Daniel Fish’s “House for Sale,” currently playing at the Duke Theater. Photo by Carol Rosegg
I first encountered the work of Daniel Fish two winters ago, at the Incubator Arts Project, where Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason Starring In a Movie by Nicholas Ray In Which a Man’s Illness Provides an Escape From the Pain, Pressure and Loneliness of Trying To Be the Ultimate American Father, Only to Drive Him Further Into the More Thrilling, Though Possibly Lonelier Roles of Addict and Misunderstood Visionary was enjoying its all too brief, divisive, but mostly wildly acclaimed run. No one had bothered to really prepare me for the severe, bizarre, intelligent theatrical vision I was about to witness; looking back, I can only properly describe that first encounter as a trauma, a break, an effraction of my position as spectator. (NB: Militant Freudian [read: Lacanian] that I am, I mean “traumatic” as high praise.) The trauma, the upset, that Tom Ryan Thinks provoked in me was strictly correlative to the production’s radical aesthetic novelty – something actually, categorically new was taking place here, some unfamiliar idea about the theater, about what it is or might become, and I found myself unable to incorporate or domesticate this new thought into my old ways of thinking about the stage.
For roughly the past two decades, Fish has been developing his aesthetic in a theatrical universe that, frankly, reminds me of nothing outside it. He is one of our great auteur-directors; each work bears his signature, his unmistakable trace. How to explain this trace, though? First characterization: Fish’s aesthetic depends primarily upon the “cold-fusion” of elements (formal, stylistic/tonal, historical, thematic) that would generally be considered incompatible, as well as upon the dissociation of those elements we tend to think of as necessarily conjoined. Rather than smooth over incongruity (repression), rather than attempt to reconcile the disjunct elements it gathers on stage, his theater lingers over and revels in its various heterogeneities. Fish is a master of that paradoxical logical operator Gilles Deleuze termed disjunctive synthesis, which involves a simultaneous gathering together and separation of terms. A gathering-in-separation, a special kind of cleaving. Here is Deleuze (from The Logic of Sense): “The divergence or decentering determined by the disjunction become objects of affirmation as such. The disjunction is not at all reduced to a conjunction; it is left as disjunction.”[i] This is what is at stake on Fish’s stage – a space always already decentered, dispersed, out of joint, a propinquity of non-reconcilable terms.
Fish is a formalist, and a serious one at that. Witness one of his shows, and you’ll note fairly early on that the form is decidedly not in service to conventions and meanings before or outside the spectacle (“in the tradition,” “in the text”). It’s always the other way round; form and meaning are strictly coterminous, and thus the formal process by means of which a piece unfolds is also the key to reading it. Indeed, Fish’s emphasis on process, on the laying bare of process as such, has led him to construct theatrical apparatuses the austere simplicity and transparency of which call to mind, more than anything in the theater world, the early phase music of Steve Reich, or Frank Stella’s polygonal painting-sculptures. Examples: In Tom Ryan Thinks, two actors alternate all the lines in a Hollywood script featuring dozens of characters, thereby refracting the text’s signification and laying waste to the normative stability and psychological integrity of character. In A Supposedly Fun Thing, a handful of actors outfitted with headphones struggle to repeat the words of David Foster Wallace as they are fed recordings of his voice in real time. In these and other works, there is an immediate, or near immediate, procedural legibility that distinguishes Fish’s aesthetic from, say, the more avowedly baroque, obscurer proceedings of a Foreman or a Wellman. This isn’t to suggest that Fish is a theatrical minimalist. For, although his conceptual apparatus might be discernible at the outset, a closer, more sustained attention reveals another dimension of his aesthetic, something that truly sets him apart from other, similarly cerebral formalist contemporaries. To wit, he isn’t afraid of the theater’s impure, even sometimes haphazard, sensuousness, its dazzling surfaces, its rich textures. He isn’t afraid of theatricality, of its constitutive excess over concept and form; treating it as neither enemy (“the plywood box”) nor exigency (Broadway), Fish places its pleasures fully at his theater’s disposal. He thinks through theatricality – and this is to be taken in both senses. Hence, a theater that is at once difficult and sumptuous, alienating and seductive.
Fish has long been interested in film – as a textual resource/referent (the screenplay), an element of his stagecraft (the screen), and a structural challenge to his dramaturgy (the “language” of cinema vs. the “language” of the theater). Recently, he made his first serious turn to filmmaking, with the hour-long The Dollar General, a funny, quiet, cinematographically deadpan meditation on economics, crisis, loss, and change, shot in an abandoned Ford dealership. That is, it’s a movie about America right now. It’s a beautiful movie, profoundly affecting in its visual rusticity, and its haunting final scene – the final shot, especially – numbers among the most memorable committed to film in this country in recent years. This year, Prelude got underway with a screening of The Dollar General. A couple of days later, I met Daniel at the Duke on 42nd Street, where he and his crew and cast were putting the finishing touches on his new show, House For Sale (based on the Jonathan Franzen essay of the same name), which runs through November 18th. We talked about the film, among other things:
Ryan Hatch: This year, Prelude opened with a presentation of your new film, The Dollar General. What were your central concerns when you were making this film, what questions were you seeking to address with it?
