I recently heard about this show Distant Star, coming up at Abrons Art Center. Created and produced by Caborca, adapted by Javier González from the novel by Roberto Bolaño and directed by Shira Milikowsky, the show looks really cool. These are some seriously rigorous artists, and I have immense respect for their work and method.
I wanted to know more about the show, how it was made, how it feels to be inside this project, so I reached out to actor and founding company member David Skeist to talk about it.
Caborca has been creating Distant Star for about 10 years. What was that process like from an actor’s perspective? How much impact have the actors had on what we’ll see at the show?
As an actor, I love long processes. This is not the first time we have spent several years developing a project, and to me that feels a lot more natural than getting a script, rehearsing it for 4 weeks, and inviting an audience in to see it. But Distant Star is definitely the longest we’ve ever had and is also a very special case. One aspect that makes its extended development particularly poignant is that the play spans a period of around twenty years, during which the characters go from young artists in their teens and 20s before the coup to people in their 40s reflecting back on what happened. When we started ten years ago, we were much closer in age to the characters at the beginning of the play, and now, um, we’re not—so there exists a parallel looking-back at ourselves dreaming of bringing this play to life that runs alongside the journeys of the characters. It is largely unspoken, but very much present, and that kind of layering is really not something you can manufacture over a few weeks.
To the second part of your question, I think it’s fair to say the actors have had a great deal of impact on the form the show has taken. Since our first workshop at the Court Street space you used to manage, our work has taken the form of book clubs, table reads, devising sessions, more traditional rehearsals, and endless transcontinental email chains, often littered with inside jokes built upon inside jokes. So many of the ideas in this production have origins that have long since melded into our collective memory. Javier and Shira, our playwright and director, are artists who combine strong and deeply intuitive visions with very actor-centered processes. Shira’s rehearsal room is filled with space for propositions, ideas, and the rare and luxurious freedom as an actor to fluctuate between interpretive and generative artistry. I should add that our cast is made up of actors who are intellectually, spiritually, and politically invested in the form and content of this piece and have been since the beginning. Javier writes roles for and on his actors—a defining aspect of Caborca’s work. For example, there is a pair of characters in Distant Star played by Laura Butler Rivera. In the novel, they are central figures, but they have almost no dialogue. As written in the play, they are inextricable from Bolaño’s characters but Laura’s personality and sense of humor are present in every word Javier has written for them. And then there’s the input of the designers, but that’s an entirely other essay.
I love how in Caborca actors can bring so much of their intellectual selves to the project. How has your perspective on your character, what you’re trying to express as an actor, changed as you’ve grown over time and as an artist? I know that’s a huge question, so even just a glimpse would be great.
I play two characters in the show: one who is a traumatized leftist exile, and one who is a fascist performance artist. For many years working on this, I was interested only in the interior of the former and the exterior of the latter. Fascists and fascism felt like abstractions, while victimhood was easily identifiable, perhaps too easily as it often is for us actors. Over the past year, that has changed. We as a country are reckoning with both the interior imagination and outward manifestations of fascism—something we thrust on Chile and much of Latin America without a second thought for decades. I suppose I find myself much more invested in the second character’s interior space now as a result.
For much of the 20th Century, there was a focus in the theatrical arts on psychological drama– Ibsen, Chekov, Genet– and now many writers and artists are primarily focused on political work. This switch seemed to happen while we were in grad school. Do you find that there’s been a switch?
Wow, I think it would take a dissertation to answer this question, but I guess my instinct is to say no, I don’t really find that there’s been a switch per se. I think there have always been theatre artists more inclined towards either psychology or politics. While Chekhov was writing psychological dramas in Russia, Gorky was writing political ones, and while Stanislavsky was revolutionizing naturalism, Meyerhold was creating biomechanics as an expression of systemic control and resistance (for which he was ultimately executed). Elsewhere in Europe, Shaw was writing about international war markets and Brecht would soon coin Epic Theatre as that which turns our eyes back on our own corrupt political systems. Later in the century, writers like Wole Soyinka and Aimé Césaire would use poetry and drama to invert and resist colonial dialectics. But while there’s often been an ethical and aesthetic tension between those who make psychological vs. political work, I don’t believe they’ve ever been totally discreet. In the states, we have had playwrights like Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, and Sophie Treadwell who I hold to be political ethicists, and yet the potency of their work comes largely from the truthful depth of their characters. August Wilson, Eugene O’Neill, and Edward Albee wrote personal dramas that are also politically revelatory. And of course there are geniuses like Irene Fornes, Gertrude Stein, and the Absurdists whose work defies categorization. Today, we have playwrights like Javier, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, and Annie Baker just to name a few, who are highly celebrated and who run the gamut from telling personal to national and global stories.
I guess my point is that there have always been and still are artists who look through a microscope and those who look through a telescope, and maybe what shifts is our attention. I think another important thing to remember is that we lost nearly an entire generation of the most adventurous, marginal, and creative artists to the AIDS crisis, and it was a generation that was cross-pollinating ideas among theatre, dance, politics, writing, and visual and performance art. So it might be that what feels like a cultural shift in the theatre world is also just a new generation coming to maturity in that absence of continuity.
