Katherine Cooper speaks to playwright Adriano Shaplin about baffled audiences, favoring amateurism over professionalism, and what The Crucible got wrong.
While I was living in Philadelphia, I encountered Adriano Shaplin’s piece “Freedom Club” as part of the Fringe. His theatrical work disturbed and perplexed me. Not in a bad way—it was uncomfortable and I liked it. I was nervous to speak with Adriano. He is famously candid in interviews. I had heard he was “out there,” "political," "kooky.” The frontality and alienation of his work reflects an incisive point of view on theatrical convention—one that I wasn’t sure I shared but that I was extremely curious about. I’m drawn to art and artists that are defiant and sensitive and I sensed that in Adriano and his work.
Adriano's young, but maturing career has already taken many twists and turns which he commented on very honestly as we spoke. He has found a home of sorts at the Flea Theater in SoHo and recently premiered his latest show Sarah Flood in Salem Mass there. The play muses on topics near and dear to my heart—witches, morals, and New England. I had seen it the night before—a cacophony of movement, razor sharp language and moments of beautiful sensuality. Who was the guy who conceived of this world? Where did he live?
When I arrived at the apartment in Jersey City at noon on Saturday I walked down a long dimly lit corridor with about five closed doors all along one side. The image that came to mind was of an underfunded mental institution or an abandoned beach hotel circa 1940. The floor creaked. It smelled like sleep.
I emerged into a sunlit living room with a wingback chair. I found myself falling into it with ease—the frayed arms, the brown stain where a thousand times a woman with an Aqua-netted bouffant must have rested her head. My apprehension dissipated. The place felt lived in—that wing back chair, a half drunk beer, a pair of antlers on the blood red walls entangled with green ribbon from a party that had ended days (weeks?) ago. Like Adriano himself, the apartment was not afraid of its own mess.
Katherine Cooper So we were talking a little bit earlier about teaching, and it’s something near and dear to my heart. What do you think a young artist or a young person who wants to be an artist, can get from an institution at this point in time, or what should they be getting outside of an institution for that matter?
Adriano Shaplin And by institution you mean—
KC A school.
AS School. Right. (sighs) I mean, I know what I get which is that schools give me the artistic freedom that I don’t have in the larger industry. In a university context, I can definitely make whatever I want without any restrictions. Since the first sort of “collapse” of my “career,” schools have been the safe haven for me.
KC What was the first collapse of your career?
AS This is the part I’m self-conscious talking about. But, I sort of had a play that took off and toured the world for a year, and that show led to commissions, agents, and ultimately being playwright-in-residence at the RSC. And the show that I made there was, in terms of my “career,” a complete disaster. The whole process of working there was flawed and difficult and not something I was prepared for, at all. I went from working only in my totally idiosyncratic context, to just straight up working for the biggest theatrical bureaucracy on earth.
AS And I was not prepared. But yeah, it’s been universities: Princeton putting us up for a semester to make a work, the theater magazine at Yale publishing one of the plays, working at Swarthmore, working at Drexel. Those four schools have been essentially undergirding what I’ve been doing in the five years I’ve been back. But god, institutions in general? When I was at Sarah Lawrence I did not dig the theater department. I was surprised that it was so geared towards pre-professionalism. It was bizarre. I was in the middle of getting switched on to Phillip Glass, John Cage, Meredith Monk, and the theater department was doing Grand Hotel. And they were 60s radicals but they had accepted this idea that, “We gotta get ‘em pre-professionalized and train them up to be ready to do all kinds of square work.” That wasn’t all of it, but at seventeen my reaction was like, “What the fuck is this? I’m so angry about this.” And so I left the theater department and started the Riot Group.
KC The Riot Group was formed from Sarah Lawrence?
AS Oh totally. The first show we made was during my freshman year when I was seventeen and Stephanie and Drew were eighteen and nineteen respectively. That was the first time we all worked together. We made five shows at Sarah Lawrence, three of which we took to Edinburgh on summer vacation. That’s how I got stuck over there in London. But so, what can students get from institutions? The Flea basically gives young actors free school, except they get to figure out their craft in front of an audience instead of in some rehearsal room. Becky [Wright] says, “You can’t teach directing!” Because you’re sitting in a room pretending to direct. You can learn all these kinds of abstract techniques but you don’t really know the battle you’re in for.
