“Curating our images” with Marisa Viola, and Marisas

Marisa Viola and Eleanor Hutchins in Amelia Saul’s Marisas

Marisa and I met a while back when she was working with Dave on a reading of Michael Domitrovich’s Artfuckers, directed by Ed Vassallo. I loved the style and atmosphere that Marisa brought to the part, and was thrilled when she accepted out invitation to work on Sticky. Since then I’ve seen her perform, direct, curate, produce, make films, and generally be unafraid to create in whatever medium the creation requires. He work is thoughtful, inquisitive, honest, and engaging, which is why when news of the current project she’s working on, Amelia Saul’s Marisas, at The Performing Garage, landed in my inbox, I wanted to hear more about the project and Marisa’s part in it.


In part, this is a project about figuring out how to be your your best self, which is a question I’m always asking. What does it mean, to you or to the play, to be your best self?


I think many of us are very preoccupied with the idea of self improvement, and with binary concepts such as success/failure, happy/sad, lovable/unlovable, best/worst. When you think of the endless potential for the different ‘selves’ that we can all be, and all of the factors that come into play, and all of the ways that we’re always changing, I think it’s hard to locate a best version. We do a lot of chasing, and we especially chase how we want to see ourselves and want to be seen. Certainly we live in a time of curating our images, and in some ways our senses of self, through social media. I think it’s pretty ineffective and ultimately winds up distancing us from plain, authentic experience. But then even the concept of being present has been co-opted by the mindfulness movement. Even that has become an affectation that creates strain and a sort of high standard of how best to experience life. The play is looking at all of these attempts, and at all of our feelings of inadequacy that lead us to want to improve, embellish, and change. There’s a sense of an external imperative to improve ourselves, which can actually be destructive and can feel impossible to contend with. The lead character is in direct struggle with that imperative, but manages to avoid falling into the trap of improving herself into oblivion. Then there’s also a very pure sense of striving that’s not about neurosis, but a desire to lean into the wonders of life, and to be a part of it all, and to be a good part of it. I’m interested in the idea of participating without solidifying a sense of self. Which is nearly impossible!


What relationship do you think our current obsession with identity plays in our search to be our best selves?


 I think probably they’re both a sort of survival mechanism. Something we do to be accepted and loved. You know, to avoid being shunned by society and eaten by wolves. 


To work on something for a year with a writer/director and one other actor sounds really intense. Does that create an atmosphere for personal discovery as well as artistic?


The process has been pretty fluid. The play started out a very different concept. There were going to be lots more incarnations of ‘Marisas.’ Lots more actors. I then introduced Eleanor to Amelia, and Amelia began to realize that just the two of us would be effective in a different way. We got together somewhat regularly and usually had readings of the script so that Amelia could finalize it. That was a lot of fun, with Amelia asking us to try out all sorts of ridiculous things. I’m chomping at the bit to get into the space. We’ll work in The Performing Garage for 2.5 weeks before we perform it. I think that’s when things are going to get intense! Interacting with all of the other amazing elements of the show will change everything. But, yes, there was definitely room for personal discovery. It was interesting to show up for rehearsals and see how the the dynamic was always subtly shifting, and, for myself, how my perception of the process was pretty slippery depending on all of the other factors in my life. 


There’s all kinds of crazy hand made props and things in this show! Is there an object or element you’re really looking forward to playing with?


I really can’t wait to get into the pulpit-dress, which hasn’t been made yet, so I’m not sure exactly what it will be like. But I think it’s going to be fun and weird to be in. I also am obsessed with the Samuel Beckett vase. I’m not sure what context it will be used in, but it seems right that Samuel Beckett should have flowers growing out of his head!


You have created art in almost every conceivable medium, including writing and directing your own work. What is different about the generative, creative project as an actor?


Performing is a unique joy. For me there’s the sense of letting it all move through me. Actors are really in service of the story, and I want to show up as fully as possible for that. Figuring out how to do that depending on the material is a great process. I was in a play by Lucas Hnath called About A Woman Named Sarah that was just rigorously technical. He described it has having a “narrow bandwidth” through which the actor has to find a way to create. I love that aspect of “stylized” or technical work. I like the balance of precision and fluidity, which I think this material really has. You have to come as uncluttered as possible. I also love being a cog in the wheel, especially after a run of a lot of producing, which is both holding everything together, and a kind of constant nurturing of everyone’s needs and well being. Keeping everyone happy. In some sense acting feels like there’s no room for people pleasing. It’s wonderful to just trust, which is easy to do with someone like Amelia, who has an incredibly expansive vision and talent. She’s so specific and clear, and it’s been fun to be a movable piece for her as she has developed the show. It’s thrilling to be on the inside of somebody’s vision.


It’s interesting to talk about trust in that way. I think trust is why personally I only like performing in plays I write for myself. It’s all I can do, when I sit down at my blank page, to trust myself enough, to trust the page enough, to be honest. How do you get to a point where you can trust a creator who is not yourself? How do you know they won’t cut you open in a way you won’t be able to stitch back together?  


 It helps to love the material and collaborators. But I guess there are those projects where that isn’t the case. Then I think you just have to find the things that you can trust- yourself, technique, the audience. It’s scary to reveal yourself, but that’s also the draw. I guess the sewing yourself back up part that you mention is it’s own skill to have. 

Marisas can be seen at The Wooster Group in NYC, but it’s still in need of funding– primarily to pay the actors, as the kickstarter campaign states, and I’m so excited to see a producer asking for funds to pay her actors! Hurray for funding pay for actors! Here’s the link if you’d like to chip in. The Kickstarter video is really fun and there are excellent rewards. 

Show dates are May 27, 28 and 29 at The Performing Garage.


A still from the highly engaging kickstarter promo.
Marisa Viola as Anna Nicole Smith in Lucas Hnath’s “The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith” at Sticky at Bowery Poetry Club, 2008.

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