The Uses of Obscurity | a conversation with Jerry Lieblich, Steve Mellor, and Meghan Finn
“Language, and the different uses of that language, can completely obscure the thing that’s there.”
— Jerry Lieblich
Recently, Jerry Lieblich, Steve Mellor, Meghan Finn and I sat down together (virtually) to talk about Jerry’s witty, glittery, thistly new play Mahinerator, which plays at the Tank, Sept 28-Oct 22. Jerry and Meghan are co-directing and Steve performs in this one-person show written in what Jerry describes as a “quasi-English pseudolect,” about an ambitious bureaucrat who rises to prominence by creating more and more efficient machines for killing the earth.
I’ve long admired Jerry’s rare lucidity, the way their delving, roving intelligence is so closely attuned to language. I think their eloquence comes in part from this mingling of curiosity and care—their attentiveness to the way that words work, and the way that the production of meaning can so easily be coopted by forces of oppression, fascism, and control. Or maybe “production of meaning,” isn’t an apt phrase to describe what we do when we work with words, when we use them to work upon others. At least in the case of Mahinerator, Jerry’s keen ear is tuned to productions of un-meaning—the kinds of nonsense, half-sense, and anti-sense that enable and mask violence, particularly violence committed in the names of patriotism and progress.
Steve Mellor and Meghan Finn—both of whom have worked extensively with Mac Wellman—are ideal collaborators for this show. Meghan’s dramaturgical acumen and political conscience give her a preternatural knack for understanding the audience’s experience—of our delight in this wild linguistic feat, and our dawning awareness of our own implication. In the 2021 in-process showing at the Brick, Steve navigated the tongue-tangling boscage of Jerry’s text with casual fluency and aplomb. He makes near-nonsense comprehensible; he makes the inhumane natural, obvious, and routine.
Kate Kremer: I want to begin by talking about the virtuosity of the text and the performance—and the delight, Steve, of seeing you performing it at this pace. I feel like so often, like with Dogberry in Much Ado, people try to slow down so that the audience can winkily hear all the malapropisms and be in on the joke. And I found it really delightful that this text just moves, flies, and we follow along with it. And I began to wonder about your strategies for sculpting the performance. What kinds of shapes are you carving out and how are you making it legible?
Steve Mellor: Well, first was just figuring out the structure. Jerry set up this weird language with its own rules, which get broken every other paragraph, it seems. So it was just figuring out the syntax and the grammar and stuff like that. And making it really—sound natural. It isn’t a thing where I’m trying to go so quickly, you know, just to show off, like, Oh, look how quickly he can say all this stuff. It’s more trying to make it sound natural. If this was the language that this guy speaks, then he would be fluent at it. Like you say, not waiting for the audience to get it, but expecting that they will get it. I mean, there’s certain tricks in acting—you know, ending a sentence on a down note, rather than leaving it hanging in order to get the laugh, and I’m a big laugh hog anyway. So there’s some of that going on in the head as an actor, but mostly, it’s just trying to make it sound natural. Sound like this is how the guy was “homebly schooled.”
KK: Well, now I want to talk about the syntax. I guess this is a question, Jerry, about your methods of generation—or degeneration, I should say. To what degree you were working from sets of rules and to what degree you were working by ear?
JL: One other thing I want to tack on to Steve’s answer there—I seem to remember our early rehearsals, especially, Steve, you doing a lot of like carving the text, almost putting line breaks in there. Making it into little sections.
SM: Yeah, I marked it up quite a bit. Just in order to be able to get it out of my mouth. It’s all broken up into tiny bits, with the idea of moving towards the end of a sentence or the end of a thought. Stuff like that. I found the further we got the less I had to mark it up. Because I sort of know the rules, although lately trying to remember stuff and trying to shape it even more I am marking up the latter parts of the text even more just so I have that in my head.
KK: (Incredulous) It’ll be memorized? In performance?