The idea of what could have been is so powerful, and when I think about it in terms of history, I wonder what genius we have lost. My thoughts often linger on the destruction of the library at Alexandria, the secreting of manuscripts in the walls of Timbuktu. If there’s any work of literature or art that you would want to vouchsafe to be passed on in perpetuity, what would it be?
It takes me about 45 minutes to decide what to order off a menu, so I live most of my life in secret fear of desert-island questions like this. Here’s my best unabashed dodging, which is inevitably what I would do if ever faced with this situation. When the election occurred, Caborca was in the middle of rehearsals for a production of Hamlet. Suddenly every word in the play felt like it was written about our political reality. The fact that Shakespeare had written words about paralysis in the face of corruption half a century ago that felt more insightful than almost anything I was reading at the time gave me a strange sense of perspective about human folly. And I could speak them! Up until that point, I had thought of artists as a kind of network of seers around the world, reaching out for each other across space. At that moment, I came to see them as reaching out across time as well, as if Sophocles or Molière were sending a signal into the future to say tell Godot you saw us or something like that. All that to say I have no idea what I would put in humanity’s time capsule, but it would probably include among many other things Ozu’s film Tokyo Story, Thomas Tallis’s motet Spem in Alium, Mary Margaret O’Hara’s album Miss America, and most recently Catherine Coulson’s sublimely courageous performance in Twin Peaks: The Return, framed so masterfully by David Lynch.
Since the election last year, there’s been a collective missive from artists to create political work. Do you feel artists have a responsibility, first and foremost, to comment on the political happenings of their time?
I think most of us can’t help but rub our imaginations against our political reality, and that friction can produce works of razor sharp and immediate insight, which I have always firmly believed Distant Star to be. I love, deeply respect, and generally aspire to make this kind of work. But equally sharp and insightful can be a re-reading of a timeless poem. I think what has crystalized for me as an artist in the nightmare circus unfolding around us is that the most dangerous thing a civilization can do is succumb to the temptation of group think. The arts are perhaps the one place where we are asked to exercise our thoughts, emotions, and imaginations with no prescribed purpose beyond the practice itself. A free-thinking, free-feeling, and free-imagining people is one that cannot be manipulated into fascistic conformity. So, to your question, I guess I believe that as artists, our responsibility is above all to follow our unique muses in the creation of work that is beautiful, terrifying, confounding, unsparingly truthful, and alluring enough to draw people again and again into this free exercise, where our irrepressible selves rise in defiance to the gravitational pull of sameness. I also think that if every political leader were forced to watch Ran, Kurosawa’s reimagining of King Lear, there might be no more war.
How can the arts, and artists, steel themselves against group think? It feels very dangerous to me these days to speak my mind, and I struggle with the temptation to say nothing and go live in the woods v. speaking as loudly as I can and trying to duck out of the way of the rotten eggs.
Oh this is such a good question, Libby. I guess my first thought is that we can’t. The person who believes they are steeled against group think is the fish in the joke, who being asked, “how’s the water?” by another fish, answers “what the hell is water?” I think we are living in pretty terrible times for discourse. There are so many reasons for this that we can speculate about—immediate communication technologies, constant overwhelming visual and auditory input, the 24-hour fear-industrial complex—but the result is that we speak to each other from a place of fear, anger, and anxiety, none of which is conducive to complex listening and processing. I don’t think any one of us is going to change this global phenomenon on our own social media feed, but I do find that when I’m able to slow down in my communications and ground my thoughts in shared values rather than the fractious bedrock of ideological difference, others mirror that in their responses and we all learn something. In times like these, when collective resistance may be the only lifeline for our civilization, it becomes so much more important to listen to each other with humility and compassion between the battles we must also wage. Otherwise we just end up tearing each other apart while the planet heats up, biodiversity disappears irreparably, and global disparity of capital and resources multiplies its body count. It is frightening, depressing, and overwhelming, and I certainly understand the temptation to go live in the woods. But I think as artists, our greatest obligation is to try and utter the truth, and our greatest hubris is to assume that the truth is something we can master rather than a question within a puzzle within a mystery. It is on us to keep ourselves and each other brave about what we must do and humble about what we can’t know, and we also need to recognize that doing so is costly, dangerous, and difficult. If it weren’t, it probably wouldn’t be necessary. My favorite character in classical literature is probably Cassandra, whose power comes not from her gift of sight or her curse never to be believed, but from her choice to speak her truth in spite of everything.
Tickets are only $25, available HERE
By Javier Antonio González
Directed by Shira Milikowsky
Based on the Novel by Roberto Bolaño
September 14 – October 1
Abrons Arts Center Underground Theater
With: Laura Butler Rivera, Yaremis Félix, Jon Froehlich, Anne Gridley,
Tania Molina, Luis Moreno, and David Skeist
Set by Jian Jung, Lighting and Projections by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew,
Costumes by Sarah Cubbage, Sound by Bozkurt “Bozzy” Karasu
Produced by Madeleine Bersin, Stage Management by Sarah Devon Ford and Rachel Winfield. Dramaturgy by Kyoung Park
The year is 1973. In Chile, a group of young poets meet to write, argue, critique and flirt. Days later, the government collapses and the president is shot. Amidst the brutality, one poet rises to fame as a skywriting daredevil—and, possibly, a killer. Caborca is proud to present this perverse and seductive noir of urgent political necessity.