I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The first thing that struck me when I first saw a piece of Jay Scheib’s was the audio level. The actors’ voices seemed unusually low and yet each word was perfectly audible, the tone conversational. I was interested in the content of the dialogue because it wasn’t being projected at me, but rather was simply happening over there as conversations do, the ones that you want to listen to and participate in. It seemed like the auditory equivalent of a close-up. The distance between my seat and the stage collapsed.
When I’m sitting in the audience at live theater, I can’t help but find myself locked into an assessment of the constraints of the setup: the physical boundaries, the fixed POV from my particular seat, and the distance to the stage. These conditions of the static seem to most often undercut the mythology of live theater’s potential for connection, for intimacy.
Scheib’s work has struck me as a full, frontal attack on this set of conditions, from sound to image and everything in between. As you toggle between the wide shot of the stage and the extreme close-ups of continuous live-feed video, there is a lot to look at and to engage with, to feel and to reflect on—from a critical distance and very, very closely.
A table by the on-demand fireplace at Moran’s, down the block from The Kitchen—where his latest production, Platonov, or The Disinherited , was playing—seemed the natural place to meet. I was not surprised to find Jay soft-spoken.
— Alix Pearlstein
Alix Pearlstein We were just mentioning that you were not able to attend the screenings of Platonov, or The Disinherited because you were filming it at the same time.
Jay Scheib I am performing now, which means I am filming. So yeah, I have not seen it, which is a really schizophrenic feeling. The simulcast is playing at different movie theaters in New York City. So while performing I’m also aware that the work exists in another place in a different context where I have actually no control over its presence at all.
AP I didn’t get to see it screened independently, although I got the feeling of what it would be like, almost, from being in the theater. I’ve also seen World of Wires and Bellona.
JS Bellona, Destroyer of Cities?
AP Yes. That may have been the first play of yours I saw. You’ve used the term “live cinema,” which I think is very apt. I found the staging and the film quite co-dependent. Although I probably spent more time with my eyes on the screen—that would be my inclination—it was satisfying to be able to check-in with how the staging was working physically in real space.
JS This one is really special, in a sense, because I know that it’s being screened elsewhere. In the past, I’ve built these pieces so that there’s more interplay between the live theater and the film—they’re very connected. Or sometimes what I call “analog action,” what’s onstage, would be more important than what is onscreen. There’d be these visual cues to the public: things would slow down on camera and there’d be a big gesture on stage, so their eyes would jump back to what’s live. For Platonov, I decided to make the screen actually larger than the performance space itself.
AP That was a clear choice.
JS You go, “Oh, I’m at a drive-in.” It’s the live performance that supports the screen, as opposed to the screen amplifying the live performance.
AP I was thinking about the amount of agitation that goes on, more so than in the other plays of yours I’ve seen. There is this sense of structured mayhem, of frenzy, an excess of actions, some of which seem tied to plot and character, and some of which seem almost ad hoc: there’s extra making out, extra stripping, extra throwing of things, there’s falling and things being knocked over. Out of that comes a kind of malaise, and a poignancy, that allows me to get into the characters and the story all the more. That distribution of energy between what seems structured and what seems out of control—is that something you think about?
JS It is. It is a specific narrative device that we’ve kind of invented as an ensemble. In Platonov, I have this character come in. Somebody kisses her and says, “Oh, it is so great to see you!” It’s her husband; they’re newlyweds. Then the next person kisses her the same way and says, “Hey, it’s so great to see you!” Then another person, and another person, and it builds almost as a kind of dance number, faster and faster and more hectic. The music gets really loud and all of a sudden we see that she is coughing blood. I’m filming it, but on the sly I am also handing her the cup of fake blood that she takes a drink from. She continues coughing. We understand that she has tuberculosis. And now everyone else does too. We’re building up a big chaotic but narrative mess, if you will, and setting up a cacophony that will have a very poetic quality to it. The silence that follows this gesture refocuses our attention. I had started doing this in Bellona, but I am more accurate with it now.
AP So the repetition of that action is pulled out of the narrative as an abstraction, in a way.
JS Yeah, I take that little gesture and, through repetition, I smear it into the story line. It’s a gesture that maybe makes more sense in a painting than it does in a play.
AP It makes sense there too. That makes me think about the way you rework a text. I have not read Chekhov’s original, and from the reviews I read, not many people have lately.
JS Yeah, it is 350 pages plus. Our script is right around seventy. I collapsed characters into each other, especially the role of the maid. I ended up telling the story through her experience. In Chekhov’s plays these are characters that usually have one or two sentences, but here I pulled that character out. Of course she buys the estate in the end.
