Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Little Bit About My New Play, Nero/Pseudo

The new play that I've been working on since July 2009 --called Nero/Pseudo -- is finally ready for people to read. Which is exciting. The first draft was finished this past summer, then it got a ruthless rewrite or two -- the last one thanks to some very perceptive comments by DC playwright Jim McNeill and actor/director Gwen Grastorf.

I went back into my notebooks to try and trace down just what the original impetus for Nero/Pseudo was. I remember it being a very hot summer day, and I sought refuge in the cool darkness of the bedroom and started reading a copy of Tacitus' Histories -- his account of 69 AD, the so-called "Year of Four Emperors" which kicked off with Nero's suicide and ended only with Vespasian's triumphant return to Rome.

I had only gotten to early in the second book of the volume when I came across this passage:

About this time Achaia and Asia were thrown into a groundless panic by a rumor that "Nero was at hand." The accounts of his death being many and various, people were all the more inclined to allege and to believe that he was still alive. I shall mention in the course of this work the attempts and the fate of the other pretenders. This time it was a slave from Pontus, or, according to other traditions, a freedman from Italy. His skill as a singer and harpist combined with his facial resemblance to Nero, gave him some credentials for imposture.

The passage startled me. It was a story only half-remembered. I recall thinking about it for a few minutes, getting up, Googling it a bit, finding out that there had been two or three such pretenders (scholars differ) and then grabbing my notebook and writing (as I look at it again now):

Play about first Pseudo-Nero.

A bunch of other thoughts flooded the page, and then the first title:

The Return of the Exalted Emperor Nero, Confounding Reports Erroneous of Unfortunate Demise

It took me five years to get the last play I wrote, Burn Your Bookes, from my head to the 2007 Prague Playwriting Festival to the Kennedy Center to Taffety Punk's amazing production at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop this past April. But I learned a lot from that experience, and I've accelerated my process of researching, outlining and writing. I've also become smarter about my own work habits as a playwright.

So now that it's done, I'm starting to look for a home for Nero/Pseudo. Getting in it the hands of various folks, trying to obtain opinions and critiques and (hopefully)to generate some interest in a production. Part of that process is writing a succinct synopsis, which I'm inserting at the end of this post. As you'll see, the play has its roots in history, but it's not a period piece.

Interested in reading it? Let me know in the comments or by email if the synopsis intrigues you:

Nero/Pseudo: A Synopsis

A naked fake emperor. Glam rock. A head in a box. That's Nero/Pseudo -- a new play by Richard Byrne.

Nero/Pseudo takes its inspiration from a passage in Tacitus' Histories, in which a man with an uncanny physical resemblance to the emperor Nero (and skill in playing the lyre) took Greece by storm a few months after the real Nero's suicide in 69 AD. Not only did the fake Nero cause mass tumult before he was captured and executed -- but the notion that Nero might actually return to rule again was fuel for apocalyptic writers in Jewish and Christian sects of that era (including The Book of Revelation).

But Nero/Pseudo isn't a period piece. Byrne mashes up classical literature with glam rock, political cults of celebrity, a healthy dollop of sex and a newly-imagined version of Nero's famous poem on the Fall of Troy. All but three lines of the original Nero poem have been lost, so the playwright's new version casts as much an eye on contemporary politics as it does on Trojans and Greeks.

Nero/Pseudo requires a minimum of six (6) actors. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Belarus Free Theatre's Being Harold Pinter: Theatre Gets Political

(This is the second of two posts about Belarus Free Theatre -- and it deals with Free Belarus Theatre's Being Harold Pinter, which was read in solidarity with the troupe on January 17, 2011 in Washington DC at Theater J. The first post on Belarus Free Theatre and the reading itself, can be found here. The photo at right is Pinter with the troupe's members in Leeds in 2007.)

When Harold Pinter died in 2008, I wrote a short piece for The Nation about his legacy from an American playwright's point of view.

One of the issues that I addressed in this essay was Pinter's sharp political turn after 1975's No Man's Land. Early in his career, Pinter fiercely resisted the notion of fixing definite meanings -- let alone politics -- to his plays. I even quoted his 1970 speech accepting the German Shakespeare Prize (reprinted in the fourth volume of his Complete Works), which seems to attack not only that process of criticism but even the notion of collective political theatre which is Belarus Free Theatre's very reason for existence:

I am not concerned with making general statements. I am not interested in theater used simply as a means of self-expression on the part of the people engaged in it. I find in so much group theater, under the sweat and assault and noise, nothing but valueless generalizations, naïve and quite unfruitful.

What happened to Pinter's work after 1980 or so is also part of history. Many of his dramatic works became explicitly political. He took up writing poetry that was so corrosive in its political views that the verse not only corroded the target but in many ways ate away at itself.

Indeed, Pinter's speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature was one of the most political speech of any such address. Much of the attention of newspapers was on the playwright's full-scale (and in many ways, quite accurate) assault on U.S. foreign policy, but many involved in the theatre were looking carefully about what Pinter said about his art.

They were not to be disappointed. Pinter's speech said a lot about the distinctions he drew between a sort of general or artistic drama and political drama. About the former, Pinter stated:

Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.

