“Two Thousand Six Hundred and Something”: a lecture about performing a text

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Photo by Maria Baranova-Suzuki

Lecture performance, 110 minutes with intermission.

This lecture performance began with what I considered good journalism. In December 2015, American Theatre magazine hired me to write an article on the Goodman Theater’s adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666. Robert Falls, who’d steered the project to fruition, told me a remarkable story about how it all began: On vacation in Barcelona in the mid-2000s, he saw posters all over the city with a photo of “pink crosses in the desert, and this mysterious number, 2666.”

As Falls recounted it, the posters, he learned, announced the publication of Bolaño’s posthumous masterpiece in paperback (the book having originally been released in 2004). I set out to find the image for the article–it’s a great story!–but didn’t have much luck until, eventually, I found an image meeting the description. The only problem? It wasn’t for a book, it was for a theatrical adaptation that pre-dated his own by a decade, from Spanish director Àlex Rigola.

The article I wrote for American Theatre was mostly concerned with translating Bolaño’s long, digressive, multi-part narrative into a script, but nagging me the entire time was a different question: What does it mean to translate the violence contained in the novel into a visual image, for the stage?

The heart of 2666 concerns the very real feminicide that’s been occuring in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, since at least 1993. But the novel is at least as much about how violence–feminicide or otherwise–is represented as it is about these events. Not only does the novel employ its own distinctive literary devices, but it delves deep into film, pornography, visual art, and literary depictions of violence. Its primary concern, in essence, is how we are to understand violence and interpret it in a larger frame, however seemingly oblique and obscure it may be in the present. In fact, this the best sense I can make of the novel’s enigmatic title (which actually occurs in a different Bolaño novel), as a future date of reckoning, a sort of vanishing point in the future, from the perspective of which that which is hidden in the present is revealed and knowable. Continue reading

From an Abandoned Memoir

The first time I really made note of the Grove Press imprint was the spring of 1998. I was most of the way through my freshman year of college, and it wasn’t exactly going well. Not that my grades weren’t good, but I was essentially lost and without direction. In high school in the suburbs of Portland, Ore., I fancied myself an intellectual and a writer. I owned a copy of Sonic Youth’s Jet Set, Trash and No Star, which I used to convince myself I was a cut above the other grunge/skater kids who dug alternative rock. I worked for the school lit mag, and we convinced ourselves we were being subversive by titling it the Grrrowl, because Riot Grrrl. Really, I’d read Camus’s The Stranger and Kurt Vonnegut, and was convinced I knew all about literature. I felt disaffected, so I affected being an existentialist, which was a philosophy I didn’t really understand but sure sounded cool. I assumed that since I had real family drama in my past, I was somehow more legitimate or authentic than others.

grovelogo_400x400I thought I was a writer, but I didn’t know anything about literature. I thought I was an artsy intellectual, but I preferred the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream to Sonic Youth, who, truth be told, seemed just like noise to me. And I did theater, which I also considered myself quite intellectual about, but I didn’t know anything about theater. I sneered privately at doing a stage version of Fame, in which I was cast as the gay kid, which I thought was kind of cool, except that for a play about the hard-hitting issues facing a group of young people in the arts, homosexuality was too hard hitting so (I kid you not) my character’s personal issue was recast as him being a eunuch. Which is why he doesn’t try to sleep with the Barbara Streisand-loving female lead. Because he has no balls, so why would he be attracted to girls?

Actually, I’ll give myself some intellectual credit for finding that stupid and ridiculous. But only so much. I actually only started doing theater in the first place because I wanted to impress a girl. And as for my theatrical intellectualism, it mostly extended to having heard about Rent before most of my show-tunes-loving fellow theater people, and you know I just knew it was cooler than Rogers and Hammerstein.

The long and the short of it was that, like most angsty suburban kids, I was incredibly self-centered and narcissistic. While it may be true that I had a bit more serious drama in my background, by the time I had morphed into this person, who wore tattered jeans, too much flannel, and alternated an ironic Spam-branded baseball cap with a Rastafarian cap I bought at the downtown Saturday Market, I was a complete poseur.