AP That was a nice turn of events. Chekhov seems very contemporary. There are so many words and turns of phrase that were clearly changed. I felt more drawn to the writing than in other plays of yours. How much did you rework the language?
JS Platonov allows a more poetic language, whereas World of Wires (2012), for instance, lived in a pop-culture, new media vocabulary that aimed to move too fast—and anyway the text was adapted from a text by Fassbinder, so it took on a more brutal anti-poetry poetics comprised of short, like three-word, sentences. In Chekhov the sentences are more complex and carry more subtext, so even grammar plays a role. It’s complicated enough that we even included subtitles, which some people dislike and some people really love. I love them. They draw attention to the fact that while the play feels a bit like a wrestling match, it also has a very literary presence.
AP I am prone to not pay much attention to the narrative, so I was trying to figure out what drew me to the language. A big part of it was that I was forced to read. I could not not read the subtitles.
JS I came to this through making a couple of operas in recent years. At first, in Germany, I did Fidelio. They sing in German and I was like, German subtitles for a German opera for a German-speaking audience? Why? What they are singing is so clear. Even I understood the German quite well. Then I did this opera at BAM last year in English, with English subtitles: Powder Her Face. I especially love it when there are mistakes and the characters start to drift outside of the text. You grow very fond of the discrepancies
AP Yes, I noticed those as well in Platonov. It’s always interesting to see to what degree actors change material that they have rehearsed and know very well. With each piece there is a new development toward filming. As before, with Platonov, or The Disinherited you’re filming on stage throughout the whole piece, but now you’re throwing the film out there into the world as a separate entity to see if it sticks. It’s easy to think that you might be positing a potential competition or battle between the film and the stage. But I don’t think that’s what’s really happening; they feed off each other in a way that allows you more flexibility as a viewer in the very confined situation of being in a theater.
JS They have two different titles. The play itself is called Platonov, or The Disinherited and the film is just called The Disinherited. Disinheriting the theater from the cinema, or vice versa, seemed somehow appropriate.
AP I am thinking now of World of Wires, an adaptation of Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (1973). Fassbinder started in theater and worked with an ensemble. There’s tremendous pleasure in seeing those same actors over and over again in all those different roles. The golden period, to me, was when Fassbinder worked with the cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Many of those films I have watched far too many times to admit. (laughter)
JS Like which ones?
AP Oh, like Chinese Roulette (1976). I can’t get enough of that one and Beware of a Holy Whore (1971). And Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975).
JS Yeah, that is good!
AP Sometimes just for the cinematography, you know? There are a few shots that are mind-blowing. There is that great scene in Beware of the Holy Whore: the character playing Fassbinder has a conversation with a character playing Michael Ballhaus. He’s describing the shot that he wants and says, “It’s going to be very difficult but very beautiful.” And then they show it. I’m wondering about your approach to filming and development of a cinematic language. How much of the camera work is predetermined and rehearsed, and how much is a subjective response?
JS It is all painstakingly rehearsed, and the choreography becomes extremely precise. We came up with choreographic gestures that would mimic—or take the place of—filmic edits. A character turns in a particular direction, or falls onto the floor, exiting the frame at the bottom and revealing another scene, for example. The most complex choreography is in the second half of the play, when it’s just duets in this little room and we add a second camera.
AP One of the actors becomes the second camera.
JS Yeah, Laine Rettmer operates the second camera. This we also rehearsed in a very particular way, so that these two live feeds could be mixed by Joshua Higgason before it gets broadcast.
AP Is that the only part that is mixed live?
JS Yeah. There are other instances where we cut to a second camera to introduce this vocabulary but, by and large, it’s a one-camera-one-take film. I wanted to enter the landscape more completely as a performer, to continue to experiment with my own presence in the work.
JS I don’t totally know why yet. I can’t elegantly describe it. I wanted to disappear into the landscape somehow, but I consider myself a performer in the work, as opposed to just being involved in the production process. It’s like, Here I am making a television show, and by being inside of it, we’re all playing very different roles.
AP Makes total sense to me.
JS It makes sense to folks in the performance or visual-art world as opposed to those in the theater world. For them it’s potentially this oppressive thing; like, “Oh there is this director breathing down the necks of the actors.”
AP Theatrical conventions are more fixed.
JS People are like, “Hmm, why don’t you use a crane or a dolly or whatever?” I’m like, “Yeah. You really want to know why?” (laughter)
AP Sometimes I feel jealous of the actors. I want to do what they are doing, but I can’t, so I’ve invented other ways to participate.
