“I’m Fundamentally Interested in a Gentle Theater” – a conversation with Corinne Donly and Sarah Hughes

Visual excerpt from Corinne Donly’s ‘Wood Calls Out to Wood’

Corinne Donly’s plays seem to emerge, Athena-like, from the skull of some long-forgotten deity from a planet never named. Scrap that metaphor, for Athena emerged fully formed, ready to pick up her shield and spear and kick some ass. Corinne’s plays, on the other hand, climb halfway out the skull and stay there, perfectly content to exist in a state of eternal becoming, smiling at the passersby.

“I love liminal states,” Corinne says, meaning not just hallways and doorways (though those appear from time to time in their plays as well), but the spaces between dreaming and waking, between non-being and being. Corinne’s plays offer us an opportunity to, with great care, attention and tenderness, step into those holy in-between places that lie spackled over in our day to day.

Wood Calls Out to Wood (running at The Tank Oct 27 – Nov 12 – info and tickets here) is a translation/adaptation of Hieronymus Bosh’s trippy masterpiece “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Corinne reminds us, with their ever elegant, wry, astute, and carefully chosen words, that the figures in the painting (like the figures in a play) are, without us, merely paint. But when I look at the painting, I see people and trees and sky and birds. Only through the act of looking does paint become subject, is figure defined from ground.

A consequence of this realization is that we can conceive of the whole world as being in a state of perpetual becoming – it is the participatory act of perception that brings things into being, that individuates things from chaotic flow. Corinne’s plays provide space to practice this sort of perception-in-unknowingness.

I first met Corinne in the fabled Barker Room at Brooklyn College, where we shared a joyous year under the mad tutelage of Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney. As a student around the workshop table, Corinne consistently exceeded what one might conceive are the bounds for how generously perceptive one writer could be in responding to another’s work. Their attention to plays – and people – is filled with a kindness that emerges, quasi-Athena-like, from an inspiringly deep inquiry into what it is to be a person in this world.

I spoke with Corinne and Sarah Hughes (the director, one of the precious ones excited by and exceedingly skilled at meeting the challenge of staging a play that hardly resembles a “play”) recently about Corinne’s upcoming play, Wood Calls out to Wood. Our conversation was meandering and deep, and lasted well over an hour. Sarah was on the phone, driving back to New York after a day teaching up at Dartmouth. Corinne sat across from me, holding a crystal for a little extra spiritual protection (a habit I found incredibly endearing). Throughout, I got the impression that Corinne and Sarah were working out their ideas in front of me, rather than regurgitating concepts already known. In other words, the play was becoming before my eyes.

The edited transcript below has been made circular. That is, I decided to begin with the ending, and then go right back to the beginning. Why? Well, partly it seemed an appropriate way to treat Corinne’s play (in which the panels of a painting close, and separate images are briefly brought into world-changing contact), and because oddly enough the end of our conversation seemed the best way to understand the beginning.

Corinne: I’m fundamentally interested in a gentle theater. One that is some sort of break from everything else that is too aggressive in the world. Something that’s not oriented around crisis. I want that space to be one where people try for one another. The audience is trying vis-a-vis the play, and the characters are trying for one another. And maybe there’s something else going on, like the environment is increasingly difficult, or the panels of a painting suddenly close and the world can’t be the same as what it was. But that doesn’t mean that people have stopped trying. Which feels different from a conflict-based theater.

Talking about the narrative structure of this play is hard, because there isn’t an easy narrative structure I could say it replicates – I don’t think it’s a circle, or a jagged line, or something like that. But in terms of how the audience gets into the play, I’m trying to replicate the way one gets into a painting. The different levels at which you can engage with a piece of art – as its materials, as its colors and textures and patterns, or as its characters, what the brush-strokes add up to. The play invites the audience to take steps closer and closer until they’re engaged on the level of narrative. And the narrative is just two different couples enjoying one another in the early stages of just knowing one another until the panels close, after which something has shifted, but they can’t yet articulate what it is that’s shifted.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, oil on oak panels, 220 cm × 389 cm (87 in × 153 in), Museo del Prado, Madrid

Jerry: I love this idea of trying on different ways of seeing – considering a painting as material, considering it as technique, considering it as narrative, considering it as history. You’re problematizing what seems like the very simple action of looking at something, and saying it’s actually very complicated.

