Log shards under
(I feel the edge
split my skull,)
until rhythm and steel and
sharp tang of riven oak
(gnaw occiput, cleave atlas,
banish pelvis until)
conspire to breathe a man
out against dumb matter
(I fly symmetric, one half
landing in the fire,)
and set him hacking self
from what will warm, will name
(the other seasoned to
word, line, breath, poem.)
I used to work for the Salvadori Center, an educational not-for-profit that uses the design of the built environment for an interdisciplinary project-based study of math, science, social studies, language, art, and technology. "Built environment" means not only tunnels, bridges, and skyscrapers but also the systems -- cultural, political, economic -- that build the built environment. The Center does this K through 12 in the New York City public schools.
I'm not a "design professional" by trade or training, but one couldn't hang around the Salvadori staff for long -- trained as they are as architects, engineers, mathematicians, and artists — without acquiring a "design point of view" about the world. In fact, I've come to the conclusion that the best way for me to make sense of the fractalcality of human life -- its fractal, loose-bordered nature — is to see it as a built environment designed by deliberated choices to make things one way rather than another. "Deliberated" does not always mean rational, orderly, just, or sensical — it only means that some humans somewhere at some time set in motion processes based on whatever they thought made sense at the time. It also means that that "sense" does not have an intrinsic moral character to it — "sense" can mean fair-minded or foul, equitable or exploitative, intelligent or stupid. The "sense" only needs to be coherent, as in "cohere," to stick together.
What does this have to do with theatre -- the making of theatre, the understanding created by the making of theatre? Perhaps of all the disciplines labeled "art," theatre has the largest "built environment" component to it. Not only do we build spaces in which we present theatre, but the stage itself, the literal and the symbolic stage, is an environment designed to produce something in the people invited to populate the space during a time called "performance."
To go even further, each play performed in the designed space re-designs this space -- in other words, each play creates a new built environment (usually called "the world" of the play) that, in its presentation, determines to bring the audience to someplace other than the world that careens just outside the exits.
As I pointed out in my last essay, "What Is/What If," most theatre-making has a bias towards the production of accessible "sense," usually governed by a story-telling mechanism that aims to produce light and, if possible, something like redemption, and it makes conservative use of the built environment to do this, mostly by giving a priority to "reality" through stage setting and lighting.
But the wonderful thing about the built environment of the theatre, as opposed to the built environment of the "real world," is that it need not be constrained by the needs of that real world -- any world can be built on the stage, even worlds that try to dissolve any concept of world itself, of coherence itself. Anything placed on the stage immediately acquires the power of metaphor. And furthermore, that theatre world can dispense with the constrictions of morality and politics -- it need not achieve light or order or redemption or anything "feel good."
In short, used well, the designed world of the theatre can help us penetrate and navigate the built environment we call a "self." Because each human being is a designed creature, designed from the outside and the inside, and what we might call "organic" or "whole" is simply a design that meshes our inside and outside in a workable synchronicity. What better way to investigate our devised selves than through an art like theatre that thrives on "devision"?
Many other elements about this notion of the designed self please me. First, I think it's immensely liberating. I am completely responsible for who I am because, whether I've done it badly or well, I have made every decision that has fed my design. I am also freed from ghosts, that is, from beliefs that my self-roots are anchored in extra-material origins, such as the supernatural or the divine, or in past trauma or in solipsistic regrets — only I have made me who I am, not gods or spirits or past monsters.
Second, being thus liberated, nothing human alienates me, which leads to a much diminished need to judge the rightness or wrongness of anything, which in turn frees me from smugness and sanctimony. There is no eternal right and wrong, only contingency and interpretation, and while such existential looseness may terrify people and convince them to take up ideologies and principles as blockades and stop-gaps, it is also the source of the freedom to re-conceive the self as the time-driven re-design of the self requires (otherwise known as "life").
For me, then, my career as a playwright (and I mean "career" as a mash-up of both its meanings: a "course of continued progress" in "a headlong manner") is to design a theatre to be performed in the built environment of a theatre that, at one and the same time, mimics and dissolves and repatriates the designed theatre of a human's being. I am not interested in the tedious business pantomiming or repackaging the real world onstage — I can't do it that well, anyway, and many others can do it far better than I can. I'm more interested in this exploration of other worlds, other designs, other possibilities, that leave the self open and do not design it into a "too too solid flesh" too soon. If art has any claim to intrude on our "ground time" here on earth (to use a phrase by poet Maxine Kumin), it has to be its ability to keep us open without convincing us that any one design is the ultimate, final design, to remind us (and remind us again and again) that "designing" is what "being" is about.