JS Are you in your work?
AP I was early on. Then I stopped and turned the camera around. Since then I’ve found ways to include myself. For instance, one piece was filmed in front of a mirrored wall. I was visible directing, and you could also see the camera and the crew reflected in the mirror. I do make a distinction between acting and performance. I am not an actor but I can perform.
JS Yeah, me too. I’m more of a performer among a group of actors.
AP I just have to give a shout out to your actors. They are all so great. I’d be interested to know more about your directing process.
JS Well, I think about them as an ensemble, and everybody helps everybody. This is particularly evident in the bigger scenes where the timing is so precise and the gestures are so dependent on the integrity of every other set of gestures. In this piece Mikéah Ernest Jennings is playing Platonov and it’s this massively difficult role, sort of a Hamlet for the modern theater. He is beautiful in it, unexpected and super powerful—he kind of sneaks up on it—and at the same time it’s the ensemble that makes him so great. Part of the trick is that we train pretty much every day. I’m thinking also of that opening monologue from Laine Rettmer in Platonov, it’s basically a 15-minute monodrama at the beginning—and yet its success comes out of the depth of the ensemble performance.
AP That’s clearly not Chekhov’s writing.
JS It’s a rewrite of a program note from a Christoph Schlingensief production that was either a real Alcoholic’s Anonymous speech or a fake one. There are hundreds of these speeches online and I find them very moving. This particular one that I took, I rewrote very heavily; it became the DNA stamp of the whole production. Like in a Greek tragedy, pretty much everything that is spoken about in that opening speech will happen over the course of the next ninety minutes.
AP I thoroughly enjoyed it while it was happening, but I kept wondering what the hell it had to do with Chekhov. It made sense by the end.
JS Yeah, exactly. It takes an amazing ensemble to hold up a monologue like that. The way in which everyone listens, and supports the work and lives inside of it even though they are not speaking, is seriously laudable.
AP I read something where you spoke about directing without desire. I was curious to know more about that.
JS Anne Bogart said that to me; I don’t remember how it came up. To “see without desire” is one of the really important things to understand about directing. You try to develop this vision and you can spend a lot of time pounding away at it, trying to realize it. But sometimes a person brings something different into the room, something that actually doesn’t fit. You could try to force that person into that square hole you’ve imagined, but it is better to look without desire: to look at what’s there and not at what you wish was there, or what you originally thought should be there.
AP This brings up the question of improvisation—such a tricky, often misunderstood word. I wonder how it plays into the way you work?
JS In some productions, we’d spend weeks improvising. By this I mean that we’d do compositional studies. We’d do this sketch, so I’d say, “For these six lines of text, let’s have one failed kiss, one top-speed embrace, and four surprise entrances.” It would take about fifteen minutes and I’d pair people up. We’d perform these explosive pieces for each other. Then we’d talk about what we loved and what we didn’t like. We’d do this for weeks, until we’d assembled a crazy collection of favorite gestures to last us many productions. Those things find their way into the work.
AP So it’s part of the development.
JS It is a way of generating material. We are not really improvising language so much as physical gestures.
AP Have you ever made a piece that did not start with a text?
JS I’ve done a couple of dance pieces and a couple of operas. And I have made workshops and productions where there was no text to begin with at all.
AP I am asking because your work strays so far from convention.
JS Well, I am always on stage as a director. I’ve tried to find a way to never stop rehearsing, so the work continues becoming. I’m extending the process of rehearsal in a way and continually evolving the piece. Staying inside of it, as a performer, guarantees that it continues becoming. It never becomes a set thing. I never have to declare it finished because it’s actually always continuing to happen around me. And of course me with it; I change too. I keep learning from it and often change scenes on the fly.
AP How do you actually do that?
JS I talk constantly, through the whole piece, to the actors. I’ll realize that a scene should actually be about something in particular—or something else altogether—and I’ll grab an actor and tell him or her to start the next scene by screaming at another actor or, you know, if someone screams I’ll say “Again!” Things like that.
AP How can you be attentive to directing and shooting at the same time without getting bad shots?
JS I get bad shots occasionally.
AP It’s just mechanics.
JS I have pretty much by now gotten that in hand, like, I am going to make this change and it is going to do this in the live theater and that in cinema. For example, when I handed Virginia Newcomb, who plays Sonya, the blood and she did an extra cough, a little drop of water hit the camera lens. I was like, Wow I have a drop of water on my lens and everyone can see it. So I asked her to start coughing again and to come to the sink. I reached my hand into the frame and picked up a wet napkin next to the sink and polished the lens. That’s common stuff in the theater—you fix it on the fly—but it is a lot more public in the cinema. I guess that problem-solving and reacting is half of what I do.
