The Pile of Her: Agnes Borinsky talks with Sam Max about Coop
Agnes B.: This play is called “Coop.” It makes me think of the place where chickens live, of course, a kind of prison cell, and of the fact that they might be cooped-up in there. It also makes me think of “co-op,” as in Park Slope Food -. A framework in which people gather to pitch in their work in exchange for shared benefits. In an important way this play is about rural claustrophobia, but it’s also a play about work. The work that the members of a family do to keep the family afloat, and the work that Avery needs others to do to help her achieve some sort of escape. That work is a burden, but it’s also the only thing to do to get free. “Coop” also slant-rhymes with “cope,” a word that shows up later in the play for what a certain character wants to do. Why’d you choose “Coop” as your title?
Sam M.: Everything you said is right! In simple terms the title turns our attention to a physical area in the play that holds a confluence of its more abstract themes. In Coop, the family’s literal chicken coop is a key psychological destination for Avery, who is the play’s central voice. For Avery the chicken coop is, to paraphrase a line from one of Brian Blanchfield’s essays in Proxies, the ground floor of [her] desire. The literal coop is a piece of mental geography that holds a very rich memory of hearing sex for the first time.
A coop can also feel quite claustrophobic and entrapping, and I’m interested in the ways the precious ground floors of our desires can also feel at times like inescapable blueprints for the rest of our lives.
A mutual friend of ours actually, after the second preview, sent me a text saying the thing that stuck with him most was the moment Avery asks to be spit into, to be used as a receptacle, by the man who murders her parents. That exchange happens immediately following the most fatal act of violence in the play. I do feel that our early narratives around intimacy and sex can totally revolutionize our perceptions of our own agency.
In addition to the constellation of things you named about the title, I like that the title also evokes the word coup.
AB: Which is how it ends…
When you started working on this play, what was the first kernel you had — an image, a character, an event?
SM: At the time I was obsessed with the chickens who can beat humans at tic tac toe in casinos. I was thinking about writing a play about a girl and her famous pet chicken, inspired by Flannery O’Connor who taught her chicken to walk backwards. Then I got bored by that and it started feeling cute. I practiced some restraint and focused on the family, instead, and cut the chickens.
But always, even through those bad iterations, Donna Haraway’s notion of “oddkin”* has always been at the center of my writing effort on this play. There’s something about a farm, about human dependency on the land and how we structure ourselves to survive off the land, that inherently calls into question coexistence.
Some of my initial dreaming of the play I did in your last apartment, actually, when I had quit a job and had a sublet snafu and ended up without a place to live for a couple months. That summer I was feeling very isolated inside a lovely and supportive queer community, and some of that tension flavored the work.
AB: Okay so first of all I visited the backyard where Flannery taught that chicken. She said that was the high point of her life.
AB: Across the square was this formidable Catholic church, which also makes sense.
Apartments are — have been, for me — ground floors and blueprints. I’m glad you were able to spend that time there, with the big windows.
I want to ask you about your early relationship with language. In this play, language is the thing Avery sees as her escape-ticket. Words are precious, cherished, accumulated, hoarded. It’s her only access to the world beyond her home. What did language mean to you when you were a kid?
SM: When I was a kid I had minor speech impediments like many of us did. I was also bullied constantly for the way I spoke and sounded. My voice always seemed perfectly natural to me, but older boys would always ask why I sounded like I wanted to be a girl. In acting school I was taught that my upper register was really unappealing, and I was trained to place my voice lower so I might get work.
I didn’t like to read that much as a kid. I might have read to escape my family and what not. Now I like to read a bit more, even though most of the time it feels like labor to engage with more words than the ones I’m trying to sort out in my mind. It is a relief to hear a writer articulate something you’ve always thought but have never had words for. That is one of language’s only pleasures for me.
There is a kind of transactional treatment of language in the play. I don’t feel romantic about language and find the practice of language extremely frustrating most of the time. Avery likes words, but I think, like me, is drawn to them because of the sadistic limitations of them. Words are, like you said, an escape-ticket, but they are also deeply troubling and confounding and never quite enough for us.
I think this is also why, in the structure of the performance, I’ve chosen a form that is extremely word dense until the final sequence, when there are several minutes of a non-textual physical score that ushers us out of all the words.
AB: Everything you’re saying makes me wish I could see the play, rather than just read it. I know how deeply you’re able to think in space and texture and time.
On receptacles. Yes. That spit moment struck me, too, even on the page.
The Uncle is also a kind of receptacle — he keeps Avery’s identity through memory. So Avery wants to be that receptacle (a feeling I know) and also relies on someone else to be it for her (a feeling I also know).
There’s an edge to the way you hold that dynamic in the play. You don’t seem super happy about it.
SM: Yeah, in the work there’s definitely a bittersweetness, at least tonally, around the idea that someone else might be able to contain your sense of self. Over the course of the play, Avery realizes more and more that “the pile of her,” or the mound of memories of her that her Uncle’s corpse contains, will inevitably dwindle. She says things like, and I’m paraphrasing my own lines, but, “you told me I was gargantuan, that I was humongous, that I was dancing in a group,” in order to express her frustrations about the limitations of external validation.