SM: Well, yeah, I’m trying somewhat.
KK: (A kind of disturbed, sympathetic out-breath)
SM: This play is a guy reading his manifesto. You know, explaining his life before whatever happens to him happens to him. And so he’s written it all out. So he is reading it, but I think he—you know, in my head, he goes off at times from the text. So yeah, it’s not going to be completely memorized. I did a piece called Terminal Hip by Mac Wellman, which I invited Jerry to come watch a rehearsal of. And I had the text in front of me and I had memorized it. I knew the text. It wasn’t as long as this. I knew the text, but the text was there as a prop to refer to. It was, again, a guy on a microphone. And actually I’ve done another piece of Mac Wellman’s called Muazzez, and it was about an abandoned cigar factory—a talking abandoned Cigar Factory on an asteroid in outer space. And we had talked about building all these little models of a cigar factory falling into the sand and filming it and doing all this stuff. And we ended up getting a spot at the Prelude Festival. And we decided, Well, let’s just do it on a table with a microphone for now. And a woman came up afterwards said, “You should do it exactly like that. That’s how you should perform this show.” And I realized, Yeah, she’s right. So I memorized that, too. But the text was there.
JL: Yeah, I think I was writing with that expectation and into that into that form, having just seen Steve do Terminal Hip. And Steve and I were working on another piece [of Lieblich’s] called The Barbarians. And I think between those two, I was just like, Oh, like, here’s a unicorn. What can I make for this guy? Which felt like an exciting challenge to me. And also a good excuse to work more with Steve, who’s a pleasure to be with.
Kate, to go to your question about what the sort of generation and degeneration process was like—this was a play where I had Steve’s voice in my head, and I had Steve’s abilities in my head. But I kind of gave myself the task to just go. The seed of the play was just the first line: “And then they told me I was bupkis,” which I could hear in Steve’s voice, and thought was funny, and felt like there was a whole character there. And then for a while, I would just sit down every day and write, just kind of free-writing in the voice following the story, until I got tired, and then just end there. And then the next day, like, read the last couple of sentences and pick it back up. And I generally had very little idea of where it was going. So the story was sort of writing itself as I was going through. And I was just following the language and the rhythm and letting it develop—
SM: So you didn’t have a plot in mind for this guy’s life at the beginning?
JL: No. I think I had sort of a vague idea of Eichmann in my head. And I knew I was thinking about evil. I knew that was the thematic territory I was interested in, but I didn’t have a thesis about it or anything like that. And just felt like, that’s such a big Theme, that for me, at least, it’s easier to just follow the words. And let the language distract me from thinking about the bigger picture stuff, so that the bigger picture stuff could come through in a way that was surprising. And so the first draft was just that kind of not looking back, just going forward all the way through.
And then I had a residency where—I hadn’t even typed up most of it—and so I typed it all up. And as I was typing I sort of did some revisions, and from there, in a material way, I would go through typing it and then printing it, marking up the page a lot, retyping, printing, marking up the page a lot. And most of that revision was two things: One, I was reading it out loud over and over again, just to feel that the rhythm felt right. And there’s different kinds of rhythms that are in there, like I remember for some reason it’s like—seven beat lines seem to be what he often speaks. But also there are times when it has a more Biblical diction or feels Shakespearean, like these different modes get caught in there. So a lot of it was just, How does it feel on my mouth? And then the other piece was like, anytime there was either a word or a phrase that felt too ordinary, or pre-digested, I would try to smudge it in some way, whether that was by making a malapropism, adding some syllables, using the wrong words there, or piling words on top of each other.
Even in rehearsal, now, like, maybe two rehearsals ago, there was some point when it says, like, “climb the ladder,” and we changed it to “clam the ladder.” And it’s like a lot of these little adjustments everywhere that add up to the whole thing feeling totally alien. And so there was never a point when I had specific syntactical rules, though a lot of them emerged. I think probably the most consistent one is the use of the word what instead of that.
