Agnes & Chana

Agnes Borinsky: Chana and I met in Los Angeles, though we have been in close orbit with each other for years. As small children in Baltimore’s Jewish day school scene; with Barn Arts Collective in Bass Harbor, Maine; in a tiny yoga studio in Bed-Stuy.

Now i am a slow tide is producing my play, Brief Chronicle, Books 6-8, and New Georges is producing Chana’s play, Leap and the Net Will Appear.

That seemed like yet another synchronicity so this time we decided to talk about it and ask each other some questions.

Photo by Maria Baranova


Chana Porter: I love that your main character Julian says “I am interested in goodness.” Julian’s best friend/love interest/mad crush Dan has done some Bad Things, which you set up right at the very beginning, before we (and Julian) come to love Dan. Dan is good and has done very bad things, the play seems to say. I feel like this play takes duality, as in good/bad, (or HA, binary) and tangles it, complicates it, thickens it.  Agnes, do you think that people are essentially good? Is the role of the playwright to be interested in goodness in the dark places?

Ohhh dear.

Haha yes I went there right away

Do I think people are essentially good. I certainly don’t think people are intrinsically self-interested. That, I think, is something that the economics of industrial-scale production made necessary and that economists then got obsessed with telling us about. I think people are malleable, suggestible, sure. But definitely not reducible to self-interest.

More and more I think that individuals are the wrong unit of meaning. I think we’re quite literally and also metaphysically part of something bigger, something called life. And life wants to live. When we remember that we are part of that bigger thing, we’re at our best. When we forget, when we listen to the economists and to David Mamet, when we ignore the magic and the mystery and go with that idea that humans are self-interested — that’s when we get both fearful and small-minded.

Which isn’t bad, necessarily. It’s just kind of clueless.

Agnes– your play is very funny! Some of your comedy comes from naming theatrical devices, like an actor playing multiple parts, or a character entering or exiting. But you’re never funny at the expense of your characters, or your audience, which I deeply admire. Brief Chronicle is at times quite dry, commenting on itself, and yet VERY EMOTIONAL– like HEART ON YOUR SLEEVE. But I feel like your recipe of distance + emotional vulnerability makes space for me, as the audience, to feel even more deeply. It makes me think of poet’s theater too– your play feels like a highly literary object. Can you speak about your relationship to dialogue versus stage directions? And how the presentational aspect of some of your dialogue making MORE emotional space, rather than less?

Yes yes yes. To all of those things. I’m relieved when things are funny. I put things in there that make me giggle and so I’m glad when they make other people giggle, too.

I have a test that any performance I’m going to love has to pass: “If I laughed, would it ruin it?” You know how there are those scenes where if you were to start giggling some people in the audience would glare at you and others would feel embarrassed for themselves and the performers? I think that means it’s a failed, fragile, overly-precious moment. As an audience member, I should be able to laugh at every single moment and the play should be able to wrap my laugh in its arms with a wink and keep moving.

Janet Malcolm has this thing she says about Chekhov: he gives his characters privacy. I love that. It’s respectful and honest. I feel the same way about audiences. They need to have privacy and permission to think and feel whatever they’re gonna think and feel.

Anyway I’m still not answering your question. I wanted the stage directions in this play to be the voice of action, of the things we do. It helped to have them spoken aloud onstage because it was practical, and allowed me to do a lot of jumping in space and time without much fuss. But I also wanted to be able to have a moment where a character could look to the stage directions for an answer: What am I supposed to do here? What’s the right answer? And for the stage directions to be able to shrug and make clear that there is no right answer. Sometimes things aren’t clear cut. It’s a morality play, I think, that refuses to accept clear-cut answers about what is moral.

A device that gives the audience logistical info upfront (where are we, who is doing what) allows us to save the murkier territory for things that actually should be murky, like feeling. Which comes back to the privacy thing and the space thing. Let’s give ourselves — and the characters — space to feel our own way into the emotional world of the play. Let’s hold audiences’ hands logistically. And then drop hands when we get to the feeling part.

“Did you know — inside each one of us is the final page of a book” is a very beautiful line from your play. We’re both playwrights who have just sold our first novels, talk about synchronicity. How does being a multi-genre writer influence your plays?

So much synchronicity. I’m curious to hear what you’d say to this question as well.

I’ll sneak it in below!

Okay good.

I hadn’t written this YA book when I wrote Brief Chronicle; to the extent I was writing in prose at the time, it was in little, jewel-sized nuggets. Writing, and then re-writing, the novel, I found that when I wasn’t being honest in grounded, steady, very-clear ways, I couldn’t get the thing to work. In plays, I’ve found, I can dart in and out with little flashes of honesty, and that the flitting plus the honesty plus the ways in which I was (& am) writing to put myself in danger can sustain a performance. But with the novel… that was just too long to be flitting around.

