The Sexual Harassment of Lily Bart

Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, over a century after its publication, is a transcendent work exploring the trauma of sexual harassment. It was criticized in its time as a ‘novel of manners,’ while its proponents called it a social satire.

Maybe it’s about manners, maybe it’s a scathing commentary on wealthy socialite culture, but mostly what it’s about is a single, broke woman trying to navigate a career, life, and society while being continuously and solely valued for her sexual attractiveness and perceived availability. She was trained to be a rich man’s wife, but she can’t stomach the men to whom she could be wed.

Miss Lily Bart, heroine of the novel, is from a fallen New York family. Well-connected but broke, beautiful but desperate, plodding the path of privilege and wealth for which her shoes were made, Lily is of the fashionable set of late 19th Century New York. What she’s got is is beauty, charm, masses of debt, and that most cursed of all things, standards.

Older, married, well-connected men make passes at her, and though she turns them down so much of the time, her reputation is sullied by the existence of their advances at all. Friends and enemies alike ask what she could be doing to lead these men on so, and answer with a wink and nod.

Miss Lily Bart is a hanger on of power, a socialite with her body and cunning as her only assets. Try as she might to wield some of that power on her own terms, without giving over her body to men, she is unable to gain any traction. It’s simply not allowed.

What we do to our women! What we have done, what has been done, what women have been put through. Yes, fragments, not sentences, because these were lives lived in fragments, lived according to proscribed principles. Women of standing who were socially and financially crippled by their perceived association to men who wanted docile, easily manipulated, willing young women in secret corners, in their beds.

With no fortune of future of her own, Miss Lily runs from fashionable country house to fashionable town house, perfectly made up, well coiffed, perfectly clothed, expensively jeweled– this is what’s expected, and she’ll deliver no matter what, no matter how much debt she has to take on. (MFA, anyone?) But like many women when faced with a job for which they have prepared and interviewed, for which they have worked and sacrificed, she is faced instead with men who take every opportunity to thrust their sex upon her, ignoring everything about her but the wants they impose upon her.

If Lily Bart were facing down her career prospects today, she would have been one of the endlessly talented, fierce women who were never given a chance because they did not go along to get along, did not stand idly by for sexual harassment and abuse. Just as she was in her day, she would have been cast off, obliterated, defeated by men of power and influence who don’t give a damn about the women they tread upon to secure their own aims.

Critics at the time painted Wharton’s heroine as someone who eschews passion and love for money and security. But when the men in control of all of it demand she be used according to their aims, and not her own, she refuses them. Time and time again, Lily holds tight to what she knows to be right, and in not letting herself be used by men, she is destroyed by them.

Why did critics hate her? Why is she still considered a vapid socialite of American literature? Because even in the stories we tell ourselves, we blame women for men’s unwanted advances. We blame women for our perceiving them as slutty and too available. We blame women.

The tables are starting to turn on this, as we’ve seen with all of the men being brought down through the exposure of their illicit actions and unkempt desires. Let’s bring back Lily Bart, sexually harassed throughout House of Mirth, and for a century of criticism afterwards. She is every woman who has been forced to submit to sexual harassment in order to achieve job security, and tossed to the gutter when she doesn’t play ball.

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Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart in Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth.

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Edith Wharton as a debutante, circa 1862

 

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Look at her boob.

I was sitting at dinner after performing in Hudson Valley Sticky. It was a Saturday night, and I was tipsy enough that I’d decided to order fettucine alfredo, complain about how big the portion was, and eat the whole thing.

I was sitting across from Ali, my close friend and frequent collaborator, and we were feeling good. We’d performed my short play AutoMoron and got big laughs. We’d watched the Hudson Valley Sticky team make a spooktacularly fun Halloween edition of Sticky, complete with strong, inventive writing, risk-taking performances, and direction that made use of the whole space. Next to me was an actor from the show, and I told him how great he was, and we congratulated each other in that merry way that performers have after a show when they’re still riding high on the rush of laughs and audience engagement.

Next to him, was another man, who had been at the show, but who I hadn’t met. It was a relaxed, congenial atmosphere, until that man said “look at her boob.”

