At the beginning of the year, Theatre Y had big plans to celebrate its upcoming 15-year anniversary. But once the realities of the pandemic set in and shows, tours, and theater festivals were canceled, the company had a clean slate of time and still wanted to celebrate its birthday.
With that time, a new video project was unveiled on April 17 called My Body’s Image, Delayed, responding to the isolation of the current time through experimental movement, poetry, and bathroom mirrors. A new episode by each member will be released every Friday night for the next 15 weeks, directed and produced at a distance by cofounder and artistic director Melissa Lorraine. “We’ve been asked to enter a new kind of silence with ourselves, a kind of cloister,” Lorraine says. “So each episode is going to be a meditation on identity, on mortality, on solitude, on loss, on nonsense.”
The series is the preface to the company’s anniversary celebrations in the fall, which might be virtual but will honor award-winning Hungarian-Romanian playwright and poet András Visky and the release of his directorial film debut, Performing Juliet. Visky’s play Juliet, based on the story of his mother raising him and his siblings in a prison camp, was the first produced by Theatre Y, which formed specifically to stage his work; they revived it in fall of 2019. With the help of Lorraine and Visky himself, each episode in the series will feature translated poems by the playwright that fit into the themes of introspection, self-interrogation, freedom, and what success means.
Visky is known as a longtime dramaturg, lecturer, playwright, and artistic director, and his plays have been produced in Europe and the U.S. His upbringing also felt timely to highlight: his childhood in a prison camp, his ongoing persecution under the communist dictatorships of Romania and his “Barrack dramaturgy” make him strangely qualified to orient us through the present moment of profound grief and loss of control, Lorraine says. Barrack dramaturgy “was born out of the need to make imprisonment a common experience” and captivate the audience through modern theater that includes sociopolitical global perspectives, as described in the 2014 book The Routledge Companion to Dramaturgy by theater professor Magda Romanska.
“Now that we are in this period of isolation, choosing from his body of work and sending something out weekly felt even more appropriate because András has a great deal of experience with a crisis of this scale, which most Americans are not professionals at,” Lorraine says.
Visky’s nearly four and a half years in a prison camp from 1960 to 1964 largely shaped his theater work and perception of life. Growing up in eastern Europe in a system of labor camps, his plays center around what it means to be a prisoner and the problem of being set free. He views the current pandemic as a time to reflect on the concept of freedom and how art and culture can help. “This is a very special type of solitary confinement. For me, it’s not that traumatic because I know that all of us will build value and we’ll reconsider the idea of freedom,” Visky says.
As art around the world looks to virtual connections to reinvent itself and stay prominent, he says these challenges present an even greater need to create and find new answers to the new reality we live in. That’s why he was honored to help bring Theatre Y’s new video series to life. While Lorraine is very clear that the series is not theater, Visky looks to it as an experimental minimalist type of theater, an attempt to connect with its community in the best of circumstances.
The retrospective project also came out of an innate need to give purpose to the ensemble members and task them with creativity in a time when many lost their jobs and are just sitting at home. “I did feel a tremendous amount of pressure in this moment to give something to every ensemble member to work on because most of them are in the hospitality industry,” Lorraine says. “And so they are neither doing theater nor bartending or waiting tables, so they’re starving [to create].”
Howard Raik, an ensemble member of almost a year, was the subject of the prologue episode called A Piece for Four Hands with Samuel Beckett by Visky that features quotes from the renowned Irish writer’s plays. It was released April 13, intentionally coinciding with Visky and Beckett’s birthday. Chosen by Lorraine, Raik says the poem was a welcomed project that let him exercise his performance chops.
Raik, who enjoys reading poetry out loud, says he wrote his own version of the text so he could better resonate with it. He says that the poem speaks to aging, getting older, and wanting to leave a mark on society, which he interprets to mean that Visky wants to be remembered for his work, similar to Beckett. “I, in the poem, felt that I want to leave something behind like those words on the page,” Raik says.
The video purposely creates dissonance between the visual and auditory, which Raik and Lorraine arranged so the audience can think about the work and its multiple interpretations. Lorraine says working with Visky’s words is freeing because of the permission he gives to manipulate this work, which is why Theatre Y keeps circling back to his pieces. She calls his writing naked and vulnerable, while at the same time setting the bar high to produce meaningful work from it.
“There is so much space between his lines, space for you to insert yourself between his words, and that’s why it’s possible to take them out of context and reconfigure meanings inside of little excerpts that maybe are miles away from where they originated, which is fine,” she says.
For Visky, theater is not about the playwright; it is about the actors who reconstruct the unknown from a text, he says. And seeing an anthology of his work produced is a fascinating experiment that makes him forget about the original words he wrote. “I am thrilled to be part of this, watch the videos, and realize that I am getting back a different type of text,” he says.
True to Theatre Y’s mission to build community, the company will hold monthly virtual talkbacks as each video is released for the audience to engage with Visky and the ensemble, ask questions, and continue the birthday celebration.
Visky credits Theatre Y for exposing his work to American audiences and theaters. Now he doesn’t feel like an orphaned playwright, he says. In turn, Lorraine feels it is a gift to be working with a living playwright and is confident in her company’s 15-year work. “The task for the company now is to find the Viskys of the rest of the world,” she says. “I am sure they are abundant and grossly underknown.” v