Connections

Photo by Daniel Haley

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

While the company was hard at work, I had to leave for two weeks. And waiting in the Phoenix airport to return home some connections occured to me…

The University of Idaho is fortunate to have a unique and long-lived relationship with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Through the Rex Rabold Fellowship, a UI theatre graduate is selected to work with the talented and dedicated people at the Festival.

Shortly after I graduated, the Fellowship was established (I initially thought I was still an undergrad but I just hadn’t left town yet). This feat was accomplished largely in part to the efforts of acting faculty member Forrest Sears.

Mr. Sears has graciously agreed to come out of retirement and join the company of This Random World–that group I had left behind to go on vacation–only I don’t know how to go on vacation so I was driving around researching a play, conducting interviews for my oral history project, and going to museums. Which led to me sitting in an airport nine days later, thinking about my time as a theatre undergrad, Mr. Sears, This Random World, and connections.

I scribbled down my thoughts and with DLP’s permission–he is often indulgent with my whims–I read it to the company before our final run-thru.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Sears had a promising student named Rex Rabold.

Rex went on to do many things but most notably he became a beloved actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Not long after Rex’s death, I walked into the U-Hut—which was my Shoup Hall—to discover it was buzzing.

An important person was there.

People were fussing over my classmate, actor Mike Behrens.

Something important was happening.

If you’ve tried to get two big things together to do something—even if it is a beneficial thing—you will know it is hard.

Theatre was trying to get the University and Oregon Shake to work together.

It was hard. But it happened.

Mr. Sears was instrumental in making it happen.

And the result was that Mike Behrens was to be the first Rex Rabold Fellow.

Daniel Haley was the 15th.

Whitney Holland will be the 27th.

Last week I was in the desert with Bruce Brockman, a former theatre chair and he reminded me that Mr. Sears had done this.

Mr. Sears taught Rex, taught me, mentored DLP, and created the Rex Rabold Fellowship.

DLP taught Haley and all of you. Haley went to the Shake and is back, sharing what he has learned.

Another UI theatre classmate told me that several years ago when she was directing in Wyoming, a faculty member approached her and said, “You talk about theatre the way I talk about theatre. Where are you from?”

And when she told him, he asked: “Do you know DLP?”

I wanted to mention these connections to you because before now I never felt grounded in UI theatre’s past and that I think it’s important to have a heritage, to be connected.

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.

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.

The Clean House Joke

Photo by Daniel Haley

Riffing off 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.

The perfect joke makes you forget about your life.
The perfect joke makes you remember about your life.
The perfect joke is stupid when you write it down.
The perfect joke was not made up by one person. It passed through the air and you caught it.
A perfect joke is somewhere between an angel and a fart.
—Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House

Sometimes I’m thinking so hard that I miss the joke.

The Clean House opens with a joke. A joke told in Portuguese. It is a long joke. Being unable to understand the joke itself, the audience is left with only the shape of a joke. A device to make the audience observe the joke from the outside (Muse). It is another way of making the familiar strange. Ruhl let us into The Clean House on what was for me—these are my ruminations—an abstract point of entry that proved to set the tempo for the rest of the story.

From: DLP
Subject: The joke
I’m ruminating about the opening of The Clean House.
THAT first joke is super important. It’s in Portuguese
– and we can’t understand it.
WHEN is Matilde telling it? To whom?

“WHEN is Matilde??” With that trigger, ideas move. Ruhl’s story has an elasticity. It’s a joy to pull and stretch. The freedom she gives to explore. Burning through ideas but ultimately returning to the truth of the story she has created. To read it again. And again. The script is a tether.

It’s the past. Before she’s a comedian in deed.
Before the perfect joke comes to her.
It’s Brazil and somewhere safe.
May be with her parents.

It is now and the death of her parents cloak her
from telling the perfect joke which she also fears.

If top of show is the future, then she’s moving
backwards through time in the null space?
At the end of the story is her birth.

In her dissertation on comic dramaturgy, Jennifer Goff references the writing of Andrew Stott. (I know quoting someone else quoting is a no-no, but this is a blog.) In the realm of stand-up, a comic can present multiple perspectives in setting up a joke. Often they show us one point of view before presenting another that is incongruent with the first. “….like a silent but parallel conversation that could audibly erupt at any moment.”

Goff describes the technique as a “comic subversion.” She finds that Ruhl uses it and repurposes it “in service of a deeply profound view of the power of the joke.”

Are jokes apples?

There’s something compassionate about humor; it has a saving power. It seemed to me that if you took the most sublime version of a joke— the Platonic ideal of a joke—that it could transport you somehow. I remember when my father was sick that humor was a form of grace in the household. Humor pushed to an extreme, like any emotion, has a transformative power. In the play the joke is abstracted, but we see the compassion of one woman killing another woman with a form of euthanizing humor. Mathilda is willing to do this for Ana without even thinking about it—she takes pity on Ana and kills her with a joke, and that’s the emotional heart of the play.—Sarah Ruhl  (Weckwerth)

From: Ariana B
Is Clean House trying to be the perfect joke?

From: DLP
Damn fine question – the joke is so important –
both kills her mother and Ana. 
One causes great pain,
one relieves great suffering.  