AP The aesthetics of the pieces allow for messy things to happen too.
JS Guaranteed. They can’t be perfect—there are too many marks to hit per second, per inch. And somebody regaining their balance after something goes wrong is a beautiful, vulnerable thing to watch.
AP With all that’s going on to disrupt the play itself—your presence shooting and directing, the scale of the film relative to the stage, subtitles and the compartmentalization of the set—to what extent are you still questioning the usual inherent expectations of a theatrical experience? Is the audience connecting with the characters, or is it more about the distance between them?
JS I guess it is a matter of storytelling.
AP Platonov has a political dimension, but you need to understand the characters in relation to each other and what the social structure is to get that. How invested are you in the story and what it means?
JS I’m actually really sensitive to the political and the social aspect of the play. For example, the way the servant is treated. When she buys the estate from under the family, she’s a little smug. “You can stay here until Christmas,” she says, “if you want or until Easter.” (laughter) It’s the stuff of daily life. It’s interesting to watch people take advantage of each other—they love each other and can be selfish and generous and giving and guarded, all in one breath. Storytelling is a reflection on that.
AP You also referred to Platonov as a breakup piece.
JS Platonov and Sasha are bored and done with each other. Then Sonya, his old college girlfriend, shows up; she’s married to one of his friends. Two marriages get wrecked in one night and a third heart is broken.
AP So having an emotional response or connection to that is important.
JS To me it is. I try to set it up so it will be important—that’s part of storytelling. Certain things might come across as ironic or cynical, but I am not ironic or cynical.
AP I don’t think they do. You create a lot of opportunities for spectators to position themselves in relation to the story. The breakup part did not quite register for me, but things leading up to that did. Particularly the scene where Sasha is telling Planotov what a loser he is. She still wants him, though, so for me the complexities of his character emerge from that.
JS Sasha has a huge conflict on her hands because she finds out she is pregnant. We set up this bathroom scene of her doing a pregnancy test to make her sympathetic. She ends up with a dead husband, which is why we put in that Lord of the Rings speech at the end. I don’t know if you knew that. (laughter)
AP I have never seen it, I have to admit.
JS I quoted it verbatim, word for word. An actor in Norway wanted me to put it at the end of a Fassbinder play, Garbage, The City and Death, which I directed in Oslo, so I did. I repeat that gesture here because I needed a really optimistic Hollywood moment after all that nastiness, and I thought it’d be interesting. Laine is holding a lamp and says, “You know it’s like in the great stories—the ones that really mattered—full of darkness and danger… .”
AP Chekhov is rolling over.
JS John Guare came and was like, “Chekhov would love this.” I was so scared about what he was going to say.
AP That’s nice. Do you have any influences, theater or film directors who you think about?
JS I declared last year to be the year of Fassbinder. We shot a film that we haven’t edited yet and we made World of Wires. The plan was to make four or five features in a year, which is kind of like the schedule he was on.
AP Do you have mountains of cocaine for that?
JS The cocaine budget was a problem. (laughter) So it’s a bit ongoing. We managed to do a Fassbinder trick by having a play and a feature film open at the same time with two different titles. That’s very much in the spirit of his work. Tadeusz Kantor has been an influence for me. He was also a visual artist and sculptor, and he was onstage during all of his performances. There are a bunch of theater directors who I really admire: Dimiter Gotscheff, who just passed away, and Schlingensief, who we lost a few years ago as well.
AP One of the best instances I’ve seen of incorporating live filming into theater was a William Forsythe piece, Kammer/Kammer, in 2006 at BAM.
JS I have never seen it but I know the designer. We’ve talked about working together.
AP It has become ubiquitous or required to incorporate pre-recorded film elements as another piece of stage décor, another prop. What draws me to your work is that film is actually doing something—it seems necessary, it’s amplifying what is there.
JS There is a school of thought that thinks video should take the place of scenic painting.
AP Most often it’s used as a backdrop. I’m thinking back to choreographers like Alwin Nikolais who used psychedelic films that way. And rock concerts.
JS I feel more in touch with sports, you know, the way they film basketball games. I’m somewhere between Bresson, Godard, and the NBA.
AP So you are coming to the end of this run at The Kitchen and then Platonov is traveling somewhere. Is there something you are working on next?
