Daniel Fish’s cold-fusion: An Interview

Daniel Fish's  A Supposedly Fun Thing… Photo by: Brian Rogers

Daniel Fish’s A Supposedly Fun Thing… Photo by: Brian Rogers


Daniel Fish has been described as an “auteur force in the American theater.” I think that sounds about right. His work is, to me, both wholly of the body and wholly of the mind, at once astoundingly raw and reasoned, mechanical and human. (Case in point – in Phil 179/OBIT we listened to an extraordinarily heady philosophy lecture on death (the night I went it was about the possible rationality of suicide), but we do so in almost complete darkness – a pure communion of the intellectual (i.e. the lecture) and the experiential (the darkness)). Allow me to quote (at perhaps nauseous length) from a previous profile on him by one Ryan Hatch for this very blogstitution:

“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.” 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… 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.”


What he said.


Daniel and I spoke on Skype recently about his upcoming piece in Under the Radar, his attitudes towards performance and making work, and, of course, DFW. The following is a (not so radically) condensed transcript of our conversation.


Jerry Lieblich: Maybe this is a lame question, but how did you get your start? How did you start making work at all?


Daniel Fish: I don’t think that’s a lame question, but gosh… I think I’ve always been interested in it, since I was a kid. I went to the theater a lot, and I went to all different kinds of theater—everything from Broadway musicals to Andrei Serban’s productions at LaMAMA, his Greek trilogy and his Uncle Vanya – this was a long time ago. And I never kind of saw them as different worlds. I still don’t. You know, I think when I was younger I was really into Laurie Anderson, I thought she was great. And I always – that just seemed like theater to me. I didn’t really make the distinction.

And then I went to the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern – and this was back in the late 80’s, so there weren’t many departments like that around the country, just Northwestern and NYU I think. And that was not the theater department, it was different, it was more experimental, more theoretical. A lot of it was based on performance of non-dramatic text – performance of poetry, performance of fiction, performance of non-fiction, anthropology in performance. There were some extraordinary people teaching there – a guy named Lee Roloff, who was a Jungian analyst, and he taught poetry in performance, and his class was very influential to me, to see how abstract language, heightened language could come alive in performance. And also Frank Galati who taught adaptation of fiction for the stage. So I think that was sort of a way in.

And then I worked on classical plays for a long time at the Shakespeare Theater/Washington DC, which would seem to be the other end of the spectrum, right? Sort of the traditional regional theater in America?

JL: Right.

DF: But for me it really wasn’t. I found it was really all about language and big stories. And then I began a freelance career where I did a lot of classical work – very aggressively modern productions of classical plays all over the place.

And then it became clear to me, I don’t know, maybe, five years ago or so, that the work I wanted to do and the institutions I was working for were kind of starting to be at loggerheads, that in many ways I couldn’t really make the work I wanted to make there, from practical to financial to philosophical to just sort of basic organizational ways in which these places are set up. So started to produce my own work, really to have more control over it. And more responsibility.

JL: So while you were doing all the classical work, were you also making your own work?

DF: I guess I always sort of always saw the classical work as my own work.

JL: Oh. I mean, yes.


DF: I never really made – I still don’t make the distinction. I mean, I understand the distinction institutionally, I understand if you’re doing a big play at a regional theater that has to run for six weeks and has to play for a subscription audience, but from a sort of creative standpoint it’s no different. It’s just my work, and I’m trying to make the best work I can and talk about the things I’m interested in talking about, and learn about the things I’m interested in learning about. And whether that’s through, you know, Hamlet or that’s through a Nick Ray film [i.e. DF’s Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason… (2011)], it’s just kind of what I’m grooving on at the moment.


JL: Sure. I guess maybe a more precise way of asking that question is, when you started working with non-theatrical texts again.


DF: Well again I would put that back to you, what’s theatrical about Hamlet? The only thing that makes Hamlet more theatrical than, say, a David Foster Wallace essay, is, it becomes theatrical when somebody goes up in front of an audience and performs it. I think to assume that Hamlet is somehow an inherently more theatrical text because it’s a “play,” whatever that means – I kind of don’t buy it. It’s all just language—just material. And I tend to think of words as the raw material that I’m making work out of. Sure, I am aware that there is a history of a play like Hamlet being performed, but for me that doesn’t really matter or make it more theatrically viable.


JL: Was there a point for you – and maybe there wasn’t – when you felt like “oh, I have a sense of what I’m doing. I feel like I know what my approach is, what my aesthetic is.” Or is that something you’re always questioning?


DF: It’s something I’m always questioning. I mean, the answer to that is – yes, I have that moment all the time! (Laughter) But then I have the next moment, where I think “maybe not.”

There are things I have an approach to. I have an approach to language, particularly to Shakespeare’s verse, which I learned from Peter Hall, which I do have a very identifiable, like “this is how in 12 rules I approach it.” But I say I probably tend to be more questioning, and I can kind of dive to the bottomless unanswerable pit of any argument. Which, you know, is not always a good thing.


JL: When you’re making work, what tends to come first for you, some idea about form, or some idea about content? For instance, something along the lines of “I want to play with piping text into performer’s headphones and live-mixing the speed” vs. “I want to make a piece using David Foster Wallace essays”? [i.e. DF’s impending A (…) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.]