My God I was taken aback. I realized suddenly he was talking about my boob, and telling the actor to look at it. I looked down at my shirt-covered boob and spotted my little blue butterfly pin, pinned above my boob.

“It’s a blue butterfly,” he said.

“I wear it in memory of my grandmother,” I said, trying to regain a footing in a conversation that went from comfortable and fun to belittling.

He ignored me, and spoke to his friend. I gathered that they’d been collaborating on a screen play rife with imagery that keeps popping up for them in real life, like this blue butterfly. I didn’t understand what this had to do with my boob, but I felt small, I felt put in my place, I felt really bad. The men continued speak of their men business. Ali flashed me a look across the table. She’d taken in that whole thing, and also didn’t know what to say. They spoke of other imagery in the script.

I wanted to say something that would make him as uncomfortable as he made me. I thought, I could make a crack about his body, about his penis, for example, but men talk about their penises all the time, and it doesn’t seem to make them uneasy, quite the opposite in fact. I thought about what makes men universally uncomfortable.

“What else comes up in the script, ‘storks,” the man said.

I piped up from the dark corner I felt trapped in, trapped with my boob and butterfly. “My son and I were recently talking about storks. He asked me if that’s where babies come from so I told him all about vaginas.”

The conversation stopped. But I felt great. Talk of women’s bodies below the waist make men universally uncomfortable (and if you’re one of the rare men who is not made uncomfortable by vaginal talk, whoop-de-doo for you, Jeff Lebowski). The man didn’t say anything, so I expanded on this conversation I’d had with my son (who does not appear to be uncomfortable when we speak of vaginas), and explained how vaginal muscles expand and contract based on need. I made a joke about labium.

The man left the table under some excuse and didn’t come back.

I ate an entire plate of fettucine alfredo.

Fuck that guy.

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me and Ali at Sticky

Adventures in Being Home Alone

Dave and C went to see fam this weekend while I stayed home. I’m usually glad for some time without responsibilities, but this was freaky.

txts:

1 am, Saturday night.

Libby:
Someone keeps ringing the door bell

There were people ringing the bell and knocking on the door, both exterior front of the house and the interior door, then people came around the back with flashlights just now.

I called 911 and police are coming to check it out. I’m freaked out.

It was the police trying to get into upstairs. Meanwhile upstairs has been quiet all night. No idea what’s going on. But basically I just called the police on the police.

Alls Fine now

7 ish am, Sunday morning

Dave:
Wow. That’s scary.

Libby:
Yeah I was freaked out

Dave:
And no idea what was up?

Libby:
No
It was quiet all night
But these cops would not give up banging on the door and they came around back w flashlights
But the didn’t identify themselves

Dave Marcus:
And what were you eventually told?

Libby:
So I turned off all the bedroom lights and shut the window bc I was like whoever is trying to get my attention is relentless, I bet they come around back

So once they came around back, and I was sitting in the bedroom in the dark the window closed so that no sound with escape the house, I called 911

I told them people were trying to get into the house. Ringing the bell banging on the door and come around to the back door flashlights. I told 911 expecting visitors to midnight and I was freaked out by what I was trying to get in my house

911 said not to answer the door and that police will come in that they would call me when they got here.

So I sat there in the dark for about 15 minutes and then I got a call from police.
But it was actually the 911 operator calling back and saying that it had been police knocking on the door and shining flashlights into the house. And that the police were trying to access the third floor because someone had called police.

I said: Oh, so I called the police and police? And the operator laughed and laughed. But I was pissed. Why didn’t they identify themselves at any point? Like once you’re knocking on the back door, why not say: hello it’s the police?

Dave:
Especially at midnight.

Libby:
After I called them, but before I got the call back, I thought I heard people enter the front door and someone come downstairs from upstairs and talk to them.

It was later than midnight, and yeah it was pretty creepy to know there were people in the backyard trying to get into the house.

But of course I don’t let people in if I’m not expecting anybody. I don’t let in anybody at one o’clock in the morning

I don’t care who it is, if they can’t identify themselves they’re not getting in. So I waited them out in the dark.