The playwright of 1970, then. But Pinter quickly draws a different line for what he calls "political theatre":

Political theatre presents an entirely different set of problems. Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will. This does not always work. And political satire, of course, adheres to none of these precepts, in fact does precisely the opposite, which is its proper function.

My argument (in The Nation and in general) is that Pinter never solved the "entirely different set of problems" in his political theatre. Plays like One for the Road and Mountain Language are smart, savage, and powerful -- but they do "sermonise" and they are not objective and one never feels that the characters are "breathing their own air," but rather that they are speaking with Pinter's breath.

Let me state here my own position, so that it's clear. As a playwright with strong political beliefs -- a slender sliver rightward of Pinter might be the best way to nutshell it -- I am in favor of politically-engaged theatre. It's necessary. For me, the questions are (a) how effective is political theatre as theatre? and (b) how effective is political theatre as engaged political intervention?

Unlike Pinter, I don't want to divide the two genres. I want One for the Road to be a dramatic work that's as skilled and sublime as The Homecoming. The playwright should, too. And when I measure them, that's my yardstick. But as a politically-engaged playwright, I'm also at looking how the plays I watch articulate a political worldview. I can admire the skill of a play and still find it wanting in common humanity or dislike it for expressing a political view I find insidious.

In essence, I want one theatre -- engaging on both a human and a political level, because both levels so intertwined. Humans may indeed have simple desires, but in their encounter with society, and then again back in inside ourselves as we collide with and conspire with society -- these simple desires play out in wildly dizzying complexity. I want complex human and progressive politics -- not agitprop and Lehrstücke. (A tall order, yes. But we can aspire to it, and achieve less than it, and still bring clarity and change to our lives and to our politics.)

This has been a long and winding path -- sorry 'bout that -- to examining Belarus Free Theatre's Being Harold Pinter -- which was read with such verve and technical polish by an engaged group of DC actors including organizer Leigh Jameson, Eric Messner, Matthew R. Wilson, Mark Krawcyzk, Ian Armstrong, Will Gartshore, Rana Kay and Marni Penning -- on January 17 at Theater J in Washington DC.

The piece was written by Vladimir Shcherban, but most of it is excerpts from Pinter -- from the Nobel speech and plays ranging widely over his career from the Homecoming to Mountain Language. The cleverness of Shcherban's adaption of Pinter is in its concision and strategic deployment of Pinter's work. The pieces moves elegantly but powerfully from the inside out -- touching first on the familial violence of The Homecoming to the searing sexual traumas of Ashes to Ashes to the Pinter's plays on torture and the state. Near the end of the play, Shcherban allows Belarusian activists to speak about their sufferings under government harassment before allowing Pinter some last words.

It was a powerful experience, even as a reading, and it left me with the following thoughts:

* Pinter's early work is sublime -- and in retrospect, can be read politically. Trusting writers speaking about their own work is a perilous game. Trusting writers reflecting back over a career with early statements that they must somehow walk back in light of later growth or change in position/situation is even more fraught with peril. And great writers like Pinter abhor being reduced to one meaning. (Think about those "multiple truths" that he points to in the Nobel speech.) But as I noted above Shcherban's skillful use of Pinter's early work to draw a cohesive picture of political violence rooted in the violence of family and sex is tremendous. Pinter's early work is clearly useful and inspires complex and human political thought -- even if there are other (competing/complementary/annihilating) truths working within these plays.

* Pinter's political plays pack more of a punch than I expected. Though I have not changed my own feelings about Pinter's political turn and its effect on his writing (its shaving down of operational truths within the plays), there is no doubt that in our own moment --a moment in which the perpetrators of torture in the U.S. government have openly admitted their actions and still walk our streets with impunity with no comprehensive investigation by the subsequent administration -- plays like One for the Road and Mountain Language should be the repertory of American theatres across the country. These plays clarify and advance a discussion which truly deserves the much-abused labels of "urgent" and "necessary."

* I found the reading of testimony by Belarusian activists less compelling than readings from Pinter. Well, duh. They are activists, not Nobel-winning playwrights. And the readers, to their credit, did a marvelous job, even improvising Slavic accents on the spot to differentiate the testimonies.

Indeed, that last observation may hold the key not only to why I found that part of the play less compelling -- but why the play as a whole (particularly in its own context in Belarus) -- is a wonderful and moving example of theatre that can satisfy artistically and move politics forward.

Hearing Pinter in English and hearing the voice of Belarusian activists in English was not the intention of the playwright. What a member of an audience in Belarus was likely to hear was a translation of Pinter into Belarusian and then the weaving of Belarusian voices into the mix. It would be a much more seamless experience, though I imagine much of Pinter's craft survived translation.

Yet the audacity of Shcherban and the Belarus Free Theatre in grabbing one of the most powerful playwrights in English -- his savagery, his humanity and his passion -- and making it their own is precisely the intention here. Not only is it brilliant, but it is also theater at its most political and most human. Being Harold Pinter hijacks Pinter and allies him with the condition of "being" in Belarus. And also the condition of "being" anywhere. That's why it's powerful work.