KC But you are a teacher right? And you do teach at Princeton and Swarthmore? Do you put up a show with these students or are you teaching a technique class? Is it both?
AS It’s been both.
KC What do you say on the first day of class?
AS I usually declare that I’m not a believer in such a thing as good and bad art. Sometimes I tell an anecdote about one of my first playwrighting teachers at Sarah Lawrence (and this is one of the reasons I dropped out of the department). I handed in my last play. He didn’t say anything. Finally in our last meeting I asked him what he thought and he just said, “It’s not really my thing. I’ve read stuff like it before and it’s not really my thing.” That’s not how I work. I don’t care whether or not your play is “my thing,” I care whether or not it’s your thing. I want to help you do your thing. This year I told them, “Write your play on Twitter. Write your play and have it not look like a play!” I send them out on the first day to record overheard dialogue and I’m like, “OK double the length of this but don’t let us know which part you recorded and which part you made up.” Since working at the Flea I've come to realize that my life is about working with young people. That’s who digs my work. Old people don’t really dig my work. Of course, there are many extremely hip and happening cats that are “old” and like my work but as a general rule of thumb, a traditional theater-going audience who is over sixty tends to be baffled by what I’m making a lot of the time.
KC Why do you think they’re baffled?
AS I believe it’s because I’m presenting a different moral landscape than what you see in other contemporary plays. I think the valuations of good and evil are kind of “off” for some people. They’re on for me, but for other people they’re off. Some people feel alienated by the presentational style, which is I guess part of the point, Brechtian Alienation. People will say “The actors never make eye contact,” but I’m always like, “Yeah, except with the audience the entire time.” To me, standing three quarters and pretending to see each other across the space in a naturalistic way—it doesn’t feel true to me. Facing the audience feels like a more truthful approach. For some people, it can come across as if someone is intentionally undermining naturalistic conventions in order to alienate them from the story and the action. I’m not experiencing it that way.
KC I’m very interested in this process where writers devise work with an ensemble. I’ve been a part of that kind of process and I think that there can be something really fruitful about it. I’m curious to hear about how that started for you. You describe yourself as this hybrid artist, and yet you are dealing in words. You’re not a director. First of all, when did you start this kind of process with your writing and also why is it still words that you come back to?
AS Early on, I did the more traditional thing of writing the play, finishing it, and handing it to my collaborators. Wreck the Airline Barrier was the first play, in junior year, where I was just writing it each day that we were rehearsing. So we would have these little fragments and then we would keep adding more bits and changing things around. All the plays since then have been made in that way, using a version of that process. But for instance, devising the thing is not like we’re all in there designing and sewing our own clothes. I’m the tailor. I’m bringing all the text to the table and shaping the roles for the actors. I bring the sound and the text to the room the way the actor brings their body, the way the set designer brings their knowledge of the plastic arts. But there are exceptions to every rule, like when I was banging my head against the wall trying to figure out the ending of Sarah Flood. I’d been working on it for two days. So I go to Matt who is playing the narrator and I’m like Matt, Matt, Matt—write a draft of the ending for me please. He writes it on a napkin on a corner of the piano in the lobby, brings it into me, and it’s fucking great. It’s a monologue of him saying everything that happened to the characters in the play. So I take the template of what he wrote and substitute his language with my own. I’m just sort of mad-libbing my own language in. And then I start dispersing it and interweaving it with the other scene we have.
And then I'm also working with movement—trying to mold characters to what I see as their clown, my exaggerated sense of who they are. Like if we were going to work together, I’m looking at you, I’m looking at your morphology. You inspire certain things in me. I’m looking at the details. I’m looking at how you move. I believe that I have an intuition for your lung capacity. I think I know how you breathe. But I also don’t really know you. I have just enough information to imagine what could pass through you to the audience. It’s based on you, on personal details, and impressions. You might make a joke and I’ll use that. I’m going to take a piece of who you are and I’m going to flip it up and put it back in your mouth. But all along, I want the text to be single-voiced on a certain level. That’s the really challenging balance. And part of that is developing my own personal slang and rules for how language will work in this world. Like in Sarah Flood, I banned the words God, Jesus, and bible from the play. I’m also going to Becky like 48 hours before the rehearsal and being like “Can you put these scenes in order?” That’s what’s happening. I have all the fragments, all the pieces. Hold on. I’ll show you. [Adriano went to get his handwritten draft for #serials at the Flea and we all looked at it together for couple minutes.]