JL: As sort of like a catch-all syntactical adverb or something. I don’t know what the term would be. But it’s sort of a catch-all thing, which is partly because it’s rhythmically satisfying. But it also punctuates the text in different ways.
SM: And right, the word right, too—
SM: Like “rightly tell”—
KK: And the addition of like at the end of a word.
JL: Yes, like soft like, there’s a lot of like like appended to things, which I think came out of me like studying German for a month.
KK: I was gonna ask.
SM: It’s either something-like or something-wise. Try to memorize that. It’s like, there’s no rule to it. Oh, it’s infuriating sometimes!
KK: I was interested to hear so much of the German underneath. It almost feels like a relexification project, where you’re taking the language that exists and then tweaking—so like the grammar is almost an English grammar, but it’s deeply inflected with the German. And I felt with Yiddish, too, right? Like the use of [the Yiddish] plotz in place of [the German] platz, especially. And then there are additions from other languages.
SM: There’s some Americanisms, I think, 19th century stuff, it’s a real variety.
KK: Yeah, there’s like a Twain-y, kind of geezery storytelling mode.
SM: Yeah. It gets folksy, but then it’s Germanic. And then it’s pseudoscientific. There’s also sections that are very rhetorical. You know, the repetition of phrases like “Did he not do this? Did he not do that? Did he not do this? Did he not? No!”
KK: Yeah, these beautifully constructed arguments. I would feel myself, as I was reading, waiting for the landing of the sentence. You know, they’re these beautiful sentences that lift off and I’m like, Oh, boy, here we go. We’re going on a trip. And I’m along for the ride. I’m waiting for us to come down. I know we’re coming down eventually. And then you know, and then finally—
SM: It goes somewhere else.
KK: Exactly. I’m going to return to this question of evil and to try to weave it into thinking about language and how language works. I was thinking about the way that corporate America appropriates language, the way it takes these wild, original formulations, and turns them into marketing, which feels present in a story about this highly effective employee. And is certainly something that’s nibbling at the edges of the project, which is exposing the way that American language is a patchwork of different sources. And then I was also thinking about how the text itself feels like the opposite of marketing, that it is rejecting the smoothness and the clarity of marketing. And instead it’s thistly and tangled. And, and in that tangle, it’s revealing these sometimes violent entanglements between different languages. So I was wondering about, I guess, about the politics of the language.
JL: Beautiful question. I think in some way, the first thing I want to say is something about the language of obfuscation. There are two different things you’re pointing to. One is like the stinging nettle-ness of the language, which creates a kind of slowdown of perception and pleasure in the sound, and opens up a different dimension of the language, which is this pleasurable, tactile sense of it. But at the same time there’s the way that what corporate-speak and government-speak can do is to say the horrible thing in a way that it doesn’t sound horrible, in a way that it sounds totally clinical, or scientific, or rhetorical, or like nonsense, right? Even an awful term like ethnic cleansing, using the language of cleaning, which [the speaker] uses a lot in the in the play, right? Of what’s clean, what’s pure… A friend of mine, Moez Surani, who’s a really brilliant poet—I was reading a book of his as I was doing rewrites. The book is a procedural poem that’s built of all the names of military operations for the last like 100 years, just in a row. And you can see the rhetoric of these military operations—like “New Dawn.” I think the original Iraq War one was “Infinite Justice,” right. All these advertising spins, essentially, on war and death. And the way that language, and the different uses of that language, can completely obscure the thing that’s there.
To get back to the idea of evil—the piece that was coming out to me the most is something about obscurity. And something about the question of, How does a consciousness come to not recognize what it’s doing? It feels like this person’s brain, this person’s mind, has made it so inaccessible to him—the consequences of his actions. His mind works in this totally obscured corporate-government-speak way that obscures its own meaning.
