Playwright Kate Tarker in conversation with director Dominique Serrand

photo by Johanna Austin. Pictured: Matteo Scammell and Taysha Marie Canales.

Playwright Kate Tarker in conversation with Dionysus Was Such A Nice Man director Dominique Serrand, about working together on a new play built for physical theater. Their show is currently premiering at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia through May 12. Get tix at

When a family of shepherds in the suburbs of Corinth learn their adopted son Oedipus has ascended the throne of Thebes, they plan a bender to end all benders. But who’s on cleanup after the party’s over? Equal parts irreverent comedy and emotional journey into family dysfunction, Dionysus Was Such A Nice Man investigates the devastating moments when fun and pleasure become tragic. One man’s comedy is another woman’s tragedy. Or as your mother might have said: “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.” 

Kate: All theater is physical theater. Do you agree with that statement? 

Dominique: Yes. We start by moving, when we’re born. The first thing we do is to move and articulate our mouth to make sounds that are physical sounds. Yes, everything is physical to start with. 

K: Where do you think realism falls within that? 

D: I think realism is a school that exists to me in a particular time period in which physicality was probably considered populist, vulgar. A lot of actors were trained to speak and act from the head up. It was considered vulgar to express yourself physically. What is theater today is still very proper, very polite. Which is predictable. 

K: When we were in rehearsal you talked about the metronome of realism. 

D: Well, it’s more the sense that there’s a particular music in life. And we understand the beat of the heart to be regular, of course… otherwise we would have concerns. But to take a really good example of organic rhythm, would be to look at the piece Baryshnikov did years ago in which he danced to the beat of his own heart. Which actually meant that he slowed down or accelerated in moments. The metronome is the most predictable place, it’s a steady rhythm. It exists in realistic theater or what I call psychological theater, in which systematically people leave a beat before they answer a question. As if we always need to think before we talk. Which is very strange coming from a culture, and coming from Shakespeare in particular, in which we speak in order to understand what we mean. 

K: Generally my plays are written that way, in that the characters are thinking as they speak, so we worked a lot to remove the metronome and maintain spontaneity. 

D: Yes and it makes it very difficult for actors to get there, because that exercise doesn’t happen very often, and it means that you have to think very fast. It’s active. And if it’s active, it’s physical. 

K: Is laughter holy? 

D: It can be. That’s a huge question. I don’t know how many chapters and subchapters exist within that question. Is laughter holy? Yes. We know that people who laugh more, are often healthier and live longer lives… I could also say, no, not at all. If I watch what I see on TV, on cable, I would say no, not at all. I sometimes find it pernicious, or mean. Not that mean is necessarily bad, it can sometimes be very good… It’s a very wide question, is laughter holy! That’s so many questions in one. 

K: Yes. That’s true. I was trying to trick you into talking a lot. 

D: Well. (laughter) That worked.  

K: I do feel like it’s a sacred offering that we’re giving to the audience, the permission to laugh, while at the same time what we’re doing is completely irreverent, and reverence is what is usually associated with the sacred, but to me irreverence is the method that actually breaks down false pieties in order to get to something that is true, and meaningful. 

D: No, absolutely. I’m most fascinated when people laugh at things that are difficult. That are complex emotionally. Not the cynicism laughter, but the recognition that something is so wrong that we allow ourselves to laugh, in a generous way. 

K: I would say that in the work that we did together and in general the work that we try to do, there is a deep interest in sincerity and open-heartedness, and the courage of that. We aren’t saying: Look how smart we are. We are saying: We are all embarrassing and foolish at times and this too is an important part of our humanity to embrace. The characters aren’t “above” anything. In rehearsal we talked a lot about parody and trying to avoid that. 

D: Yes. I think there’s some parts [in what we’ve made] where I still think it’s a bit obscure and where we could ask more: How do we get the audience to enter that thought, that particular thought, in a way that’s either more enjoyable or more surprising. I’m sure you’ve done that exercise over and over: How can we make this moment more interesting, theatrically? And I think we’ve done a lot, and I think we could have done more, if we had more time, but I also think that we tend to talk too much. I’m just saying that it’s important for me when I go to the theatre where I’m given the time to be able to think about what I just saw. And not to receive more and more and more. To have moments where my mind can go and play around with what I just saw. And usually that’s something either playful or simply moving. 

K: Yeah moments of rest, and landing. 

D: Yeah, totally, moments of great rest. 

K: A moment for me where we did achieve that in the play is where Luverne Seifert, as Polybus, is just napping onstage. And we have an extended moment where we’re just watching a man asleep, and snoring, and we’re listening to the rhythm of that, while the sounds of sheep echo his snoring. 

D: The dialogue with the sheep, I agree, that was lovely. But I think we always need more. I always feel like it tends to be: The part where we speak is that part that counts. And I think that’s wrong. Somehow that’s wrong. That sleeping moment confirmed that for me… how resting in that music, how important that can be. 

K: I also think, as a physical theater director, you’re so much more precise about those rests or physical landing points… I’m thinking in particular of one actor, Keith Conallen, who played Oedipus, you gave him a numerical system for levels of smiling. You told him when he was smiling at a one, or a four, or a seven, or a ten, and in a given moment said that it called for a ten, or a seven, and you were incredibly specific about that. Which I think is quite rare. 

