If the Steiny Road Poet were a child living in Brooklyn, she would throw a tantrum until her parents signed her up for Let Us Play A Play. This theater workshop—presented by Jessica Brater, the artistic director of Polybe + Seats; Katya Schapiro, Polybe company member; and Molly Parker-Myers, a Polybe + Seats featured actor—offers six afternoons in July with a public performance on July 20.
PLAYING WITH GERTRUDE STEIN
In an interview June 15, 2007, Brater told the Poet that ideally 10 children will come together at the Greenpoint Reformed Church to work on making puppets, masks, and murals as they work with movement, improvisational techniques, scenic design, and three whimsical plays by Gertrude Stein. The plays are Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters, Look and Long, and In a Garden. Furthermore, the well-known Stein expert Ulla Dydo told Brater that Stein wrote these plays for the children she knew who lived near her country home in southern France.
Brater, who grew up with her theater professor father reciting lines from the experimental playwright Samuel Beckett, says she wants the children who come to her workshop to feel comfortable and excited about theater. She also wants to expand the idea of what a play is. Although this is the first time Polybe + Seats is offering a workshop for children, she feels certain that children respond well to Stein. She bases this belief on reactions she heard from children she baby-sat for after they attended her college thesis production of Stein's Turkey and Bones and Eating and We Liked It. In fact, these children immediately began reciting whole passages from this play and seemed to intuitively understand Turkey and Bones better than the adults who saw her production. Probably it helps that Stein talks about her dog Polybe in this play, but as composer Ned Rorem who set Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters said to the Steiny Road Poet in an interview she conducted for Scene4 Magazine in May 2005, children just understand Stein's texts.
THE HOUND WHO SMELLED THE ROSES
Curious, the Steiny Road Poet took a peek at Turkey and Bones and immediately saw that the first words of Scene I are "Polybe and seats," the inspiration for the name of Brater's theater company. When Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were sitting out World War I on the isle of Majorca, they acquired a Mallorcan hound that they named Polybe [pronounced po-leeb] and Polybe was always in trouble chasing the neighbor's sheep and eating things he shouldn't be eating. However Polybe had one endearing behavior—he liked to sit and smell the flowers Alice brought home from the market. Although Diana Souhami in her book Gertrude and Alice says Polybe was the nom de plume of Salomon Reinach, a writer for Le Figaro, Polybe was also the name of the man who adopted Oedipus.
When asked about the significance of dogs in Stein's work, laughing, Brater said she did not want to bring Freud [and his male-oriented theories] into the conversation about Stein, but dogs seem to suggest something about sexuality and gender. And then there is the "cliché about dogs being man's [not woman's] best friend. Dogs are approval seekers and Stein had her struggle with public recognition," Brater added.
HOW THE LIGHTS WERE LIT
Brater said her first contact with Stein's work came in a college lighting design class and the assignment was Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. What drew Brater to Stein was that Brater enjoys doing directorial detective work and "trolling for clues." She also says she is hooked on detective stories, a predilection she shares with Stein.
Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters is a murder mystery that the Poet knows well having sat in on the developmental rehearsal of Sisters when it was produced by Encompass New Opera Theatre with the premiere of Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, the Poet's opera with Bill Banfield. The Encompass production made this short opera a game children were playing and what the singers did in the initial rehearsal was so comic, the Poet nearly fell out of her chair laughing. Best of all, Ned Rorem, who was present for the public presentation and very nervous about how this new interpretation, would come across was so pleased, he came buoyantly out of hiding in the back row of the theater to take a bow.
NO CINDERELLA SOLUTIONS
Brater loves theatrical challenge. The longer the rope she is given, the better. She said she doesn't like realistic theater but did not know why until she encountered Stein. What she realized was that realistic theater champions paternal roles and misogyny. Brater said, "Stein turns societal structures on its head." This Brater said is "empowering." In Look and Long, there is an apparition that turns into a witch and then the witch turns into a dog and saves everyone. What Stein does, according to Brater, is lend power to the imagination. "You are not handed solutions as in Cinderella." What the Poet understands is that Brater perceives imagination and intuition to be feminine attributes that are not assigned to the male world of facts and logic.
Another aspect of Stein that Brater loves is that everyone—audience and the theatrical team—has to do some work to satisfactorily experience Stein. Because Stein is hard, Brater said audience attention makes a difference. There is no sitting back when a Stein play is on stage. "Everyone is held accountable" in this kind of theater. Although Brater says there are no tenets in the poetics of her approach to theater, she is always pushing for as many ways as possible to connect emotionally with what is happening on stage. For the kids who come to Let Us Play A Play, Brater plans to offer them some structure, but she feels confident that these children will find their own answers for how to make theater happen.