AS You guys don’t smoke do you?
KC I don’t smoke no.
AS I agreed to write for Serials [a raucous late night play competition hosted by the Flea] last week. So this is how I’m working. These are the actors that I have. I don’t even know their names. I put the director and me on there to remember that we could be in it too. Then I start some writing, and try to follow it through. There are no characters yet. I keep the actors names in the script for a long time. My texts are very spare. There are no stage directions. Whatever stage directions end up in the script are added after we finish the production. I feel like a lot of contemporary playwriting puts the meaning of the play directly into the text. I’m always pursuing a perpendicularity to the direct meaning. It’s kind of like don’t say the word God. Don’t say what the play means. But a lot of contemporary plays do that. It’s like an essay: here’s my thesis. I hate that. [both laugh]
AS Is it gonna bother you if I smoke?
KC No. Of course.
AS So I’m feeling OK with pursuing my vice right in front of you.
KC No problem. It’s your home!
KC This is a bit of a meandering question so stick with me. You’ve said, “In my heart of hearts I’m an amateur”, it made me think about actors, and how sometimes the best actors who come into an audition are the ones who don’t give a shit on a certain level. They desire you, but they don’t need you. So in some ways there’s an erotics of amateurism, right?
AS Yeah. This is corny, but I really latched onto that phrase when I found out what it meant “to love.” I was like bong bong. I don’t believe in professionalism or careerism as something that should be a part of what I’m making. I also think that when you become a professional you sign your own death warrant, maybe. It can be a path toward artistic irrelevance. I’m choosing to gamble that having a body of work that I believe in and that is sustained is going to “pay off" more than a pursuit of someone else’s definition of what I should be pursuing. Amateur is your own thing. It’s a craft. You’re making it for yourself and for your loved ones. And that is basically what I’m doing, very much to my “professional” detriment. I’ve been encouraged and pressured to ditch the ensemble. I have been told not to act in my own shit. I've definitely been told not to direct, which was true. I shouldn’t have been directing. I did try. It’s not my thing.
KC So you work with a lot of young people. What advice would you give to your 22 year old self?
AS Oh my god. It would be things like try and remember that nobody cares as much about you as you do. Everybody cares about themselves as much as you care about yourself and think about that before you talk to people. In a way it would be, remember that you’re as unreal to other people as they are to you. You know what I mean? You would want to work a whole lifetime on letting other people be fully real. I think that’s the challenge of life: Let other people be real to you.
KC It’s hard.
AS It’s a lifelong project.
KC Yeah. Definitely. That’s good advice. So, moving more towards the content of Sarah Flood. I’m also from New England. I grew up in Massachusetts and spent a lot of time in Maine with super liberal parents who were awesome. But I still feel like there is a puritanism that’s hard to escape when you grow up there. Do you relate to that? What do you think about New England in relation to this project?
AS The puritan work ethic. I can be intellectually opposed to a 24-hour work culture or a culture that lionizes work all the time. But I definitely feel like it’s a virus that’s implanted in me, so that I perceive every moment as an opportunity to “work” and that not working is essentially a sin. I don’t know if it’s just a New England thing. I grew up in Burlington Vermont—the people’s republic of Burlington. I mean our mayor was the only socialist politician in the country—
KC Bernie Sanders.
AS Yeah! It was very liberal where I grew up but I had know idea it was beautiful. It was just the shitty town I was growing up in. When I came back in my 20s, I was like, “This is where I grew up? This is uncommonly beautiful!” Does that New England stuff, does that like—
KC I feel pretty haunted by it.
AS By which aspect of it?
KC Well, the work ethic you were talking about resonates. Every hour of the day is a potential work hour for me basically. I think that it breeds a messed up relationship to pleasure in a lot of ways. Pleasure becomes a distraction from work. It’s a waste of time. So then for me, in my lowest moments it’s like “Fuck you! It’s all about pleasure,” which is also not that productive because it’s wasteful. Work and pleasure in my mind (in a New Englandy sort of way) are split. But in my life I want them to be completely integrated. And so that’s a conversation that I have a lot with myself.
AS I also felt from my research and reading that the portrait we’ve gotten of Salem is exaggerated. A lot of the perceptions I learned about the sexual mores of Salem were wrong.
