Control & Risk

Photo by Daniel Haley

A Rumination from my dramaturgy of Steven Dietz’s This Random World directed by David Lee-Painter.

I find myself thinking about control and risk….


I have a tendency to read multiple books at a time. The coffee table is always loaded down with homework, play research, archival information, the latest papers and plays in progress, and whatever fun-stuff I’m engaged in.

Beyond being a squirrel brain and hopping around to different subjects and stories, I find it prompts cross-pollination of ideas. So! I have been reading Sheryl Paul’s The Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts Are Gifts to Help You Heal.

The current chapter is on intrusive thoughts and how they function to bring metaphorical messages from the subconscious. The Mayo Clinic website helpfully defines intrusive thought as “an unwelcome involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate.”

Paul writes:

Intrusive thoughts cover over many core needs and feelings, but at the root is the need for certainty. As our culture fails to guide us to develop an acceptance of the changeable reality that defines our existence, we have a very hard time accepting uncertainty, which is another way of saying that we have a hard time accepting death in all forms. We resist grieving the emotional deaths that occur when we transition to new places in life….We’re not mentored on how to live life fully, which means feeling all our feelings. And when we don’t live life fully, we actually fear it, which then creates a fear of death.

The question of how to live life fully is one of the dominant themes for me in This Random World. So many of the characters are wrangling with different sections of this idea. Beth meticulously plans ahead even making arrangements for her death and funeral services—which people are encouraged to do—but she goes so far as to investigate when she probably WILL, die statistically speaking, and plans alternative arrangements based on season and availability of resources. She writes her own obituary and admonishes her brother: “Take control of your death, Tim Ward. Or somebody else will.”

Controlling your death is a neat flip on Dietz’s part. Beth looks to control her death by controlling her life. Which is another theme I find in TRW, issues of control. The characters work to control life, conversations, identity—how the world perceives them. And in the end, there is very little we can control which returns me to Paul:

Living with uncertainty. We simply don’t like it. We want definitive answers. We want definable goals. We are intrinsically wired to gravitate toward a need for control and a subsequent attempt to create the illusion of control, ….[and not to] connect to the transitory flow of life.

Scottie’s conversations reflect these ideas. She finds herself reflecting on her need for control, certainty, and the tedium all of that can bring about. She longs to have indulged more in the risk-taking of not knowing. Her doctor, one culturally assumed to be an expert on life and death, is unsure of how long Scottie has to live. She likes that unsurety in him and his willingness to admit it. She wishes she had been that way more often. It considers the idea that while confidence is a desirable strength perhaps we take it too far or misapply it. Rather then using it for risk avoidance we should use it to help meet vulnerability and welcome it.

The fear-based self is terrified of risk, terrified of anything that touches into vulnerability, it creates elaborate and convincing reasons why you need to walk away…. This creates an illusion of control…. In other words, the question to ask yourself is, “Is it more important for me to remain attached to the illusion of control or to learn about what it means to be loving?” If you want to learn about what it means to be loving to yourself and others, you have to be willing to let go of control.

Claire and Gary are at a point in their relationship where they choose to part. Each seeks protection temporally, Gary plans ahead. He’d planned a trip to Nepal for years and intended to marry Claire after one last big, solo adventure. Knowing and controlling the future is his way of minimizing risk to himself. He chides Claire for living in the past with her painful nostalgias.

Her teenage romance didn’t end happily but she knows what it was and how it turned out. She also controls the memories of those days and can focus on its idyllic nature and the hopes and dreams they had tendered. There are only fleeting moments where any of the characters are fully in the present, living and exposed to the moment as it happens. Those moments in TRW are more frequently only planned for or reflected on. Few are played out before us. Rather they are refracted through a character’s lens of seeing. The character decided how to interpret and control what the events mean and show that to the audience.

And in the end, Scottie discovers that she has missed the sunrise—and every sunrise is different—she wonders what else she has missed.

It’s a terrifying choice, no doubt. It’s a choice that flies in the face of every illusion of safety that you’ve spent a lifetime constructing…. The truth is that there is so little we can control. We make plans because we want to know what will happen in the next hour, but the unknowable and mysterious force of LIFE [sic] could subvert your plans in an instant. The only freedom is to make friends with not knowing.