Corinne: It’s the interpretation thing we keep returning to. You have to choose how it is you’re looking at what’s in front of you.

Jerry: What are you asking your audience to do in coming to see this play? How can we be prepared to encounter it?

Corinne: I think audiences who are coming expecting it to look like a play are probably going to have a harder time. I think being in a space of listening can help. Enjoying the sound of language. Enjoying the interpretive act. Being ready to participate, recognizing that the act of viewing anything demands a certain kind of participation, and this one will demand a little more.

Jerry: Tell me a bit about where the play came from.

Corinne: The exercise of this play was to translate a painting onto the stage by way of the page. And somehow attempting a one-to-one visual translation from painting to script was exciting to me, because I could do that by using color and thinking about the spatial arrangements in the painting and how those could be reflected on the page.

Jerry: How do you approach staging something like that?

Sarah: A lot of Corinne’s work presents the challenge of representing non-human characters, which can be difficult because a lot of non-human things – an aspen grove, some rocks – we don’t think of as moving. And that’s tough, because when you think about theater you usually think about people moving.

Wood Calls Out to Wood asks you to stage a painting. So we’ve been talking about all the different ways to experience a painting, and how some of those involve stillness and some of them don’t. In a way, theater is more static than a painting – as a viewer you’re usually watching from a fixed perspective. But looking at a painting, you can get up really close to it, you can go all the way across the room and look at the whole thing, you can focus on one tiny detail and stare at that for a really long time, you can get close enough to stare at the individual brushstrokes and then far enough away that the whole thing becomes a blur. So I see a lot of opportunity for playing with the tension between stillness and movement, zooming in and zooming out, shifting which plane or which angle we’re looking at this thing from now.

Corinne: Fundamentally the characters in the play are beings on a flat plane who can’t see anyone except for the people right next to them. That’s their whole world. And the only movement that happens in the play comes when the panels of the painting close, which is a world-changing event for the characters, because once the panels close, a character on the rightmost panel is brought into contact with a character in the center panel, and suddenly their worldview is radically shifted.

But how one communicates that action on stage has proven to be, at least in my two experiences of this play so far, a surprising challenge.

Jerry: Because you’re translating from painting to very interestingly laid out page to performance, there’s a gap formed in each step of that translation. Is your goal in now making a performance to try to close that gap or to try to widen that gap and see what lives inside of it?

Corinne: That’s something we’re really trying to figure out. I’m interested in experimental theater and I need theater to challenge me, and I need to be in a space of non-understanding so I can bring myself to the work. I feel like I’m creatively participating in the show when there’s some interpretive element for me.

But then it turns out that a lot of people feel frustrated by theater that happens that way. I felt a little bruised coming out of the workshop this last summer, as a lot of people had a hard time locating the heart of the play. I felt strongly that it did have a heart, but didn’t understand how somehow that wasn’t accessible to the audience.

In that first go-round of the play we tried to be as literal in the staging the painting as possible, thinking the play wouldn’t work if people didn’t understand the translation. But people were still confused! So I think this time there has to be some letting go, and some honoring of the gaps, knowing there’s a productive thing that can happen if people aren’t immediately indexing everything moment to the world of the painting.

Sarah: As I’m staging the play, I’m thinking about how the staging can open up the audiences’ possibilities of interpretation, rather than closing them off. Because the painting itself has a lot going on. The most obvious interpretation of the painting is that it’s something to do with the Garden of Eden. You can look at the left side and say “that’s probably Adam and Eve.” But then some other stuff is going on that’s not usually what we hear about in the Garden of Eden. So something’s changed or something shifted.

