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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Q&A with Director Roger Betchel

<ong>What is your general impression of Attempts and why you chose to put it on?

It’s an impossible play. There’s no plot, there’re no characters. None of what you see on stage is given in the stage directions. It demands a tremendous amount of creativity and that you have an ensemble that’s willing to commit to it. I thought it was a good piece for Carleton. This is a really thoughtful, smart community and I wanted to challenge them. I also thought it was a good piece to do in the Weitz, since it incorporates a lot of multimedia and crosses boundaries; it’s more than just a theater piece. Also, I just find a great deal of truth in it.

Since the text comes with no characters, how did you work out who says what?

We spent the first 16 hours of rehearsal doing what’s called table work — going through the play line-by-line. I got to know the actors much better than I knew them from just the audition. Reading it scene-by-scene, we had to see what rose to the surface in the text, answering questions like who seems to be speaking, how many voices seem to be speaking… A lot of that became clear, even though it isn’t explicit in the text (especially the voices of the media producers). Once we had a dug in I assigned actors based on who I thought could bring out certain qualities in the text. Some of it changed in the next couple of weeks, but it stayed remarkably in tact.

What do you think the piece is trying to get at?

One of the many things that impresses me about this play is that it tries to represent something that’s nearly unrepresentable: the state of the Western world in the early 21st century. Media is certainly a big part of this constellation. Our lives are saturated with it; everything is mediated now. Another element is global capitalism. The media is driven by something, and that something is commerce.

Would you say the play is Marxist?

You know, Marx kept coming up when we did our table work, usually brought up by me. I had to keep saying, “look, I’m not saying this is a throwback, lefty-red piece, but it takes ideas that Marx was one of the first to propound and extends them into the 21st century. Like the idea of alienation, though it’s a different level of alienation than in original Marx. I think it is at the core of [this play]. Martin Crimp is really concerned we’re becoming less and less human, more and more alienated by all sorts of factors.

We don’t want to be alienated, but on the other hand the play seems to stand against attempts to turn a self into a definition or an essence?

I think we learned a lot from the post-modern, post-structuralist philosophers. I certainly don’t believe in essences or universality, and I don’t think Martin Crimp does either. At the same time, historically we’re at the point where – with a lot of theorists writing about the liberatory potential of the decentered subject – the theoretical pendulum has swung all the way to one side. I think they’re dangers of embracing that way of thinking too fully though, and I don’t think Crimp does either. For me, personally, it is liberating that there’s not an essence, that you are the author of your own identity. It’s not only freeing but demands a certain sort of ethical responsibility. But I think it’s still a fact that we have to, by default, form identities, and a danger is being unable to form one. I think Crimp’s critique is that culture makes it more and more difficult to form a meaningful identity.

The ambiguity in the title suggests a connection between attempts to form an identity and attempted murder; can you talk a little about violence in the play?

One of the things that I think Crimp is trying to get at — and this is a critique of the media — is that there is real violence but we are no longer perceiving the reality of the violence because it’s being mediated. This gets to the Baudrillard quote in the program that Crimp set as the epigram for the play: “No one will have directly experience the actual course of such happenings, but everyone will have received an image of them.” Crimp embodies some pretty realistic notions of violence while at the same point ironizing them by pointing out the story the media would tell. Something like this occurs in the scene “Strangely!” for example. This is Crimp’s way of injecting a bit more of material reality in the way we see the world.

Another quotation in the program is “Art is art and everything else is everything else.” Where is the line between life and art in Attempts?

I like to fill up a program with quotes instead of director’s notes, because I don’t want to tell audiences what to think. The quotes are sort of posts on a map. Sometimes I’ll even include a quote I don’t even agree with, or put in two that contradict each other. This quote I put in as a sort of provocation, because I think a good case can be made on either side.

When we did our table work, the scene “untitled (100 words)” with the two art critics was the source of our richest discussion, I think. We ended up thinking of this question as sort of a Mobius strip. If you extend the logic of either one of the critics, you ultimately disagree with them. You disagree with the conservative critique because you feel art is more than just technique, but with the liberal critique, at some point we’re offended by the notion that art can be pure self-indulgence or that there can be an absolute lack of technique. It keeps turning back on itself.

What other scenes did you guys grapple with a lot in the planning?

One other really interesting conversation we had was about the porno scene. I thought the play is pretty clear in its condemnation of what the industry does to women, and there were a lot of voices in the room that took an opposite view. There have been arguments that have been made that pornography can be liberating. I suppose it goes back to Foucault and his arguments against sexual normativity. We had a really interesting conversation about that. I wouldn’t say it polarized us, but a lot of views were brought to bear.

Another quotation in the program is the suggestion by Nina in Chekhov’s Seagull that a play ought to have love in it. Where is there hope, love, or a way out of the capitalist system in Attempts?

It’s a pretty grim play as a whole, and there aren’t a lot of utopian moments. I think Crimp is smart enough to know though that there’s no usefulness in art that’s absolutely apocalyptic, and I think he’s a master of creating structure even in a completely fragmented piece like Attempts. And so for me, that last scene – “Previously Frozen” – I think is harsh, shocking in its own right, but I sense underneath that scene there is the residue of a desire to really connect with one another, which may be a sign of a little anodyne.

What do you think the average liberal Carl, who already finds distasteful things like consumerism, mass media, patriarchy, etc.., will find the most challenging or shocking in this play?

One thing I’ve tried to do, and I think it’s essential to this piece, is move beyond mere representation, because that’s what I think the piece is critiquing. Whether it’s in mass media, it’s the idea that the real is somehow obscure. And so I don’t think that Carleton students will necessarily be shocked by or struggle with the ideas, I think they’ll struggle with the presentation of the ideas that might defy what they think of as a theatrical production. There was a German playwright named Heiner Muller who I like very much. He was really sort of the first postmodern playwright. He once wrote “literature must offer resistance to the theater.” I think what he was getting at was that what a writer should do is write a text that theater doesn’t know how to produce, so that it forces the theater to reinvent it.

Is this sort of theater, in which there are no characters or plot, sustainable?

I think, honestly, in the past few years we’re seen a return to narrative in theater, even in the most avant-garde works. I think pieces like Attempts really serve a function, but only because they’re in the minority.

Reviewers who dislike Crimp usually censure his plays for emotional detatchmen. Do you think this is valid?

I don’t think so at all. You could level that at most of Crimp’s work, but he follows a pretty long tradition of British playwriting that really comes out of Bertolt Brecht of Germany. Brecht’s idea was that we need to drive a wedge between providing the audience with an empathetic situation and a critical situation. Brecht tried to divorce those things — not let the emotion go so far as to overwhelm the audience. He didn’t want an Aristotelian catharsis goes on. I think Crimp is doing that too. It’s not narcissism; it’s an aesthetic position that he’s adopted.

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