On Neutrality: A Discussion Between Christina Anderson & Richard Maxwell

April Matthis in "Hollow Roots." Photo by Yi Zhao.

April Matthis in “Hollow Roots.” Photo by Yi Zhao.

In Hollow Roots, which plays through the closing of this year’s Under the Radar Festival at the Public, playwright Christina Anderson tackles the question of whether it’s possible to achieve a completely neutral personal narrative. A couple days before it opened last week, we invited playwright and director Richard Maxwell—whose last show, Neutral Hero, was an explicit attempt to stage neutrality—to have a discussion with Anderson about the surprisingly complex topic of neutrality. Below is an excerpted transcript of their dialogue.

Christina Anderson: I was really interested in the solo show because I just read Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, and in the stage directions he writes that this part can be played by anyone. And I was intrigued by that because there’s this entire part where he’s in the Middle East, and even if this person was a woman I feel like she couldn’t walk through the streets of that unnamed Middle Eastern city and be as invisible as even Wallace Shawn. So when I started thinking about the history of solo plays, a lot of times when the performer is a person of color they inhabit different roles and the theatricality is seeing this person of color play all these different people. And often times that singular voice that tells a story is inhabited by a white person. So I started think about that relationship, and when I started writing, early on it was just a person of color–not zeroed-in more, not even thinking about what it would mean to have a black woman tell a story straight through. I think in a sense even the performance has its own neutrality. And at that time I was really sort of obsessed with this notion of post-race, especially when Obama got elected the first time. I was immediately curious what that meant for people of color. Because the conversation always seems to be about white people who are able to look beyond race to vote for Barack Obama. So that’s how neutrality came into the play for me.

Richard Maxwell: I was provoked by one line in your play–they’re all sitting down to dinner and there’s a character who’s talking about neutrality–whether it’s possible to build your own way through life, without accepting the Other’s reality. How a person of race should move through society. I’m paraphrasing obviously. Because I feel like, because I was working with people of color that that was a way that I chose to work with it, to work with that idea of race and to kind of ignore. Because if you’re trying to make a neutral play–which is impossible–who’s going to say that this was successful, that you were successful making a neutral production. It’s always going to be contextualized by people’s experience. But if you forgo that…I guess what I’m saying is you have to forgo that in order to beguile yourself into thinking that this is working somehow. I think it would help if we could clarify what “neutrality” actually means. Because it has political meanings, it has aesthetic meanings. Going back to this particular moment–is that something that actually happen.

Christina Anderson: I was definitely coming at from the question of post-racial society. But I knew as soon as I said that term in the play, people would automatically make decisions about it, decide whether they agreed with it. So I choose the term neutral to get away from that, I think, very political term and fall on the other side of the fence. For me, this definition of neutral just comes from this place of–in terms of race at least–on the inside not seeing yourself as a racial person, and people looking at you don’t tie you to any racial or ethnic thing. But the conflict for me came from was what does that mean about your personal narrative? Does everyone in genealogy just become generic entities? Do you just have a mother and father? Does it matter what they did? Was the kind of work they got determined by class? Is class, can that be neutral? And it became this huge web of possibilities. I realized even when you go for personal narratives, for me at least, it was hard to find neutrality. Because in some ways it disconnected you from your parents. I was particularly, with neutrality, coming at lineage and personal narrative, and how a lot of people in America build a community off that. Claiming to be more comfortable or less comfortable in certain circles based on that lineage. I was curious if a neutral person, could they find another neutral person and could you hang out with them? The interesting conversation, for me, is about how is she going to live in a world that is very conditioned to see things in a particular way.

[…]

Richard Maxwell: Who do you imagine your audience to be? What kind of person comprises your audience? Because for my show, as much as I’ve tried to ignore the racial aspect of my casting, I’m well aware that my audience is predominantly white. It’s a white liberal audience–I provoke them, I think. I think I play with this idea of provocation knowing my demographic, basically. Who do you expect will see your show, and how much does that influence your thinking on neutrality?

