talks] everyone is just like, “Oh god, what are you talking about and why are you talking and who even invited you here?” And I have a sense of humor about that in myself, since I am so old now and it has been my reality for such a long time that I don’t feel—anyway, it was like, “Oh that’s funny, I’m like him.”

At first, it didn’t really have anything to do with the character. It was sort of coincidental that it was the character in this play that was doing it. And interruption—also part of the reason that I felt happy and I went towards it rather than away from it, was that interruption has also been part of my making. I used to take a lot of dance and movement classes with great choreographers, and I am trying to remember which teacher it was. But anyway, she had also developed a rehearsal tool inspired by the reality of her life where everything she set out to do got interrupted by a phone call or having to go to the bathroom or someone knocking on her door or remembering that you left the cat outside or whatever. And so she made a choreographic rehearsal tool where every gesture that you were doing you would interrupt it as soon as you became aware of it and where it was going—then you would have to do something else.

I was in my early 20s when I took that class and it makes sense to me on every level and it also is so much a part of our lives. I think part of the reason also that I make the kind of theater that I make is because I get bored frankly when something is completely linear. It also seems very false to me. I not only get bored, but I’m like, ‘Nothing ever actually goes on for that duration with that kind of precise forward momentum—conversations, feelings, thoughts—nothing for me.’ So it was quite natural for me to work like that. And I also use a lot of—I make things—I think more like a collage artist or an arranger of things. I think compositionally. So to take a piece of text and put another one—or insert something else into it before it has ended—that wasn’t hard, the interrupting part. What was really bad about the first draft was that all of the things that I wrote were really stupid. Like none of the text that I wrote to interrupt—most of it was really bad..it was like literally the words were bad. There actually was a section of the play in one of the early drafts where one of the sections was about the fact that the words were really bad. Like the actor makes a phone call in the middle of the play and says, “Why did you—I just want to know why you chose not to give me the money that you said that you had available and that was available to people who were—?” and then finally the person on the other end says, “It was the words. We didn’t like the words you used.”

That was another thing that was really funny when I was making [a] play when I was in grad school, I brought in the first draft and I said—it wasn’t only the spoken text but there were all these other things in the play that I thought, ‘I cannot abide this. When I see this happening in the theater, I hate it, so I don’t know why I’m doing this!’

So Mac Wellman, who was my playwriting teacher in grad school said, “I find that everything that I hate in a particular moment, usually five years later I either accept it or love it.” And he was like, “So just stick with it,” and I was like, “Okay.”

So I feel like even though those things I had such an aversion to as I was doing them, my intuition told me that that’s actually really how this play goes. You are going to do everything with words, everything with acting, everything in theater presentation that really either you can’t stand or is totally inappropriate. It wasn’t conscious – I don’t have ideas like that that I realize, I usually am doing something like that and then much, much later I realize why I did it.

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