The Literacy of Delight – In Conversation with Bailey Williams and Sarah Blush
Bailey Williams, writer/performer/producer, and Sarah Blush, director, gathered in the lobby of Signature theatre one recent afternoon to discuss their upcoming production I Thought I Would Die But I Didn’t (at The Tank, May 9 – 23). After locating a relatively quiet corner, I ask what feels like the most relevant question available to me with regard to their past work, which has ranged from Williams’ last play titled Buffalo Bailey’s Ranch for Gay Horses, Troubled Teen Girls and Other: A 90 Minute Timeshare Presentation (which she describes as an exploded parable about the corporatization of queer spaces) to Blush’s recent work Sehnsucht, which unpacked the titular sense of longing (as translated from German) over the course of three acts, starting in the Neolithic era and ending on a beach somewhere in the 21st century.
What delights you?
Sarah Blush: I’m delighted by things that are absurdly stupid. For example, when it’s clear in retrospect that someone felt that they were above the law and acted like it. Absurdity in general.
Bailey Williams: Witnessing other people live life totally ruled by the id – I’m just going to totally disobey all the laws, I have my own moral code, ruled completely by self interest… no matter what the particulars of the story, it always feels like the perfect microcosm of everything that’s wrong with everything.
We quickly find ourselves discussing Anna Delvey, the scam artist who managed for months, if not years, to get away with behavior that seems unfathomable to the rest of us. Like, what was she thinking? Perhaps the delight lies within that sense of being scandalized. Bailey, briefly imagining Delvey’s life (“I’m a princess. I will not be giving you my credit card in advance. Just having the confidence to do that!”) admits that she herself can barely pull off a white lie. Is there is an opportunity to locate delight within the absurd disconnect between the expectation of human interaction versus behavior that is completely irrational and obviously flies in the face of common sense?
From Bailey’s point of view, delight can also be a product of something that has a repellent quality. “I hate something and I love it. Like when corporations or brands try to relate to young people or try to act like they are people? A Twitter account is tweeting up a storm in this sassy millennial voice, it’s like so GROSS and so WRONG.”
Sarah: I went on a date with someone who worked for a millennial shoelace company.
Bailey: I hate that so much!
Sarah: It’s sad – when you were talking about branding I was thinking it sounded pessimistic, that there’s a superiority we feel. And maybe that’s true. I think it’s choosing – and this is a shift I’ve noticed in myself – to laugh at the world’s absurdity, rather than cry or ignore it. I think there are a lot of people who don’t remark, who tacitly accept, and I’d rather be someone who is like, no this is insane, we need a moment to take in this ridiculous thing before moving forward.
Bailey: Everything is so market tested now. It’s like AI. It’s like the machine trying to learn how people talk. You can feed romance novel titles into a computer and it spits like a thousand back out, that delights me.
Okay, so how about theatrical delight? What delights you on stage?
Sarah: I’m really not saying this because there’s a technology robot recording us here, but I’ve been experiencing complete delight at all of our rehearsals.
Bailey (amid laughter and demonstration): There is a moment where one of our actors was instructed to – in the script – to smell deeply. For the first six times he did it, he read it as “smile” deeply. So he was smiling so big. Then we pointed it out but we decided to keep the smile and so now he does this thing where he does the smile and he’s also breathing in – I can’t even do it – like deeply inhaling through his nose with like the happiest smile on his face, it is WILD. And you realize you’ve never seen someone do that before.
Are we then building containers in order to put things that delight us inside of them when we’re making theater?
Sarah: I fundamentally want to do that. I want it to distinguish my work. I’d like to cultivate an aesthetic that’s not only visual or tonal, but a mood of delight that’s given to the audience, created in the space.
Bailey: I would agree with that. It’s so much fun being in rehearsal and just trying to find the funniest thing. It’s a game changer.
Sarah: What’s funnier in that moment? What’s stupid? What’s surprising? A lot of plays have that structure: humor as a gateway to emotion. If you start with something dramatic there’s a distrust in the audience – I don’t quite know where it comes from, but I think you have to first prove to people that you have a sense of humor. Then you make them vulnerable, you open them up, either by exhausting them or by allowing them to let loose, and then you’re able to sneak in something more powerful. That’s the way this play operates and, I think, why it’s so successful. In all of the readings we did, I’d find myself two thirds of the way through actually physically tired from laughing. So then when something more serious comes in, it’s like the air gets sucked out of the room and I’m hit.