(Photo of Pinter taken from the Charter 97 website: http://charter97.org/en/news/2008/12/29/13512/)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stepping Up for Belarus

(This is the first of two posts about Belarus Free Theatre -- and it deals with a reading held in solidarity with the troupe on January 17, 2011 in Washington DC at Theater J. The second post, on Free Belarus Theatre's Being Harold Pinter, will follow in the next day or so.)

On January 17, I was one of 200 people who gathered at Theater J in Washington DC to show our solidarity with the embattled Belarus Free Theatre at a reading of their most recent work, Being Harold Pinter.

So what's the matter with Belarus anyway? Why is one of its theatre companies embattled?

Belarus is a tiny nation tucked in between five countries: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. It's been under the one-man rule of Alexander Lukashenko for most of the past two decades. (It's often called the "last dictatorship in Europe.")

Lukashenko has the same sorts of soft totalitarian tools in his toolbox that those who were familiar with the career of former Yugoslav and Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic: ruthless exploitation of divide and conquer tactics in domestic politics, firm control of the media, and seeming "thaws" in his control largely orchestrated for international consumption (the EU, IMF, etcetera.). But Lukashenko also has been quicker to rely on repressive tactics than Milosevic ever was. The truncheon has been used a lot more freely and persistently in Belarus.

That's where a group like Belarus Free Theatre has entered the picture. The group has been a persistent thorn in the side of the Lukshenko regime. And in a country as small as Belarus, a theatre troupe can punch far above the weight we in the United States tend to assign to our own theatres.

Over the past six years, since the company made its debut with a production of Sarah Kane's Psychosis 4.48, Belarus Free Theatre has been pushed back against political and cultural repression in the country with smart, savage works performed under immense duress on samizdat principles: secret locations, last minute notifications of performances. And the Lukashenko regime has pushed back, jailing many members of the company and their audience.

The situation for the Belarus and the Belarus Free Theatre recently came to a head after fiercely disputed elections in mid-December. In the run-up to the elections, Lukashenko made superficial moves toward transparency and fairness in conditions for the vote, but the election day itself was fraught with numerous irregularities. And when the electoral commission commission controlled by the regime announced that Lukashenko had received almost 80 percent of the votes in a ten candidate field (NB: link from official Belarus media), citizens took to the streets to protest.

The protest triggered not only a vicious police assault on the crowd, but a sustained crackdown on all opposition in the country that intensified over the next few days. One of the theatre's leaders, Natalia Koliada, and other members of the company -- as well as some of the presidential candidates -- were among those swept up in the crackdown, while other members went to ground.

Koliada was released quickly (reportedly in error) and she made her way out of Belarus with other members of the company, which was slated to fulfill a committment to perform in New York earlier this month.

Which brings us to the present moment. Considering the blaze of publicity surrounding the election, Lukashenko's crackdown and the key role of the Belarus Free Theatre in publicizing what's happening in their country, all of its members would likely be arrested quickly upon their return. So the company member face a difficult decision that confronts all political artists, activists and dissidents who make it out: (a) Go back and face the harsh music of their present society (as Vaclav Havel did after 1968); or (B) ply their trade in exile -- either far from Belarus or in a neighboring country such as Lithuania or Latvia.

Fortunately, that decision is not quite so imminent. They've been given a monthlong residency in Chicago in February at the Goodman Theatre, with co-sponsorhip by the League of Chicago Theatres and Northwestern University And the readings of their work (such as that in Washington, DC on Monday night) are also raising much-needed cash and consciousness.

The DC reading was organized by Leigh Jameson, who worked indefatigably on behalf of Belarus Free Theatre here in Washington over the past month. She gathered a tremendous group of actors on short notice to do the reading of Being Harold Pinter. A few of them -- Eric Messner, Matthew R. Wilson and Mark Krawcyzk -- are good friends of mine who shined their usual bright selves. The rest of the cast -- Jameson, Ian Armstrong, Will Gartshore, Rana Kay and Marni Penning -- was equally passionate. Best of all, the entire ad hoc troupe was technically superb in handling the demands presented by the work of Harold Pinter -- who's a very difficult playwright indeed. And it's always good to see Jessica Lefkow, who was acting as Leigh Jameson's co-conspirator on the night.

I'm going to dig into Being Harold Pinter as a play in another post, but I'll end this introduction/celebration of a terrific night by pointing out two things:

(1) How wonderful it was that Theater J and its artistic director Ari Roth stepped up into the void to make the night happen in DC. Theater J relishes being in the mix, scrapping and provoking. They were at it again on January 17. They should be very proud that they stepped up -- as should their board and others involved with the company.

(2) Leigh Jameson is amazing. Here's why I admire what she did for Belarus Free Theatre. Lots of people have emotional responses to artists who are being persecuted for their work, and do nothing but think good thoughts and send out good karmic vibes. Leigh transmuted her initial response to Belarus Free Theatre's plight into an event that let so many of us express our solidarity and outrage. We in the DC theatre community and the region in general owe her an immense debt of gratitude.