Saturday, 7 November 2009

New York - November 2009

It's high time this blog got up to date. Especially as my recent trip to the States gives me a good excuse... Maybe a week's delay would do on this occasion...


New York says hello to you. To you personally. On your coffee cup, in all adverts - it always addresses 'you'! It is warm, but in a no-nonsense way. I think it is a lady...

I arrive on Halloween, unaware of just what a significant occasion this is in New York. The streets fill with people in disguise - outrageous costumes, pregnant nuns, angels and demons with wings, lamp-shades posing as hats, Disney characters hailing taxis. The most popular impersonation is Michael Jackson - in various phases of his career.

Despite having just landed, I walk from my hotel on 55th street down Broadway and across Times Square to the Dance Theater Workshop on 19th street to see Anne Bogart's new piece. I walk because I got car sick on the way back from the airport and I am anxious to make sure I have done something research-related in order to justify the fact that I am here on a Saturday at the expense of the university (even though the travel agent insisted being here on a Saturday would halve the air fare).

The Irish dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke's version of Antigone was initially envisaged as an opera in collaboration between Anne Bogart and a Greek composer. Gradually however, the opportunity diminished and members of SITI Company retreated to the Getty Villa in LA in May this year to try out a version of the script for a theatre performance. It worked, and their sharing of a very simple script in hand performance around a table at the Getty Villa had a powerful effect on its audience.

Conceived of and often referred to as an 'insurgent', this particular Antigone is fresh and highly relevant. Even though Kreont and the chorus of elders are more reminiscent of the belligerent Bush administration, Clarke's version of the play is often polemical and sometimes even verging on a veritable thriller. The SITI Company regular Will Bond plays the leader of the chorus and occasionally steps out of the main action (situated around a quadrangle of tables) to address the audience and relate the mythological and historical roots of this story - starting from Zeus and Cadmus and culminating with the story of Antigone's tragic father - Oedipus. Much is made of the storyteller's struggle to begin his story (repeatedly asking 'how does it all begin') and his equally tortured task of ending it. This device in itself is reflective also of the main theme of Clarke's version - the circular nature of history - which underlies Sophosles' own issues of love and duty towards the family and the state.

Bogart's production is slick and inspired. A barefoot composer/violinist Christian Fredrckson is the first to enter the starkly lit stage, but although present throughout he quickly becomes incidental - just like his all-enveloping, Laurie Anderson-esque score. The centre-piece of all action is the said quadrangle of tables and numerous chairs surrounding it - around which the performers run or glide or which they simply straddle. This structure provides effective depictions of numerous settings - government offices, domestic scenes, even eventually a funeral wake.

If by last week this version appeared inscribed with a slightly out of date anti-war sentiment, the most recent events at Fort Hood will certainly cast new light and yield several possible new interpretations of SITI's Antigone.

On the way back to my hotel, a man on Times Square was vending 'Obama condoms'. Another one was vending prayers - small adverts for his church. Welcome to New York!


As for my anxiety to get the most out of my weekend - I needn't have worried. My dear friend and prospective interviewee for my research in ensemble theatre - Adriano Shaplin had lined up a most wonderful feast for me on the post-Halloween Sunday. Like proper Taureans, we started at a small Greek cafe on 8th avenue - just around the corner from my hotel - with a healthy but American-sized brunch. It's a year since we last saw each other at the premiere of his play The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes at the RSC - and many things have happened since. Chiefly, his company the Riot Group has staged two revivals of his previous plays and Adriano is writing another - a double bill entitled The Freedom Club. Having dealt with the English Civil War in Hobbes, Adriano was keen to get his teeth into the American Civil War for his latest play - dealing with the Assassin of Abraham Lincoln. The second part of the double bill however, is set in future, and Adriano informs me that a comment I had made in one of my write ups on the topic of feminism and how the 'sexual liberation' has in fact crippled women's freedom - had a resonance and a relevance to him in relation to this play. Needless to say I am really intrigued! Another interesting development is the Riot Group's collaboration with the Philadelphia-based ensemble New Paradise Laboratories...

Following our brunch, Adriano takes me downtown to a venue called 3LD Art & Technology Center - to see an installation called Zee - 'a hallucinatory architecture of light' by the German artist Kurt Hentschlager. After about 15 minutes of warnings about possible epileptic reactions (even if you've never been diagnosed with epilepsy) - half a dozen of us audience members are let into the room via a number of ante-chambers and a series of doors. As the final door opens and we enter a room filled with dense fog, strobe lighting and a droning soundscape, the first thought that enters my head is 'this is what death must be like' - although I must clarify, I mean that in the most positive sense of the term. We are in there for about 20 minutes and our perception is completely controlled in a way that is devoid of anything recognizable from our daily experience. The fog makes it impossible to discern anything tangible around us. Even the perception of our own bodies is altered - it becomes strangely fascinating - though not at all anchoring to gaze at one's own extremities. The strobe light and the sound seem to mostly have an enhancing effect on one's mood. This is where I guess I became aware of an acute difference between the artist's and mine own world-view. Whereas the mood that he picked for this simulation of what might be perceived as a pre-natal or post-mortal experience is somewhat clinical, perhaps a bit mystical and verging on the sci-fi, I would have opted for something more optimistic, perhaps even something more physically comfortable. Towards the end of the spell I got a bit bored and wished I'd been able to lie down or at least sit down. However this was a bit of a risk in a room where people were moving without being able to see where they were going... Adriano loved it however, and has lined up a whole new set of visits to it for the remainder of the run. In the meantime, the show has become so popular it is only possible to go in by appointment.

