No Sleep Til . . . Massachusetts

Jobsite Theater’s Producing Artistic Director David Jenkins interviews playwright Israel Horovitz, whose play, Gloucester Blue, opens at The Straz May 19.

Israel-Horovitz

Israel Horovitz

World-renowned playwright Israel Horovitz approached David M. Jenkins several years ago about collaborating with Jobsite Theater. As a result, Jobsite has brought one of the greatest living playwrights to audiences of Tampa Bay, starting with staged readings of Horovitz’s Sins of the Mother and Breaking Philip Glass in 2015. Last year, Jobsite produced the award-winning Lebensraum with Horovitz in residence and continues the relationship with this season’s dark comedy, Gloucester Blue.

Horovitz holds the distinctions of penning more than 70 plays, being the most produced American playwright in French theater history and fathering Adam Horovitz, who most of us know and love as Beastie Boy Ad-Rock.

David Jenkins: Class and gentrification seem to be central to Gloucester Blue. More specifically, I mean how a community’s character, history, and identity can be erased by “outsiders” knocking everything down or covering everything up to where the original can no longer be identified. This could not be more germane to conversations going on in Tampa right now, particularly throughout the urban core. Working on your Sins of the Mother in 2015, I noticed all that in there, too. Are these themes something directly on the minds and tongues of folks back home in Gloucester, or are these general themes you are exploring because they interest you as a writer?

Israel Horovitz: My father was a truck driver until the age of 50, when he became a lawyer. He studied law at night, rose at 4am to drive his truck to the paper mills, often fell asleep in his night law classes but somehow passed the Massachusetts Bar Exam and changed his life completely. My mother went from being a truck driver’s wife to being a lawyer’s wife.

So, simply said, I’m as comfortable writing about blue collar people as white collar people. I’ve lived on both shirts. During the past 35 or so years, I have written a group of plays that I call my “blue-collar” plays. This work serves to create, among other things, a kind of record of what working-class life was like during my time on my little dot on the planet Earth. It seemed to me that working-class life in small-town America was rapidly disappearing. I won’t burden you here with my particular analysis of the whys and wherefores. My job is to dramatize, make theatrical . . . I thought that if I could focus my particular telescope/microscope, and get it right, really right, for one small New England town, I might possibly have it right for the world. My goal was to somehow use real people, real places, real events in a mix with dramatic fiction.

Sins of the Mother

Jobsite working with Horovitz at a rehearsal of Sins of the Mother, 2015.

DJ: So, like Bummy in Gloucester Blue, you’re quite the golfer. I find this almost wholly incongruous with just about everything I know about you. You write blue collar plays, your characters speak with an uncanny authenticity, you’re about one of the most unassuming “regular Joe” playwrights I’ve met. Is the game something you grew up doing or that you learned to appreciate later in life?

IH: My father played golf. I never actually saw him play golf, but I saw his golf clubs. I caddied from the time I was 9 years old till I was about 14 at The Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton, Massachusetts. I took up golf when my son Oliver was 10 years old. He wasn’t allowed to play on a golf course with an adult. So I found my (deceased) father’s clubs in my mother’s basement and off we went. I had been a track runner as a kid . . . a sprinter. As an adult I ran road races with some small success. I ran 50 marathons before my knees began to hurt . . . precisely the time when Ollie took up golf. So he began around age 10 and I began with him around age 60. It was a perfect transition from running races for me. I loved spending four hours alone with my kid in a green place talking about life . . . with no greater responsibility than whacking a golf ball. Now, my wife Gillian and I play golf together. She was English National Marathon Champion and record holder. Gill’s run 93 marathons, most of them under 2 hours, 40 minutes. Around six years ago, she took up golf as a replacement for competitive running. We used to travel the world to see my plays and run in races . . . now we travel to see my plays and play golf together. We are both compulsive exercise people. When I was a young guy, I realized that writers are among the unhealthiest looking people on the planet. I used my exercise as a balance. I don’t think my body exists simply to carry my head from room to room.

Lebensraum rehearsal

A rehearsal for Jobsite’s production of Horovitz’s Lebensraum, 2016.

DJ: You’ve written a number of highly political shorts in recent years. We staged your Breaking Philip Glass in 2015, and we’ve kicked around the idea of doing a #RESIST festival that would showcase several of them. Can you give some insight into these? Did you set out to write them all as shorts or was it more like the genesis of a punk rock song in that you had compact message to get out?

IH: I love writing short plays. I’ve written dozens of short plays. Like reading short stories, if you don’t like a short play you’re watching, you have the blessing of knowing it will soon be over . . . and if it’s great, you have the blessing of wanting more.
A big picture frame has four corners. So does a small picture frame. I don’t think a small frame is easier to make than a large frame. In parallel, a short play has the same requirement as a long play. Sometimes I think it’s a bit harder to write a great short play because there’s no room to hide in a short play.