From: Ariana B
Or may be both relieve great suffering.
That final transformation……

“Heaven is a series of untranslatable jokes.”
–Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House

#DLPAnotherFineMess #theatre #dramaturgy
Photo by Daniel Haley


Dunne, Will. The Architecture of Story: A Technical Guide for the Dramatic Writer.
Goff, Jennifer Ann. “If More Women Knew More Jokes…” The Comic Dramaturgy Of Sarah Ruhl And Sheila Callaghan, dissertation, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, 2015.
Muse, Amy. The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl.
Weckwerth, Wendy.  More Invisible Terrains, Sarah Ruhl, Interviewed by Wendy, Theater (2004) 34 (2).
Zuheir Al-Shamma, James. Grief and Whimsy in the Plays of Sarah Ruhl, dissertation, UC-Santa Barbara, 2008.

It Begins

Think of subtext as to the left of the language and not underneath it. –Sarah Ruhl

Riffing off 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 This Random World—I mean The Clean House.

A few weeks after we’d spoke, DLP messaged me. In about sixty days he would be directing The Clean House. On a whim, I sent him some articles on Sarah Ruhl.

From DLP: Can you also dramaturg Clean House?

I was so new to dramaturgy that I didn’t know what I was making or what it was called. And now he wanted two whatchamacallits. I did it.

Research is an immersive process for me. Consequently, I’m voracious in collecting information, possessed with a desire for thoroughness and continually frustrated by the nagging thought that I have not seen everything on the subject at hand.

When I compiled history notes on 18th century pirates for the cohort producing my play, I quickly came to the heartbreaking realization that not everyone is interested in the pictureless, scholarly articles that I savor. Crazy, I know.

That was my first lesson in dramaturgy.

Compiling my research on the two upcoming productions would involve rendering what I found down to its essentials. I wanted to create something informative and readable.

The Clean House & This Random World are shows well-suited for dual research. I found them to be different parts of a whole. They would make for a crazy double-bill but that was not the goal this time.

Both plays engage in making the familiar seem strange, bumping the audience into a different level of awareness, if only for a moment. Typically when attending the theatre, I anticipate becoming immersed in the story presented on the stage. These scripts deal with topics that are so much a part of our lives that it is necessary to bump us to prevent complete immersion. With a subtle shift, we as viewers watch something well-known “as if for the first time (Jestrovic).” From that prospective we are able to look at it, think about it, and respond to it consciously.

Johann described Ruhl’s style as “visionary and fantastical. As though the playwright has a shamanic role of reaching into the void and bringing back visions that explain us to ourselves (Johann).” The Clean House’s world has characters eating apples on a balcony and being able to chuck the remains into Lane’s home at a distant location. The two places exist in the play’s physical world and yet overlap in some fashion that allows apples to span distance and time. And they become more than apples. These symbols of original sin clutter Lane’s clean house with the messiness of a lived existence.

In This Random World, estrangement is the underlying architecture of Dietz’s story. He derailed the viewers’ expectation by having scenes happen offstage or not at all. “[Dietz says] ‘What if I subverted this? What if that was a list of scenes that cannot be in the play?’(Pender)”

A break-up is not shown to the audience but described by Claire after it has happened. Gary attempts to correct her narrative, but her story shapes what we understand happened. We are forced to rely on her interpretation of the event.

Dietz’s various characters are expected to meet and finally have a much anticipated encounter. They never do. Denying the audience this jars it into another view of the story and engenders a different response.

Both Dietz’s & Ruhl’s writing styles are different. I find Dietz’s to be more relaxed, easing me into the story and the ideas therein. His interviews read like casual conversations over coffee. His vision and process are apparent and relatable.

Ruhl crushes me with her philosophical background. The course I took in college made me feel like I was drowning as I struggled to understand the concepts presented and here I was once more. Drowning. It was a challenge to analyze her interviews and then apply them to her work, to understand the architecture she built. The Clean House was written crisply and sparingly. Sitting in the audience, I’m not aware of the architecture’s presence but studying the script, I see the overwhelming strength that structure gives to the entire work.

After studying and reflecting of the anatomy of their scripts, I reassembled them, stepped back, and looked at them holistically once more. Then I wrote up my findings. The Clean House packet was finalized and sent to DLP shortly before he left for rehearsals.

From DLP: GOLD – pure Gold. Is it possible to have this done for Dietz sooner rather than later so the team can ruminate on this GOLD earlier?

Oi.

It’s a good thing I love digging for buried treasure.

#DLPAnotherFineMess #theatre #dramaturgy
Photo by Daniel Haley


Jestrovic, Silvija. Making the Familiar Strange in Theatre and Drama: From Russian Formalist Avant-Garde to Brecht, dissertation, University of Toronto, 2002.

Johann, Susan. “Sarah Ruhl,” Focus on Playwrights, Portraits and Interviews, University of South Carolina Press, 2016. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv6wgmrn.17

Pender, Rick. “Ensemble Theatre Is Growing, Thriving in OTR,” Cincinnati CityBeat, Oct. 9, 2017. https://www.citybeat.com/arts-culture/theater/media-gallery/20978565/ensemble-theatre-is-growing-thriving-in-otr

Ruhl, Sarah. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.