Christina Anderson: Well the goal I think is to get as many people of color in the audience as possible. Because I really sort of hesitate to have this conversation be solely one-sided, an audience that’s mostly white. I really want this conversation to be had by as many people as possible, as diverse as possible. Because even though I have this particular stage, that’s a question for all of us. I also think that even in parts of the story, even the question of whether a white man could be neutral is something that comes. So that none of us have the ability to be completely neutral.

Richard Maxwell: But can I interrupt–do you think white people have more access to neutrality than black people?

Christina Anderson: Well, yes–people ask me this question.

Richard Maxwell: Tom Bradshaw does, by the way.

Christina Anderson: Well it’s funny, because there’s privilege. And they get that privilege based off being white, and that’s sort of deemed an attribute in this country. So even that’s not neutral.

Richard Maxwell: What’s not neutral?

Christina Anderson. The privilege.

Richard Maxwell: Privilege is not neutral.

Christina Anderson: And that privilege comes from being white.

Richard Maxwell: The philosophical conundrum I keep coming up against is, if neutrality is impossible, why do some people have more access to it than others?

Christina Anderson: Well again I think it just goes back to this question of privilege. Because even when I think about the pub scene in the play, when she goes in with that white guy and she sees these looks [on the faces of other patrons] and she wants to have a conversation about it and he’s like, “People are jerks,” and writes it off as this thing people do. But she’s seriously wrestling with these things and they see that moment completely different ways. I think he can walk through life and have that relationship because he has the privilege of not acknowledging it, while she is sort of taken on this acknowledgement but also sort of burdened with it. So I don’t know. I feel like even if neutrality is sort of like this impossible thing.

Is there a danger to neutrality?

Richard Maxwell: You’re always going to run the risk of it being interpreted as a political statement or social statement, and I always try to avoid those things because I feel like theatrically it makes it less interesting. I don’t want to have to answer that question of right and wrong, good and bad. So in that sense it is dangerous because in a way I ‘m shirking responsibility. Is racism bad? Is it something that we even need to pose as a question? And if you don’t acknowledge race, are you doing some kind of disservice? It’s funny that it’s…in a way it’s the antithesis of what it is, because if it’s “neutral” it shouldn’t be potent, it shouldn’t be dangerous, it shouldn’t be volatile. I think at some point in making my show it led–the impossibility of neutrality led me to be honest. Who are we? If we’re not neutral, who are we? We’re Americans. Because we’re speaking English, we’re Americans. We all live in New York. These are the real factors I had to reckon with, and it’s interesting that it provoked those kinds of questions because I really didn’t have a story, per se, until after rehearsals started and I reckoned with the fact that it was really talking about Americans. So I just placed this hero paradigm atop this fact of Americanness. That brought up the question of, is neutral honest? Is neutrality being honest? Because if what I’m doing is definitely not neutral, then what is it? At some point I realized that if I flip it, and I say, well, show me something that is neutral, that gave me the license to make what I was going to make.

Christina Anderson: I have to agree. I think it’s dangerous. But it’s funny because I feel like it’s more primal, why it’s dangerous. In terms of Hollow Roots, the danger is what happens with personal narrative? And it’s interesting because at the end of the play, some people have seen it as an exciting moment because she then has the possibility of creating her own narrative. And she can build it to be whatever she wants it to be, and she can live a life of that. And then also on the flip side, which is the side I tend to fall on, is this question of the loss of personal narrative. How history is stories of people, and how that gets passed down, that storytelling. So I think, regardless of race, gender or class, each of us have a story and I feel like as soon as we lose that in this quest for neutrality, that’s a problem for me. And even just in terms of trying to stage it, it does feel dangerous because it becomes this thing of, what do you mean? What are you trying to do? And it becomes this cautious thing, and for some reason it really sets people on edge. Even though it’s supposed to be a utopia, this freedom.

Richard Maxwell: It’s funny, I didn’t make that association but that’s interesting. Is that what you see when you think of neutrality?

Christina Anderson: Yeah. Or skepticism. It’s immediately, “What are you selling me? What is this? It’s not possible.”