D: It is rare but you also can’t ask that of people who don’t have both his physical discipline and his vocal discipline. I mean he’s quite a gifted actor in many, many ways. You can only ask that of someone who has that in their bones. I think it also has a lot to do with the vocabulary… some actors can understand this approach and others just don’t go there. They’re very much working within an internal practice… I have great admiration for a very famous French director, Patrice Chéreau…who used to do really grandiose, tragic shows…with stunning achievements from his actors… and whose work was very physical but didn’t look like it was. And now that he’s dead, and I’ve seen all his work and now that I can think about all the work, I think it’s that he simply asked actors to touch each other. They were constantly touching: They were constantly embracing or pushing each other, or holding each other for a second… And I miss that on the stage, because if we can give something to the audience, it’s the possibility that we can reach for each other on the stage. 

K: I have a quote from you from our rehearsal process: “Not understanding onstage is where the fantastic begins.” Can you talk a little bit about that? 

D: No. 

K: No? (laughter)

D: No. It’s the whole idea about the temple, in a way. It’s in the same category of when you say, is laughter holy? The stage has to be a place where things happen in a way that should be fantastic to us. And I’m not talking style here. I’m just… I don’t know, everything that I see is so incredibly predictable. And my life is richer and more alive than what I see onstage and that’s really sad.

K: Well I guess I wanted to talk more specifically about not understanding, which is a state of wonder, right? If we see actors onstage who aren’t understanding something, wonder is a form of awe, and awe is admiration mixed with terror, and it’s a humble and spiritual state – and giving the actors onstage permission to, as their character, not understand what is happening all the time, is a state I’m deeply interested in. 

D: Well… that’s about the clown. The part about admitting to yourself that you don’t understand. It’s a beautiful place. For some reason I think we’re taught as actors that we need to think through so that we understand… instead of seeing: the parts about ourselves, that we don’t understand, that’s the beautiful part. So it’s living in that moment beforewe actually realize that what we see makes sense to us… in a very opened, non-judgmental way. Not in a negative way. I love that part. But to do that it means that the text needs to stay opened in some way. 

K: Maybe we should talk about clown a little bit more, because apparently that is avant-garde, though it doesn’t feel that way to me… But it is a performance tradition that is uncommon on most stages. My plays, though they are plays, are very much in conversation with clown, and my writing is informed by it. You spoke at one point about how, in your training with Lecoq, clown is born out of tragedy.  

D: I think you have to put all this in context… the clown is alone, it’s a singular individual. It mostly has to deal with the world by himself or himself. So the clowns are usually very full personalities. The beginning, the idea, is that the clown is an individual who has been dropped by society. Not in any mean way. But it’s the one left behind. 

So you have to start with the chorus… where people healthily live together and function together well. And then one of them is distracted. I always like this word, distraction. Because if you look at it from that perspective, the words distraction and attraction are very close. The clown is distracted by things that we would normally not pay attention to… the poetic side. There’s a beautiful familial quality between the poetry and the ridicule. They both come from the same place, which is being lost, and trying to figure out what the world is and what we mean in it. So when that’s shared by three or four clowns it’s even more beautiful, because it’s very strong individuals who live in perfect harmony of the complete chaos of their own poetic worlds. That’s fantastic. 

K: I’d like to bring up a moment that I really loved in our work together: A character, Merope, tells a joke – and it’s a really stupid joke: “What is orange and smells like blue paint? Orange paint.” But you had her tell the joke as if it were a tragedy… as if it were something important delivered from an oracle, and you asked her to stay in the tragedy of the joke. And it was tremendously funny.

D: Yeah. I loved that. I just loved that. And it was one of the things that was picked up by one of the critics, who said: How stupid can that be? They made a whole thing about it, about stupid jokes. But no: There is one, really stupid joke, and we made sure that we put it on an altar, as: This is the stupidest joke. Do you want to hear it loudly, and pronounced with such courage? I thought that was beautiful. 

K: I did too. 

D: I love that moment. I think we should do more. Can you make a joke really scary? It’s a beautiful thing to think that you can deliver a joke as an oracle or in a very tragic way, and somehow, people laugh. ‘Cause people always laughed there. They recognized not just the joke but the pronouncement of the joke. So I adored that. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kate Tarker is a Brooklyn-based playwright. Her works include THUNDERBODIES (Soho Rep., NYTimes Unforgettable Theater Moments of 2018), Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man (The Wilma), and Laura and the Sea. Tarker has also collaborated with Pig Iron and SITI Company Conservatory, and currently holds commissions from Soho Rep. and Playwrights Horizons. MFA Yale.

ABOUT THE DIRECTOR: Dominique Serrand is Co-Artistic Director of The Moving Company and co-founder of Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Dominique Serrand has acted, conceived, directed and designed for most Jeune Lune and Moving Company productions for over 30 years, concentrating primarily on directing. 2005 Tony award best regional theater, 2005 USA ARTIST Fellow, Ford and Bush Fellow, knighted by the French Government in the order of Arts and Letters. 

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