I think there’s another question that I don’t know the answer to, about the collisions of the different registers of language—of the Biblical and the Shakespearean, and all these other things. The first thing is just pleasure in it. I once heard Caroline Shaw, the composer, talk about how she was influenced by English gardens, which would have fake ruins put into them, and how she, in her music, often puts fake ruins, and vestiges of medieval music or something in there as this sort of anachronism. And there’s something pleasurable about feeling that anachronism, but also feeling the sedimentation that our language and our thought has of these different times. And then also—in a way that owes a lot to the work of the language poets—the ways these different registers of language register to the listener as trustworthy, usually. And you believe it, right? You have a syllogism and it feels like truth. Which is another way of obscuring things. But Meghan and Steve, what would you add?
SM: It was interesting to me that he doesn’t have words for things in the natural world. Like lobsters and trees. He has to search for the word for those things. You know, when he takes his girlfriend “out to feastly up those bright red shelly clawwise guys with the squishly bits insides ‘em”—he can’t find the word for lobster. And he can’t find the word for tree. Where he says, Yeah, well, as soon as you have a piece of ground with one of those “big hardlike tallwise knobbly guys, what with all the greenly plates up tops whats waves on like a flopsy hands.” He can’t think of the word for tree and yet at the end of play when he’s destroying the world with the pebblies and his sticky tower, he has the words—he reels off a list of stuff from the natural world, like bugs and bats and hawks and kites and snow and sleet and hail—he knows all the words then, once he’s destroying them.
Meghan Finn: It’s super big fun to have Jerry working on a piece like this that can draw into things that Mac Wellman has been playing with, but we’re doing it now. It’s a brand-new show. And I think it’s gonna open up a whole new audience to a kind of experiment with language that is very exciting, in which there’s a lot of joy. I mean, it’s delightful, right, it’s a feat, watching Steve perform this kind of nonsense, it’s joyful and very funny. And I think it opens up the audience to a way of thinking about all of these things in a place where they’re right on the edge of their own understanding moment to moment. So that it creates this space, where if it’s done in a way that can sustain itself—which Steve is very gifted at—they’re able to finally land at the thesis in the moment, just by experiencing the character arriving at a new revelation. It creates a space to be able to talk about something as devastating as the way that rhetoric creates the environment for the destruction of the planet, of human life, all of this, but in a space where people are able to access multiple layers of thinking about the complexity of how they engage with those difficult things. The structure creates the space, the humor creates the space, the virtuosity creates the space for the audience to grapple with these ideas.
SM: And the character. Jerry’s created this incredible character, and the language comes out of the character. It’s not just crazy language for its own sake. This guy’s saying things because they mean something to him. So finding the character in the piece is what we’ve been spending a lot of time on too. His motivations and what upsets him. What he just misses. And that’s what helps carry it along. And I think that’s what makes it easy, as Meghan says, for the audience to follow. Because this character knows what he’s talking about. Not just me, Steve, knows what he’s talking about, but the character is trying to get something across to them and assumes they’ll understand. So you as an audience, I think, I guess you want to follow along.
KK: Well and the pressures on the character are so familiar to us. I mean he’s like, “I want to be good at my job. And this guy Blake is really frustrating because he just came in and took over.” And we’re like, Oh, yes, yes. Like I was just having that conversation with my partner, moments ago.
MF: We all have our Blakes!
KK: And so that part is so real and so familiar—it could be happening in penguin language and I would be like, I know. Now, Meghan, I’m like watching this little, like, some sort of construction elevator going up and down in the window behind you—
MF: Oh, yeah, I love it, it’s my special elevator.
KK: And so as I’m thinking about the mahinerator, I’m thinking about progress, and the way that visions of progress have been used to justify so much ecological destruction. And I’m thinking too about this idea of the ruins. And what’s the relationship? We fetishize old-timeyness, that romance of the ancient, at the same time that we have a cultural obsession with progress. And with newness and cleanness and construction. It’s a relationship that I see embodied in the language of the play.