Bailey: I think one of my rules is try to make myself laugh first – I think that’s a good rule for anyone. Chuck Mee once said he only writes plays for himself because he’s not an alien so since he’s not an alien he’s got to assume that two or three other people will like it as well. So I follow that, except with humor. The process of coming up with the structure for this play was really different than any other one I’ve tried to write because I worked on it for so long, I wrote it for six years. It’s meta in a way that it’s about the process of trying to write an autobiographical play about something difficult and the failure is a huge part of that process and to accept the failure of trying to communicate something large is the point. To be able to actively fail –
Sarah: Structurally, specifically –
Bailey: So that’s baked into the show.
Sarah: It’s a cooking show!
The conversation moves to a contemplation of this concept of failure, in particular in relation to delight, and with regard to the theatrical container that contains delight and also “fails” delightfully. Artistically, I posit that those who are working with language, with unruly texts and non-conformist forms, are re-contextualizing what feels “truthful” through the guise of failure. Not so much the (very real yet potentially delightful) failure of a company to mimic the sound of a millennial, which is inherently NOT truthful, but instead to create structures that don’t adhere to the set rules, the common sense laws that dictate how a story is to be told.
What is it that’s interesting about failure?
Bailey: The first part of the show is the play I originally tried to write about this thing, this autobiographical event. It’s a funhouse mirror version of a New York apartment play with myself as a character and my friends are there too… I tried to write this play for real for a long time and it failed miserably because I was a character using myself as a mouthpiece and it was serious and I was trying to write an emotional arc. That’s morphed into what is now the first part, an actively failing New York apartment play.
Sarah: You’ve described it as eating itself.
Bailey: It’s an apartment play that’s eating itself. They keep on failing, there’s gaps of information that they can’t quite fill and so then that part ends as my experience of trying to write it ended. Then it turns into a fake television show called Crime 24/7 that’s basically a rip-off of 20/20 or Dateline.
Sarah: And that’s full satire. It really is remarkable, and is a testament to the extensive television watching that Bailey has done.
Bailey: I have watched a lot of television.
Sarah: In how accurate a parody it is of a Dateline show. It’s spot on.
Bailey: Once I realized I was a failure at writing this play I became obsessed with the levels of reality that go into telling a story. And how you portray yourself and how you interpret events and how you try to communicate what happened to other people and how that happens on a larger scale too- like how these television shows take real crimes and spit out bizarre versions of what actually happened – and so the play mirrors that. Then, without ruining it, it attempts to become more real in its realization that there’s no true way to tell a story. You can get close to truth but you can’t ever – in my opinion – I don’t think any story is ever true.
If that’s the case, could we always say either? This is a “TRUE” story? Or with equal authority, this is a “FALSE” story?
Bailey: I would subtitle the play either one.
Sarah: But you do say it’s a true crime true story.
Dan: True meaning that it happened?
Bailey: Yeah that’s what it’s called, true crime. Instead of “real” crime.
Perhaps also, the failure ethos ultimately fails us?
Bailey: Because actually we want our plays to succeed.
Sarah: Wild success. Like you’ve never seen.
Dan: Transfer it to every Broadway theater!
Sarah: Every Broadway theater, that’s the only level of success that I want. If this doesn’t make the article –
Dan: We can advocate for that.
Bailey: I don’t even have enough plays so we’re gonna have to do some repeats.
Dan: It can just be everyone’s version of the same play.
Bailey: Yeah. That’s good. Like Ivo –
Sarah: Are you telling me you want Ivo van Hove to direct this instead of me? Because I am seriously hurt.
Dan: I think you can direct three of them but that’s all you can handle because three production calendars is like enough, and Ivo can take some of the rest.
Sarah: No, I can handle them all.
Near the end of our discussion, after we’ve been chased from our no-longer-quiet corner into an adjacent light lock, Bailey mentions a dedication to making work that friends who don’t usually see theater can still enjoy, without having to have a lot of built-in literacy around what the artist is referencing. Maybe that’s what is so ultimately successful about building containers for delight – the literacy required is simply being present. You see a thing you’ve never seen (or expected to see) before. You experience delight. In this overcomplicated hyper-anxious world, that’s worth quite a bit.