KC Say more about that.
AS They were actually very open about sex. Once you were married, you could have sex, and what was allowed was pretty wide. There was partying. They drank in celebrations. And also, the literacy rate for men and women was extremely high. More so than anywhere else in the world at the time. The idea of this being a superstitious or backward culture is wrong. I choose to see Salem not as something strictly of the past but rather from the perspective of, “They were the city of the future.” There's something really futuristic about the literacy. They’re reading this book and for them it contains every story in the world. Their whole life revolves around the stories in this book. To me, it was like, this is us now. The Bible was their internet. They all went there. They turned their lives over to the word and the book, and then the other half of their lives was hard physical labor. Seeing them as futuristic was part of what I wanted to do in the play. I didn't want to fall into the trap of representing “pastness” in a coherent way, as if it is something that can be fully recreated. It’s kind of flipping what Arthur Miller did, because he’s doing a sort of “Here’s how Salem relates to today!” thing with the trials. I try to show that there can’t be a one to one relationship between past and present. I’m trying disturb the idea that the past exists at all outside of the totally contemporary moment to moment perception. The past exists only as an unfolding right now in the present, so the idea that there’s any coherent thing to reach to—which is kind of what the future girl's journey is—they’re trying to reach to a coherent past and it slips through their fingers. The past does not behave for us. You can try and force it to do something but it’s more interesting to let it off the leash. To let it haunt you. Like the idea that a ghost is something that comes from the past. To let the past be this active thing. It’s not frozen in amber.
KC You have described this as “The Crucible but better and more feminist.”
AS The woman who plays Sarah Flood described it as that, on Facebook. And I posted her Facebook status. I liked that a lot. I was really resistant to mentioning The Crucible a lot of the time. But when Kate wrote that I just thought it was so ballsy.
KC So the question that I wanted to ask you and, now I know those weren’t your words so maybe this changes the question, but I think I agree with that statement—my question is, to you, what is feminism right now?
AS The best thing I heard about feminism recently was from the guy who wrote The Game of Thrones.
AS Someone had asked him, “How is it that you have these strong female characters?” and his answer was, “I have always labored under the controversial opinion that women are people.” [both laugh]
KC That’s amazing.
AS That really summed it up for me. There’s another way of putting it too. The yin to that yang is like, there’s no such thing as a woman. It’s not different from what I am. It’s not this other thing that I have to hunt like a rhino in the forest. What a woman is, is me too. I like to write about the specific conditions that men and women face in a cultural context. Certainly there’s a lot in the play that’s about gender and the very distinct choices and ways that the men and women are speaking and allowed to speak in that world. But the idea that they would have some sort of distinctive or special interiority that is separate from me because I’m born male is something I try and resist in the writing. And the dirtiest way of putting that is like, people ask you, "How do you write strong female characters?" And the answer is, I don’t. I just write the same way I’d write for myself, for any actor. And it’s more about them as an individual, what they’re putting across. What’s dirty about it is that one way of saying it is, “The way I write a good role for a woman is I write it for myself.” But also, I think one should know and be aware of the different conditions that men and women face. Certainly I don’t think it’s smart to be in denial of them.
AS I really feel like the Salem girls got a bad deal. There was no fucking faking going on. They were sick and no one knew what do to and they were forced to make those accusations by their parents. I’m afraid to say, The Crucible, in my opinion, gets it almost exactly wrong. I don’t deny that it’s a great play in many ways, but it’s not the story of what happened. From my reading of the history I just felt the story had not been told. My weird version is my truth. [bagpipes play outside] Or my best attempt to recover the truth. And there isn’t one answer as to why it happened. There’s this thing I’m trying to go against in contemporary dramaturgy, the idea that in the contemporary play there are two sides to every story, but only two sides. I’m always thinking, how are there always more than just two sides to any story? How is this story a cube, an octagon? How does the truth resist being schematized by drama?
Sarah Flood at Salem Mass was performed at The Flea Theater through Sunday October 27th.
Katherine Cooper is a Brooklyn-based performer, writer, and director with an MA in Performance Studies from NYU. Recent work includes Healthcare (Farm Theater Company), Love in the Seventh Kingdom of Wrath (FRANK Theater), and W.H. Salome (Dixon Place).