The World of the Play in the World

Four Saints in Three Acts by Gertrude Stein,
performed by David Greenspan (photo by Miss O’)

Three Acts

“What is the world of the play?” Maureen Shea would ask in our Introduction to World Drama and Introduction to Directing classes at Virginia Tech, where she taught me back in the ’80s. Whatever you wanted to do to a play—change the location or time period, say, or modernize it, or cast it in a nontraditional way—you had to be true to the world the playwright created. Your first task as a director was to immerse yourself in that world. Even if something didn’t seem to make sense, you had to make it make sense. That was your job. The playwright as artist takes precedence; the director’s first job is to serve the play. The director’s next job is to guide and shape the actors’ performances in service to play; and then to negotiate a design plan with the scenographer and costume designer, the crew, the management. Directing is an interpretive art, and an interpreter has sometimes the hardest human job of all the artists, which is to put it all together so that the director’s work disappears. And yet, directors have a signature. There’s no way to hide it, not if you are an artist. 

Maureen Shea, who died unexpectedly on September 20, 2022, was an artist of the first rank. I’ve spent a week trying to process this loss. I’m writing this essay—what am I trying to put together? Here’s what I wrote on Facebook to our Virginia Tech theater page:

Lisa Novitsky and I talked this morning; I called Richard Rauscher, texted and got a message from Cindy Babson…it’s hard to process. Maureen taught us, drove us, called us out on anything that got in the way of our artistry. Moment-to-moment work, transitions, connection, authenticity—all of it mattered, every detail. I knocked myself OUT for her. Every time. (I was not always successful.) When we did Museum, I was cast in a couple of bit character parts, but I came every single night of rehearsal and sat and watched her work. I saw every performance of How I Got That Story; I auditioned for Fen because she asked me to, saying, “Lisa, you’re perfect for Fen“; and even though I was student teaching and losing my mind trying to finish my education classes, I did it—because Mo said I was perfect for something. My last week in Blacksburg in 1987, after doing Alice in Wonderland with her at the Summer Arts Festival and before heading off to my first teaching position, we went out one night and closed down Maxwell’s as she gave me a master class in how to teach poetry. I was lucky enough to see her in NYC in 2018 and caught her show, Sugar, on 19th St., and we had a long, leisurely brunch the following Sunday, one of the best talks I’d had in years. Loved her so. This is hard. Thanks to Bo Wilson for sharing the Mo Quotes. Miss and love you all. Lisa O’

P.S.  One more Mo Quote: Around 3 or 4 AM before leaving Maxwell’s, perhaps one scotch short of a DUI, Maureen riffed on Alice in Wonderland and my future career in education: “When you think about it, the only difference between a teacher and a mad person is that every once in a while, a teacher says, ‘You see?'”

Phrases and directives come back: The actor’s beat. The director’s beat. Beat change. The cap on the beat. Stakes and obstacles. Theater is life, life is theater.

Over the years I’ve realized that theater, for me, is church. I learned in this memoriam piece that Mo, who had spoken at a hearing in Boston to save a theater, saw it the same way.

“Maureen got up, had nothing prepared, and just started speaking from her heart. After she said something about responsibility of stewardship of these historic buildings, she started crying. She said, ‘I know you don’t understand, but for us, to turn a theater like that into a dining hall is like having to watch people eat french fries in church,” said Hickler. “And I watched the entire board … change their minds at the moment. Afterwards they were giving her hugs.”

When theater is your church, all the details of the show that is the service matter. I used to drive my old directing colleague, Ann, insane with my attention to details, but I knew they mattered. I always slicked down the boys’ hair with Knox gelatin for period shows, for example, and that detail is the difference between a Guys and Dolls that looks professional and one that looks like a high school show. (You might not even be able to put your finger on what’s wrong, but trust me, it was the dry hair.) “The coffee is hot,” Mo’s colleague and my acting teacher, Gregory Justice, would remind us. “The luggage is heavy.” Play that. “You are coming from somewhere.” 

