Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies presents:
Graphic Lesbians: Lisa Kron and Moe Angelos
Moderated by Sara Warner
Monday, October 29, 2013 at 7pm
Martin E. Segal Theater @ the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue
- “You have to write badly to write well. You just have to ready to humiliate yourself.” (Lisa Kron on evolutionary drafts)
- “We’re doing the work we were always making. The world sees it differently now.” (Moe Angelos on the growth in lesbian stories being told on stage and screen)
- “Audiences are better when audiences are diverse. Diverse audiences teach each other how to listen.” (Lisa Kron)
- “Collaboration is not compromise, it’s people in a room making each other smarter.” (Lisa Kron quoting George C. Wolfe)
Introduced by moderator academic and author Sara Warner as more than “sapphic satirists” (eliciting warm prolonged laughter from the enthusiastic crowd), theatre artists Lisa Kron and Moe Angelos read from discarded scenes developed for the Five Lesbian Brothers production Oedipus at Palm Springs, and discussed their collaborative beginnings at WOW Cafe and projects over the past two New York theatrical seasons and seasons further in the past. Our focus for much of the evening,with occasional wanderings into past and other recent artistic efforts, was Moe Angelos’ performance work in Sontag: Reborn (a one woman presentation with heavy use of projections and video inspired by the first volume of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks) and Lisa Kron’s book and lyric writing currently on stage in the rapturously received musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel‘s graphic memoir Fun Home.
Q: Talk about the transformation of the title for the Five Lesbian Brothers’ retelling of Oedipus Rex — from Oedipussy to Oedipus in Palm Springs
Lisa Kron (LK): It seemed to be a natural transition. ” A lot of our plays start with a hook of a joke we enjoy rewriting.” Her interest was primarily in “how to make a lesbian the central protagonist.”
Q: Is there a difference in staging lesbian desire at WOW, at New York Theatre Workshop, at the Public, on Broadway?
LK: “Audiences are better when audiences are diverse.” She went on to explore some concerns with how lesbian characters are sometimes used in contemporary storytelling. “There is a way lesbians get used as metaphors for something else,” she noted. And the reception to Fun Home continues to amaze her in the larger context happening around the show. She mused about whether the show could have hit quite so successfully with the wide audience it is reaching, even a few years ago. “People are still changing the context,” she reflected. And now there is a “critical mass of believable lesbian characters in the mainstream.”
Q: Talk about the process of developing Sontag: Reborn and Fun Home. Both are based on memoirs of real people.
Moe Angelos (MA): The task was to adapt Sontag’s journals. She is her own narrator in the journals, and in the stage play. Sontag had the habit of re-reading and commenting on her own journals long after the fact, Angelos noted. “This critical voice I took as the elder voice.” This frame was one Sontag created herself in her journals, Moe noted — elder self speaking and commenting on the young self’s ruminations. The effort on stage was to present both the critic and the creator.
Q: How did the process used in these two plays differ from the process you used in developing work in Five Lesbian Brothers?
MA: With Sontag it was an “issue of tone, the problem with all biography.” It was about choosing the stories to tell. “The stories that are really alive are the ones where things are happening to her.” Angelos continued, “I took what grabbed me” and received total support from Sontag’s executor and son David Rieff.
LK: Bechdel herself is of course alive and Kron’s task with Fun Home was to adapt a non linear memoir crafted graphically on the page to the musical stage. Kron “looked at it as a piece of fiction” and sought out “the emotional truth of the memories.” A huge challenge was that there was a narrator in the original, the adult Bechdel commenting on graphic storytelling panes, but no characters in a theatrical sense in the book that covered 80 years of family stories. From a theatrical point of view, Kron continued, there are two events in the book: Alison’s coming out and Alison’s dad’s death. Kron learned in the development process that musicals are much more structurally rigid than other forms of theatre on which she had worked before: a precipitating emotional event initiates and resolves the action of the piece. In the case of Fun Home, the book itself and the musical begin with a game of child airplane (child Alison suspended in air on the soles of her father’s feet). The emotional core of this game and the primal need of the musical’s story is the search for physical contact with the father. Bechdel provided to Kron work journals and was accessible via live streamed video. Kron chose, conflated, summarized and sometimes fictionalized, and knew that she’d managed to craft something true when Bechdel said of the finished musical: “Even the things you made up felt true.”
Q: What role or play or adaptation do you want to tackle next?
MA: The Five Lesbian Brothers should write another piece.
LK: (who is on stage currently in The Good Person of Szechuan at the Public while her work Fun Home is being presented on another Public stage) — “I’d like to play a person who is taking a nap.” Her serious response followed: “I’d like to write more musicals with Jeanine (Tesori).”
Q: Comment on the set turntable used so expertly to quietly and elegantly shift the spare scenery in Fun Home, and the story telling choices made in Fun Home and in Sontag: Reborn.
LK: “The set is dramaturgical. It works like memory.” Kron credited the ideas for and execution of the choreography of the set to Sam Gold (director) and David Zinn (set designer).
MA: The use of video of older Sontag talking to the live younger Sontag and other projections is “an attempt to stage consciousness.” Angelos thanked her videographer profusely and described acting in that particular piece as being “in a sort of media sandwich.”
LK: In both pieces there are characters looking backwards and looking forwards, “narrating their experiences.”
Q: Reflect on the idea of citation, so important to both Sontag and Bechtel — “the drama of our generation, clinging to a fact.”
MA: Sontag described her own sensibility as “my librarian’s mentality.”
Q: Talk about how the WOW Cafe and Split Britches affected your work.
LK: Kron recalled that she never thought that WOW Cafe was going to be more than a personal haven. “In no way did I think it had anything to do with a career.” And yet “Split Britches changed my life.” The work wasn’t intended to be revolutionary or was it very public at the time — academics noticed them more than wide audiences or the critics. “We were doing this for ourselves. We had community.” At WOW “we made culture every day out of everything that happened to us.” And because no one was paying attention, ” we were pleasing ourselves; we were doing whatever we wanted.”
In conclusion, Kron reflected on the fact that she has been asked to teach adaptation, and her desire to focus on the development of theatre more directly. “My aims are not political, they are theatrical.” Further, she shared with a smile and a clear certainty a particular story of recent vintage. Without naming names, she recalled a recent conversation with a person attached to a particular theatre who worried about the quantity of theatre-going public that theatre could reach and bring in as paying customers. Kron raised her voice, to my ear delightfully politically and clearly, when sharing her response: “There is infinite audience for theatre.”
The challenge, implicit and explicit, is for theatre makers to find their audiences and to make the quality theatre that will attract them.
© Martha Wade Steketee (October 30, 2013)