But the Garden of Eden is all about knowledge. And while knowledge gives you more possibilities, at the same the more you know about something, the more possibilities are foreclosed to you, as you start to think of it in a particular way. When you’re a kid and you imagine how the world works, you think it could be anything. But once you learn that gravity always works, you think “I can’t fly? This is bullshit!”  

I remember being a kid and being 100% convinced that there would be a unicorn waiting for me when I got home from school. I was sure of it. And every day I was sure, until one day it dawned on me – suddenly I had the knowledge that this wasn’t possible for me, and it was terrible!

Corinne: Similarly I was sure there was a way to breathe underwater. As a kid I actually always kind of hated unicorns. I think I rejected girly fantasy things, and I associated unicorns with that.

Jerry: So how did a unicorn end up in this play?

Corinne: This play, among its thousand themes, takes on evolution as one of them. And I like thinking of a unicorn as a step in the evolution of a horse. An anxiety I have constantly is about evolving into a version of myself that really misses the old self. So I was interested in the unicorn as it relates to the horses in the play, in terms of what’s lost in the process of change. Which is also related to the idea of foreclosed possibilities.

It’s similar to the anxiety that the character Grapehead is dealing with in this play. He’s got this whole thing that’s like “ok, it’s taken me a long time to come to peace with who I am, and I have to believe that if I’m in this body, and I’ve evolved to be this person with a grape for a head (laughs) it’s because evolution needed it.”

Every creature is the forefront of their own species’ evolution at this point in time. Which is kind of exciting. For Grapehead, he can do the work of coming to peace with himself, but to know anyone is to render yourself vulnerable to being interpreted by them. Which is the same question of interpretation we’re grappling with in staging the play. The play is like “here’s the deal with the painting – you can interpret it any way you want. But here’s the really frustrating thing about interpretation – you can be misread.” I’m finding that in trying to stage this play I’m working constantly to prevent it being misread. Which is actually the exact opposite of what the play is asking of me.

Sarah: I’m trying to constantly build a sense of interpretive possibility with the performers. I need a performer to do one thing, but I need to be able to hang ten interpretive options on that thing, at least for a while. Because everybody in the audience is bringing in their own subjectivity, and it’s way more interesting if we keep those possibilities open.

Jerry: Which is something the play is also doing on a linguistic level, with all the puns and wordplay – it’s opening us to the sound of language and letting us see the possibilities within that. It’s a way of showing us how a word is so much more than the thing it refers to.

Corinne: I was reading a lot of Gertrude Stein when I was writing this play, and she’s such a master of saying something that is both totally specific and totally vague. You know it’s coming from her own life to some extent, and referencing something quite specific in her cosmos. But the way each word contains other sounds and other words in it, the text becomes this thing that quickly multiplies into an impossibility. You can’t pin it down.

Jerry: It’s specific enough that I know there’s a sense in there somewhere, but it’s also so opaque that I don’t know what you’re saying. But I want to. And that’s the fun.

Corinne: And/or the fun is I do decide what you’re saying, and that’s reflecting back something about me as much as it is something about what you’re saying. And that’s so exciting.

I was teaching an article today to my undergrad students that was written by Fan Shen, a writer who came to the States after growing up in Communist China. He talks about how for him, learning the rules of composition in the States also contained an ideological shift. It wasn’t just learning how to write a thesis statement – to learn how to write a thesis statement he also had to learn a different understanding of what the word “I” means.

But what’s interesting to me is, according to him, there’s a practice of criticism in China called yijing, in which you describe everything that a poem or piece of art conjures in you. So you start from the painting or the poem and then just describe everything that you see. So you have a line of Wordsworth, and then say “blue clouds, clear day,” and on an on.

I think that’s something we can celebrate in the theater more, the mind-drift that happens when you’re watching a play. I love liminal states, and it’s totally that. You’re with a bunch of other people in the room, with the people on stage, but also alone in your strange associative experience.