I have always felt political engagement was an obligation for artists, and I have always felt that the short play was great for a political statement. For one thing, short plays are often embraced by students and young actors, and they are precisely the people I want to reach with my political plays.

Orlando

Jobsite’s production of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, adapted by distinguished American playwright Sarah Ruhl, who was mentored by Horovitz.

DJ: You’ve told me several stories about mentors who gave you so much as a young playwright, Thornton Wilder and Samuel Beckett coming most immediately to mind (goodness to have been in either of those rooms!). Have you taken an interest in any “upcoming” playwrights and has there been any attempt to “pay it forward” in some way?

IH: About 35 years ago, I created a “secret society” called the NY Playwrights Lab. Some of the Lab playwrights have been Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea), Jonathan Marc Sherman, Seth Svi Rosenfeld, Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage (Sweat), Richard Vetere, Max Mayer, Erin Cressida Wilson (The Girl on the Train), Daniel Reitz, etc etc. Additionally, I’ve been teaching playwriting and screenwriting workshops for young writers for the past 30 years. Neil Labute was among my students over the years . . . In its 35-year history, every play ever written in the NY Playwrights Lab has been produced professionally, without a single exception. So, yuh, giving back, ie; becoming the old guy, has been important to me. The future of theatre is important to me.

Need tix to Gloucester Blue? Get ‘em here.

david-jenkinsDavid M. Jenkins is a director, actor and the Producing Artistic Director and a co-founder of Jobsite Theater. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication (Performance Studies) from the University of South Florida, an M.F.A. in Acting from the University of Florida, and a B.A. in Theater Performance, also from USF. He has studied with Moscow State University, the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts (GITIS) and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Most recently, he directed Jobsite’s As You Like It and LIZZIE. In addition to his full time work for Jobsite, David teaches in the Honors College at USF as an adjunct instructor.

Gender Bender

By David Jenkins, guest blogger

Roxanne Fay (Feste) and Maggie Mularz (Viola, as Cesario) in a rehearsal for Jobsite Theater's production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Roxanne Fay (Feste) and Maggie Mularz (Viola, as Cesario) in a rehearsal for Jobsite Theater’s production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Part of life in the performing arts includes the many international scholars who study theater, music and dance, writing on these topics and delving into impressive intellectual inquiry into the art forms and why they matter. One area of interest naturally includes the examination of sexuality and gender identity in many famous plays. In fact, one of the most well-known playwrights to consistently incorporate switched gender roles was William Shakespeare, particularly in his comedies. Jobsite Theater, our resident theater company, opened Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night this week, which includes the character Viola, a woman-pretending-to-be-a-man-who-is-in-love-with-a-man-while-a-woman-who-believes-she-is-a-man-loves-her. Typical Shakespeare! To discuss the context of these gender switcheroos, Caught in the Act enlisted the help of David Jenkins, Jobsite’s Artistic Director and PhD candidate in Communication, specializing in performance studies.

When originally staged, Twelfth Night might have been more believable to a general audience than it is today in terms of all the characters on stage believing that female Viola was male Cesario, the young man she pretends to be. In Shakespeare’s day, women were not allowed on stage, so those famous female roles, from Juliet to Lady Macbeth, would have been played by boys.

So, follow me here: we would have had a boy actor playing a woman who was pretending to be a young man. Not too hard to buy, right?

But, we might also take this circumstance a step further in terms of gender confusion in that the male actor playing Orsino, the object of Viola’s affection, is in love with Olivia, who would have been played by a boy, and the boy-acting-like-the-girl-pretending-to-be-the-boy in Viola. Then we have a boy playing Olivia who is also in love with boy/girl/boy Viola.

Whew.

Katrina Stevenson (Olivia) and Maggie Mularz (Viola, as Cesario) in a rehearsal for Jobsite Theater's production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Katrina Stevenson as Olivia and Maggie Mularz as Viola, a woman-pretending-to-be-a-man-who-is-in-love-with-a-man-while-a-woman-who-believes-she-is-a-man-loves-her, in Jobsite Theater’s production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Twelfth Night becomes a fascinating site of study when we consider both the fluidity of gender as a social construction and the continuum of human sexuality.

I should offer a few definitions so we’re on the same page:

Sex refers to the parts a person is born with and though most people are born with male or female genitals around 10% of the human population is somewhere between these poles, not to mention those who surgically alter themselves, and so we should view biological sex not in terms of two or even three positions but as a whole continuum (Fausto-Sterling 2000).

Gender is social construction, something we (individuals and/or society) place on a body. Judith Butler (1988) offers that gender is “a stylized repetition of acts through time” making it a performance unto itself. Simone de Beauvoir is often quoted as saying that one is not born but rather becomes a woman. Gender has historically been used as a way to set the norms of behavior for men and women in any moment in time as a method of social control.