Daniel Fish: The film came out of a production of Clifford Odets’ Paradise Lost that I had worked on at A.R.T., and that play is about a family who loses their home, who loses everything, in the depression. I was making the production in 2008 and was obviously thinking a lot about these issues – about foreclosures, and how people were losing their homes now. At A.R.T., I had been interested in really doing the play in a foreclosed home. I thought, could we take apart a foreclosed home, could we do it in a foreclosed home? But that was not possible, so when I finished working on it, I felt like I wanted to work on the play more and so I said I’ll just make it into a movie – but the estate didn’t want me to do that. So I said, well, what would happen if I take… I mean, the part of that production that was Odets were the words. The visuals were mine, the actors were mine, so I thought, what if I just take the script away and start making something else? And so I started from that premise. And then I was visiting upstate and I found this car dealership. And so in the back of my head there had always been this idea about a sort of foreclosed home, or, in this case, a business that had gone under, and I found this space, this beautiful abandoned car dealership and said, this is where this piece should be made! And the film really – the space became the source for everything that followed.
RH: Right. So, when you found this former car dealership, did you know at that time that it was about to be renovated and made into a Dollar General store?
DF: When I came across it, I did not know that. So when I made a phone call to the owner to say, “could I shoot here?” he then said, “you can shoot here if you shoot in the next six weeks, because I’m renting it to become a dollar store,” at which point I thought Oh. This is even – this is getting more interesting by the minute. And so that building essentially became, in many ways, the leading character of the film.
RH: You know, it strikes me – what I thought was most interesting, at least most immediately interesting to me about the film was the quiet way it upended an implicit, really fundamental convention about these types of stories, stories of foreclosure and loss and economic suffering. Generally, to bring about the proper emotional effect in your spectator, you would try to “put a human face” on foreclosure and show me the real people who this kind of systemic catastrophe affects. Political campaign ads tend to sentimentalize this narrative by focusing on the “faces” of suffering. What’s interesting to me is that you’ve subtracted that element, and made the protagonist of your film a building. It’s the life of the building that’s at stake. And there’s something really effective about that. Was this a conscious decision, to not then create characters who would be linked to the building, but just to let the story of the building itself unfold?
DF: Well, it was a conscious decision not to do that in any kind of totally worked out way. I mean, I think there are characters who relate to the building, I think the people [in the film] do relate to the building, I think you’re just not being told what their relationship to that building is. Did these people work in this building, and never leave? Are they renovating the building? Are they squatters who have taken over the building? I mean, I think these are all possibilities. So yes, it was a conscious decision not to put, for example, the owner of the car dealership into the movie. Though he was interviewed… and we shot that. But it became very clear that I wasn’t making a documentary.
RH: I’m glad you said that, because one of the things that strikes me about your work in general, which is definitely on display in The Dollar General, as it was in Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason…, there’s something radical about your approach to character as a dramaturgical factor: you don’t dispense with it entirely, but it isn’t exactly present in the ways we have been trained [by the traditional / mainstream American theater] to expect it, either. These abandoned people in this abandoned building seem to be speaking to each other, communicating and conversing, but it’s also clear that they’re speaking this found text. That they’re being spoken by it, in a sense. So, I want to ask you about the precise status of found text in your work. Because with The Dollar General, considering its aims and concerns, you might easily have fashioned a standard narrative, one that would tell a coherent story about what these people are doing there. It’s clear when I’m watching that the characters are speaking somebody else’s words, words coming from elsewhere. And I don’t know whose they are, or where they’re from, not straightaway. So I guess my question is: what new possibilities does found text open up for you as a theater maker? What is it that you can do with found text that you simply could not do with, say, a script, a script that tells a story?
DF: I’m not sure how to answer that. I mean, for one thing, it’s an issue of control, right? There’s no writer. I’m appropriating material from elsewhere, and so the words start to almost take on an equal weight to the actor and the building – although you say the building is the central fact of the film. But there’s not a writer there to say, “this is what it’s about.” I find that liberating.
…You know, as we sit here, as we’re talking about this, I’m realizing that one of the things I think the film is really dealing with is absence, with what’s gone from that space, and there seems to me to be a sense of absence about those people… there’s something that they’ve lost. Or that’s gone. Arguably, even their own narratives are gone, and have been replaced by these interviews.
