Dystopian Cigar Factories on Rocks Hurtling Through Space
“One time I came across a list of all the named asteroids, and when you discover an asteroid you can name it. And they’re discovered by people all over the world,” the playwright Mac Wellman told me over a recent conversation, “so it’s truly multicultural in a way little else is.”
He was explaining the genesis of a series of short stories which he wrote over the course of two decades and eventually collected under the title A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, each of which imagines a tiny dystopia existing on separate named asteroids. Although originally drafted as prose texts, over the years Wellman has adapted several as monologue pieces for solo performances, the latest of which, Muazzez, opens this week at the Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City as part of Performance Space 122’s annual COIL Festival (through Jan. 17).
Wellman looms large over the downtown theater community in New York for two reasons. First, over a career stretching into its fifth decade, he’s helped pioneer a form of playwriting that’s poetic and open, amenable to diverse and unconventional production. His approach to writing for the stage—treating text as object, dispensing with classical unities and psychological realism alike—has informed the American avant-garde and carved out territory for artists dissenting from mainstream American drama. His work has ranged from savage political critique of Jesse Helms during the culture wars (7 Blow Jobs) to comedies of misdirection based on misread police blotters (Fnu Lnu) to, in his most recent, un-produced play, a narrative of geopolitical conflict stretching from the Second World War to the invasion of Iraq, based on dog puns and the stories of world leader’s pet dogs (Offending Gesture).
Second, he’s directly helped shape several generations of emerging playwrights through his role as professor and coordinator of the Playwriting MFA Program at Brooklyn College, where he’s taught the likes of Annie Baker, Young Jean Lee, and Thomas Bradshaw, to name but three.
The beginnings of A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds stretch back to 1991, when Wellman was in Italy completing a playwriting residency sponsored by Lincoln Center. He had completed work on a pair of texts for the stage and, with time to kill, he knocked out the first story “just for the hell of it.” The rest of the collection was written over the next fifteen or so years (the collection was published as a book in 2008) in similar circumstances, in spare time and for relaxation. Together, the stories form a patchwork quilt of tiny socio-political dystopias, each set on a separate, named asteroid, of which Muazzez is the latest to receive a stage adaptation.
“It was just after the fall of the Soviet Empire,” Wellman explained of the initial inspiration. “Once you destroy a larger social ideal, some good things happen but some bad things happen, too. The strange little nuthouses hidden for years come out in the open again. Of this course this happened all over Eastern Europe and Russia—the former Soviet Union. But I think it’s happened in this country, too, with a lot of strange and reactionary forces released into the open.”
The first story to be staged as a solo performance was back in 2008, when Paul Lazar — best known as co-founder of Big Dance Theater — approached Wellman for a solo performance text. Rather than draft a new piece for him, Wellman offered up 1965 UU, also from the collection. “I asked [Paul] if he wanted me to direct it, but he told me no, he wanted Steve Mellor to!” Wellman told me with a laugh.
Steve Mellor is Wellman’s oldest and one of his closest collaborators. The pair met in the early 1980s and have been working together ever since. Wellman quickly settled on Mellor as someone uniquely suited to the complexities of Wellman’s language (“Steve is quite adept, so he doesn’t have problems often”). That trust allowed Wellman to push further down the road of developing dense linguistic collages of real and imagined colloquial and anachronistic language.
“I have a number of actor acquaintances like Steve that I have worked with for a long time,” said Wellman. “And when you work with an actor over a long period of time, they wind up shaping you as much as you end up shaping them. Steve is a remarkable actor in that he’s really good with language. The longer I worked with him, the more I began to write substantial monologues, or monologue-type pieces.”
One of the first such dense pieces he did with Mellor was Terminal Hip, described by Mel Gussow in the original 1990 New York Times review as “a word processor gone awry, garbling ‘grammatical shibboleth’ on a scrambled screen,” and the Los Angeles Times two years later as “a verbal collage whose found materials are the detritus of the English language.”
“The text was so complicated I didn’t even know if anyone could memorize it,” Wellman told me. “But he did indeed memorize it, and we both won Obies for it.”
“He was the first I was comfortable working with on pieces like this,” Wellman continued. “Now there’s a few more, but he was the first.”
While in other cases Wellman has had to slightly revise the prose texts from A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds to accommodate the needs of particular performers, with Muazzez the text — in which Mellor plays an abandoned cigar factory on a world inhabited solely by abandoned cigar factories, and whose closest friend is a nearby abandoned cigar factory named “Finn” — remains very close to the original.
“I was always very relaxed when I started writing these stories, they were just for fun,” he told me. “But I am a playwright, so it turned out they were very speakable. It was an odd circumstance of their composition.”