BACK STAGE WEST
February 17, 2000
If Erik Ehn's plays offer more than meets the ear, fearless actors are a big part of why.
by Rob Kendt
How does an actor deliver a line like, "Steam drags a lunch bucket through the pipes. I hold a mouthful of starless night in me"? If the playwright is Erik Ehn and the actor is Bonita Friedericy--a not coincidental pairing--finding the way to make that language live onstage is a challenge they're both up to.
"It's so hard to say it so it doesn't sound like poetry," confessed Friedericy, who plays the lead in Chokecherry, Ehn's new play, in its world premiere this week at Culver City's Ivy Substation. "I've got to go through and figure out what in heaven's name I'm after as a character--what am I doing, what is my objective? And what happens is that you end up getting it so in your mouth that you begin thinking in Erik language--you start thinking more intelligently. I start picking up on the images he's created, and then I start riding through it, and it hooks one feeling to the next."
The challenges of "Erik language" are not unlike those presented by the work of the so-called "language playwrights," an informal school of American writers that includes among others Mac Wellman, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jeffrey Jones, and Ehn. Despite their differences, the work of these playwrights shares a concern with the contours and surfaces of human speech and text, often alienated from conventional meaning or one-to-one signification. At their most pretentious or academic, such "language plays" come off as live dioramas on structural linguistic theory; at their best, they have the dizzying buzz of a kind of highwire intellectual vaudeville, and occasionally--as in Parks' work--they break through speech to a primal, pre-verbal communication analogous to dance or ritual.
Ehn understandably cautioned against the label "language play."
"It's a dangerous term, because it cheats theatre in the direction of literature, which is exactly the opposite of where it should go," said Ehn in a recent interview from Iowa, where he's currently teaching playwriting to undergraduates at the University of Iowa. Indeed, Ehn insisted that such plays, though often full of high-flying images and jarring juxtapositions, are more about acting than writing.
"What language plays require are courage and concentration of purpose, and concentration of technique," he said. "Other kinds of writing require mere competence to render effects, and these effects are good and pleasurable. But you can't do a play as naughty as Wellman's without a leap of faith and a sturdy set of skills. It's actor-dependent--it depends on the immanence of the actor."
Chokecherry, the second play commissioned from Ehn by the adventurous L.A. theatre troupe Bottom's Dream, depends perhaps even more than usual on its actors, since Ehn wrote it not only with the talents of the Bottom's Dreamers in mind but partly with the inspiration of their lives, as well. Though as with any work of art one should be chary of over-emphasizing the real-life parallels, it's worth noting that Friedericy, an actress whose day job for years was as a substitute and later a full-time teacher for the L.A. Unified School District, plays an actress whose day job is as a teacher.
A less factual parallel is Friedericy's empathy for her charges, which as a friend Ehn witnessed, and the heartbreaking empathy of Nola, the teacher who in Chokecherry tries to reach out to an abused, impaired young girl, Bea.
"The play is about a woman who falls in love with what she can't know, and it breaks her heart," said Ehn. "Part of it is based on letters Bonnie wrote to me. But on top of whatever biographical information is in the play is her sensibility, her willingness to see, to be an intuiter of spirit. Bonnie's like a country to me--she's a profound person."
Indeed, Ehn, earlier commissioned by Bottom's Dream to write a provocative series of playlets, Erotic Curtsies, took this new commission to heart, writing not only Nola for Bonnie but the role of Nola's contentious semi-husband, Bram, for Bottom's Dream producer Mitchell Gossett, and relying on the seductive singing talents of company regular Jennifer Griffin to smooth the play's jagged, oblique structure. (James Martin directs, Susan Gratch does set and lights, John Zalewski the sound.)
"This is not a play in the abstract," said Ehn. "It's inseparable from my need to communicate with these artists. I trust completely what they'll bring to it."
Despite not having the production history or popularity of a Mac Wellman or Suzan-Lori Parks, Ehn wields a salient influence in American theatre, especially on its fringes. A Yale Drama school grad who lives and works in the Bay Area (he served for a time as Berkeley Repertory Theatre's literary manager), Ehn may be as much known for founding the RAT conference as for his plays.
RAT, variously described as meaning Regional Alternative Theatre, Room and Transportation, or nothing at all, is a loose affiliation of small theatres throughout the U.S. which aren't just outside the mainstream in terms of their programming but which have striven to define themselves away from existing regional theatre models altogether. Ehn issued a call to arms in Yale's Theater magazine in 1993 with "A Proposal and an Alarum," a prescient and practical manifesto for small alternative theatres, and it has spawned a busy website (www.ratconference.com) and several convention-styled meetings of like-minded theatre artists from around the country (including one last year at Los Angeles Theatre Center and the Ivy Substation).
"The impulse behind RAT is not inventive, it's reactive," said Ehn, who in that initial position paper also coined the term "Big Cheap Theatre" to characterize the ambitious efforts of scrappy theatres that otherwise might think themselves merely "small and broke." "I and other people perceived an existing network of theatres and artists that are not necessarily aware of each other. RAT has been about finding people who are natural partners and connecting them."
This mutual awareness did begin with an aesthetic component: Places like Seattle's Annex Theatre, Dallas' Undermain Theatre, and Austin's Frontera Theatre first got to know each other through shared repertoire.
"Theatres that do Mac Wellman plays--that survive that trial by fire and produce his works--seem to share something, like a frathouse scar on the shoulder," said Ehn, who has since been commissioned by or produced at most of the same theatres. "We recognize each other."
But, he stressed, the RAT "infestation" has spread beyond a specific school or style to include theatres that share "a common level of experimentation in whatever direction." Indeed, in a follow-up to "A Proposal and an Alarum" called "A Gargle of Rats," Ehn wrote, "Our purpose. . . is tactical over aesthetic. I can't even say that [all RAT affiliates] like new plays. My hope is that the plays between us will become neutral and our virtues will be exercised in the way we handle them and their spaces, and in the way we discover one another. . . and discover ourselves to each other."
Ehn in conversation is as axiomatic and circumspect as he is in his plays and his advocacy, without ever pontificating. Still, one can imagine him teaching playwriting with the same soft-spoken, seductive blend of koan-like dictums and provocations with which he seems to address all comers. One might be mistaken.
"My aim is to get my students to write passionately and authentically," said Ehn. "I try to discover for myself and the class what their idea of a play is, to clarify that and then expand on that. It could be that the next Neil Simon is in my class, and I'm not out to pervert what he may do best--I don't want to turn a natural Simon into a phony Kreutz."
For his own part, Ehn confessed, he wrote "inauthentically" at Yale and spent "far too long" in school. "I lived the saga of the bad son: Whatever anybody in power said was wrong. I had no alternative, I just lived a life of complaint. After a series of bad jobs, and writing as badly as I could possibly write, I gave up and started writing like I write.
"My universal piece of advice to writers now is: Shut up and write. How you write, how well you write, is something to meditate on in your quiet moments. But the fame of it, the career of it, even the quality of it, is not your focus. I had to learn how to write my plays and stop trying to write good plays."
Ehn plans Chokecherry as the first in a trilogy based on Dante's Divine Comedy; this first installment takes its characters through Limbo--for Dante the uppermost crust of Hell--in a dreamlike sequence in an underground lake. Said Friedericy, "It's mostly about loneliness, and it makes me really sad." Agreed Ehn: "Nola's heart breaks and she suffers a dying fall. But the third play in the series will leave 'em whistling the tunes."
Or humming the language.