Dave:
We might need to find out what’s going on. That’s a heavy police reaction.

Libby:
I thought so too. And there wasn’t any noise from upstairs. It had been quiet since I got home which I think was 7

Dave:
We might be able to see the police report. I’ll ask my dad how such a thing is accessed.

Libby:
You mean of why they were here at 1 o’clock in the morning last night?

Dave:
Yes.

Libby:
I was honestly more freaked out knowing that it was police in the backyard. Because if it was someone else then one could talk to police about how to prevent such things in the future. And also because now I know for sure that people with guns were in the backyard trying to get in my house. And I’m glad I didn’t answer the door what with how trigger-happy these situations seem to get.

Dave:
For sure. You did the right thing. And, yeah. That’s how people get shot.

Libby:
Like that white lady in Wisconsin or wherever. I was really freaked out. Why would police be banging on the back door that’s clearly an entrance, shining flashlights in to the back door and into the bedroom where the curtains were drawn, of course, and the windows were closed, but not identify themselves as officers?

 

New money for playwrights, with Josh Young

Phillip Christian Smith in Who Mourns for Bob the Goon? by Joshua Young, HERE Arts Center. 2016. Photo: Steven Pisano

Josh Young and the Playwriting Collective have come up with a daring new entry into the identity driven grant making arena. The Ball Grant is a $1,000 grant expressly designed for a writer who identifies as living in or emerging from a lower economic status.

 

Founded as “a playwright driven initiative to support voices from lower economic backgrounds,” the Playwriting Collective presents work that is by, or about, the American poor.

I’ve participated in their First Draft Reading Series as a writer, when my play White Out was given an excellent reading, and as an actor where I read the role of a super creepy mother and learned that the identifier ‘eskimo’ is offensive. (Turns out ‘eskimo’ is an Algonquin word meaning “eater of raw meat.)

I thoroughly relished my experience with the Collective in both cases, and am amazed that in addition to producing full length work, a reading series, and cultivating new writers, the company has created a funding source for playwrights, deadline October 1, The Ball Grant.

Libby

There are lots of play submission opportunities out there that specify identifiers to which the writer must identify. Most of what I see out there has to do with race, ethnicity, and gender, but the inaugural Ball Grant is different in that it focuses on economic identifiers. Why is an artist’s economic background so important?

Josh

I’d like to even the playing field a little so that we get more authentic stories that have emerged from America’s lower class.  I saw a small play semi-recently that was set in a poor, rural American town that was bathed in a fetishization of those types of poor people.  That’s a blight in my opinion on artistic truth and also a sad piece of evidence illustrating how few theater maker’s right now have come from anything other than an upper-middle class or higher background.  (And that’s especially true for contemporary white theater makers.)  Now I want to be clear, I really don’t want to throw too much shade at my theater making brothers and sisters who have had lives with a little more affluence.  But it’s a bit of a plague how it’s almost exclusively the playground of those folks.  Luckily, those same opportunities you mentioned -with other identifiers- have helped change the exclusivity of who gets access to theater making tools.  Along those lines I deeply believe class matters when we have a conversation about agency and privilege in this country and want to make sure I embolden that demographic to enter the theater world.

Representation of poor people – off all colors, genders, and orientations – matters.  And I don’t want to see poor people’s stories become morsels of dissection for folks from more affluent or privileged backgrounds.  I don’t want to see stories about coal miners in West Virginia written by someone who studied those people in Academia, or a play about kids in a post industrial town because someone maybe wrote a thesis about that subject.  Why should class be the last bastion where outliers are given preference to write those stories over the people who’ve actually lived poor lives?  I want to encourage people from lower economic backgrounds to tell their own stories… and maybe by giving them tools of self expression it might push back on trends of anti-intellectualism and systemic negligence of educational needs in poor communities…  Not to mention just old fashioned giving people stronger, more articulate voices so that they can be more competitive in any field they chose to make their profession.  It’s also my personal passion and belief that this endeavor will help unite poor white communities with communities of color.

