SELFHOOD, SNOW GLOBES, AND MANIFEST DESTINY
Now in its 20th season producing funny, strange, and provocative new plays downtown, Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks series is well underway at The Wild Project. Jerry Lieblich’s deliciously vertiginous D Deb Debbie Deborah closed its warmly received two-week run last weekend; Kate E. Ryan’s small-town zen koan, Card and Gift, opens Thursday night; and Jaclyn Backhaus’s adventuresome Men On Boats will complete the lineup later this month. Over the weekend, I corresponded with the playwrights about their inspiration, preoccupations, and the process of bringing their stories to life onstage.
“I am I because my little dog knows me”
Those who scored tickets to Jerry Lieblich’s D Deb Debbie Deborah before it sold out were treated to a dizzying, dazzling theatrical meditation on the slippery nature of identity.
Directed at Summerworks by Lee Sunday Evans, the play is a miraculously nimble comedy about existential anxiety, rendered with tenderness to match its precision and insight. The story follows a young woman whose world begins, well, not so much to unravel as to scramble and reform itself around her, eventually threatening her ability to recognize even herself. An artist with a new gig assisting a big-deal painter, Deb’s grip on reality is not-so-gently loosed when, after a disquieting hold-up in her home, the people closest to her (her boyfriend, her boss) seem to transform into strangers before her eyes. And back again. And again, and then Deb, too, is transformed. In production, the actors begin to switch-hit, swapping characters at increasingly breakneck speed.
The play seems to suggest that identity, whether personal or artistic (if the two can even be separated), is less a fixed, absolute thing, and more a kind of collaboration that requires other people for its completion. That might sound horribly cerebral, but the effect is to evoke, with both humor and ache, the disorienting, often elusive pursuit of sure footing in one’s own life.
According to Lieblich, the play’s inception was part formal (“asking myself what would it be like to write a play built around the actors switching roles, building up to a point where we lose all sense of who anybody is”), part slow-burning philosophical meditation on the mutability of self.
“I think that the best way to think of identity might be to think of it more as a verb than as a noun (or at least as a process across time, as opposed to a discrete thing at a point in time),” he posits. “So maybe we shouldn’t say ‘I am Jerry,’ but instead should say something like ‘I am Jerry-ing.’ Because to stick a pin in the velvet and say that this is the thing right now, this is who I am, is to really limit the definition of who Jerry is. It’s to exclude any ways I might change, any ways I have changed, any ways in which I am a different person than perhaps you or I think I am.”
And it’s a two-way street, he argues; we are also constantly participating in the construction of others. “I thought I was writing a play about Self, but it turned out to be just as much (if not more so) about Other – if identity is fluid, unknowable, what is intimacy?” he reflects. “That act of looking at somebody and trying to figure out who they are – that itself (at least partly) constitutes who that person is. As Gertrude Stein says, ‘I am I because my little dog knows me.’”
Or as Deb says, at the end of the play, before waving hello to herself:
I can see my reflection
in your pupils, Karl.
“The center of things.”
Even on the page, Kate E. Ryan’s stirring, precisely observed Card and Gift vibrates with potential energy, as charged by what the characters can’t or won’t say as by what they do.
Set in a mom-and-pop gift shop in a small New Hampshire town, the play centers on two women in their fifties. Lila, recently divorced, has returned to the place where she grew up, and is taking over her late parents’ once-thriving store. Business is worryingly slow; Lila doesn’t mention it. She’s a painter but she hasn’t painted anything in years.
Lila has hired Annette to help her at the store. A mother whose grown son has his own life now, and a longtime teacher ready to leave her job behind, she, too, is searching for an invigorated sense of purpose, a new understanding of her place in the world.
For Annette, inspiration arrives in the form of Diana Boss, a Palin-like presidential candidate campaigning in the New Hampshire primary, whose unorthodox platform kindles a small fire inside her. Never especially political until now, Annette becomes an ardent Boss acolyte, reorganizing her life to volunteer for the campaign. For Lila, meanwhile, that kind of force of conviction remains somewhat more elusive.
“I like juxtaposing her ‘crossroads moment’ with Annette’s,” says Ryan of Lila’s ambivalent homecoming. “Lila’s coming back, facing memories, and Annette’s venturing out, facing new challenges.”
“I was really interested in paying deep attention to women in their fifties who aren’t at what’s often perceived to be the ‘center of things,’ she adds. “I also wanted to write about the choice to live in a small town, its benefits. I became really interested in the idea that at first we might see Annette and Lila’s lives as being quaint, but then the more time we spend with them the more we see the richness of life in this town, and the intelligence and compassion and awareness that drive the characters’ decisions.”
Like the women she chronicles in Card and Gift, Ryan also grew up in a small New Hampshire town, though hers was a bedroom community, without a main street or town center. (The town in the play is closer to another she knew as a child, where her relatives lived.) Though she ultimately chose to make her life elsewhere, her hometown memories are fond ones: “I felt tremendous freedom growing up there – I had one of those childhoods in which I could roam through the woods as long as I wanted, and ride my bike everywhere.”
The very closed system of small town life, and all that it implies (both circumscribed borders and intensity and concentration of experience), captured Ryan’s imagination as she set out to write Card and Gift. “I became interested in the idea of a snow globe – the shop sells a lot of them – and how a snow globe is supposed to capture a place, but it’s so limited by its form,” she muses. “It’s literally a capsule. Nothing gets in or out. I’m interested in how plays are also capsules, and how they’re limited by form, too, in terms of how much gets in or out – what story is being told, and who is telling the story.”
Guiding the production is director Ken Rus Schmoll, with whom Ryan previously collaborated on 13P’s production of her play Mark Smith. “Ken is amazing to work with partially because he’s open to creating a new kind of theatrical experience,” she reflects. “Yesterday he said he thinks this play is like a zen koan. I love that he makes work that makes us ask, ‘What is this? What am I seeing?’”
“It’s hard to manifest destiny on an empty stomach.”
Jaclyn Backhaus sounds like she might have been a rowdy kid, and something of a history buff. Growing up in Arizona, says the playwright, with the awesome specter of the Grand Canyon ever-present, an interest in the spirit of daring and hunger for discovery that fueled this country’s westward expansion sparked at an early age.
“And my dad is really interested in non-fiction adventure stories,” she adds. “When I was growing up, we had books all over the house on Charles Darwin and the HMS Beagle, books called Yukon Chills, Thrills, and Spills: The Men Who Made It Out Alive! and things like that.”
Among those books was a biography of the 19th-century soldier, geologist, and explorer John Wesley Powell, whose 1869 river expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers included the first known passage by Europeans through the Grand Canyon. In Men On Boats, Backhaus chronicles that expedition, using Powell’s own journals as the scaffold for a rollicking ensemble adventure play that’s as athletic as it is archival – part historical travelogue, part rapid-rushing thrill-fest.
In bringing the story of Powell and his men to the stage, Backhaus is interested in examining historical myth-making, and the desire (heroic? bombastic?) to project oneself forward past one’s lifetime, to inscribe oneself in future history. “It is interesting how, in Powell’s journal, there is such a sense of his wish to be regarded as a hero or a myth figure,” she reflects. “Usually these great explorer stories are sort of etched in stone and hallowed. You have your Lewis and Clark and your John Muir, and then you have people like Powell, who were operating on a similar wavelength but whose stories did not survive as universally.”
Along the way, Backhaus mines both humanity and humor from the men’s exploits, both by alighting on the narcissistic impulses that so often sit aside the noble ones (hilarious attention is paid to the proper procedure for Getting Something Named After You), and by juxtaposing feats of heroism and derring-do with the more banal realities of daily survival. “A lot of the mission was them trying to make sure they have enough food,” she adds. “It’s hard to manifest destiny on an empty stomach.”
Of perhaps greatest note, though, is the play’s cast, with nary a cisgender white man in the (rockstar) bunch. “I think one of the themes of the play has to do with the idea of manifest destiny – it was this very noble and righteous attempt to claim things for oneself at the expense of others. The kinds of people who benefit from these exploits are still benefiting from them today, and those kinds of people are not the kinds of people I wanted to cast in the play,” says Backhaus. “I think by casting the play the way we have – and our cast is comprised of ten incredible actors, each with their own gender identity – we are able to focus on the explorers themselves, and how their actions either promote or fly in the face of the traditional male conquest storyline.”
The casting seems to highlight, and implicitly critique, the performative nature of masculinity as inscribed in much of canonical Western culture. Joyously, thunderously, it also collapses the constructed borders that historically have circumscribed participation in the making and recording of that canon.
“Our cultural history really only follows the path of what white guys did,” says Backhaus. “When I was younger and I would play out adventure stories in my living room, I would never want to play the lonely feeble person sitting at home reading about all the cool stuff that men did one time. I would pretend to climb the glacier or fight the bear or kayak through a cave. I would rescue my brother from falling to a watery death by pulling him over the arm of the couch.”
“It was all very exciting to be able to imagine this world,” she adds, “and to imagine a place for the rest of us in it.”
Men On Boats is in currently in rehearsal, with director Will Davis at the helm, whom Backhaus lovingly describes as both “deft” and “magic,” and whom she credits for making the play’s athletic rapid-rushing sequences soar. “This week we’re working on the last act of the play, and I have questions about the end. Does it work? Will it change, and how?” she confides. “Ain’t that the way, though? When you’re making something new? And don’t I have the heartiest crew to work it out with?”
Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks continues on the following schedule:
- Card and Gift, written by Kate E. Ryan and directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, runs June 4 – June 14
- Men On Boats, written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Will Davis, runs June 19 – 29
at The Wild Project located at 195 E 3rd Street, NYC.
For more information, show times and tickets visit ClubbedThumb.org.