PLAY/ground Interview: David Wiener

We asked each of our PLAY/ground playwrights to answer one question pertaining to their play. Here’s what they had to say…

David Wiener author of Cassiopeia:

Q. Cassiopeia is a stylistic departure from your other plays. How did you come to this more poetic approach, and has it informed your work overall?

A: In 2002, when I was just out of graduate school, I received a strange and wonderful phone call.  On the other end of the line was the halting musical voice of Joseph Chaikin. Joe had suffered a stroke several years earlier, which had left him partially aphasic — aphasia is a condition which diminishes a person’s ability to access the language centers of the brain.  It’s important to note that aphasia affects a person’s ability to retrieve language and not the language itself.  As was the case with Joe, the words are all there, but often remain just out of reach. At the time, I remember thinking that it was no small task for Joe to call on a telephone.  In any case, the gist of our conversation was that Joe had read one of my plays called For The Dead (which I think was my second full length play). He liked it and wanted to know if I would consider writing something for him to perform.  I had no idea what that commitment might mean, but I did know that I was speaking with one of the most significant theatrical artists of all time. So, I said, yes.

The great director (and Joe’s long-time “right hand”) Anders Cato, acted as a kind of facilitator for our meetings in Joe’s loft on the Hudson, but even with Anders’ equanimity and patience I found collaborating with Joe to be difficult.  Not only was conversation challenging because of Joe’s aphasia, but our ability to settle on a theme or idea that was mutually interesting seemed elusive.  I should also mention that Joe’s interest in my writing led to a commission from a prominent theater, so that pressure came to bear on the process as well.  I began to suspect that I was out of my depth and lost in the process.  And then one day…

Joe began to speak about his stroke.  He spoke of waking up, alone, in a dark hospital room, knowing only the word, “no.”. He spoke of laying on his side, staring out the window.  And this man– an essential member of the Living Theater, the creator of The Open Theater, the man who played both Lear and Hamlet at the Public Theater in the same season, the progenitor of many groups including The Wooster Group and Mabou Mines, the only person whom Samuel Beckett authorized to direct his plays after his death, found himself without the one tool which had made him all of this.  Joe Chaikin knew he had lost his words.  And in that moment, he wanted to die, he said.  Joe stopped his story there.  His brow furrowed in the way that it did when he was searching for the right sound… “But… not… die.  But…  Surprising… but…”  The words hiding from him again, Joe stood.  He took my hand and led me to the one room I’d never seen in his apartment.  He opened the door. There, above Joe Chaikin’s bed was a spinning mobile of the heavens.  He pointed:

Joe: Stars.


Me: They kept you alive.

Joe:  Yes.

I went home that night, turned on some music, poured a drink and wrote the majority of Cassiopeia in a single sitting.  I knew that what I put on the page would be about change, about memory, about music, and most of all, about stars.  I tried very hard not to “compose” a play.  Instead, I focused on two distinct voices. I relaxed as much as I could and allowed the music to establish a rhythm.  Then I “transcribed” what the voices said.  Somehow, all of our talk over the preceding months filtered through these two characters and became the intertwined narrative that comprises the bulk of this piece.

That these voices spoke in a non-naturalistic manner is as much a product of Joe’s theatrical tradition as my process in writing it.  Over the course of our collaboration, I’d listened to recordings of Joe’s work with writers like Sam Shepard and Jean Claude van Itallie.  To me, these pieces seemed less concerned with the explication of plot and psychology and instead, focused on the exploration of a state of being.  That view of theater resonated with me.  I don’t like plot in plays.  Even in my more conventional work, I can’t begin there. That’s not to say that I’m repelled by story.  Quite the contrary, I believe a playwright’s first duty is to tell a story well.  But the kind of storytelling that interests me most (and which I saw exemplified in Joe’s work) is that in which the dramatic action proceeds, not from characters reacting to a series of events, but rather, from emotional causality.  It is a kind of theater that places a great deal of trust in its audience.  It’s a theater that’s not primarily concerned with drawing connections and making sense intellectually or even logically.  Instead, non-naturalistic theater wants to transport us in the way that music can transport us– emotionally.  And that’s where I think poetry enters the equation.  “Normal” or “conventional” dialog tends to engage our brains– it lives in the literal world of cause and effect.  Poetry however, engages us through our bodies and metaphysical organs — poetry lives in the metaphorical realm between music and conventional speech– where the concrete rules of language give way to the evocative primordial forces of rhythm and melody.  That poetic language can exist in the theater is, I think, evidence that theater is a dynamic and exciting medium.

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