DF: It changes. It changes. With Wallace – well, it’s funny with Wallace. I read the stuff and knew I wanted to work on it, knew I wanted to have a conversation with it. Then I came across these audio recordings of [David Foster Wallace] reading his work. And that’s when I really went “oh, this is how I’m gonna work on it. It’s gonna be based on these recordings.” So at that moment, not yet that I knew it was going to be headphones, but somehow I knew that those recordings were kind of the key to it. So I guess in that sense the language or the “content” came first, but very quickly they [i.e. the form and the content] started to blur.

But if you look at something like Eternal [2013], the content kept changing. We developed the piece over a year and a half, and it started as an adaptation of John Cassavetes’ Woman Under the Influence. The only thing that remained the same through the year and a half of developing the piece, and literally dozens of texts, were the two actors [Thomas Jay Ryan and Christina Rouner] and the theme. The piece itself and two-channel video format emerged from that process. So it’s not quite so straightforward, as one thing coming first. I guess. It’s a little more wavey.


JL: Coming back to the Wallace piece, I read somewhere you saying that you believe theater always takes place right now, I think it was in relationship to a production of Tartuffe you were directing [at McCarter Theatre], this idea of the performance taking place right now so of course it [i.e. the play] takes place right now [and not in, say, the 17th century]. So I’m curious about, with Supposedly Fun Thing, what feels different about “right now” right now to the “right now” of 2012 when you did it at The Chocolate Factory.


DF: Well, you know, in some sense, I would push it further – what feels different from Monday night to Tuesday night? Or what feels different from 8:01 to 8:02? For me it’s really about being alert, about being in the present, about trying to cultivate a kind of spontaneity, or being tuned into the moment. That’s what feeding the audio to the actors and having them speak it as it comes to them does. For me, having made the piece in 2012, it feels a little bit more familiar, I know it more, I start to pick it apart. And it’s a challenge to just trust what’s there, to revisit something that’s old and not muck with it too much, but still to keep it fresh. That’s a definite challenge. Lately I’ve been questioning this impulse or compulsion for things to last.


JL: Do you feel like in the intervening years your interests or aesthetic has been changing? Do you feel like you have to say “I made this back then, and I need to trust those decisions”?


DF: Yeah. I mean this version of it is going to be different in that it’s going to be shorter – significantly shorter. And so in creating and rehearsing it we had to craft a shorter version of it. But you know, despite the possibility that the piece can change every night, despite the sense of, you know, we’re mixing it live, the piece is highly highly crafted. I think I sort of aspire it to be – you know like you look at a great rock concert, and you know the band has a set list, and maybe they change it every night maybe a little bit, but it always sort of seems more spontaneous than it in fact really is. And yet it can change. There is the possibility that it can change. There is a sweet spot there that we’re trying to hit.


JL: Did that feel different when you were doing the piece at the Bushwick Starr, Phil 176 / OBIT? In that piece the text was changing every night – did you feel like you had the same amount of control over the parameters?


DF: That was a looser piece. But that too – I mean yes, the text changed every night, so that was a little looser, but within a certain framework I would still say it was fairly designed.

And even with Under the Radar [i.e. Supposedly Fun Thing], there are several pieces that are interchangeable. So one night we might do “Forever Overhead” [a DFW short story] and one night we might not do that and do “The View from Mrs. Thompsons” [a DFW essay]. So there’s some things that will be the same, and some things that will shift.


JL: And do the performers know that going in?


DF: They know that it might shift, but we haven’t decided yet if it’ll be a set thing at the beginning of the show, say “this is tonight’s list.” They’re able to sort of go with it. They’re familiar enough with most of the material that they’re able to go with it if I send them something new mid-performance.


JL: I’ve read you talk about how part of the reason you do the live mixing, playing with the speed of the audio input the performers are getting, is to prevent the performers from memorizing the text, or at least checking out, so they have to keep listening.


DF: Right. And again, I go back to alertness. They have to be super alert. They have to be super aware.

What I discovered when I first started using that method is that the performer couldn’t act. Instead, when it’s really working, she becomes an expression of the text itself. The words play them, rather than the other way around.


JL: And was Supposedly Fun Thing the first time you experimented with this idea of text being piped in that way?


DF: When I did it first, we worked on it with students at the University of Rochester. And in that situation I wasn’t live mixing it, they all just had iPods. And that originally came out because I thought they would just never memorize that much text – these are kids, they’ll never be able to memorize this, and I don’t want to deal with watching them try. We have too much other work to do, I don’t want to spend lots of time with that, so what if we just tried this.


JL: On top of this, you’re also working on a production of Three Sisters now.


DF: It’s a new piece based on Three Sisters, or inspired by Three Sisters. That’ll be at Baryshnikov Arts Center a year from now.


JL: I’m interested in how it might feel in conversation with Supposedly Fun Thing, or if it feels like a totally different exploration of something else entirely.