Underneath it all, she’s coping with the truth that no one else can contain you, that possession is an illusion. All those spiritual things. I’m a bit obsessed with the question of possession, of how interpersonal territories get carved out in one another, and I’ve been working on another piece that looks at the notion of Jewish territory in both a geographic and romantic sense.
AB: I want to know more about that play!
SM: It will join the ranks of underground PDF exchange within the year methinks.
AB: Can you talk about ritual a little bit? Ritualized activities are such a part of the fabric of the play, they organize it and help us make sense of it as we move through.
SM: I have a really tenuous relationship with ritual and feel jealous of writers who talk about getting up at 4am and writing for four hours every morning. I’ve learned in my practice, and daily life, that there’s a fine line between regularity and using that regularity to cope with the unknown in a delusional way.
Rituals are meant to be particularly confining and I don’t know whether they’ve ever been really helpful to me. I feel myself in a season of rebellion on many fronts, at least right now in my early twenties. I kind of like the perverseness of having really bizarre hours as a writer and freelancer. Staying up really late and eating at weird times.
It’s definitely not sustainable though and I was just having a conversation with a friend of mine who’s considering her faith more deeply and observing shabbat, et cetera, in a really rigid way. I am jealous of her sense of discipline.
I’m curious about whether you have rituals? I know you’ve been going to services.
AB: Yeah, services that have been the anchor for me. But that’s been connected to changing how I see the sabbath day, which is changing how I see the shape of the week. I’ve flirted with daily prayers too, and the more I learn the more I’m obsessed with how it’s possible to mark time, honor the specificity of each period in the day, the month, the year. It frightens me a bit too, is all-consuming… which is of course is the point. To be less obsessed with efficiency and more with presence. As praise. But like I said that also makes me nervous.
I don’t have good rituals around writing at all.
SM: Yes. At the moment I feel surrounded by people who meditate really regularly, and I can see the difference it makes for them. I also learned my Ayurvedic body type and feel hopeful it will help me codify my rituals around eating. I have a bad relationship with eating.
AB: One of the lines I loved this time around was: “You understand me as a ruin, but I understand you as a ladder to the sky.”
Jacob famously dreams a ladder to the sky. Wrestling with the messenger of God, he also injures his hip, and, say the rabbis, limps for the rest of his life. I sometimes think of my own changing body as a ruin. Or a ruin is like the pile of rocks that Jacob sets up as an altar to mark the spot.
Is this a world where angels exist? Where there is a God? Or is the sky here the fantasy of some higher, better realm that isn’t actually real?
SM: That Jacob vignette is so erotic and Sisyphean! We love wrestling!
AB: Lord help us.
SM: Our amazing scenic designer Emona Stoykova was intentional about the fact that, in our design for Coop, we shouldn’t ever really see the sky, and only through unseen theatrical lighting do we sense the time of day. Emona made a decision that the only source of light from above is this dinky light on a sad ceiling fan. The fan is rotating on its lowest setting the whole play.
In the play, Father refers to the “teeming pile of greater wisdom to which we all have access if we try hard enough,” and I realized, in watching that actor perform that moment, that he should vaguely refer to the ceiling fan and light when he talks.
It’s a world in which the parents, in particular, are fighting to find a greater sense of meaning in their very mundane surroundings. That effort becomes stifling for people like Avery, and like me, and like you I’m sure, who want to change the surroundings.
AB: And that brings us to the question of parents. Which is sort of the explosive core of your play.
I get the sense that this is different from ancestry, or generational inheritance. It’s the question of the all-too-inwardly-focused home in which Avery struggles to form a sense of self.
Is there another way out? Or is this way out Avery’s only way out? And what does she inherit the moment she goes ahead with it — even if she can’t recognize the consequence yet?
SM: Yes, I think what you’re saying is true—the question for me isn’t necessarily about intergenerational inheritance at large. What feels more central to the play is the way in which these slight underhanded aggressions never really end, and the gaslighting within a family can catalyze until it’s overwhelming and inescapable. I’m trying to put a lot of language to that feeling of being misunderstood as a teenager, and also obviously as a queer person. When someone asks you, as a young queer, to identify a problem or a misunderstanding that led you to slouch your shoulders in a certain way, it’s hard to point out a single foundational misunderstanding. With nuclear families you’re so ‘in it’ and invested and embedded.
The play isn’t a lesson or instruction for how to handle differences between oneself and those who raised you, but hopefully opens a chasm that lets us self reflect on the rooms of our mental estates that are owned and decorated by others, perhaps unintentionally.
Coop, written and directed by Sam Max, runs at the Paradise Factory through March 14. Tickets at cutt.ly/COOP-Tickets.
Production photos by Maria Baranova. Photo of Sam Max by Anton Novoselov.
*Oddkin: “unexpected collaborations and combinations”