Interview by Randy Gener
In his plays, as in his life and in the classroom, the American playwright Erik Ehn walks the talk of an ecstatic. He is interested in mystical moments, which he says happens to us everyday. His conception of drama, which is not to everyone’s taste, owes more to Gertrude Stein, Mac Wellman, the Abstract Expressionists and the tradition of Catholic mysticism (as practiced by Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila) than it does to Broadway’s boulevard entertainment.
His theater is a world of collapsing burst language, a collage of overlapping connections, pithy fragments and contrasting ideas that deliberately leaves gaps of understanding even as they spiral and expand into disjointed coherence. You might say that Ehn is a postmodernist par excellence. You might accuse him of being an obfuscating experimentalist. Both of which Ehn will probably embrace without flinching or becoming defensive. You might picture his theater as a kind of broken pottery in which any attempt to mend the smashed pieces can seem elusive, even impossible.
More important: Because Ehn thinks and writes in eruptions of jagged abstraction, his plays demand the magical space of theater. Only in the theater’s expansive embrace can all of the stray parts and ruined bits come together, even if all the disparate elements never completely fuse into a narrative that goes down smoothly.
“As an artist, you want to make way for the world as the world is expressing itself,” he once said in an interview. “You’re not trying to make room in the world for your personal expression.”
Ehn’s vision of the playwright is akin to being a conduit and a messenger. If the pictures and stories he ultimately presents us with onstage do not achieve perfect meaningfulness, that’s because none of us can tuck reality into neat little meaning-making cubbyholes. It all comes down to the raw courage of the actor to perform literal actions acutely. It all comes down to the writer’s fearless belief that all the world’s an anarchic mess. In Ehn’s prolific body of work, drama occurs when the stage connects with the chaos of consciousness in such a way that we are acutely aware of both of them and neither of them. The two fuse imperceptibly together.
What rescues Ehn’s woolly imagination from being merely experiment for experiment’s sake is its sociopolitical purpose. Ehn, who became head of Brown University’s prestigious playwriting program in 2009, believes that theatre has a tremendous potential to create community and address trauma and conflict. Ehn found his authentic voice when he turned his attention to social concerns. In particular, he traveled to Rwanda and Uganda, where he examined how art was used by locals to heal from genocide and war. In an effort to bring these artists together, Ehn organized a performance festival in Kigali, Rwanda, a collaborative festival that continued for three years, and was extended to Kampala, Uganda. He also founded an annual conference called “Arts in the One World,” which brings together performing artists, scholars, and human rights activists to investigate theater on the subject of genocide and reconciliation.
Receiving his BA and MFA degrees in playwriting from Yale University, Ehn has written more than 60 plays including Wolf at the Door, The Saint Plays, 13 Christs and Gravity’s Drain. He was also the former dean of theater at CalArts, the California Institute of Arts. Ehn became widely known in the early 1990s for proposing the Regional Alternative Theatre (RAT) movement, a now-defunct collection of small theatres devoted to producing bold work on the cheap.
“The intention,” wrote Ehn in Yale’s Theater magazine after the first RAT conference in eastern Iowa, is “to assemble like-minded theatre workers who labor outside or at odds with the mainstream in order to create mechanisms for communication, establish a collective identity, and exchange work and ways of working.” Collaboration was the first rule of RAT; “big cheap theatre” was the second. RAT was a loose association, because there was no real membership.
Ehn’s play Maria Kizito, which opened at 7 Stages in Atlanta in 2004, was the result of his research in Central Africa. An experiment in form, the play tells the story of a nun who aided Hutu militants in killing ethnic Tutsis who had sought sanctuary at her convent during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Ehn’s The Saint Plays explores the lives of Catholic saints in an ongoing cycle of short productions. Other Ehn plays include Book of Tink, Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling, No Time Like the Present, Ideas of Good and Evil, and an adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. His dramas have been produced in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin, Dallas, New York City, San Diego, Baltimore, and Chicago.
The occasion for the following interview was an artist talkback at Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C. this past September. Ehn and I shared the stage immediately after the opening night performance of his play Shape, staged to brilliant effect by force/collision’s ensemble under the auspieces of artistic director John Moletress. Based loosely on the biographies of African-American vaudevillians Billy and Cordelia McClain, Shape can be seen as an independent work. But it is also one of part of a 17-play performance cycle, entitled Soulographie: Our Genocides, Ehn’s richly imagistic meditation on different aspects of 20th century genocide.
Performed as a marathon, Soulographie debuted La Mama E.T.C. at the Ellen Stewart Theater in November 2012. More than 80 theater artists from across the globe have participated in Soulographie. The plays, which originated at theatres across the United States, Poland and Uganda, range in forms from Bunraku to Noh to docudrama to dreamscapes. For Ehn, this cycle is a culmination of more 20 years traveling the world to explore the subject and the varied ways genocide is enacted: from the wholesale killings in Rwanda to Hitler’s extermination of the Jews to parental cruelty of children to the impact of the traumatized imagination to the race riots in Tulsa. Inspired by the works of Goya and Picasso’s Guernica, Ehn conflates historical events and puts forward real and invented characters to reveal the effects of genocide through the perspectives of survivors, perpetrators and other witnesses to the horror.