DF: I don’t know the answer to that until I’m done making it, honestly. I think it’s probably pretty different. Maybe the big difference being possibly that there’s very little text in it – very little heard text or spoken text. Or at least part of it will have very little spoken text. But the piece is still in a kind of formative stage.


JL: Is that an aesthetic you’ve played with before, of having very little heard text?


DF: No, and that’s sort of my reason for doing it. I feel like language is both what I love, but it’s also my crutch. So I wonder what would happen if I start to take that away. What would happen if this thing that I’m fascinated with, that’s very easy for me, that I can be sort of super facile with – what happens when I remove that from the equation?


JL: Yeah.


DF: So it’s a little scary too.


JL: Where else do you see your interests pointing to now?


DF: I’ve been doing a lot of music stuff. I did this piece The Source, with Ted Hearne, that was at BAM in the fall. I did an opera a year and a half ago [Owen Wingrave, at Opera Philadelphia] So I’m interested in doing more stuff with contemporary composers, and more music-based work, I really love that. And also I collaborated with Jim Findlay on the video for The Source, and I really loved working with Jim, I think Jim and I will work together again, probably on the Three Sisters project.


JL: I’ll leave you with one final question – since I’m at my girlfriend’s sister’s place, I asked her [i.e. my girlfriend] to give me a question.


DF: (Laughter)


JL: It’s probably the hardest one. I don’t know if I have an answer for this – “What are you trying to work through?”


DF: Oh god… You know, I’ll cop out a little bit here, but I’ll sort of paraphrase Wallace, because it’s something he said that I share, which is that I’m making work that’s about what it’s like to be a fucking human being. That’s what I’m interested in. What’s it like to be alive right now, here? And I think my work comes back to that again and again.

I think that if it moves me, or makes me laugh, or entertains me, that’s the one thing I can be sure about, right? I can’t predict what’s going to move you or what you’re going to groove on, but I can know what I get excited about. So I trust that. I trust that if I make something that interests me, that I can learn from, then hopefully others will have a positive experience as well. Maybe not everybody, but maybe there will be one, or two people, or ten.

So, yeah. I think I’m trying to work through what it’s like to be a person. I know that sounds very pat, and kind of cliched. But like a lot of cliches, there’s usually some truth to it.


JL: I think that makes a lot of sense in relation to how I think about your work, in that I often see this kind of interplay between a sort of mechanization – some kind of near-impossible or repetitive task such as reciting live-mixed text or performing the ending of Eternal Sunshine twenty three times – and a very human element – the fact of these performers – and us! – being in this room going through this experience. That interplay, to me, seems very human, seems to point to what it’s like to be a fucking human being, this experience of finding yourself in a situation that you don’t quite understand, but you have to keep running to keep up. I think even the experience of talking is often that, in that there are these words coming out of my mouth that I’m trying to make sense of as they’re coming out of my mouth.


DF: Yeah, you know I was reading Billie Whitelaw’s obituary, and she talks about working with Beckett and this thing about no emotion. And I think there was something in the way she performed those pieces that, there’s a corollary to what we’re talking about.


JL: Absolutely. And I think there’s, as you pointed out, also a corollary to David Foster Wallace, too, in that his writing has all of this artifice on it, but it’s to kind of burrow through into something very deep and anxious inside of himself.


DF: You know, for me, there’s very little that feels artificial about Wallace’s writing. It feels in a lot of ways like my experience of the world if I were far, far smarter and articulate than I am. I mean I find it challenging, but I don’t find it impenetrable. I don’t find it as hard as some people make it out to be. I mean, it’s challenging, but I find it really approachable. And I find it you know maybe not naturalistic, but I find it — Real. True.


JL: I would agree with you on that. And I think what I love about him is the way he’s able to kind of zoom in on these almost microscopic anxieties. Like a thought you would have in a second about – I guess I’m thinking about the busboy in Supposedly Fun Thing who tries to take your bag – and blowing that feeling up into like three pages of exploring all of the layers of it. And that seems like his real genius to me.

But yes, exactly, I think that’s a very human thing, I think that’s an anxiety everybody has. It’s just that he’s able to articulate it so well.


DF: Yeah. But I also think that there’s an incredible generosity in looking at the porter on the ship that way. His ability to look at any thing – a thirteenth birthday, 9/11, a luxury cruise – he looks at a detail and he’s able to, the word I always use is that there’s a generosity about it. There’s a sense of “oh wow, look how amazing that is.” And that seems to me to be a good thing to put out into the world.

So I don’t think it’s just about giving voice to anxiety. There’s something to me that feels more open.


JL: Totally. I’m thinking about that essay where he follows McCain on the campaign trail, and it’s so moving. The way he just tries to break through whatever cynicism is there about politics. There’s something almost faithful about it. Of that generosity, of really trying to see the good in something.


DF: And he does the same thing in the Tracy Austin essay [in which DFW reviews tennis prodigy Tracy Austin’s memoir]. He spends the entire essay trashing the book, about how awful the prose is. And then comes to this discovery at the end that, it has to be that way, because her inability to write a good book is part of what makes her a great athlete.

And you know, I think that essay is about as good an essay about acting as any I’ve read.


JL: What do you mean by that?


DF: Go back and read the essay. You’ll see.


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