RH: Maybe it was just how things played out when you were editing the film, maybe this was a conscious choice, but The Dollar General begins with actors reciting text that expresses these exaggeratedly utopian / dystopian economic visions – from the ever terrifying Ayn Rand, and the only slightly less terrifying Milton Friedman. You have these spokespeople for the ethical promise of the free market, being spoken in a space abandoned by that very promise. And then, you have your actors speak words originally spoken by people who were kind of always already excluded from that promise: Tennessee Williams reflecting on Hart Crane, James Baldwin reflecting on the Harlem. There’s a division in the way these scenes treat absence, and it did create a certain arc – what felt like an arc, even if it wasn’t a narrative arc.
DF: Well I think the arc came a lot in the editing and I think Rachel [Schuman] really helped me do that. The interesting thing about that Baldwin interview is the day that interview was made. That interview was made the afternoon after the meeting with RFK. It had been scheduled ahead of that meeting, so the reason Baldwin is so upset – among everything else – is that he’s just come form this meeting. When he begins that interview and says, “my mind is someplace else, really,” that’s what he’s talking about.
RH: OK, that’s really interesting –
DF: Not that that needs to be evident. But I think it speaks somehow to the depth of that interview and why it has such power.
RH: I want to switch gears now and ask you a kind of basic formal question, about how your work negotiates the relationship between theater and film. The Dollar General is in some ways an extension and further “unfolding” of ideas and questions you were already working on with your staging of Paradise Lost. And so, now, you’re about to start work on a movie with Thomas Jay Ryan and –
DF: It’s a theater piece, it’s not a movie, it’s based on a movie –
RH: Oh it’s, OK, so it’s based on a movie… and it’s called You’re On Your Own, Cookie –
DF: You’re On Your Own, Cookie. Yes, it uses the Cassavetes film Woman Under the Influence as a sort of starting point. And, in this piece, it’s Tom [Ryan] and Christina [Rouner], who were the two actors in Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason…, and they perform the DVD commentary of that film, and the DVD commentary of that film is the camera man and the sound-designer-slash-sound-operator talking about the film thirty years later. And so the two of them perform this dialogue about these two people recalling this seminal moment in their professional lives, and what’s interesting to me about that is how the language they use while talking about the film is really, I think, the same language two people might use to talk about a marriage or to talk about any labor of love, be it a work of art, be it a great meal. I mean, they talk about how they made these spaghetti dinners every night! So again, I think there’s something about removing the context… although I think in this piece, the film will be a visual part, ultimately. Some visual part of that piece.
RH: So, one thing the Prelude curatorial team was really interested in investigating through this year’s proceedings is the place of film in contemporary experimental theater. What is the place of it? It’s a little unclear to me. For you, do your turns to film – whether as a visual part of your theater work, as an extension of or epilogue to theater work, as a textual referent or source – do these turns emerge out of a necessity, is there something that your work in the theater necessarily leaves undone, that you have to do with film?
DF: I think… I think it is the result of necessity in some ways but probably not in the way you’re thinking. In a very crude way, it’s a lot easier to get actors for a five day shoot than it is for ten weeks of rehearsal and performance. And so… that’s kind of how I ended up working on The Dollar General, because I wanted to keep working on that material, and I knew the way, practically and financially, that I could afford to do that was to make it as a film. Now that said, I’ve been interested in film for a long time. I go see a lot more film than theater, but I’m not a filmmaker. I mean yes, I guess I am, because I made a movie. But I don’t – it’s not what I’ve studied, and so I kind of did it to begin to try to learn something. I’m certainly a better theater director than I am a filmmaker! That said, obviously, you know, you’re more in control of what is seen. And I think the interest in found text is also an interest in found space, an interest in real things, in things being exactly as they are, in looking at the poetry of things that are very real. Which I’ve been doing, and which in the theater has led me to strip it down more and more and more and more, as you know. We’re sitting here, looking at the set for [House For Sale], this – you’re basically looking at the set – but you know, I am less and less interested in artifice. But that does not mean I’m not interested in stuff. I mean, the thing about The Dollar General is that nothing, nothing was added to that space.
RH: Everything the spectator sees was truly found –
DF: Everything was truly found. Not only was it found there, it wasn’t moved. The only thing that came in were the actors, what they were wearing, the camera, and the sound equipment. Light wasn’t even brought in. We only used the light that existed there. So… so I think there’s certainly an interest in, while I’m not making a documentary, this film is in a certain sense a sort of visual documentary.