Can you be neutral in a place?

Richard Maxwell: One way that I kept thinking about was “neutral” is something that doesn’t register; it’s either so insignificant or so second nature we don’t even notice it. Because of its smallness, it causes no seismic activity. That was something I was using writing something that was very boring, very meticulously laid out descriptions of this town. That was one angle.

Christina Anderson: The whole concept of geography and space and location is something I deal with in all my plays. I’m really interested in social theory, how we interact with where we live and where we work and where we go. I actually worked as a paralegal in New York, and it’s funny how changes your relationship to the city. Because you work in the morning, and your whole life is based around rush hour. It’s always this mad dash to get a seat, and to know that in the morning you’re not going to get a seat because yours is the third stop on the line. And being very close to people because of rush hour. So I was interested in having this woman who was surrounded by people but, who was looking for essentially the impossible among all these people, and she winds up finding it within herself.

Richard Maxwell: She’s placed somewhere irregular.

Christina Anderson: Yes, the repetitiveness of that kind of job, the hundred-hour work weeks and getting a car home at night, and how even when you do have this nine-to-five job, how it becomes a nine-to-four a.m. job. Who are the people you’re hanging out with and what are their stories? And even though I don’t get very proper-noun-y in the play, everything remains very generic. Just to highlight the specificity of her quest.

Richard Maxwell: Well it’s interesting—you talk about urban [spaces], an unnamed urban landscape, and hearing you describe that I was wondering, why couldn’t it be rural? Because there’s regularity in the rural lifestyle. I think it’s the lines—when I think urban I think of right angles, that’s what I see.

Christina Anderson: Like grids.

Richard Maxwell: Yeah. Grids on the ground, grids in the sky. This is what you see, what you experience, and it’s very mathematical and conjures neutral for me.

Christina Anderson: The actress, April [Matthis], drew a map of the story where her character travels. And it was kind of amazing because she didn’t realize she goes such a short distance. She goes to work on the bus. And for a good chunk of the play she’s just going in a line.

Richard Maxwell: (Jokingly referencing the character’s monthly transit pass in the play): That’s a pretty good deal—a hundred fifty dollars a month and you get puddle hoppers?

Christina Anderson: And motorbikes! Yeah…but then she goes to a party and that’s what takes her off this line. There’s this entire question of just going back and forth, and whether you can see something new in the repetitive. But that was awesome when I started reading your play because I was like, he does location stuff too! Because I also think in its own way, that also says a lot about where a person is from. I was in Portland [Oregon] for three and half weeks, and I had a lot of awesome food, because they have a lot of amazing food trucks. And I came back here and being in Manhattan I was like, this place is overtaken by chains. The Dunkins everywhere and the 7-Elevens, and I was like, I don’t know where to get a mom-and-pop donut in this city.

Richard Maxwell: Cupcake Café.

Christina Anderson: Oh yeah, that’s true. But anyway—just that relationship between chains and mom-and-pops, I think that affects what kind of city you’re in.

Richard Maxwell: I want to go back to the Wallace Shawn play, The Fever. This idea that he mentions in the opening note—that anyone can play this part. And you challenged that because it defies realism. It defies reality, actually. That triggers something for me because that also came up for me making Neutral Hero. How integral is, how beholden are you, to reality if your goal is neutrality? This is something we all have to reckon with—no matter what the show—when we’re making theater. Because it won’t be reality. And my attitude as a director is that that something that’s equally impossible for me in theater,–along with neutrality—is reality. How much connection for you is there between reality and neutrality?

Christina Anderson: It’s interesting, some of the feedback on this play. The one thing that sort of gets people, and they’re like, “I don’t know about that…”, is when she walks into the pub with the white guy. I’ve had a lot of people tell me, “It’s 2012. That doesn’t happen today, that’s not the reality! Maybe in the sixties…” But I can also as easily have someone come up to me and say that very much can still happen and no one talks about it because they don’t think it can happen. That’s just a small example, but even sort of dealing with that reality—how even reality is as subjective for someone as neutrality is. Even working with April and Lileana [Blain-Cruz] on the play, even with three women of color, we all had a completely different relationship to who this woman was, and who she could be based off the story that she told. How we judged her or didn’t judge her. So for me, reality became as Jell-o-y as neutrality. And I wrestle with the notion of reality in a lot of my works, because one of the things I like to say about the theater is that it’s one of the few places that adults still come to pretend. And I want to take advantage of that as much as possible. Pushing back against that reality, but also keeping in mind that it can be different for each person.