Sexuality then refers to whom any of us are attracted to. These three concepts are mutually exclusive of one another. Gayle Rubin (1984) argues that we must separate them when we discuss human behavior to gain a better understanding of ourselves.

Roxanne Fay plays the role of Feste, a man, in Jobsite Theater's production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Roxanne Fay plays the role of Feste, a man, in Jobsite Theater’s production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Drawing these definitions back to Twelfth Night, we can see how the confusion in terms of who is actually what and who is really into whom might provoke thought and discussion among audience members. What is “normal” for a man or woman, what really defines masculine or feminine, what do these designations even mean and who do they serve? Can we control how or why we fall in love with another, and what is it that drives us to even love at all?

Shakespeare in performance has the opportunity to reinforce gender roles, as we can do with Lady Macbeth’s femme fatale machinations to the virginal and helpless Ophelia who Hamlet casts aside. But, in a case like Twelfth Night, it can challenge and subvert those same roles. I try to avoid what Penny Gay (1993) calls “radical chic” in making choices on stage that are done just in the name of being non-traditional (“Oooh, let’s do Troilus and Cressida dressed as panda bears!”), but, in our production, I’ve cast the part of Olivia’s fool Feste as a woman dressed as a man. I purposefully left all references to Feste as “he,” “him,” and “sir” specifically to the end of creating an ambiguous space that destabilizes what terms like man or woman really even mean. It has also given us a really interesting moment to play on stage as Feste, at one point, is able to show the audience (and Viola) that s/he sees through “Cesario’s” disguise. That moment is not set in Shakespeare’s text, but is possible for us to communicate through the actors’ delivery and interaction.

Chris Holcom as Orsino and and Maggie Mularz (Viola, as Cesario). Photo by Crawford Long.

Chris Holcom (Orsino, the object of Viola’s affection) and Maggie Mularz (Viola, as Cesario). Photo by Crawford Long.

When presented with two options: male or female, gay or straight, masculine or feminine, we cannot but help uphold that very binary which always privileges one term over the other. In fact “male” is only truly defined by what it is not: “female.” We can similarly apply that to any binary: the one thing only has meaning in that it is not the other. When we begin to look for those third terms such as androgynous, bisexual, intersex we disrupt binary and place things in continuum which is necessarily ambiguous terrain. Kenneth Burke (1945) notes that in this ambiguous territory, true transformation takes place. And, yes, it’s also what often freaks people out about someone who defies categorization or passes as one thing when they are in fact another. It freaks us out because in that moment we’re forced to reckon with what we think we know.

Judith Butler (2004) observed we need to resist the urge to resolve those tensions that create these kinds of spaces. I’ve tried to do that with Twelfth Night. Perhaps people will get it, and if they don’t, to be perfectly honest, it won’t get in the way of them simply enjoying themselves in the theater for a few hours with a first-rate performance.

As a director, I believe what we do on stage is part of a conversation, a dialogue, even if the audience doesn’t always speak back. It’s an exchange: as artists we get immediate feedback from what we’re offering them which can come in the shape of anything from laughter and sighs to bored shuffling of feet and people uncomfortably leaving the theater. In my belief that ambiguous spaces can often be transformative, I try to “resist conclusions” as Dwight Conquergood (1985) says so that the conversations can continue among people or even just in the individual mind as people go back to their lives outside of the Shimberg Playhouse.

In other words, I don’t need to put a pretty bow on the end all the time. Let the work speak for itself and let people think.

When presented with questions by students (even audiences or critics) as to why Shakespeare matters, Twelfth Night’s tensions about gender, sexuality, and our ability and urge to love is one of the first things I point to. We still struggle with these concepts. I can point to teenagers committing suicide over not being understood, people of all ages facing violence over how they choose to live their life, even our own state and local governments fighting the people over who gets to count when it comes to marriage.

— David M. Jenkins is the Producing Artistic Director of Jobsite Theater. He is a doctoral candidate and teaching associate in the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida, where he also teaches as an instructor in the Department of Theater.

Find this stuff interesting? You might like these books:

As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women, Penny Gay

Upstaging Big Daddy: Directing Theater as if Gender and Race Matter, Ellen Donkin and Susan Clement

Theatre and Sexuality, Jill Dolan

The History of Sexuality pt. I, Michel Foucault

Undoing Gender, Judith Butler

Sexing the Body, Anne Fausto-Sterling

 

Works referenced:

Burke, K. (1945). A Grammar of Motives. London, University of California Press.

Cima, G. G. (1993). Strategies for Subverting the Canon. Upstaging Big Daddy: directing theater as if gender and race matter. E. Donkin and S. Clement. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press: 91-105.

Conquergood, D. (1985). “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.” Literature in Performance 5: 1-13.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the Body. New York, NY, Basic Books.

Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. PLEASURE and DANGER: exploring female sexuality. C. S. Vance. London, Pandora.