MF: Yeah, I mean, our ultimate surrender to techno-optimism at every point, which has now led us here, and we’re all—maybe not all of us—but we can see very clearly, global warming is upon us on a daily basis, it’s so present. We align ourselves with this character because we’re with him in a room. And we’re hearing his language and understanding his language. He’s us. We’re having the experience of hearing his play-by-play through this whole thing until ultimately, we get to the destruction that he causes. But because he’s our way into the story, I think, we’re thinking about our own—whether we’re in corporate America or not—we’re all participating in some kind of destruction, through our surrender to techno-optimism, and our surrender to progress.
KK: That brings me back to asking more, Jerry, about the historical and contemporary sources for the action. You were looking to Eichmann, you were thinking about evil. What else?
JL: I mean, I think in a very naive way…No, I guess I was writing this in the middle of the Trump presidency. And it felt like “What is evil?” was the very naive question I was trying to ask in the writing of the play. And I think in all the ways we’ve talked about the way the language, the texture of the language, and the rhetoric, the way that can mask meaning, I think helpfully masked the meaning for myself also, where again, I could focus just on that texture and allow a kind of slower deeper thinking about that question to happen in action. And also to kind of trick myself into writing about myself in a way that, had I tried to do through the front door, for me at least, would not work or not be very interesting.
I was reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. And some of the things that struck me are the way that he, in his testimony, has no memory of the several times that Jewish leaders came to him and asked him to stop, but he could speak in excruciating detail about the times that like Himmler took him out for a steak dinner or something, right? When somebody important gave him the time of day, he had everything to say about that. And when I interrogate myself with this, I think, I was a straight-A student, I went to an elite university, I really have spent so much of my life doing what I was raised to do, which is, to chase a certain kind of legible achievement. And I think so much of what my adult life has been about is trying to disentangle myself from that. Because it’s so distracting. And what I was thinking about with evil is the way in which, again, it’s like a consciousness can form a willing cloud that erases the consequences of what’s going on. And one of the ways it can do that is by playing by a different set of rules that become very distracting, where I do my job well, and I get a promotion, I get the “jangly bits.” And Arendt says something about this, how what the Nazi regime did was made it monstrous to do the right thing. And it made it praiseworthy to do the monstrous thing. And then, like, we are social creatures who are raised, either out of a sense of precarity and need for success, or just a need for validation and to be seen, to chase those kinds of legible markers of success. They can be helpful. And yet doing so can make one completely unaware of the system that one is participating in, or propping up.
And I think the other big question I had was around how a circle of morality gets drawn—I just stepped on my first spotted lantern fly yesterday. And I really chased it down. Because I’ve seen a lot of PR telling me, We gotta kill these guys. Right? And I believe that because I have done a little bit of research and know they’re a real problem. But also, like, that’s a real life that I’m ending by doing that, and how did that happen? Where—I’m a vegetarian! How do I feel okay killing a spotted lantern fly? Or like, how do we feel okay putting ant traps in a in an apartment, or a mouse trap? Or using weed killer, or deciding what is a weed? And I think there’s a lot that’s been written, as that language of pest control and extermination gets used against people where it is so obviously, completely monstrous. And I’m also very interested in how that language of pest control gets used against pests, or what gets called a pest. And why is it that a rat life doesn’t mean anything, that we can poison it? And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t, but how that gets constructed is interesting to me. And I felt like thinking about that question—which in some ways, is lower stakes and in some ways, higher stakes—I felt like it was a way into thinking about evil in a way that could help me avoid the kind of evil that I think is extraordinarily rare, which is the sort of like Snidely Whiplash, mustache twirling, “I’m going to do something awful that I know is awful.” I don’t think that happens much. And so how is it somebody can do something awful, but think they’re doing something good? Or not even be aware that they’re doing something awful.