Sarah: That kind of radical subjectivity is so exciting to me. How cool is it to see the exact same thing as the person sitting next to you, but then right afterwards have a heated discussion about what it was that you both saw? That sort of thing can only happen if we acknowledge that not only is there no neutral objectivity, but there are no binaries either. And that feels so vital right now.

Jerry: This is a play that feels to me like it came from another planet. What else, besides Gertrude Stein, is in the solar system of that planet?

Corinne: In addition to the Stein I was also reading Jung’s texts on alchemy. But this awful thing always happens to me where I’m reading something and I’m so with it, and then a couple of months down the line I look at the play and say “well clearly the alchemy is…” And I have no idea what to point to! I can’t say it anymore. It went into the strange chemistry of the play, and now it’s unsayable. I also read a lot about Bosch, theories of his life and such. I was also reading Henry James.

I have this theory about the way that I learn, which is that I take stuff in, and it sits in me for a couple of years before I discover it in something I’ve written a much later. I think it has to really go into my body and shift my worldview a little bit before I’m able to say it back in a way that’s me saying it back, and not just parroting. I think the soil of this play comes from my prior life in Cosmology school, when I did my masters in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness although technically in Integral Ecology. (Laughs)

The main thing I thought about there, in a very academic sense, were the ecological implications of narrative structure. The ways that narrative changes human interactions with the non-human world. All the reading and thinking I did then about narrative theory and ecology shows up in this play.

Jerry: Can you spare our intrepid readers a masters degree in Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness but really in Integral Ecology and tell us a bit more about that?

Corinne: It’s impossible to connect my selves. (Laughs)

I think that we have a habit, narratively, of celebrating conflict as the engine that drives story. In the most naive way, the implications of that are that we’re always looking for a “versus.” “Man versus nature,” and things like that, which tends to set us up against our environment. But speaking of foreclosing possibilities, the reason we think that’s a successful narrative is that it can only go one way, which is that the conflict escalates until it can’t anymore. Which to me doesn’t seem like that rich narrative ground to be hanging out in.

I think that when you build to a story structure that builds to a point of crisis, this make-or-break moment when something’s got to give, you start to expect that in your life. Milton Friedman has a quote, which I just heard Naomi Klein say the other day, and it’s hard for me not to believe in it myself: “Only a crisis, real or imagined, produces real change.”

And you want to say “sure that makes sense, when bad things happen, people respond.” But it’s such a bleak view of the world. I don’t think it accounts for constructive relationships or changes that are more gentle. I think if you start to prize crisis too much, then you start thinking “Well things are bad in the environment right now, but I guess we’re just going to have to have all these natural disasters come and have the human species half wiped out before we get it.” Which feels like a way of checking out from agency.

Sarah: There’s a line in The Sun Also Rises, where somebody asks this character who is a drunk who has lost all his money how he lost all his money. And he replies “gradually and then suddenly.”

I think about that, and wonder how it is we’ve gotten so deep into this narrative assumption that crisis is the only thing that can result in any kind of change, catharsis, or action. Because our bodies change gradually and then suddenly. Nothing happens – every day you get a little older, and then you die. For many many people there is no crisis, just boring, daily, mundane, tiny little incremental changes, until it’s done. So how is it that we can’t figure out that that’s what’s happening to the planet?

¹A quote from Fan Shen, provided by Corinne after the interview: “According to yijing, the process of criticizing a piece of art or literary work has to involve the process of creation on the reader’s part. In yijing, verbal thoughts and pictorial thoughts are one. Thinking is conducted largely in pictures and then ‘transcribed’ into words….One characteristic of the yijing approach to criticism, therefore, is that it often includes a description of the created mental picture on the part of the reader/critic and his/her mental attempt to bridge (unite) the literary work, the pictures, with the ultimate beauty and peace.”

Corinne adds: “I like the part about how verbal thoughts and pictorial thoughts are one.”

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