I did some rewrites on Brief Chronicle once I’d started talking with Gus about it, mostly in the last section. I wanted to find moments of that feet-on-the-floor honesty in the last section of the play, just as things start to get crazier. And I think that’s because I was just coming out of a rewrite of the YA book.

I think that’s also something I learned from working with my friend Jeremy Bloom on the play we made together last spring, Ding Dong It’s the Ocean. “So but what are we saying here? Just say the damn thing,” was what he pushed for — at the right moment, in the right place, the right way.

“Loving helps with ones general sense of homelessness in the world”–this play, in its sneaky way, is a climate change play. It’s also about terrorism, sneaky sneaky. You achieve a lot of latitude with the poetry of your language, so much that you can use it to achieve a kind of expansive tenderness around really difficult subjects. Does writing help with your sense of homelessness in the world? Does it give you more tools in your tenderness toolkit?

A tenderness toolkit is a wonderful phrase. I want to start using that.

I recently read a piece by some nuns about conflict resolution. They talk about the difference between speaking to persuade and speaking to be understood. You have already lost, they say, if you are speaking to persuade. So just do your best to be understood. Climate shit and American violence make me so angry, so sad. I argue all the time in my head, want to shake people, want to howl, want to say a personal “fuck you” to all the people of our parents’ generation who pushed things along down this path.

But that doesn’t serve anybody and isn’t fair. So I guess I’d say with all the poetry that I’m trying to be understood. I want people to feel a (my?) hugeness of grief about the state of our world.

I once heard a rabbi say that Jews are People of the Scroll, not People of the Book, because the Torah was actually pre-book. And a scroll doesn’t really have a beginning, middle, and end in the same way that a book does— its fluid, it rolls out, it’s on a weird parchment made of skin. You have titled your play the middle of a longer work that (to my knowledge) does not exist. Why have you landed us in the middle of your story? What attracts you to middles?

We are all part of longer stories. I’d like eventually to write other books in this Chronicle. I think it’s a “Chronicle of the History of Small Bodies Under Capitalism.” I wanted to be clear that this story is a middle because I wanted to be clear that it is a story not about one person’s grief or desire, though I hope I do justice to those things, but about a whole chorus of grieving and desiring humans and living beings. We zoom in here, we pause on this little family of humans in Baltimore because how else are we going to hear all the little textural wonders and tendrils and fillips and crinkles that are part of the bigger picture?

© Marina McClure Photography


Agnes Borinsky: Alright. My turn. I love that your play starts as a story of someone going on a journey to find herself and ends up getting more complicated than that. Other people are finding themselves, too, sometimes ambivalently, and the trajectory of a single character’s growth gets tangled up in the criss-crossing trajectories of others. Or at least that’s how I experienced it. Could you talk about the shape of the play?

I wrote the first draft of LEAP on a seven day silent Pataphysics retreat, led by Erik Ehn. Because I was writing from my subconscious, a great many things appeared that would not have if I had entered with any kind of formal plan. So I wrote the first draft in my mid twenties (now I’m 35) and spent the next decade trying to understand what the play meant, while rewriting and editing.

I’m not particularly interested in a single protagonist– and I also think that concept, at its core, is kinda false. The single mindedness of Margie’s quest activates the people around her, for better or worse– how could it not? We don’t exist in vacuums. This play deals a lot with shifting identities, including familial identities (mother, grandmother, child, lover– the same character might trade or combine guises.) I want the shape of the play, which is perhaps more like an upward spiral than anything else, to mirror and reflect these shifts. A maxilimist, inclusive experience that feels more like life than a tidy hero’s journey.

I love Simon’s advice. I love Simon. Initially he seems like a clueless (and cluelessly male) old guy. And his advice (during his “Jewish goodbye”) descends into lovely gobbledygook. But it also contains the play’s title, and some advice that seems remarkably open and big-hearted. What do you think about that line as a piece of advice? Does the net appear? How does that piece of advice apply — or not apply — to Margie’s story?

Aw, me too me too. Simon is the closest thing to a real person from my life! A lot of his mannerisms are based on my grandfather, Joseph Shulman, who was raised in an orphanage in East New York in the 30s. He was someone who experienced a lot of visceral suffering and remained incredibly big hearted and enthusiastic, about everything, from finding a nest of baby birds to randomly reciting Shakespeare to extolling on the virtues of a really good tuna sandwich. His daily life was littered with small miracles, and he had a lot of advice to give.