SM: Yeah this guy doesn’t think he’s awful, the character Yours Trustly doesn’t think he’s awful. He really only exhibits sadistic awful behavior at one point in the play when he’s talking to a dying rat. But other than that, he doesn’t think that anything he’s doing, you know, he’s just following orders.
KK: That’s another interesting aspect of the way in which you’ve denied linguistic attention or detail to those natural aspects, the way the greenibits and the burlap guys are pushed to the edge of the frame. Like, almost we can’t even see them. Every time a burlap guy shows up. I’m like, My heavens, where did he come from?
SM: The burlap guys with “corkly sandalslike.”
KK: And we have no idea how broad greenibits is as a term.
MF: And of course, we do this all the time, that’s how we relate to one conflict versus another, a refugee at our southern border versus a refugee across the ocean, you know, where the omission of reality often comes out of this absurd language.
KK: Absolutely. Jerry, the more that we talk about the absence of the natural world in this text, I am thinking about two strains that I see in your writing—on the one hand, a kind of a maximalist, punning, thorny, sometimes scatological aspect, which I think this text embodies. And then, on the other side, a language which is spare and tender and very attentive to the trace, nuance, and the concrete and ephemeral particulars of the natural world. I’m thinking of your recent chapbook, manual for reentering a home world. And I’m wondering how you think about those two aspects of language and the uses of each of those languages.
JL: I think on one hand, there’s something that’s just a kind of temperamental pendulum I have in me, that goes between wanting to make things that are very dense and very fast and make things that are very spare and very slow. And I think once I do one, I want to do together. And it sort of, I think, keeps me off balance, and keeps my writing feeling fresh. But I think they both essentially have the same function, which is what Meghan was describing before, that when the language is behaving differently, your mind starts to behave differently. And you can start to take in information in a way that you wouldn’t take it in otherwise. And the texture of the language creates a kind of opening for a different kind of thinking.
I think with manual for reentering a home world, the spareness of that is, in a way, the spareness of the kind of mind that I’m trying to cultivate in that work, which is a very quiet and still mind, which allows other things in. The mind and the consciousness of the text of Mahinerator is an extremely busy and extremely oversaturated mind, which is doing so to prevent anything from coming in. It creates its own hermetic seal with its density. And it’s not like I think I knew that going in necessarily, but I can look at them now and say that’s how they’re functioning.
MF: When I think about this space, and, again, to borrow something from Mac, it’s like the opposite of “geezer theater” when it comes to political theater that operates in this way. Like if you see something that’s like, (geezer voice) “I’m watching a play, it is about this topic, and we are all going to agree, it is bad, and we’re all going to leave the theater patting each other on the back about how we all agree that this is bad.” And then we have a catharsis and it’s, you know, tidy and done. I think this is actually more similar to the experience you have when you’re reading. You’re having a very—maybe a private experience, because the revelations you’re having are happening in this space where you’re hooked in to the other parts that Jerry just described, and having that influence your thinking about yourself and your own evil, your own sense of the way that you’re participating in evil.
KK: So I’m looking at the clock, and—can I ask just a couple more questions?
SM: I walked my dog earlier. (Laughter) The dog is walked.
MF: Go wild, if the dog’s walked.
KK: I have a question, Steve, about what it feels like, in like, in your mouth. (Laughter) The text.
SM: Hard. I mean, I’ve gone over this with Jerry and it’s like, I really get upset when I can’t get it out of my mouth. You know, the sentences are dense. And sometimes if you’re not thinking right on the word, if you think ahead to three words ahead, you’re gonna say an str- instead of the th- which is in the word in front of you, and you’re gonna flub and I hate doing the mouth flubs. I have to slow down and break it into little phrases so that I’m not thinking ahead a phrase and then messing up the words. He says a lot of “didst” and “couldst” next to fricatives and things where your mouth just doesn’t want to do it. Can’t do it.