So when it came time to go to college, it was something of a wake-up call. My family was not entirely supportive (unsurprisingly) of me pursuing an education in the arts, which was all I cared about. And despite my self-centeredness, there was a creeping realization that maybe I was kind of full of it. I half-heartedly applied to Sarah Lawrence and Bard, because I vaguely thought they seemed cool. But I wasn’t accepted. My grades weren’t there, and my accomplishments outside of class were pretty minimal. I had been involved with some accomplished extra-curricular political science stuff, and the head of the political science department at a private college in Portland actually strongly suggested he could help get me a scholarship, but I was too in love with the idea of myself as an artsy intellectual to give it much thought. Instead, I settled for the path of least resistance: Several of the theater kids I knew were planning on heading to Southern Oregon University in Ashland, a few miles north of the California border. Ashland was home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which produced very high quality regional theater during their months-long summer season. SOU had no official link to the festival, but proximity alone seemed promising, and as I found out later, SOU’s theater program was actually quite good for preparing you for a professional career. Their BA is about as good as most schools’ BFA, and their BFA program was as challenging to get into as any private school’s. Few people were accepted, and the year I finally went, one of the eight students accepted had transferred from Julliard. Continue reading

Roberto Bolaño and “The Seattle Sinner”

page_1_thumb_largeI moved to Seattle late in the summer of 2003, with my partner who was enrolled in the University of Washington’s graduate program in economics. It must have been late August, maybe even the first weekend of September, when we loaded up a U-Haul full of stuff in Eugene, Ore. I drove, with her parents following in a car. Our first apartment in the city was in the University District, not too far from the campus, on 15th Avenue near 55th Street. The Shuksan Apartments. It was small, in a building set into the side of the hill so that we were on the second floor when entering from the front, from 15th Avenue, or the third floor when entering from the back, from the alley that ran north-south between 15th Avenue and University Way to the west. Once known “14th Avenue,” the street had been renamed “University Way” in 1919, but old habits die hard, and to this day University Way, the major commercial street in the U-District, is known simply as “the Ave.”

She’d just graduated. I’d dropped out a couple credits short a year or so before, unable to afford continuing college and very much so burnt out and lost. I was a class-and-a-half short of graduating, and couldn’t bring myself to do it. (I eventually completed the courses a few years later.) At the time, I had no direction, no drive, and was generally hopeless. I’d studied theater mainly, but learned to hate theater. Or at least resent theater people for not accepting me into their ranks, and I, in turn, spurned them. I was doubling-majoring in comparative literature and theater, but comp lit seemed like an even worse course to follow: An academic focus I couldn’t hope to continue given my remarkably weak foreign language skills. So I was lost and listless, and spent most of that last year in Eugene (we attended the University of Oregon) working at McDonald’s, which did little to improve my sense of self-worth, as well as selling blood plasma for spare money for cigarettes, coffee, a copy of the New York Times, and beer.

When Kasia was finishing up, and all my closest friends were moving on, I tried to sort out what to do. I considered moving wherever my friend Heather moved, but Heather was herself–despite her considerable gifts and intelligence–equally lost. Instead, she grudgingly moved back to her hometown of Salem, Oregon, where she died only a couple years later under circumstances I’ve never sorted out, exactly. Instead, I followed Kasia to Seattle.

The jobs I had in those early years were strange and stumbling. For lack of better options, I Googled all the local theaters and emailed all to see if any had internship or job opportunities; a couple wrote me back, and I made the mistake of going with Seattle Public Theater, a decrepit, miserable space on Green Lake in a converted bath house. Once a beloved independent theater known as the Bathhouse, that company had closed down with the decline in public funding for the arts, sometime in the 1990s I believe. Eventually, SPT moved in, a mediocre company perpetually on the verge of financial collapse. Around the time I started, a new managing director was brought in by the board to set things right, and the artistic director’s friends and long-time collaborators were quickly fired, leaving her isolated. I was named interim technical director, or at least paid a monthly stipend, for the rest of the 2003-2004 season. I quickly learned to hate working in theater again, because I worked with terrible people on terrible shows, but that’s another story. Continue reading

“2666”

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“At that moment it seemed to the teacher as if a sudden, perfectly orchestrated silence fell over Calle Rubén Darío: radios were turned down, the chatter of the living was suddenly muted, and only Cesárea’s voice was left. And then the teacher saw or thought she saw a plan of the canning factory pinned to the wall. And as she was listening to what Cesárea had to tell her, in words that were neither faltering nor rushed, words that the teacher would rather have forgotten, but that she remembers perfectly well and even understands, understands now anyway, her eyes were drawn to the plan of the factory, a plan that Cesárea had drawn with great attention to certain details, leaving other parts shadowy or vague, complete with notations in the margins, although sometimes what was written was illegible and other times it was all in capital letters and even followed by exclamation marks, as if Cesárea were seeing herself in her handdrawn map, or seeing facets of herself that she had until then overlooked. And then the teacher had to sit down on the edge of the bed, although she didn’t want to, and close her eyes and listen to what Cesárea was saying. And even though she was feeling worse and worse, she had the courage to ask Cesárea why she had drawn the plan. And Cesárea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesárea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.”

The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño

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“Two Thousand Six Hundred and Something”

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“Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”

Amulet, Roberto Bolaño

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