And shouldn’t we -as a collective audience and a socially conscious body politic- want to raise up those poor voices so they tell their own stories?  And I fit into that category.  I’ve yet to write a story that doesn’t feature poor people as a centerpiece of narrative force.

Libby

I attended a panel several years ago that was helmed by Diane Weist and Olympia Dukakis, and it was mentioned that actors and writers used to come up through the theater, apprenticing, learning, hanging out backstage, and that now the industry discourages that by implementing the MFA as the gold standard for theater artists. Of course, grad schools are expensive, and when students emerge from that chrysalis they expect jobs in their fields, but they haven’t been out there making jobs in their fields, or creating that niche for themselves. Do you think that the current MFA structure is at fault for the discontinuation of access for the underprivileged into theater arts and its industry?

Josh

Yes.  Unambiguously, aggressively 100% yes.  As the disparity between rich and poor in this country grows wider and wider, the American Academic Industrial Complex (I just made that up… I hope it’s original) has stopped being an institution for higher education and development and more a way to establish a new caste system of who is allowed to emerge as artists, politicians, developers, and businessmen.  And even then -as you well noted- many still get culled after getting MFAs by not finding work.  I think the new requisite of MFAs for anything artistic is a scourge on society…  and I think the cancerous infestation of necessity to get grad school education for many non scientific fields is contributing as much to anti-intellectualism as lack of quality education in poor communities.  The ability for people to feel and experience the freedom of independent and courageous thought is slowly being squelched by the oppression of over-education.  Academia creates a comfort blanket for the historically privileged, especially the wealthy, because life can now be experienced via a low stakes safety net called grad school.  Basically we live in a world where gobbledygook is given import in academically well educated but existentially imbecilic Americans.

Libby

I know you as a writer and producing artist. How did you get involved in actually providing funding opportunities for other writers?

Josh

By learning how to manage money for a non-profit and believing that short term sacrifice will yield a long term gain.  The short term sacrifice is that we’re a very fiscally modest company compared to virtually any of our peers, and we don’t have consistent or dedicated donors, so -honestly- we’re scraping this money together simply to push more people like us into the theater making field.

Pragmatically I believe this grant could change the life of a poor person and it might – hopefully – one day begin a trend where more people from lower economic backgrounds, from all kinds of diverse poor backgrounds, are making popular art.  I deeply believe we need more people from poor backgrounds, in all their shapes and sizes, making theater.  If they do I believe it will create a seismic shift, changing not only how and who makes theater but the actual aesthetics of theater itself.  Suddenly audiences will have their eyes opened to authentic stories that they probably would have never heard otherwise.

Libby

Are you telling me that the money being provided for the Ball Grant is money that the Playwrighting Collective generated through revenue streams and saved specifically for this purpose? This $1000 is not a donated sum from some granting organization in support of your efforts?

Josh

Exactly.  I hope we get more grant money and fiscal sponsorship the longer we stick around… but in the short term… this grant is pretty much money contributed by our main team and my own MoMA paycheck.  I really just want to give a poor person money.  My mother taught me the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at a young age…  If I am even comfortable then I’m in a place to help someone.  I’ll worry about saving money when I get around to that hypothetical family I hope to have once day.

Libby

How do you balance producing with the Playwrighting Collective with your own artistic pursuits?

Josh

Not to mention balancing it all with a full time job!  Honestly, I’ve excised virtually any part of my life that doesn’t service my work with The Playwriting Collective or my own artistic life.  I wish there was some self-help, esoteric axiom I possessed that would give me a leg up, but there isn’t.  I simply made a choice that I’d put all my other life priorities, such as (hopefully) one day having a family, on hold until I was satisfied with my progress in the theater world.  Of course that turned out to be a Sisyphean expectation.  It’s an extremely competitive business, in a varied and often overwhelming way, but I stay competitive by keeping all my life choices within concentric circles of my theatrical pursuits.

Libby

Me too. It’s a bitch. Before I embarked on motherhood, I had a full time job, produced Sticky and other shows with Blue Box World, worked on projects outside my producing work, and wrote, of course, something I’ve been doing since I became cogent. After my son was born, I cut back on producing, and this year I’m not producing at all. I have to work, I have to write, I have to mother. Producing? Love it, but it’s not here this year. Do you want to be a father?