Richard Maxwell: I think it’s okay to let the elephant be in the room and let the audience sort of figure it out for themselves.

[…]

Christina Anderson: The person who sits in that chair determines how we see the story. What kind of experience we have of the story, what kind of journey we go on. Even little things like whether her hair is natural can change how people see this person. Even when we were choosing cello music, even the kind of cello music we picked can determine what kind of place she’s from. If we do classical music, someone will attach things to that. If we do more contemporary, out-of-the-box music, that can affect what she is. I kind of have a fantasy of seeing a version of this play where the woman changes every night. Or where there are multiple women onstage with their own chairs and all visually look different, just to see what that does. Because I’ve had people who’ve read it and said, “Well obviously she’s racially ambiguous. Even looking at her, we can’t tell what he make-up is, what her personal narrative is.” And I’m like, “Yes…but that seems too easy.” How does that make this more or less possible? If we can’t tell, maybe it makes more sense that she can’t tell. Whereas you have an actress of darker skin tone, or with a huge afro—do we dismiss her feelings because of that? Because looking at her, we can say, you’re this person so obviously you’re on this mental journey? Race sort of has this duality of an inner narrative versus a visual representation, and I’m interested in that conflict. Really exploring the intricacies of it. It’s not even about this woman wanting to be “white.” That was something we had a conversation about in the rehearsal room, when I was dealing with the early drafts. It’s not a quest to be white, it’s a quest to be neutral. There were some metaphors I had in [early drafts] that leaned toward that…but to go back to what we were talking about, whiteness has its privileges and that makes it not neutral. Even I had to question what neutrality is for this woman—if it’s not white and it’s not black, then what is it?

Richard Maxwell: I like that idea. It hadn’t occurred to me. You could define it as something from the outside or from the inside. Subjective or objective neutrality.

Christina Anderson: I’m curious about the process of creating your work.

Richard Maxwell: I went back to the first known work of literature, which they claim is the epic of Gilgamesh. Which is like, I don’t know, 4,000 years old. I felt as if I went to that, and used that as a template, I would somehow be closer to neutrality. Something that’s as unencumbered by history as possible. And we’re already fucked, if you’ll excuse the French, because it’s an English translation. There’s like four translations out there, so which are you going to choose? So there was this template and we improv’d around that. I looked at the Odyssey, as another early form of storytelling. And the way we got to that was Joseph Campbell’s book Hero With a Thousand Faces. If you travel through the different chapters of the hero’s journey, which is like the call to adventure, the road of trials, the atonement with the father, the meeting with the gods, the obtaining of the boon, the crossing of the threshold, the coming back with the boon. That’s something that happens all through time in all cultures, we seem to follow this mono-myth. I liked that idea a lot, and I thought about what it would take to satisfy each chapter of this, what would be the bare minimum it would take to satisfy this structure. That felt like something neutral. But this goes back to this idea—I think you can have an easier time satisfying neutrality internally, subjectively, than you will when you put it up in front of people and have them look at it. There’s just something about other people’s realities. I had the same struggle with music. What does neutral music sound like? Is it going to be a synthesizer or a guitar? What comes closer? And I had to compose it…

Christina Anderson: Once I started to try to look at what’s neutral…it’s funny because she plays a cello in the play. And I just chose the cello because they say it’s the instrument that most sounds like the human voice. And because she’s such an isolated person in the play, it’s like she has a conversation with this cello, it’s the only other person she can really connect with. But even her being a black woman with a cello has its own connotation that people pick up on. And I was like, I can’t even win. [Laughs]