When I was in college in the mid-80s, I helped out with touring companies that came to the campus performing arts center. One day The Acting Company arrived with ORCHARDS: a bunch of adaptations of short stories by Chekhov commissioned from contemporary playwrights. The first, Wendy Wasserstein’s, was pretty straightforward – naturalistic set, period costumes, jokes. As the show progressed, from Mamet through Fornes, the plays got weirder, finally landing on Spalding Gray. A monologue, of course. A bed in which a woman slept wheeled out stage left (she never woke or moved much), and a guy walked onto the otherwise bare stage, started off “The day I got the Chekhov story in the mail,” and then kept talking for 20 minutes about going to the Sizzler and the sleeping woman and lots of other stuff I don’t remember but which seemed both random and profound.
I was just… stunned. I ran back to my dorm and acted it out for everyone I could find: “The day I got the Chekhov story in the mail. The day I got the Chekhov story in the mail. HE WENT ON FOR 20 MINUTES!!!” I mean, I was a good girl, I did what I was told, mine woulda been like Wendy’s, well-adapted, sweet and straightforward, this guy just totally messed with that, damn, how could he do that and why was it so interesting?? Looking back, I’m sure the piece bore thematic resemblance to the story, and the writers were picked, duh, cause they wrote like themselves. But I didn’t know that then. My theatrical education or experience so far hadn’t let me in on that.
And I didn’t know that someday what I’d care about most, theater-wise, would be these things: idiosyncrasy and assertiveness of artistic vision; finding your voice, sticking to it, aspiring to absolute confidence in it; breaking rules, especially. It seems silly now, and obvious, but I really didn’t know.
I’m fond of many cocktails but I WISH I liked martinis. It just looks so good to sit behind one.
Susan Bernfield is the founder and producing artistic director of New Georges, where she’s generated weird-ish new plays by cool artists (who are women) for 20 years. She’s also a playwright and solo performer whose work has been produced and developed at theaters around the country.