“My interest is in populations at risk, or responding to violence or to kinds of brokenness: people farming the extreme edges of spirituality,” Ehn said in a recent interview. “Those are the kind of situations that demand a play.” Although the subject matter is difficult, Ehn’s writing is nevertheless infused with faith and hope and joy and social idealism, as he reveals in the following conversation.
RANDY GENER: In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community’s shared perception of the world?—or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?
ERIK EHN: There’s a fear of the local, namely the strange or tricky. Thinking wants to detect problems outside (and less than) thinking—meaning in the irrational, or in that which can be defeated by reason (problems that can be understood or judged). Texts will sometimes complicate ills… still diminishing them as “ills,” with the day going to the writer/writing that diagnoses them. Problems are seen as far, or “universal,” and somewhat animal—to be tamed on the one hand, and engaged with on an intuitive level on the other. This has strong value—when accurate. Some problems are this way, and invite this kind of witness. But the near at hand, which is not below but in excess of reason—amplifying and bursting thinking—which invites empathy and action (the problem is not a pet, it is a mentor—a goad to community organizing), also invites consideration.
I’m as guilty of this as anybody; also of the converse—of too-rapid identification with the local, without paying in the kind of time necessary to sink through the complex layers of nuance in the immediate.
To redress this—I try to work over time, changing my life to be with particular people and places, listening in honest ignorance, and attempting to speak only from what I can say I know (refraining from conjectural emotional scaffolding). I’m working on projects now that draw me deeper into Providence, that will take a long time to start, that make room for voices not my own, that lead with my naked ignorance.
What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers/directors/actors/playwrights? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you designed shows yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?
It’s not unusual to go through a learning curve as we climb (over) Ownership. Who owns the image? Is the text a prompt or a destination? There are a million ways to go on this—text can be decorative to design and productive—a kind of wallpaper. Text can be the structure of the experience—all other elements receding to background. There’s the middle way, where the writer is in the room editing, revising, advocating at the same rhythm as the other members of the team. I’ve been happy in every relationship where the premises of ownership were held in common—where the writer wasn’t living as a frustrated director/designer and vice-versa. When there are flashes of an inner voice going, “How dare you.”—you are in the wrong place. Because as Sappho says—all must be dared (pan tolmaton—I have this via Anne Carson).
I’ve designed my own stuff; it’s fun, but—I miss the surprise, the torque—the pitch-yaw-and-roll of collaboration. I’ve had better luck directing my own plays; this seems to enhance rather than shut down the argument with myself.
In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
I’m not lying when I say I love it all. I love, love, love to write. I love even the problems with theater; it’s theological—rehearsal models the interrogation, the daily versions of the real. It’s a way of living life fully. Permission to love writing comes from John Guare, my first real writing mentor. Permission to know gnostically, with abandon and indifference to pain (my bridge to Jesuit meditation and the Catholic Worker) come from Mac Wellman, who (switching gears) is maybe the L. Ron Hubbard of contemporary writing. I’m hypnotized (I mean—clarified?).
During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?
Maria Irene Fornes, in a workshop, said I didn’t sound like myself when I read my own work. She meant that literally—I put on a slightly “special” voice when I read out loud. I’ve tried to cheat by changing the way I read; when I’m serious, I try to tell the truth in my writing with more rigor. Try it—it’s an amazing litmus.
As we witnessed at the panel, people always comment about your richly poetic style. Could you please repeat for me how or why you came to write in this way? How has this style changed or transformed itself over the years?
Through the Soulographie process, I’ve been blessed to see a bunch of my writing from various periods over the past 20 years; I’m less able to escape myself than I am in writing the next draft of anything—I have to see what I’ve actually written—who I am and how I am as a writer over time. I’m with the audience on this one, a lot of it is really strange and I don’t know what’s going on. When the scripts are working, not-knowing-whats-going-on is what it is all about. It occurred to me recently (actually walking in DC, right before the panel) that, growing up, my essential school of rhetoric was the dinner table. I adored my genius older brother Jack (still do); he used to argue like mad with my mother (dad there rarely—dad’s also named Jack, and that’s in the plays)—using language way beyond me. I couldn’t follow the vocabulary, much less the patterns. I came to understand the heat of meaning as abiding on a level just out of reach. To this day, reaching for meaning, I am impelled to break my language open like a bad amoeba. I work to get to something I can’t really get to. Parable and paradox are strong forms of inquiry; when I’m simple (most myself) my writing has this strength. When I lose focus, or am not precise with my ruptures, my writing’s just crazy-talk, or stoopid in un-delightful ways. If I finishing up with a career average of 275 and a couple of long balls, I’ll feel like I’ve played about, like I was born to play. I can’t control excellence; I can control accuracy.