These notes were given to me in rehearsals for a play, Bad Habits by Terrence McNally, one act of which, “Ravenswood,” takes place at a sort of mental health spa/asylum. At my first entrance, I was pushing the wheelchair of the head therapist of the place, as if we have been touring the grounds. We performed the play in a black box with only small screen from behind which to enter. (My acting teacher, Greg, directed the play, and told me “the coffee is hot” note so many times that finally, one morning when I had tea, I studied what happened to my lips, my face (from the steam), my hands, all of it, until I could do hot cold.) But the “you are coming from somewhere” was Maureen, from watching her direct. After seeing the play, my friend Scott asked, “Is there another room back there?” He was convinced I had walked a long distance before coming on stage. He also asked me, “How did they keep that coffee hot for you?” See? All that detail. Maureen took this teaching to her next gig, too, at Emerson College in Boston. One student shared this:

Deaderick remembers a classmate in Shea’s class directing a short piece that took place at a diner. A character ordered coffee with milk, but when the server came back she poured black coffee, brought no milk, and the character drank it anyway.

“’In the critique later, Maureen was livid about that: no one who takes coffee [with] milk would just drink it without! They’d remind the waitress,” Deaderick said. “The problem wasn’t one of realism. It wasn’t about being accurate. It was that the audience would keep wondering about the milk. Which I had when I watched. It was Chekov’s gun, but with dairy.

“I carry that lesson with me in all my storytelling. Never leave your audience wondering about the milk.”

If you don’t know about Chekhov’s gun, he famously said in a letter to a friend: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” This principle is often stated now as, “Don’t have a character handle a loaded gun in first act unless it’s going to go off in the third.” The audience worries, you see* (*Miss O’ as teacher, not mad person). And how irritating is it when you find you’ve worried through a whole show for nothing?

(Now you might think, But Miss O’, your friend Scott was wondering/worrying why the coffee stayed hot. He wondered/worried what on earth was back there. Actually, he didn’t think about any of it until afterward, when we were talking, when he realized how real it all seemed.) 

What seems unreal to me is Maureen not being here anymore. In this grief, I find gratitude that Greg was the one to message me on Facebook, and my dear friend and classmate Lisa Novitsky was the one to call first. Social media is only any social good at all if it’s about human connection. An emoji isn’t enough, a like, a heart—what I needed and found was the source, the authenticity, of our relationships, in the sharing of our common grief. That we could use words mattered. That we had details to share.

The world of our collective play didn’t change; a key character died. It doesn’t make sense. Now our job is to make it make sense. The playwright has spoken.

Four Saints

“There can be no peace on earth with calm with calm. There can be no peace on earth with calm with calm. There can be no peace on earth with calm with calm and with whom whose with calm and with whom whose when they well they well they call it there made message especial and come.”

~ Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts

Stein said of her own play, “If you enjoy it you understand it.”

“There can be no peace on earth with calm with calm.”

If I were speaking this line, I’d score it thus: There can be no peace on earth / with calm / with calm. In other words, without a willingness to lose calm, we cannot create peace on earth. The making of peace, says Stein, is a noisy business. I think Stein says this. 

She goes on: “This amounts to Saint Therese. Saint Therese has been and has been.”

Has Saint Therese been peace on earth? Has she been calm? Without calm? Has she simply been and her being gone on and on, much like Celine Dion’s heart?

“It’s too easy to assume—we have to find out. Ask questions, nose around.”
~ Maureen Shea, ca. 1984 (as recorded by playwright Bo Wilson)

This week was the 100th anniversary of the publication of T.S. Eliot’s long, challenging poem The Waste Land. What does it mean? Why does it matter? To find out, I’ve been watching some old YouTube-sourced videos about it, and corresponding via email and enjoying a phone conversation with another beloved mentor, master English teacher Tom Corbin, on the effects of Eliot on poetry. Eliot and Stein were modernist contemporaries. Both writers, along with another contemporary, James Joyce, took pleasure in being unreadable. The boys, at any rate, relished the idea of academics chasing meaning for centuries, digging up all the clever literary allusions, writing the papers, making an industry of interpretation. Stein, by contrast, was trying to write in the complete present (something Joseph Chaikin and The Open Theater would try to replicate on stage in the 1960s in performance; it was Chaikin’s style that Maureen assigned to me for my final directing project my senior year, a style I found harmony with and used to create four original one-act plays with my students), allowing too for the ways in which humans continually repeat lines while telling a story (listen for it). 

Eliot “never repeated himself,” one scholar says, and in doing that he “made it a myth that this is how a poet should behave.” I started thinking of the idea of repetition—what it means to stay with an art form and still find something new to say within it, and a new way to say something.

