Baryshnikov Arts Center
Dec 9, 2016
There’s an exigency to Sibyl Kempson’s very weird, very wild work that makes me hesitant to describe her as an experimentalist (except maybe insofar as experimentation and trial are continuous conditions of life).
Like many powerful thinkers, Sibyl has no time for the existing valuations of what is high or low in our culture, and a real love of intelligent abundance wherever it occurs. My sense is that her interests are not formally experimental (in the sense of staking out a critical space external to the normative in order to speak to the normative) but rather tend toward the deep-time values of theater: getting in the room, experiencing collective energy as an act of repair. I once asked Sibyl about her approach to singing and she told me her job was “to put the song in the people.” It struck me as a figure for a blood transfusion, apposite in that somehow what I get when I experience the sheer performative force of Sibyl’s plays is counterpart to iron, to potassium, to the basic fact of immunity – something that allows our bodies to act on their own behalf, but is also a record and recollection of a communal, social-physical gift inheritance.
That sense of mission to be a spelunker of our various forms of inherited knowledge about how to live is evident in Sibyl’s new, in-progress play with songs, The Securely Conferred Vouchsafed Keepsakes of Maery S. Sibyl’s plays have always engaged with excess and often with the gleeful ventriloquism of existing forms of dramatic literature (the semi-unintelligible old English curse, the expressionistic Bergman film, the collected Springsteen ballads), but Maery S., like another recent play, Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, possesses an anti-(non?- skew?)-chronological sense of direction I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It seems to move in multiple, simultaneous pathways along its timelines as well as its latitudinal ones. This has something to do with a perception of confluence and transmission that flows across minor literatures and commonly dismissed forms of speech (like, say, a comment stream on a Bigfoot site). Merging the life of Mary Shelley, Shelley’s Frankenstein, years of Bigfoot research, stages of the Gothic, the figure of Doris Duke, river landscapes of Germany and America (with their campingplatzes and rest stops), the play asks, “Why shouldn’t I write of monsters?” (And what kind of truck stop ballad would the monster sing, after finding some hinge of redirection?)
In past workshops on the piece, Sibyl was focused on expanding the text and the songs (written with Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds). At BAC, Sibyl spent her weeks in residence asking questions about how to get the play onto its feet – not just a question of where to be in space but more urgently of the right set of ways of being in the body that both kept the humor and music alive but also made room for something monstrous to be present, both in Maery and in the monster. When I asked her about what she felt herself drawing on in approaching staging, Sibyl unspooled a wide-ranging set of sources, all of which in some way forms that face terror as both an internal and external form of confrontation: “The psychothriller of the 1970’s… the idea of the empty house… something is in the house, and you don’t know what… films like Klute, Don’t Look Now, The Sentinel, The Wicker Man, The Changeling, and particularly The Driver’s Seat, based on Muriel Spark’s late-career short story… Television shows I was vaguely remembering from when I was growing up and watching a lot of weird TV in the late 70’s that basically scared the living crap out of me, permanently… The prologue to James Whale’s film The Bride of Frankenstein from 1935… a LOT of YouTube video footage of Bigfoot sightings, and other YouTube videos of guys analyzing those sightings, as well as more fully-produced documentaries on the subject… Tours that you get to go on sometimes of old homes that have been taxidermied and turned into stuffy museums. The LBJ library in Austin. The Crook House in Omaha. Edwin Booth’s room at the Players Club. Graceland! Stroud Mansion. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Duke Farms! Southfork Ranch! Places where I’ve hiked and camped in the Rheinsteig region of Germany. The style is in the topography there, gentle and severe at the same time, long-civilized but it hasn’t forgotten its pre-Christian wildness and still honors it by what has been preserved through time.”
The byproduct of these things is like Shelley’s monster: it’s stitched-together, but it’s alive, and it holds a surprisingly large mandate to tell us something about what humans do and are and think. Another thing that happened at BAC was an originally unintended doubling of Maery, played at first in alternating rehearsals and then in tandem by Amelia Workman and Zenzi Williams. “Both are in high demand at the moment and it had been a solution for their complicated schedules,” said Sibyl. “But I loved there being a multiplicity expressed as a multiplied physical embodiment. I was already positing several versions of Maery (one for each definition of the word “Gothic”), and both Amelia and Zenzi brought something very special and variously elemental to the table which worked together beautifully. We could suddenly cover way more narrative ground, and the inhabitation of the idea of Mary Shelley took on more force and immediacy. They became Hecate! There were only two of them, but I kept seeing the threefold Goddess of the Underworld. A trebled face, a populace.”
Karinne Keithley Syers is a multidisciplinary artist and writer who has been making performance in New York since 1997, next up at The Chocolate Factory, where her radio play and paper corridor installation of A Tunnel Year will take place this December. She won a New York Dance and Performance "Bessie" Award for Outstanding Production for her 2010 operetta and museum Montgomery Park, or Opulence. She is a member of New Dramatists, the founding editor of 53rd State Press, and for one glorious year cohosted a show on WFMU, the jewel of freeform radio. She currently teaches playwriting at Eugene Lang/The New School. Find streamable and downloadable treasures at fancystitchmachine.org.