Our next excursion later that evening was a trip to St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. Adriano tells me this is where the Wooster Group performs these days and this is where Kneehigh will be showing the Brief Encounter in December. I loved everything about the venue and the surrounding area (the Brooklyn bridge arching over our heads, and a lovely wine bar around the corner where we sit on American bar stools, served by an enthusiastic Russian lady and getting chatted up by someone who looks like a member of the Village People). The show we saw was Enda Walsh's New Electric Ballroom - in Druid's original production. I hadn't seen this in Edinburgh, but I had seen the companion piece Walworth Farce. Although I had found it hard to relate to this piece about a family of Irish immigrants re-enacting their memory of leaving home, I was willing to give New Electric Ballroom a chance. The latter was also envisaged as a piece about memory but from a female perspective. It struck me as a reworking of Chekhov's Three Sisters in a mode which crosses Beckett with soap opera. But ultimately I found it frustratingly unspectacular. There is a moment when an unwanted guest, a local fisherman, transforms into Elvis - but all the rest is a radio play.

Still time flies in good company - and my day had gone in a flash!


I am still very elated by being in this new environment - everything is extremely heightened, not least because I am actually up in the morning earlier than usual - and it's so easy! Today I'm off to Boston to do the first half of the job that I am here for - i.e. to persuade young American students to come and study in England. I had collected a list of pros by canvassing my friends and colleagues. The tips include: English fees are half as expensive as the American fees, Canterbury has a cathedral which is a 1000 years old and the campus is on a hill overlooking the cathedral, we are 50 minutes by train to London and about two hours to Paris, you can drink in England from the age of 18 (rather than 21).

I'm waiting for my train to Boston in Borders in Madison Square Gardens (just above the Penn Station), contemplating this place. The place where they call you by your name to give you your coffee. The place which smells of sweet nuts, where people mutter to themselves, amused, or speak their minds to their neighbours. Through the big window, I am looking out onto the street lined with yellow taxis and small cafes and shops next to each other - an Italian, a Hispanic, a Jewish, an Irish one - all side by side. And nestling in between them is a street sign for a palmist, and another one for a beautician... This city is definitely a woman...


After a short but immensely colourful time in Boston, I am back in the embrace of the city which always feels warm and looks familiar every step of the way.

My second gig is in the Riverside Church in New York. The taxi takes me up Riverside Drive, a street lined with residential palaces - opulent beyond all imagination. It's both comfortable and unsettling driving past these buildings. It makes me think about human aspiration and desire. Is it possible that this kind of a life-style is enough? Does it make one happy? Or would anyone, having got here, find something else to wish for? It makes me think about my own needs and desires - and why it is so difficult to be buddhist about it - to be happy with one's lot and stop yearning for something else in life, be it a car or a house, a job or a child, the love of someone special, or just good health...

Because every tourist book I've touched seems to have opened on the page featuring the Russian Tea Room, and because my past experiences of America have traditionally had a Russian element to them, and because the Russian Tea Room is a couple of blocks away from my hotel - I decide to go to the Russian Tea Room with Lauren - an English acting student at the Lee Strasberg school and a friend of a mutual friend. It meets all expectations of kitsch and glamour and extremely fine wine.


Another beautiful day. Sunny and warm and extremely pleasant. Another beautiful walk to the Union Square. This time to meet writer Caridad Svich for the first time after years of corresponding and hearing wonderful things about her and being caught up in similar passions - such as the play Huddersfield by Ugljesa Sajtinac which I was fairy godmother too and which Caridad brought to the American audience by reworking my English translation.

We have a leisurely chat which - before we know it - has taken full two hours! But there are so many stories to tell and hear! And still some left over for the next time we meet...

The rest of the day, I spend in New Jersey - interviewing Adriano for my research... I will reveal none of it here - but am really looking forward to having it transcribed - it will be pure gold... It is extremely inspiring and illuminating to see Adriano in his natural habitat. A beautiful bohemian apartment, light and airy and with walls painted in deep red... In true Taurean fashion we complete our communion by a trip to a Mexican restaurant - another truly delicious choice of restaurant by Adriano! And then Bar Majestic for a glass of wine and a spot of baseball. We talk about what makes us happy. It all boils down to simple pleasures. Well, there we are - and it is a certainly moment of true happiness for me!


So who is this woman, this woman that has had me under her spell for days, even years since my very first brief visit a few years ago? This woman who stands there with her beacon, beckoning sailors and adventurers, beckoning - you! - into her mysterious chambers, down perfect streets, straight lines and secret alleys, broad avenues and misty parks... She waves her hands at you helping you cross the streets and then offers to read your palm, like a sorceress, her petticoats rustling in the breeze, she ambles leisurely around the train station, at her own pace, even if you are in a rush, she's learnt to manage her stress and you'll have to bear with her, she stretches her limbs before a run, she counts her calories, she makes the best smelling coffee in the world, she tells you 'jeez, I love your coat', she is taking her dog for a walk and checking her iphone at the same time, she smiles mysteriously before she waves you good bye, adieu, ciao for now - she hums a sweet melody under her breath... Till the next time...