One of the indisputable hits of this year’s Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville was The Big Love, Charles Mee’s wild and crazy updating of Aeschylus’ The Supplicants. Sequences in this tale of fifty sisters forced to marry fifty cousins (the audience saw only three of each) included the actors throwing themselves repeatedly against the padded floor, one actress peeling off her wedding gown and sliding nude into a bathtub, two male actors throwing circular saw blades into the wall, and a grand guignol wedding night both funny and horrific. All this physical activity from a playwright hobbled by a bout with polio in his youth. In fact, Mee’s best-known work is his landmark 1989 play, Another Person Is a Foreign Country, which mixed abled and disabled performers. Other works by Mee include: Trojan Women: A Love Story, The Berlin Circle (directed by Tina Landau), and Orestes. Mee's plays are typically open in structure, creating more questions than answers about a situation. Most recently, Mee has been investigating cultural and gender-related roles in Summertime, which is currently getting a major staging at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.
Playbill On-Line: Wasn’t Summertime supposed to be something of a continuation of the themes in Another Person is a Foreign Country?
Charles Mee: It started out as piece that would have disabled and marginalized folks in the cast, but that’s not quite the way the play developed. Now Summertime, a romantic comedy set in the age of Magritte, is a collage of characters and scenes occurring in and around a garden. Rational thought does battle with the irrationality of emotion and desire. In the play, characters abandon social, economic and political connections to become united by their shared humanity. Questions of gender roles, sexual identity and cultural definitions of what's beautiful are challenged as actors with and without physical disabilities interact. The production will be directed by Ken Watt, with Pamela Walker, a casting director for the disabled community, helping with the staging.
PBOL: You’re not paralyzed, but for the past 45 years, you’ve used two crutches to get around. Do you see irony in the fact that some of your plays are so visceral and athletic?
CM: Well, I wrote an autobiography two years ago that was published in paperback last year: “The Nearly Normal Life.” I had polio when I was a boy, which rendered me an instant outsider. I don't write plays about disability, but I think every play I write takes its structure and its emotional feeling from my own body, which is fucked up, and not normal. I like plays that are not sort of "well-made." They feel a little like taking a wine glass and throwing it to the floor and shattering it, then picking up the various shards of glass and arranging them on a table. Look at those pieces on the table: they describe a perfect wine glass, in a way, but they're shattered. That's what feels good to me; that's what the world is to me. In that deeper sense, all my work obviously comes from my own life. But I don't write overtly "disability" plays. I'm a guy who loves dance. I like to see others move gracefully. I like to write a graceful sentence. Have it move and be as graceful and surprising as a jump-shot, because I can do that, in my imagination, if not in my body.
PBOL: Were you surprised at the strong positive response to Big Love?
CM: Director Les Waters and choreographer Jean Isaacs really got the play as a whole. I think Les is amazing in the way he works with actors. When you watch it from the audience, I think you're not aware of the staging; it flows and seems fairly complex. I watched it from the lighting booth, and it's amazingly, almost mathematically, choreographed, with actors at four corners of the three-quarters space stage. I thought the cast and director did a great job; still, I was kind of astonished by the response. It seemed euphoric; which was really surprising to me. But the wildness of the piece was definitely in the script as well.
PBOL: What is it about the classics that keeps drawing you toward these unique adaptations?
CM: Adapting is a funny word. None of the Greeks wrote an “original” play; all were taken from older stories. Shakespeare took other people's stories or plays, too. If the greatest playwrights in the history of the world took others' stories to reinterpret, I can do the same thing. So that drew me both to the Greeks and to others; great stories don't belong to an individual playwright but to the culture as a whole. In every age, great love stories are reinterpreted in a way that feels alive in that moment. Trojan Women and Orestes were even more extreme [than Big Love]. All the Greek plays are pretty extreme; that's what makes them so great. They don't try to gloss things over or make them tidy. They don't feel they should start with some simple misunderstanding that needs to be resolved by the final commercial break on network TV. They deal with big and difficult issues. This is the true material of human life: now try to make love and a society out of this. PBOL: Ah, but can you make a living as a playwright out of this?
CM: I have worked all my work at other jobs in order to be able to write plays. I never supported myself as a playwright and still do not. However, a year or so ago, I asked an old and dear friend who took a different course in life and became quite wealthy if he'd like to become my Medici. He and his wife -- Richard B. Fisher and Jeanne Donovan -- now support my work entirely. They’re my benefactors, with no strings attached. It’s pure generosity. They're just wonderful people. It's incredibly difficult for any playwright to make a living. To have a full-time life writing just what I want is a miracle, because it’s impossible for a playwright who doesn't do mainstream work to make a living. You need another job or must write for television.
PBOL: You say that as if it were a curse.
CM: I just don't want it. If there were a wonderful movie to write one day, I might write it. I love the movies, but I love the theatre too much to seek something else.
PBOL: So what other jobs came your way to keep you going?
CM: Long ago, I was editor in chief of Horizon Magazine, which deals with art, history and archaeology. I also wrote political history for some years, diplomatic history. What happened was I graduated with a B.A. from Harvard in 1960 with the idea of writing plays. One of my first plays, "Anyone! Anyone!" was produced Off-Off-Broadway with James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Brown and Andre Gregory. I did a number of plays at places like La MaMa, then I got very caught up in the anti-War movement, which led me to writing and arguing about politics, American history, international history, and the constitution. I spent 25 years having another life as a political historian. I didn't go back to writing for the theatre until 1985.
PBOL: Wow, what snapped you back into the world of the stage?
CM: During those years as a historian, I always felt I was living a life that was not my real life. Then in 1985, I took my then-young children (7 and 13) to see a revival of My Fair Lady on Broadway. We had tickets in the front row all the way over on the left side, so we could look down into the orchestra pit and see offstage into the wings and see the stagehands doing their stuff. The artifice of theatre was absolutely apparent. A man sitting directly behind me said into my ear, "This is the real world." He said it so distinctly that I turned around too see who said it -- and there was no one there. It was the only time in my life that I've heard voices, so I though I would pay attention. With that, I went back to writing for the theatre, starting with the text for Vienna: Lusthaus staged by Martha Clarke.
PBOL: And future projects for you include...?
CM: New York City’s Public Theatre will do a reading of The Great Escape, which they commissioned. A guy buys a ticket to get into an amusement park like Disneyland. He enters the gate, but its clear there's no wall, it just opens out into America. And stuff happens. I’m also starting to work on a piece with Anne Bogart to be done next year at the Humana Fest: Bobrauschenbergamerica. The idea is just to make a theatre piece the way he made collages. Anne and I have known each other for years; the first piece SITI ever did was my Orestes, and Anne directed Another Person..., for En Garde Arts. We did it in an abandoned building on 106th Street at Central Park West, with at least 30-35 people in the cast. We appropriated an entire building for the cast and set.
PBOL: Do you remember the first show you ever saw that made an impression on you?
CM: It might have been South Pacific, which I saw roughly when I was 12. I was growing up outside Chicago, and my mother took me to see it in the city. I loved it completely. That’s why I want to write plays that have the richness and scale and complexity of musical comedies and Shakespeare, the Greeks. It’s very hard to get those plays produced in the theatre today. People want something with four characters or less. But I love work that has a bigger, richer landscape.
-- By David Lefkowitz