The first time I worked with Daniel Fish, I was an intern on his production at the now defunct Incubator Arts Space. The full title of the piece was: Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason Starring in a Movie by Nicholas Ray in Which a Man’s Illness Provides an Escape From the Pain, Pressure and Loneliness of Trying to Be the Ultimate American Father, Only to Drive Him Further Into the More Thrilling Though Possibly Lonelier Roles of Addict and Misunderstood Visionary. At one point in this production every evening, actor Christina Rouner would turn to actor Thomas Jay Ryan and dump several gallons of milk over his head. It was my job each night to mop up this milk, scrape away the calcified residue from between the floorboards and repaint the stained portion of the set. I was the milk girl. The play was powerful, the concept strong, the cast excellent, and the mop pungent.
Ryan Hatch, Culturebot writer, aptly described Daniel’s work as “something actually, categorically new taking place... some unfamiliar idea about the theater.” This was true of Daniel’s work then and it is true now.
Daniel Fish is a rigorously inventive American auteur director at BAM for the first time this week with The Source (Oct 22—25). This piece uses the content leaked by Private Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning to WikiLeaks. It is a convergence of Ted Hearne’s music, Mark Doten’s libretto, Daniel’s direction, and video made with Jim Findlay. I had the chance to talk to Daniel earlier this year about the piece.
|The Source. Photo: Ed Lefkowicz|
What is the video component like for The Source?
Daniel Fish: I worked with Jim Findlay on the video. We filmed many different people, maybe up to 100 people—not artists, not actors, just all different kinds of people, different races, class, and occupations, and we shot them watching a graphic video. That will be projected on four screens all around the space. And it’s about 12 minutes long, so you’re watching them watch the video… and if you think about it, it’s not often that you just sit and watch, staring at someone—unless you’re in a relationship with that person.
So, does the video focus more on public response to the Chelsea Manning story than the story itself?
DF: I’m interested in focusing on what he did—what he did, what she did—I say both because when it was released he considered himself male, now she considers herself female. I’m interested in focusing on what Manning did—making this huge amount of material public. (In addition to the videos there were 250,000 US diplomatic cables and 500,000 Army reports that came to be known as the Iraq War logs and Afghan War logs.) How do we look at that material? Have we looked at them? Do you look at them? Have you actually read any of them? I was interested in how we process this information, and the fact that we get all this information in front of a computer screen—where we get so much of our information now—how this is a relationship. In the show, no one is playing Manning.
|Mellissa Hughes in The Source. Photo: Ed Lefkowicz|
DF: Or, maybe they all are. That’s another way to look at it. It’s more about engaging with and giving musical voice to what happened—the content of the leaks is the text for the piece. In addition to the war logs and diplomatic cables, text is drawn from chats that Manning had with Adrian Lamo, who turned her in. There are some quotes from the press. Some of the war logs are banal, and some are graphic; some are both.
How did that selection process work?
DF: That was mostly Mark Doten. He would select things and then he and Ted [Hearne] would decide what they were going to set. There’s one song, and the only phrase is, “Smoke when bird nears.” And what it means is, there was smoke when a helicopter was approaching. Bird is a helicopter. Smoke when bird nears. And that was a fragment of one of these logs. And if you take that phrase, and you say it over and over and over again, it starts to have a kind of poetic logic to it, and it turns into something else.
It sounds like this project is in line with WikiLeaks’ mission: to disseminate the material. You are sharing the content of Manning’s leaks in a different way.
DF: Well, I think it’s complicated because one of the challenges of making this piece—we’re walking a really fine line—there’s the potential to get cringe-worthy, or icky, right? I mean we’re setting this material, much of it about this very serious, real, tragic stuff, to music, which is inherently abstract, heightened, and entertaining.
|Isaiah Robinson in The Source. Photo: Ed Lefkowicz|
That bad word, entertaining.
DF: No, I don’t think it’s a bad word at all, it’s how you define it. But there’s a real tension there, or a risk because I want people to be engaged and I want them to be challenged. In the end, I want the audience’s experience to be a good experience. I love what David Lynch said before a screening of one of his films—he didn’t say “I hope you like it,” or “I hope you enjoy yourselves,” he said, “I hope you have a good experience.” And that can mean many different things, but I think that’s my hope.
How do you feel about being at BAM? Working at the Fisher?
DF: I’m thrilled. I’ve always wanted to work at BAM. I’ve been coming to BAM since, I don’t know, I was in my 20s, and I’ve seen many truly great productions here. I’m honored to be in the Fisher. I knew Dick Fisher and whenever I’m in a building that’s got his name on it, I feel there’s a challenge to do the best work I can do. I felt that way about the Fisher Center at Bard.
DF: I do. He was incredibly supportive of me when I was younger and of a lot of other artists too. I didn’t know him all that well, but I think he pushed people, enabled people to do work they had never done before. That was my experience of Dick and [his wife] Jeanne. Chuck Mee’s True Love was the first thing I did with them—Jeanne Donovan Fisher produced and Dick was very supportive—I got to work in a way I had never worked before and on a very high level. That was a real gift. Every time I’m in a building with his name on it, I feel it’s an opportunity and a responsibility to really show up and challenge myself.
I’ve heard you speak about trends you notice in theater—often you are responding to them, pushing against them. Could you talk about any trends you see right now?
DF: One of the things I’m interested in right now is emotion. I’m less interested in banality. I was interested in banality for a long time, in things being real; I think a lot of people in the theater were. And upon reflection, I think banality can at times come at the expense of a kind of emotional reality or drama. I’m also interested in narrative. David Foster Wallace said this great thing, he said, being non-narrative doesn’t excuse you of needing to tell a story, doesn’t free you from the responsibility of needing to tell a story. And I sort of have always hung on to that.
Morgan Green is a Brooklyn based theater director and co-founder of New Saloon.