JS Everything is a bit up in the air. I am going to adapt Frank Wedekind’s monster tragedy, Lulu, in Florence. Then I am doing another adaptation, Farewell My Concubine. For that I am working from the second-century Chinese opera with a choreographer named Yin Mei for the Ningbo National Ballet and Opera. That’s also expected to be a live-cinema work.
AP Will you still be onstage filming or will you farm that out?
JS I don’t know yet. I may or may not be onstage for Lulu.
AP I find myself a bit focused on these questions because they come up so much in an art context in relation to video and film work: How participatory is the artist in the various aspects of the piece?
JS I guess I tend to think about directing, designing, performing, and playwriting as being not necessarily so distinct. They are very different skill sets but I have a big interest in all of them—I believe somehow that the most singular works tend to be made by individuals who manage to not be bound within a compartmentalized set of discipline-specific roles. I believe in scenography, maybe I am actually a scenographer? When I am directing I believe in essentially writing a performance in three dimensions directly on the stage. And, of course, it is a collaboration.
AP Also, there is the sheer physicality of it. God, it must be exhausting! My back hurts just thinking about it.
JS It’s intense. I don’t use the world’s largest camera. It’s not the smallest either. Since I’m broadcasting live, I have an SDI transmitter mounted on the camera, which is another pound and a half, plus microphones, the microphone transmitter, and extra batteries.
AP Is there something that to you seems latent or important in your work that you feel people don’t register? As artists we wrestle with that; I always wonder what that is.
JS I guess the degree to which everything I make is super personal—not to say that it is autobiographical. I am very present in the work from beginning to end.
AP I am thinking again about the idea of directing without desire.
JS Bogart always said, “seeing without desire,” which is quite odd since seeing is desire.
AP In a really broad sense there is so much desire in Platonov. Seduction is very upfront; it’s one of the tools you are working with. Everything is sexualized, or so it seems. What role does it play?
JS Oh gosh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just got desire on the brain, or I’ve become such a fan of Radley Metzger’s work. He has made these beautiful erotic films that are definitely worth checking out. He’s another great influence. It must have been that I grew up reading authors like Bataille or Samuel Delany, who maintains that there is very little sex in Dhalgren… I am tempted to say the same thing about my work. Intimacy is very important to me, so it finds its way into these works. Boy, is that ever a non-answer. (laughter)
AP It wasn’t a question so much as an observation. There is a lot flesh, a lot of visceral and physical stuff. People spit, throw up, and throw things. There is a lot of violence and aggression too.
JS Yeah. I like the naturalistic movement in theater. The idea that you could peel back one wall of a room and get to watch, with scientific aloofness, people under extreme circumstances in their native environment. Like watching—
AP Reality TV.
JS Yeah, and it always gets out of control. That is the thing. Tarkovsky said something like, “If you’re going to make art about people, people themselves will be the medium with which you will work; the only thing that is not allowed is exaggeration.” It’s a really beautiful thing to say, but very difficult to adhere to.
AP You are not adhering to it.
JS I try really hard to, actually. I mean, you know, organizing fifteen helicopters from the Russian army to create wind isn’t exactly adhering to his own principle either. But for me it is an important thing to hold on to—
AP As a barometer.
JS I always want to believe and understand what someone is saying, so if words are colored in a particular way, I know they are performing and not speaking.
AP The way your actors deliver dialogue can seem at odds with the action—it feels really conversational. Then some actions are bigger than life. Perhaps that is where the tension is generated.
JS I do the exaggeration purposely; I am hoping to have enough relief so it’s not like white on white or black on black. So there is something to stand on. Even the sex.
AP What are you going to do with all of the ninety-minute films of this piece? Will one of them become the final film?
JS We have a couple of takes that stand on their own. I sent some dramaturges and film types to the cinema to see The Disinherited. Everybody seems to have bought it. They’re okay with it. I would be really baffled if I walked into a movie theater and saw this. I need distance to understand what we made; I can’t say that I know yet.
AP Is there anything in particular that you dislike about conventional narrative theater that has led you to work the way you do? Are you working from that critique, from negative motivation or problem solving?
JS I hate being in a room with a bunch of directors complaining about how they don’t get to make the works they want. For the miniscule amount of money that you get paid, you’re doing things that you don’t want to do? I get into arguments on panels when I say that I don’t actually think about the audience. I am thinking about me. I am making something that I would be into watching multiple times, because I am going to watch it multiple times. I assume that since I am just a regular human, there must be a bunch of other people who also find what I make interesting.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee