Nate Speare’s SCREAME: A Response & Interview
Monologist Nate Speare’s show Screame at the United Solo Festival this month was marketed as “an NYC coming-of-age odyssey full of nostalgia, melancholy and humor.” While his story of working at an Upper West Side gelato shop certainly is all of that, what bursts from the seams of Speare’s performance even more urgently is a palpable struggle with the question of how to live as an artist in a culture and economy that is not made for us. Or, occasionally, the fear that perhaps we are not made for it.
In one of the funniest lines of the play, Speare explains that his salt-of-the-earth coworker, Zohar, troubles him for a very specific reason: “He annoyed me, he annoyed the hell out of me, and the reason was that he forced me to question my own intelligence. No: he forced me to question the importance of my own intelligence. No: he caused me to over-think my ability to survive in this world with the kind of intelligence that I had.”
This sentiment sums up the odd insecurity born from clashing up against the parts of society (which is to say, almost all of it) in which it is not enough to be someone with a very specific set of skills that are only put to full use on stage, in a studio, at an instrument, on the page. It can make a person weary. But Speare’s piece washed over the audience in waves of simplicity and humor, and in that there is a restorative quality.
Below is an interview with Speare which sheds light on his writing & process, individualism, and grad school, among other thing.
What attracts you to the solo form?
Part of what attracts me to the form is that I like to perform, write and create/stage pieces, and am less content doing only one of those. Don’t get me wrong, I like to collaborate (and I love to be led when it’s by a really visionary director) but I’m also finding that I like to be in charge of the creative process. Maybe it’s also partly the cultural conditioning of “rugged individualism” and wanting to be able to deliver on any stage, anytime, anywhere, through the sheer force of will and having a ‘repertoire’ that I can carry with me. I’ve also done impressions, or impersonations, all my life, which tend to be an autonomous series of monologues, stances, walks and gestures, which lend themselves to the solo form. It’s harder to take impersonations to more group-based performance as I think there’s an inherent sense of interiority and possession–i.e. I become possessed by certain images–that defies cooperation with other performers and demands autonomy. I also seem to cling to an ideal of the indestructibility of a performance; that I can rely entirely on my own initiatives and devices, which of course is never entirely true but it’s a romantic idea artistically.
You use repetition – of words, phrases, gestures – heavily in your performance. How did that come about?
I think when repetition creeped into this show it started as a dramaturgical function so that I could see the continuities and progressions in the story for myself, but now, the reason I’m attached to the repetition of certain lyrical phrases is much more because of its musical function than its narrative one. Repetition is in itself nostalgic when it’s delivered elegantly and with the right syllables, so my hope through the repetition is to evoke a delicious longing, which ideally emerges through its aural texture and not (only) through the content that it’s conveying.
You’ve done a few iterations of this show. What’s changed the most since its inception?
On the crudest level, the style of performance has changed in the sense that I’ve done a lot of streamlining. In the first production, I had a table, notes and an espresso can in front of me, and I was wearing a unitard covered in gelato spoons. There were also music cues during the show. I went through an almost violent process of excluding what seemed no longer needed, and the ‘theatricality’ of the show became solely reliant on what could come through my voice, my body, a chair and the stage space. I come from the tradition of physical and vocal theatre in which narrative is only one component of a theatrical moment, and in which the way stories are told is constantly subverted to allow for multiple images and interpretations and emotions, and in which the performer journeys to wildly primal places through voice and body whether or not the audience can follow, so there was a point where I divorced those references that I had come from because I needed to embrace that in this moment of creation, Screame is served well by committing to the style of narration and storytelling, and is a piece that is friendly and tender toward the audience. Now, however, I am in the process of re-integrating those former references and trying to invite another element of otherworldly wildness back in, because I don’t like being rigid and a sense of ‘remaining in a style’ might as well be a plateau.
Can you speak to the process of self-directing and self-editing?
Again this goes back in part to the fantasy of having a totally self-sufficient artistic practice–that whether I’m stranded on an island, in prison or in a matchbox apartment, I can have the integrity of my own practice and not depend on a director or external authority to hold it. I wanted to create Screame without a director to discover how a piece naturally comes into being for me when someone else isn’t steering the ship. I did have a dramaturg in the first year of the creation process of Screame who helped with the flow and arc of the narrative, which turned out to be essential. But rather than having a single director or editor, I knew that I had artist friends I could trust with vocal or singing moments, others with the spacing and movement, others with the rhythm of the text, and so on. I think it’s a great challenge for a performing artist to create a work without a director and to be smart about the resources you have to help you in the creation process and use them in an autonomous way. It’s also important to know who your intuitive friends are that will ‘poke’ you and jolt you in different directions than you expected, even if it’s in a contrary or critical way. So, there’s something to be said for complete autonomy and there’s also something to be said for the inherent heat and rigor in the director-performer situation.
You started working on this piece while getting your M.F.A. at Naropa. How do you feel about grad school?
Overall mixed feelings. For me, going to grad school was an important experience that helped me along in my professional life in ways that didn’t necessarily meet the eye at first. The most important case for grad school, or any academic course of study, is that in our society today it’s one of the only contexts where artists can devote their full time and attention to studying their craft and asking the juicy questions. As much as that’s a case for grad school, though, it speaks to an imbalance between grad school and the larger economy. People should not need to pay, let alone go deeply in debt, for graduate school. On a professional level, too, grad school doesn’t exactly prepare people for the demands of being an entrepreneurial artist today because the rules of the game are in transit and the people teaching are from another era of interaction between arts and marketplace. So, it’s a great place to commit to craft and cultivate communities, but at the same time, hopefully we will be innovative and find ways to nurture the development of the artist in our society in a way that’s not so economically imbalanced.