KK: That does feel true to the to the experiences of listening and reading—there’s a reckless enmeshment of different kinds of sounds, and sounds drawn from different traditions.
SM: Yeah it just takes practice. I mean, I used to not be able to say “das Vacuumic Compressulated Pebbly Spray Mahinerator mit accoutrementing pathgorithmic system,” I mean, it was like, Whoa. You just have to bite down and get it out. But when I am able to get my mouth around the words, it’s very satisfying and fun.
KK: Another question is to ask about the ways in which Mahinerator is in conversation with other projects you’ve all done with Mac, or what tools you’ve gleaned from working on Mac’s texts. Just a little Mac fest, I guess.
SM: Something about Terminal Hip—I did Terminal Hip a bunch, I went out of town and did it a bunch of different places. And one time I was up in….well, we were out of town, and we did a performance of it. And there was a talkback afterward (vomiting gesture). And this guy asked the question, “If you could say”—and [Terminal Hip is] another weird language piece—“If you could put in one sentence what this play was about, what would you say?” I thought about it, I said, “I think it’s saying that the language we use affects the way we think.” And the guy said, “Oh, wow, heavy”—just dripping with sarcasm. And someone else in the audience said back to him, “Case in point”—which got a huge laugh from the crowd. So I mean, to me, the same sort of thing is happening in Jerry’s piece here. The language that this guy uses is affecting the way he thinks. But Jerry is going for something different from Terminal Hip. Mac used to say the Terminal Hip guy has been infected by a language virus. He gets “lost” in the language coming out of his mouth several times. In Mahinerator, the guy knows what he is talking about, what he wants to say.
JL: Something I learned from Mac’s work and the work of his contemporaries in poetry—he’s also a really sterling poet, it should be said—is something about how the piece is not only a demonstration of that fact. But also, in the way Meghan was talking about before, that using language differently not only shows you Oh, the language you use affects your thought, but also makes a kind of opening for a different kind of thought. That it can jostle loose, even for the length of the play, or for like epiphanic moments in the play, or a half a second, it can jostle loose whatever bedrock rhetoric about inevitability of progress that we’ve ingested, or the meaninglessness of certain forms of life or disposability of certain forms of life. If the experience of strange language can loosen that a little bit—there’s potential in there for something else to be released, or at least something else to be desired, which I think is the political project of it all. Which I think is something, again, that I owe to Mac and his contemporaries.
I was definitely looking at Mac’s work and writing while reading this. I think Terminal Hip is a masterpiece, and Three Americanisms, and I don’t know Mac’s amazing. But I was sort of, and those are—those are beyond me, and beyond my ability to trust in nonsense, and trust in texture, at least at this moment in my writing life. But they were extremely helpful in loosening my mind. And I think they were like workouts, reading those—like the workouts I was doing to get my head in a different, looser space, to then go into this and open it up in different ways. And I think even just starting with the attempt to write something like that was helpful for me in pushing myself somewhere I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. I think a big divergence between this piece and Terminal Hip is that it’s much more narrative.
SM: There’s, yeah, there’s no no no—I mean in Terminal Hip the guy’s just explaining how things are, this is the way the world works. But in but in in Mahinator, this guy’s telling a story of what happened to him and his life and how he ended up where he is. They’re very different.
JL: I think part of the experiment of it is like what happens when you take something that is a more linear narrative and put it with this very smudged language.
SM: I felt my work doing Terminal Hip was to make it seem like there was a narrative there, at least internally, for this guy. I mean, as opposed to Mac laying out a narrative that you had to follow.