I think the net appears because being vulnerable is always a good idea. Even if something fails. Failure isn’t so bad. So maybe that’s how the net appears, when you think– well, what’s really the worst that could happen? Okay, what’s the best that could happen? And then, making space for the unexpected, which often what actually happens. And that’s where the real magic is– the things you couldn’t have planned or imagined, that come when you are staying open, when you are awake.

We’ve talked about Yiddish theater. Would you say a little bit about the tradition(s!) you are writing in?

For a long time, people would ask me what kind of plays I write and I didn’t know a good way to answer them. Reading about Yiddish theater helped me understand that I was writing from a tradition. I’m very interested in language, and the slippage between high brow/low brow. Puns and word play, to be funny or devastating or both. A flexible theatricality, leaping from a grounded domestic scene with real food and plates, to a surreal dream space, to a song, and back again. And comedy! Yiddish theater has a tradition of being really dirty, really funny, at times surreal, often with music but not really a “musical.” Most of the time we aren’t inventing the wheel. We’re standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us, and there’s a richness in that.

I’ve also recently been teaching some courses on Surrealism and I owe a lot to that tradition as well: elements of surprise and non-sequitur, unexpected juxtapositions, dream logic, poetic reality (or what I like to call emotional reality) rather than factual reality. Theater is a great place for concretizing the emotional. I can’t tell you how it was, but I can show you how it felt.

To sneak in an answer about being a multi-genre writer…

Oh good.

…my plays and novels are totally different beasts when I’m writing them. The project decides what it wants to be, and tells me so. It’s a different lens of experience, of sitting with a book versus coming together in a theater to witness humans breathing on stage. Oh I could go on and on but I won’t! I love this topic. We should be on a panel together.

“I don’t know how to be a person,” Margie says at one point. The plays I love are a kind of philosophy, in part — they make arguments about what personhood is, how we might conceive it. How does Margie’s inner lion self relate to your sense of how people work?

We all have innate intuition, a space of rest and calm inside us, a self that does not need to grasp or worry or plan, but only to be. I think that’s what Margie is pointing toward with wanting to be a lion. But Margie’s frightened of her wild inner nature, it’s too bold, too powerful. So she runs from it, instead of finding what wisdom it has to share with her. I think a lot of people like Margie (particularly those who are socialized as women) are frightened of their own great internal power. It’s taken me years to start to separate out my own authentic wants and desires from external forces of culture. And it’s an ongoing process, but one that can only begin when we cease being afraid of ourselves, and get to know our own minds, instead of looking outside for meaning. Because without a deep relationship to self, even the best advice will turn wonky.  

There’s a lot in this play about love; towards the end Margie arrives at some clarity about “want.” Could you talk a little bit about loving and wanting and the relationship between the two?

The parents/grandparents of LEAP say Waste Not, Want Not… a kitschy phrase I heard a lot growing up, but I think there’s a deep wisdom inside it. What do you already have, that perhaps you are letting go to waste?

Of course, I think it’s good to want things, to a certain extent, but not to be tunnel visioned about a particular outcome. In that same vein, how do we love without freezing people in a particular moment? How can we continue seeing our beloveds with fresh eyes? Also– how do we allow ourselves to change, without feeling like we are betraying our past selves?

I’m an ambitious person who aims to live in the present. Sometimes I miss the mark. Those two aspects can often feel at odds– how do I want things, how do I activate and express, while trying to detach from outcome?

AND, often when we love people, we want things from them in return. We want things from our careers, our goals, in return as well. The dynamic seems somewhat similar– how do we stay open hearted, connected to our emotions, yet really seeing what’s happening, right now, instead of holding on to the past or projecting into the future?

Compassion, I think, for ourselves and for each other. And real looking, at what we already have. Waste not, want not. That’s part of why I loved your play so much, Alex. Your tenderness, to all of your characters, makes space for real looking and listening.

I feel very lucky to call you a peer.

Same!! Okay let’s get together again when you’re back in LA.  🙂

We’ll go on a walk with a dog and have a BBQ and go to shul. 🙂

Happy happy opening in the meantime. Thanks for doing this with me.

Thank you!

Brief Chronicle, Books 6-8 runs through June 15 at the Access Theater. Directed by Augustus Heagerty. Produced by i am a slow tide.

Leap and the Net Will Appear runs June 16 – 30 at The Flea. Directed by Tara Ahmadinejad. Music by Andrew Lynch. Produced by New Georges. A co-world premiere with The Catastrophic Theater, Houston.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: