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Surrealism By Accident With Max
(written in 2015, when a new play 'found' me.)
Sometimes a play finds the writer and it can be a bit surreal. As a playwright to whom that has most recently happened, I can attest to that. In my role of Producing Artistic Director of Red Earth Theatre based here in Sedona, I was asked if we would ‘do a play’ for the Sedona Art Museum’s week of events to celebrate Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. ‘Sure’, I said, ‘Who are they?’ ‘Surrealist artists.’ I immediately thought of Dali - about the extent of my knowledge then. I liked his stuff. ‘When?’ ‘March’.
This was in November and I had a play to open (The Wild Party) and so put the Surrealists on the back burner until after that, thinking I’d find one. I didn’t. So on December 25, my car laden with camping gear and a stack of books about Max, Dorothea and Surrealism (Thank you Mark) I set off to a favorite hot spring in the desert for five days. Stopping only to pick up a small dog from a Phoenix shelter, I sped off to the always surreal Slab City where I read all day in the winter sun and hot water, and bonded with a new dog in a mercifully warm sleeping bag in the extremely cold nights.
2 weeks later I had banged out something. The first version, a fact-filled treatise quoting them madly in an effort to be truthful and factual and not disappointing to all the experts and lovers of these two truly remarkable people. I had fallen in awe with them.
Read in my living room by kindly actors who said nice things and then told me it needed work (they were right) I was deflated. Time was tight – we had to cast it and start rehearsal and a new play always needs work in that rehearsal process, increasing the time it all requires before the public should be allowed in the doors.
But how to start again? It was clearly needed and anyway, I didn’t have permission to pretty much quote Dorothea for 40 pages. How to let go of all that work, the hours of reading and notes and Dorothea’s beautiful words which had entirely seduced me? I went into funk and didn't read about them or try to write anything. Just checked off the days on the calendar, taught my new little city dog to run on trails and quietly panicked.
Then someone gave me some very good advice. ‘You have done all the research. You’re a playwright - up for a Viola Award for your last play. Don’t read anything else, forget everything and for heaven’s sake just go and write a play.’
Although my knowledge of surrealism was still pretty sketchy I had picked up that if we can just get the artist/author out of the way, if we can stop thinking and let the image/story emerge on its own, then we have created a deeper truth. I seized that as my back-alley away from the facts.
I remembered how meditation works for me - drop down out of the mind, if thoughts arise telling me what I should be seeing, feeling, learning stop them and go back to the stillness. I applied those two principals to the writing for 3 nights.
I sent it to an actor who had been less than not interested last time and who now said ‘I’m in!’ We all read it again. The dog lay on his cushion. I listened to it. At the end we all looked at one another and said, ‘We have a play.’ Any NASA crew responsible for a successful rocket lift off could not have been happier than we were.
There is nothing more exhilarating than the collaborative endeavor of bringing words to life. Add, that we all know that we are doing it for the very first time, the playwright can trust the people who are taking this on to speak their hearts and know their stuff, and they know they can say what they think and this playwright won’t burst into tears or storm out in a rage, then we experience what the creative process can be at it’s best.
Over the last few weeks Loplop and The Queen has evolved - actors have been cast, words have been removed, moved, added; real characters have emerged, music and images have been layered in, the little dog has slept patiently (mostly) through rehearsals.
Loplop and The Queen is the truth – the kind of deep, unconscious truth that we find when we are brave enough to strip away the facts, stop worshipping the myth, and embrace the human beings whose story we have taken on. They are, after all, like us - the writers, actors, audience. And one day we will all share the magical space of theatre.
In the story of Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, I found a love story. Within the juxtaposition of their ages, histories and genders I also found something about the struggle to be artist and an individual while defined by those juxtapositions and the passage of history.
I am very grateful for Surrealism. What was going to be a mostly sensible play about surrealists became a play with surrealist tendencies about two people living in surreal circumstances. Free-ingly, facts and times and indeed playwrights don't count for much in that context so I could just let it unfold, stop fretting about the facts and finally let go of being the author and turn it over to my co-creators with delight and wonder.
My little dog must feel he is in a surreal world. Plucked from the strict routine world of the shelter where he knew when he was eating and walking, where he was going and who he was seeing, he now eats at odd times, sometimes goes to the horses (and has even sat on one), sometimes runs the trails, sometimes goes to rehearsal or it comes to his house, and sometimes he hangs about on his own at home - reorganizing the contents of the recycling boxes in surreal patterns all over the living room.
What the public will think of this play I have no idea, or the artists who revere these two artists who are indeed remarkable and worthy of reverence. Oddly, I almost don't care. I have been given a visceral lived experience of a creative process unlike any other in my life, and yet - yet, deeply familiar. The rest of my life has continued to hurtle along presenting me with all sorts of both brand new and horribly familiar scenarios. They seem to bear no resemblance to each other - but - but, somehow they all fit in together.
I think deep down we are all surrealists at heart. It is the world in which we live that tells us ‘No, get organized, have a plan, find the answers’. But like small dogs released from the shelter out into the incredible world we can only embrace it all. Not knowing what the next minute will bring, we do find, even in the chaos, patterns that get us through the next hour.
Like Max, that small dog I first met when I was beginning the journey with Max and Dorothea, I am in the present, grateful for the surreal world of my life. And at least if it happens there is a dull day, there is always the recycling box to re-organize.
a surreal experience for Max at the Salton Sea
a surreal play about surrealists Max and Dorothea on stage (2015)
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