A Not-Great Diner

Photo by Daniel Haley

A Rumination from my dramaturgy of Steven Dietz’s This Random World directed by David Lee-Painter.

I find myself thinking about landscape memories….

One of the settings in
This Random World is A Not-Great Diner. It is where Claire and Gary break up:

CLAIRE. We always joked that people should break up at shitty places they were never gonna want to visit again. Because of the memories… The way that goodbyes… The way that endings just… stick to a place…

The role landscape plays in memory has been examined from a number of perspectives (Harrison 2004, Hoelscher and Alderman 2004, Jedlowski 2001, Schäuble 2011, Schramm 2001). Landscapes are more than memory containers: they shape, and are shaped by, what happens upon them (Schramm 2001:6). The Elizabethan stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is built on an old Chautauqua site. It attests to generations of community, education, and entertainment. Whenever I’m there I’m reminded of when I worked for the Festival, the people who preceded me, and those who are yet to be there.

I imagine it’s a given that we always have a relationship with landscape but there seems to be some places that resonate more deeply with memory. Janet Donohoe’s Remembering Places discusses how place can be more than simply the spot where something happened. It can be an active participant in that caught moment. Where you stood, what it looked, smelled, tasted like when it happened. In some instances, you can stand in the place and feel the memory that is held there. “Places serve… as vibrant, living aspects of memory, tradition, history, and meaning. ….[They] write themselves upon memory just as memory writes itself upon place.”

But not every memory stays with a place. Ed Casey in the same text: “a given place will invite certain memories while discouraging others. The fact is that we can’t attach just any memories to a particular place . . . . only certain kinds of memory, will be pertinent.”

Donohoe again: “Other places are significant for a singular event. These places are less familiar, but still imbued with memory, such as the place where we got married, where one was mugged, or where a parent died. Stepping into any of these places after years of absence, whether a habituated place or a place of a significant event, creates a rush of memories to which the place itself is connected. They are memories that only return due to the sense of the place, the smell, the feel of the air, and the very place itself.”

CLAIRE. It’s kind of terrible. This place. It is really one of the worst places to eat on earth that I know of.
TIM. Why did you want to come here?
CLAIRE. I wanted to change it. Change my memories of it. I thought maybe we could do that.

Some landscapes’ memory will fade or they will be purified. I’ve friends who sage new residences to free the past that may still cling to it. And sadly, there are landscapes that can never be cleansed. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the school was razed and a new one built on the site.

Donohoe, Janet. Remembering Places: A Phenomenological Study of the Relationship between Memory and Place.
Harrison, Simon. ” Forgetful and Memorious.” Social Anthropology 12: 135–151.
Hoelscher, Steven and Derek H. Alderman. “Memory and Place: Geographies of a Critical Relationship.” Social & Cultural Geography 5(3).
Jedlowski, Paolo. “Memory and Sociology Themes and Issues.” TIME & SOCIETY SAGE 10(1): 29-44 .
Schäuble, Michaela. “How History Takes Place: Sacralized Landscapes in the Croatian-Bosnian Border Region.” History & Memory 23(1):23-61.
Katharina Schramm. Introduction: Landscapes of Violence: Memory and Sacred Space History & Memory, 23(1):5-22.

What’s In a Name?

Photo by Daniel Haley

This week rehearsals began for This Random World (TRW) by Steven Dietz. FINALLY! It’s my first time in rehearsals as a dramaturg. For my previous project I only assembled a research packet for the director, David Lee-Painter (DLP).

DLP is also directing TRW. The packet’s done. I wrote it up last summer for the design team to have. DLP asked me to make a few remarks at the first rehearsal. Below are some excerpts.


One of the things that immediately struck me about Dietz’s script is how much we miss when we’re narrowly focused on our own lives. We can be oblivious to the roles we play in others’ lives. It only takes a slight shift of focus to bring different things to light or see old things as if new.

The idea of randomness also resonated with me. We, as creatures on this planet, are trying to control our world and that belief of control is very important. It can humbling to discover how much is really just randomness or dumb luck at work.

The idea of random chance brings me to the title of Dietz’s play: This Random World The Myth of Serendipity. When I first started researching TRW, I thought the second title referred to serendipity as a myth. My friend, Rob Snyder reminded me that myth is actually a truth manifested as a story. I’ve come to believe Dietz is using the phrase to comment on the main title. This Random World is the story of truth.