Josh

Yes.  In fact I often find myself having very paternal instincts.  I did a show semi-recently where served as a TD… I was talking to the playwright outside the theater one day and we saw her intern roller blade up to us without a helmet and we both went into parent mode!  (We also realized we’re old folks now…)

You may not produce as much but I definitely look to you and David as a good model of how to have a family and still stay active in this world.  I have other friends who do it (my friends Reid and Sara Farrington for example.)  But in the short term it is going to take an act of fate for someone to come along who I could envision coupling up with.

Submit your work for The Ball Grant!

LaGina Hill in Who Mourns for Bob the Goon? by Joshua Young, HERE Arts Center. 2016. Photo: Steven Pisano

Grandma Chicken Nugget

I got on the subway and opened my book. It wasn’t too crowded, and I took a seat in the middle of the bench. Across from me, and older lady was painting her nails red. She was taking up two seats to do it, and I was frankly impressed that she was able to paint her nails on a moving train.

The only other person I’d ever seen do that was my friend Trish in college when we were all heading to the City on MetroNorth to go dancing at The Bank on Houston Street and she hadn’t had time to do her nails and was actually painting them on a moving train.

The older lady noticed me looking at her and shot me a look. I felt instantly like a white lady ogling, and looked away. More people got on the train, and with a disparaging look to whoever sat down next to her, she crossed the aisle and sat next to me.

Another woman took her place, tall, broad, dressed all in black with black hair and straight cut bangs stopping a half inch above her eyebrows. She was made up pale, with dark lipstick.

The lady sitting next to me pointed out the woman’s shoes, bulky oxfords with polka-dot chiffon laces, and said they were cute. I concurred. She pointed out the lady’s hair, clothes, actually pointing with her finger. She spoke audibly about the woman’s look.

I waved my hand, and said “I’m not gonna…” and shook my head.

“I don’t mean to point,” the woman said.

“I get it, she looks cool.”

“She do,” the woman said.

I didn’t want to talk. I don’t like talking to strangers on the subway. We New Yorkers have an unrealistic expectation of privacy in public spaces, and I’d wanted to read, not chat. A fact that I thought was made apparent by my open book, and my eyes cast downward to the page. I thought about how to indicate to this woman that I wasn’t into talking.

Then I noticed her medical bracelet. And her odd clothes, costume jewelry, her flat handbag that spoke of emptiness.

“What time is it?” She asked. “I left my phone at home.”

I told her the time. I could tell she wanted to talk. I realized there was no reason, other than my preference for solitude, to not talk to her. I realized that she wanted a companion, if only for a few stops. I had my company to offer. I put away my book, my phone.

I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember we giggled. She told me her nickname, in her youth, was Golden Nugget, and that when her grandchildren got wind of that they said “Can we call you Grandma Chicken Nugget?” That’s what we giggled about.

When we got to my stop, she said “See? We got to that stop in no time, we made the time go faster.”

And I wonder who needed the gift of company, so freely given, and demanded, by Grandma Chicken Nugget.

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Closing in on Distant Star w David Skeist

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.

Ticket info and how to support the show below!

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Laura Butler Rivera and Jon Froehlich, photo: Marcos Toledo

Libby

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?

David

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.

Libby

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.

David

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.

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David Skeist and Tania Molina, photo: Marcos Toledo

Libby

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?

David

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.

Libby

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?

David

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.

Libby

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?

David

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.

Libby

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.

David

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

Distant Star
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.

If you can help us realize this important work, please consider making a tax-deductible donation HERE.

DS1

End of Summer Sadness

Perhaps it’s my proclivity for academic pursuits, but I always count the new year as the start of the fall term in September as opposed to the end of calendar in January.

As summer simmers to a halt, and memories of camp fires and crab bites give way to school supply lists, I happened upon this discarded photo series on the corner of E 4th Street and Bowery.

It’s dated September 2013, and the memories belong to someone else. I wonder if the kids pictured are still in touch.

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