And I think of living on earth. How we must continually find something new in it to enjoy—I mean, for example, the clouds always change; the sky is always changing. I saw a grasshopper on 44th Street in Queens the other day, first grasshopper sighting in nearly 20 years in New York. That was new. And when we are feeling untethered, that grasshopper on the cracked pavement by the rusted out car on 44th Street might be the only thing that keeps us from falling off the earth, at least in that moment.

When I went to see Stein’s rarely performed play Four Saints in Three Acts on Friday night, I found myself, after an hour of travel from Queens, at a subway stop for the R Train (en route to Bay Ridge); and that was new. To get to the theater, in Sunset Park, I walked a long residential block, crossed a 12-lane boulevard under a highway, and headed into warehouses, all at sunset in Sunset Park, curiously enough, where I managed to find a yellow door with an 8” x 10” paper stuck to it, that said, simply, “Four Saints in Three Acts.” It was a miracle I found it. That paper and the address. (Later they put out a little table; see opening photo.)

Sunset Park, Brooklyn (photo by Miss O’)

And it’s a miracle that I was lucky enough to see it, only because I was blind enough to order a ticket before I realized that while the Lucille Lortel Theater was presenting it, the show was not in fact in Greenwich Village but, as noted, in Sunset Park, because if I’d known I don’t know if I’d have gotten a ticket; and how stupid and lazy would that have been? What has happened to me? Covid agoraphobia? Age? I don’t know. But I don’t like it. 

There is no way to describe the work of David Greenspan, who performed this play as a one-man show, but the reviewer from this week’s New Yorker, Helen Shaw, pretty much nailed it. Her review ends,

All this means is that the show is occasionally difficult, just as a church service can be. Nearly a hundred years after Stein wrote it, “Saints” has not staled or softened. Even though I am bewitched by Stein, and by Greenspan, and by Greenspan doing Stein, I still found myself needing to enforce some mental discipline. About an hour into the performance, my attention started to slacken. (In my notes, I wrote, “Recommit!,” and then kept underlining it.) This is Stein’s and Greenspan’s way of using time, or, rather, of teaching us to use time. It’s theatre as meditative discipline. One must deliberately choose the show over other temptations: one must choose to listen. So we chose. We were choosing there. In a way, we are still choosing, with a great many saints there, who are choosing there together.

There is a point, isn’t there, in every sermon every play every workout every life, when the thing becomes hard. It’s hard. It’s too hard. It feels too hard and we just want it (the pain the grief the confusion the boredom the thing) to end, but it doesn’t end, and we have to keep doing it and staying with it and when we stay with it and the end does finally come, the reward comes. The joy comes. The reason comes. The arrival arrives. And we were there.

“It must become inevitable.” ~ Maureen Shea

To live in the world and in the play, attention must be paid. You must be here. Have this experience. Be in this world. Look up. (In how many blog posts have I pleaded for this? A prayer to myself.) The coffee is hot. Beat. The luggage is heavy. Beat. You are coming from somewhere. Do that. The cap on the beat.

The world of the play of the world was, in the early 20th century, a mess; the world of the play of the world in the early 21st century has also proved, also, to be a mess. Where people used to look to the saints and the poets for guidance, we seem to look instead to celebrities who most certainly aren’t artists or even very good people usually but are distractions from a with calm that is not the with calm we are supposed to be doing without to create peace on earth, if you see what I mean. (You see?)

The world of the play, this world play, our play, finally, has to be continually remade, and reinterpreted, and grieved, first of all, first and foremost, really; then connections must be reestablished, love renewed, our promises to one another recommitted, sinners and saints all; then if we are to repair this play on earth and ourselves on this earth, we have to give every moment the attention it must have. Before we can do that work, we also have to agree that this life on this earth, as it is, is the world of our play.

“We can find a million reasons for what’s wrong or why something doesn’t work, but that’s not our job. Our job is to make it work.”

~ Maureen Shea, Theater Artist (in memoriam)

Miss O’ and Mo Shea, 2018, New York City

(Let’s also leave off with life, Mo’s beloved Joni Mitchell in rebirth at this year’s Newport Festival, “The Circle Game.” Love to all. Miss O’)