Dan Safer On Interpreting Charles Mee
Standing outside La Mama last week, chatting with Witness Relocation’s lighting designer Jay Ryan, all of a sudden a van scooted up to the curb, the sliding door opened, and out popped a couple people dragging a fairly hideous Ikea couch. And then there was the shave-head-plus-handle-bar-mustache that is Dan Safer.
“We’re headed back to Great Jones Street,” he bellowed. “Wanna come?”
I demurred and off Safer went, leaving me to wait another half-hour at the Ellen Stewart Theater for our interview to begin. I headed upstairs to the space where Safer’s collaborators—led by his wife and video designer Kaz Phillips-Safer—were installing the set for Daily Life Everlasting, the company’s latest, which plays through April 19.
Safer was one of the first artists I ever met in NYC when I moved here in 2010. Based on a chance encounter with a then-collaborator during my first week in the city, I went to see a company I knew nothing about who were premiering the English-language version of Toshiki Okada’s play Five Days in March. I was greatly impressed by Okada, having seen his company chelfitsch’s original version on tour a year before, and after the show I invited myself out with Safer and his company.
Four years and some eleven months later, Safer and I were sitting down for a quick coffee and interview on Second Avenue, around the corner from La Mama, where he graciously agreed to do an interview amidst the chaos of load-in.
“This one feels way more personal for me than a lot of what we’ve done lately. I really dug into this one. It’s not as light and frothy as a lot of what we’ve done. It’s way darker,” he told me. “About how things could be good but we fuck them up. And I feel that’s different than the previous ones, which have been about how things seem bad but are actually wonderful. This is about how things could be wonderful but we make them bad.”
“Dark” both is and is not a thing one associates with Safer’s work. Since he founded the company back in 2000, Witness Relocation has been producing anarchic dance-theater productions directed and choreographed by Safer, with a common core of long-term collaborators ranging from the similarly disposed Mike Mikos to the talented singer-songwriter-dancer-actor Heather Christian. While the material the company tackles does tend toward the arcane and edgy (one show, an aleatory vehicle, was provocatively entitled I’m Going to Make a Small Incision Behind Your Ear to Check and See if You’re Actually Human), the result is something approaching theatrical bliss. There’s a joy and passion to Safer & co.’s work that suggests that, no matter how fucked up the material, they’re having fun doing it.
But if Daily Life Everlasting is darker and more personal to Safer than the company’s other recent work, perhaps it can all be chocked up to the fact that Safer himself is onstage as a performer in one of his shows for the first time in nearly a decade. Partly that’s the result of his renewed passion for performing, born of his collaboration with Tony Torn, whose Ubu Sings Ubu he co-directed and performed in last year (and which was recently announced as part of ART’s next season). And partially it was born of necessity, once Mikos was forced due to conflicts to withdraw from the performance.
“This is the first show with none of the original company members,” he told me over coffee. “Heather composed songs for it, but the performers are all new.”
Daily Life Everlasting is the third performance built around a Charles Mee play that Witness Relocation has staged, and it’s a fascinating study in how to approach Mee’s work. These days New York is near suffering Mee saturation, with Signature’s February revival of Big Love, and an Off-Off-Broadway premiere of a new play, Night, following quick on Witness Relocation’s heels this month. But compared to other productions, Safer employs an incredible flexibility toward Mee’s texts.
“We have no Odysseus 2.0 little boy,” he admitted during our interview, a point recently reiterated by the Times’s Alexis Soloski in her review. Which is sort of saying something. Mee is, of course, the great collagist of American play writing. His works are collections of found texts and pop and philosophically esoterica sewn together around a thematic core borrowed from classical Greek mythology, usually entitled with the Greek appellation, addended with a “2.0.”
Mee refers to this process as the “(re)making project” on his website, and compares it to the work of Max Ernst, writing: “[T]he work we do is both received and created, both an adaptation and an original, at the same time. We re-make things as we go.”
So at first blush, excising the central conceptual character—a child named Odysseus 2.0—from one’s production of the play might seem like a major departure from Mee’s vision. But for Safer, it’s all part of their ongoing aesthetic dialogue.
“I like that he writes these impossible to stage scripts that you’re forced to interpret,” he told me. “I feel like his stuff isn’t as strong when people treat them as holy. You have to do his scripts what he does to popular culture, where he pillages and ransacks and finds shit.”
