Artist Spotlight: Chatting with Playwright Ain Gordon

Playwright/actor/director Ain Gordon is here in residency this week in preparation for the performance of his work-in-progress play Not What Happened, which centers on historical reenacment in 1800s New England. Marketing Intern Cora sat down with him to chat about the piece.

Ain Gordon in rehearsal with actress Betsy Aidman.

Could you explain the plot in a little more detail?

Well, I’m not a story-driven guy. I tend to be more interested in characters in a situation and what happens to them rather than a plot unfolding. So, it’s pretty simple. There is a rural, solitary woman alone in her summer kitchen in 1804, baking bread, surrounded pretty much only with the mental remnants of other days, and talking to herself. And it’s about what happens to her, in her head that day. And then a historical re-enactor two centuries later on the same piece of ground, which is now a deficit-ridden historic site, leads the tourist through her ability to re-enact that same day.

How has it developed since the shows that you did at the Vermont Performance Lab and Marlboro College?

At VPL, we only did half of it. That was the very first time working with actors on it. It’s brand new. So we spent five days there, and we did some rudimentary staging and just showed the first half. Then we were at the Baryshnikov Arts Center for another five days, and we pushed through to the end and showed all of it. Then we had a week off, and now we’re here. And we’re going to show all of it again. Each space is one step bigger—at VPL it was in an 1800s meeting house, very small, very intimate, beautiful space. At BAC it was in a larger studio with raked seating. And here it’s in a theater! So we’ve been kind of getting used to leaving behind the intimacy of table work, studio work, theater work etcetera, and building up to being bigger. And here is the first time that we will have basic lighting, and basic use of projections, which we haven’t done at all before.

Right, I read that this is the first time that you were introducing the element of photography to the piece, with photographer/historian Forrest Hozapfel’s projections. Has that influenced the play at all?

We kind of researched together—he lives in Marlboro—and we took walks in the forest together, and looked at cellar holes and that kind of thing. Definitely his thinking and his body of knowledge influenced the writing. And early on, I had his images in mind for what I wanted to see as the set. Here, you’re kind of seeing a sketch of that because we don’t have a giant screen. So this is very much just another stage of showing the piece with some tech.

Can you talk about the local history aspect of the play and how New England ties into it?

With almost all of my work, I’m interested in the idea of marginalized or neglected history as source material for theater. Particularly because in most places, but certainly in America, the writing of mainstream history is kind of a ruthless editing machine, and there’s a lot of stuff that hits the cutting room floor. I’m pretty interested in what hits the floor. And I had been thinking that with this piece, I wanted to reach further back in time to an era that yields even less evidence—sort of the pre-industrial era when things are handmade; things are used until they’re broken and then they’re gone. So there aren’t 80,000 artifacts. And I was interested in looking at a rural landscape, which I had never done, which would be a landscape in which there would be even less manmade evidence manufactured, ever. And the natural distances between manmade outpost and manmade outpost is so huge, that stuff just disappears back into the landscape. So I was interested in that, and then the relationship with VPL started to happen at the same time, and so it just made sense to put it in New England. So we used the Brattleboro-Guilford-Marlboro area as a research launch pad. The play is not situated directly in any place, it sort of uses the ethos of unsettled New England at that time, as opposed to Boston or somewhere like that.

How does the audience or the setting for each performance change your ideas for the play?

Well the good thing about the way this has played out—which I can’t claim credit for—is that three showings in three very different locations for three very different audiences is a great way for me to accrue notes for going to a next draft. With One showing in one place, it’s pretty hard not to just be incredibly reactive. I’m either like “It went well” or “ it didn’t go well”—you either are good or you’re bad. Three showings really gives you a chance to hear it in front of very different communities and get an idea of what to do next. The play doesn’t premiere until the fall of 2013, so I’m going into a whole other rewrite time.

And just in general, what inspires you as a playwright?

As I say, history is certainly my “thing,” but I think that I’m pretty interested in the interstitial, particularly. I’m interested in the moment between the moments that seem to matter, and that evidently matter, and how we can theatricalize insignificance for a new significance. So, the idea of this woman in 1804—she is essentially, by most standards, a woman of no importance, engaged in an action of no consequence, on a day of no significance (laughs). And what does that look like if we actually frame it and pay attention to it?



Posted April 25, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, Theater, Work-in-progress
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