Dietz has crafted a compelling story and at the same time has dismantled it by denying scenes where we expect certain characters to meet. This puts us in & out of the story at the same time—like Schrödinger’s cat. It permits us to study the world he has created and juxtapose it with our own.

As Dietz once wrote one of theatre’s most profound gifts are participation and reflection. This Random World gives us plenty of opportunities to do that.

Image by Dan Lurie, Schrodinger’s lolcat. Credit to Justin Wick for the idea, and Kevin Steele for the photo.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/dantekgeek/522563155

The Clean House: Purity & Danger

Photo by Daniel Haley

Riffing off Sarah Ruhl, my posts on dramaturgy are not necessarily faithful descriptions of my process but rather views of certain aspects of it from just to the left of the experience. 

After The Three Keys of Captain Hellfire opened my director, David Lee-Painter (DLP) asked if I would dramaturg his next project, This Random World by Steven Dietz in the fall. The idea of researching someone else’s play was vaguely terrifying. I knew nothing about how to do it. In the past, I would’ve fled. This time I said, “Yes.”

So it was that I began learning dramaturgy and researching The Clean House.

One of the fun parts of researching Ruhl’s The Clean House is that I got to bust out a couple of my anthropology books that I haven’t touched since grad school. On this post I wanted to share some of Mary Douglas’ text Purity & Danger which uses beliefs on purity to compare different religions.

For her purposes, Douglas defines dirt:

If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. ….It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involved rejecting inappropriate elements….[For example, s]hoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining table.

Douglas continues:

“There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder….Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.”

These ideas are reflected in The Clean House where Lane expects order. Activities within her home must follow a routine or a system. Virginia, Lane’s sister, see cleaning (organizing the environment) as progress.

Beliefs about pollution are used within societies to influence behavior through social pressure. These implied perils are intended to keep would-be offenders within accepted norms of behavior (Douglas). To step outside of these boundaries causes the transgressor to enter a transitional state.

“Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefinable. ….The theme of death and rebirth [transitional states], of course, has other symbolic functions: the initiates die to their old life and are reborn anew (Douglas).”

Transitional phases for Matilde are seen when she is mourning and the scene of her birth. For her mother when she dies. For Ana, her surgery—a liminal state where you are neither living nor dead—and then when Ana dies. Lane’s old life dies and a new one is born.

Cleaning is also a method of control.

It’s not uncommon for people in transition to be quarantined, shunned or marginalized (Douglas). Marginalized people are also outcasts who sometimes live near those who have banished them. Matilde is an immigrant, a lower-class worker, and speaks a language none but Ana understands. Ana is also in transition and marginalized at first for breaking up Lane’s marriage and later during her struggle with cancer until the other women readmit her into society.

In the second act, cleaning becomes cleansing. More juxtaposition abounds here. The cleansing needed for Lane’s ordered and sterile world requires that all become dirty. The ripples of her husband’s affair into her life rain down as apple cores. Her sister physically makes a mess in the living room during an argument. And when Ana’s cancer returns, her polluted body is brought into Lane’s home. It is there Ana prepares to end her transitional state and, in the process, cleanses the other women. In a neat reverse, after Ana clutters their lives with the messiness of being alive, they clean her body which is now out of its transitional state (Al-Shamma, Heller, Schmidt).

From clean to messy to cleanse, the women learn “to accept the chance collisions of life, the pull of desire, and the inevitability of death (Heller).”

Lines from an early poem of Ruhl’s called “Advice from a Father to His Daughters”:

But have a good tantrum once in a while –
throw a bowl of olives against the wall.
Then conjure grace and drink plenty of tea”

Both the play and the poem recognize that a mess is a part of the process of confronting our deep-seated fears of disorder. Something deeper is at work here as well, as the play’s conclusion reveals: a cleansing mess is a step on the path to letting go of the world more completely (Heller).

Al-Shamma, James Zuheir, “Grief and Whimsy in the Plays of Sarah Ruhl,” dissertation, UC-Santa Barbara, 2008.
Heller, Jennifer, “To Follow Pleasure’s Sway: Atomism in Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House,” Modern Drama, Volume 60, Number 4, Winter 2017.
Schmidt, Heidi, “Sarah Ruhl’s Women: Gender, Representation And Subversion In The Clean House, Eurydice And In The Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play,” dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2010.