MF: Certainly, no other writer gives more room for a director than Mac, but in the in the premieres of his work, the lesson again and again has been how—not to decorate it. It’s super easy for anyone approaching it to get overwhelmed by it as a as a piece of text, to miss the humor. And to decorate it, try to like—
MF: Embellish or try to…You know, they don’t really get it, potentially. And so they just kind of collage on it. I’m sure there’s part of Mac that doesn’t give a shit, frankly, because he’s creating a space that’s open enough that when someone comes in to do it, there’s space for them to collage the fuck out of it. But I think, at least in working with him when he’s making something brand new, the things that he’s finding, making sure that all the decisions around it—from a design perspective, from a performance perspective—are all driven by the words themselves. Even if that means that dramaturgically you’re going down to the individual word. And he won’t tell you, you know, if you ask him, “Oh, does this mean this or this?” He’ll go, “Yes.” And so even down to the individual word, the dramaturgy of the thing is vital for the creation of the world. In terms of this piece, these two have a process around this, and they’ve made this piece together from a granular perspective, and I’m smart enough to come in and not get in the way of that. But I’m here to just kind of look at the thing as a whole and figure out how the audience can be in a space to listen to the whole thing.
KK: So much of what I feel Mac does also in his work, and that Jerry is doing here, is a kind of orientation back to the concrete, back to the very specific experience of a word or a sentence.
MF: And just like basic humor, like finding the funny. I mean, there’s always a joke in there. And I think if you’re coming out of thin air saying, “Well, this is obtuse,” you’re missing the circumstances and the humor of the language. Like—this isn’t a museum piece. We all know Steve is old, but this isn’t—I’m joking.
SM: Reeally old.
MF: But I think seeing the virtuosity and the humor and the way that Jerry approaches this text is something that everyone should see, particularly students and young theatre people, just to like, say, Itis funny. It’s so funny.
SM: I think some actors, younger actors, look at Mac’s stuff, and they go, “Well, it’s really weird. So I think I’ll act really weird. I’ll be really strange and unearthly and weird.” And that doesn’t work. Because he’s not thinking that it’s unearthly and weird, he’s thinking, This is the way people talk. It’s a natural thing. So just play it more straight, it works better.
MF: Yeah, Steve started out in vaudeville in like 1895.
MF: He had a little, it was a donkey, I think, and a cart.
SM: No, we didn’t have donkeys then.
KK: Like they hadn’t evolved yet?
SM: No, no, not yet. I was gonna say something else about doing Mac’s stuff, but I can’t remember what it was. Anyways, that’s because I’m old.
JL: I think there’s something about play in all of this—again, to return to the political project of like, “Why make theater that’s weird?” There is something powerful in the literal play of language. And the play of form, that we can be talking about some of the worst things happening in our world. And yet make fun of them, right, which is, like, literally, to make them fun. As a way of not only “spoonful of sugar,” but also, again, making an opening in that. That if we can play with these things, they get a little bit less solid, a little bit less inevitable, and a little more possible to think differently.
SM: I remember what I was going to say. Something Jerry said about observing me, Jerry says, “You, Steve, take heightened language and make it sound like everyday speech.” And that’s basically what I’m trying to do here. I make it sound like it’s everyday and natural, and people will follow it more.
MF: I do think that there is an expansiveness to this kind of writing and this kind of experience that is really important for people to see, especially when they’re coming out of zoom school, you know, there’s this desire to get everything right out of the gate, or throw up my hands and say, “I can’t do this thing,” to see just the possibility of like, what theatre can be in terms of form. It can be expansive, and it can be something that you’ve never heard or seen before.
SM: I think there will be people, young people, who see this, who won’t be expecting it, and then will be like, “All right!” And there’ll be people who expect theater to be a certain thing, and they’ll go like, “Well, it wasn’t this or it wasn’t that.” And it’s like, Well, yeah, of course it wasn’t because it’s not. It’s this, it’s what it is, and that’s all it is. But it’s bigger than, you know, than itself.
KK: Yeah, and it does feel like a way of sort of clogging—what do you say? Putting a cog in the machine? Clogging up the machine of the mahinerator so that the language becomes a thing that that the pebblies can’t quite erase.
JL: Which is another big Mac Wellman lesson: the political uses of obscurity.