RH: This idea of becoming less and less interested in artifice, more and more interested in the real, this anticipates another question I had about your recent work. So, you’ve done the David Foster Wallace show [A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN (after David Foster Wallace)], which enjoyed a sold-out run at the Chocolate Factory and the highest critical praise, and now you’ve got this show based on a text by Jonathan Franzen… I mean, in a sense, these two guys are the most recent inductees into the Pantheon of The Great American Novelsits –
DF: The Great American White Male Novelists! –
RH: Exactly, yes. You’ve got these two literary figures who’ve achieved a very traditional “white male” measure of greatness as novelists, and they’re also maximalists, each in his own way, with these really dramatic, narratively grand novels. And you turn to them, but you turn to their minor writings, you turn to their essays, you turn to interviews, to [transcripts of] their speech. What is it about these guys that is attractive to you? I mean, I don’t mean to lump them together exactly, but –
DF: Of course you would lump them together, I understand why you would lump them together! And they were dear friends –
RH: Only to a certain degree do I want to lump them together. Really, only to the extent that they themselves did do I want to, but there is a stylistic maximalism common to both of them, and it’s interesting that you’re drawn to them but you’re really to thier incidental, or –
DF: Well with Wallace, I don’t think I was attracted just to the incidental stuff. I wasn’t doing Infinite Jest, but I wasn’t just using the nonfiction, I used some of the short fiction, I used the nonfiction, and I did these interviews. And that was really based on what I found that he had recorded because that – all of that [show] was based on his voice. So it wasn’t…
… But I want to go back for a second to thinking about artifice. Actually, you know, my interest in things being very real in the theater has kind of, I feel know, it has sort of run its course. Not just in my work, but also in other stuff I see. I’m over it. I’m over banality, I’m bored with it, I’m interested in artifice, I’m interested in melodrama. In theater, I’m very interested in these things. I’m not that interested in the plywood box anymore. I think it has turned into its own cliché, I think things being underplayed, and theater avoiding the drama of things in the name of being more truthful is… questionable –
RH: Maybe a little specious –
DF: A little specious, and so, I’m kind of looking for… again, I’ve done it, right? And I’ve seen it. And I think that whole take is very much a reaction against something, against a way of doing something that was more naturalistic – not “real.” And now I’m sort of wondering, OK, well how do we react to that? What is the reaction to this fascination with banality?
RH: So now, you are beginning work on Three Sisters; are you planning to use Chekhov’s play to reinvestigate a return to drama, to melodrama even? Because there is that element in it –
DF: I think, yes, that’s one of the reasons I’m working on that project. And to see, how can human behavior still, you know… I think the behavior should be real, I’m interested in that. But, you know, people act melodramatically sometimes. People scream, people cry, people do crazy shit. And so yeah I think that one of the reasons I’m interested in Three Sisters is exactly the thing you just articulated…
…OK, one more question, and I’ll –
RH: OK, one last question. Your work has always been guided by what seems to me like a real conceptual rigor, a formal discipline. There’s this slow, sometimes glacially slow unfolding of very austere, very aesthetically simple formulae. My question is, when you say, “OK, we’re going to do Chekhov now,” do you begin with the conceptual frame, or is it an effect of the process you undertake with actors and text and space and objects?
DF: I’d say it’s more the latter. I mean I don’t go in with nothing. With the Wallace piece, it was developed over a period of time. So the very first thing was I knew I wanted to work on that material, and then I had a residency to work on it, and then before I got into the residency with the actors I found these audio recording of him reading his work, and that then became the source for everything that we did. But I found those, I didn’t go looking for them. I certainly have ideas about Three Sisters. The main idea I have is what we just said – to me, it’s the restlessness that’s inside the play. You know, one of the things we’ve talked about a lot in this piece, the Franzen piece that I’m making, is the extent to which the actors aren’t playing the material, the material is playing the actor. In another essay, Jonathan Franzen quotes a Rilke novel, where he says something like – I’m not going to quote it correctly – Franzen misquotes it at first as a young man saying “but this time it will be written,” and realizes later that what Rilke wrote was, “but this time I will be written.” And I do think that’s something I’m after, and I was certainly after that in the Wallace piece. His voice played the actors, and I think for me, it’s the same thing in Shakespeare. The material plays you, does something to you. And so in that sense what you said – “are you making a conceptual choice, and following ABC to get there, or is everything the result of what happens in the room?” – I do think it’s more the second, but it’s not quite like I go in with nothing and say “hey guys, let’s just all sit around and get stoned and sing Kumbaya and see what happens.” It’s not quite as open as that…
… But I didn’t answer your Franzen / Wallace question earlier… I mean, honestly if the question was what draws me to it? – I dig the writing. I find the writing thrilling and I find it writing that I want to have more of a conversation with, I want to be engaged with it. And the way I do that, aside from just reading it again, is to make work around it. So, it’s not like I’m interested in staging fiction – this is just writing that I get off on. My work has always been really language heavy, you know. And these pieces only up the challenge.
[i] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale. Ed. Constantin V. Boundas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, 174.