I write a lot about trauma, particularly about poverty, and about genocide. These are subjects that seem fitted for a burst language. That which lives in its gaps (brokenness) can enter into the field of brokenness more deeply? Trauma does need security, and sanity; to know it, to witness to it, and to stay with it, trauma also needs the companionship of its own trauma-language. Only when its working, my cracked language flows into cracks and stands it.
What do you know now as a playwright that you wish you knew when you were younger or were just starting out?
That it’s ok to write. That writing doesn’t need to be anything but truthful to be of use—it can be torn up, strange, misfit… but the truth will always be instrumental to one crisis or another. Even if the truths are radically personal. Everybody is the key to the Big Door.
What inspired you to write the Soulographie project? What are the advantages of writing about genocide? What are the obstacles?
Genocide as a subject came to me while writing about Latin America after a visit to El Salvador in the 1990’s. I found my voice in this writing. Soulographie as an obsessive project came up soon after, when I learned abut the Tulsa Race Riot (War of Blacks) from my mother, in Tulsa—the urgent proximity and dreadful ubiquity of genocide hit home, so to speak. I collaborated with Daniel Alexander Jones, Laurie Carlos, Megan Monaghan and Vicki Boone at Frontera in Austin on Heavenly Shades. Laurie in particular got into my head; it’s like she gave me my first saxophone—not only did I know what I wanted to sound like; through her I began how to understand ways to structure and extend my sounds in ways I could bear.
Can you please share the themes or plots of the major pieces that make up Soulographie for the benefit of international readers who may not see this play at LaMaMa?
Everybody should see the plays at La MaMa. But… The plays are several (17), because genocide isn’t describable in a single, or paired, or tripled terms. The Disaster (Blanchot) is infinite—Nothing is as infinite as Everything; the extent of Soulographie is meant to point to the artistic team’s inability to go far enough. It also advertises the need to go as far as we can; genocide is enabled by a turning away (“this is too awful, too complex…”)—we have to not-understand and still struggle (infinitely) to address, to work through, to exercise perfect compassion (with-ness).
Which of the plays you’ve written do you think international producers should be interested in? Which plays do you want to be seen more abroad? Why?
Well, always the next one. But of the Soulogaphie plays, for example—gee, all of them. I’ve done a wee bit of work in Norway, Serbia and Rwanda. It’s always such a revelation to know what survives translation and what doesn’t. If my method and interest is brokenness—the effort of translation is a great way to creatively break a script.
OK if I don’t give you one title? Soulographie is a nice, thick book. Cozy up to the fireplace…
Which of your plays do you consider some of your signature work?
Alright, alright. Outside of Soulograpie (they are all, all plays I’m helpless with; I don’t know what else to do with them but let them/help them be)—11670 took me to a new place (new liberty of fracture). I’m really interested to see what some of the plays I wrote this last summer on the ‘pataphysics retreats turn into. No Time Like the Present and Tailings pair pretty well. Moira McOc—I don’t know if it holds up, but that’s the first play I wrote for BACA, and Greta Gundersen, Jeff Jones, Suzan-Lori Parks and Mac Wellman were in my head and in the room for that. The collaborations with Randy Parry at Undermain on Beginner and Shiner (co-writtten with Octavio Solis) gave me a new family and set a standard for dramaturgical commitment (the lengths we went to find each other…)
Why are you a playwright (as opposed to being a poet or a novelist)?
Plays are more mortal. I am extremely dying—I am acutely aware of my life-as-punctuation—as a way of/gap of breath. Let’s go mortality!
 Randy Gener is the Nathan Award-winning editor, writer and artist in New York City. A contributor to National Public Radio and TDF Stages Online, he is a curator and co-producer of “From the Edge: Performance Design in the Divided States of America,” a theatrical installation of 37 politically committed works by U.S. performance makers and young ensemble theaters which emerged during the dramatic transition in the White House from 2007 to 2011. This exhibition, which originated as the USA National Exposition at the 2011 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space in the Czech Republic, debuts at LaMaMa La Galleria December 5 to 16, 2012. For his editorial work and critical essays in American Theatre magazine, Gener won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, NLGJA Journalist of the Year Award, the Rube Award for Best Arts Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, among numerous other awards. Gener was most recently honored at Los Angeles City Hall with a 2012 Filipino-American Heritage Achievement Award and a Medal for Arts/Literature and Media from Los Angeles Filipino Association of City Employees. He also received Certificates of Recognition from the City of Los Angeles and the California State Senate, as well as a Commendation from County of Los Angeles. His media project, theaterofOneWorld.org, pursues cultural diplomacy and international arts journalism in the public interest.