Mee began communicating with Safer six years ago or so after seeing one of Witness Relocation’s shows, and since then Safer has become one of Mee’s primary interpreters, by dint of grappling with Mee’s unique vision but not being afraid to use it as a jumping-off point, to be realized through a more complex and diverse set of tools than those limited to Mee’s own script.
“Chuck imagines a fully realized dance-theater production and then gives it to me,” explained Safer. “The script’s full of very evocative stage directions. My job is to look at what he wrote and ask, ‘What is the seed of that idea?’ And then go, ‘If I take that seed, where would I take it based on what he’s given me?’”
For Safer, that process often begins with movement. Movement and choreography are at the heart of his practice, a theatrical dance-theater style that owes as much to the likes of Annie-B Parson’s tradition as Safer’s own experience as a downtown go-go dancer in the 1990s, at places like the Pyramid Club.
“I usually start making a bunch of stuff based on the script and then I ignore the script,” Safer said. Choreography may be his in-road to realizing material onstage, but it’s an easily abandoned starting place. “I imagine a bunch of dance numbers we never actually do,” he continued, “because what I imagine is never as good as what comes out of the room” when he begins working with his collaborators.
The point in either event is to generate material based on the text but with a life outside of it, and then “to go back and ask, how do these fulfill different parts of the script.”
Mee’s original vision for Daily Life Everlasting is a sort of travelogue of memory-laden errata: a child’s odyssey among the detritus of contemporary culture laid out as used wares at a yard sale. Much as the used objects ejected from a home each speak to a history and set of personal experiences intimately tied to their seller, so too does the play seek to create a series of intimate encounters with objects that serve as proxies for relationships and their often negative ends.
As Safer put it, it’s about “how hard it is to find someone to love, and how hard it is to maintain that once you do.”
Mee’s narrative through-line of Odysseus 2.0 disappeared over the piece’s developmental process as Safer and his collaborators “hyperlinked and hyperlinked and hyperlinked” until the narrative device was subsumed in the presentation. The concrete representation of the yard sale similarly dissolved (while the vague notion of domesticity and yard remain core design concepts), leaving only the facticity of the performers’ bodies onstage, enacting these experiences, as the material representation of Mee’s concept—word embodied.
The final piece is a dance-theater collage of song, movement, text, and video. Movement in particular has to the fore in Witness Relocation’s later work, with Safer operating as an increasingly self-assured choreographer. As mentioned above, his approach is highly collaborative, and working with an ambitious group of young performers less acquainted with his stylistic tendencies seems to have liberated his choreographic vision. In particular he cited one scene, set to a piano piece by Maxence Cyrin.
“Chinaza Uche and Aziza Barnes have a duet,” he said. “We made a really simple duet, where, say, version one was at level 5. Then I had them dial it down to level 1, and then dial it up to level 10. Then we cut those up and spliced them back together, and the duet suddenly turned into this just completely fucked-up relationship, which really took me off guard. It’s one of my favorite things in the show now.”
Asked about a scene that provided exceptionally tricky to realize, Safer mentioned one that is basically a list of people who’ve disappeared and are presumed dead, such as Tom and Eileen Lonergan, the scuba divers abandoned accidentally by their tour boat in shark infested water in 1998.
“I had five versions of that scene,” recalled Safer. “And now I like the one I have. In the first version we had it as a sort drinking game–or not a game, but people toasting each name. Then Heather was going to make it into a song, then we had people just listing them and popping balloons, and then I had it as a monologue that Philip Gates was doing while Nikki Kalonge tried to tackle him…and then we wound up making it into a dance with the text being done by another performer on voice over.”
Also particularly arresting in the show are the costumer by the exploding Brooklyn designer Brad Callahan (BCALLA). Safer first met Callahan working on Better Than Night, and asked him to join Witness Relocation for Daily Life Everlasting.
“I feel like I snagged him right before he’ll be too busy to ever do something like this again,” Safer told me. “First we asked everyone in the show, if you had to show up at a party, who are three famous people you could dress up as at a party and you’d definitely get laid. And we gave them to Brad. Then Brad came in and interviewed everyone, asked why they chose those people, asked what parts of their body did they want to feature, what parts they didn’t want to feature—really into making the performer feel good about what they’re wearing.”
The result is a spastic, beautiful chaos of costumes (with hints of 60s psychedelia and a reference to Prince, among other elements) that’s perfectly fitted to the show’s aesthetic.