Cafe Culture

Apr 03, 2012

Artists and inventors rarely create something out of nothing, but rather they use the components that exist already their environment to forge new territory. Innovation results from re-combining things. Playwright Chuck Mee excavates the world to scavenge for bits of pieces of what delights and energizes him. He organizes these bits and pieces into the content of his plays. For our new production, Café Variations, we have excavated the scripts of Chuck Mee to make our new play. We also scavenge through You Tube clips of Apache Dances from the early part of the 20th century, Edward Hopper paintings, old romantic movies, the catalogue of George and Ira Gershwin and we sample liberally from these rich sources. The result of this rummaging will premiere on April 13th at ArtsEmerson in Boston. I hope you will come to see it.

Steven Johnson in his new book entitled Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, presents the notion of “adjacent possible,” which defines the preconditions for invention. He writes: “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” What hovers on the edges are components that already exist in the environment. We innovate precisely from what our predecessors, either natural or human, forged from their environment. In 1440 Johannes Guttenberg developed his first printing press from the technology of a screw-type wine press from the Rhine Valley. This technology remained standard until the 20th century. Right now, innovators and artists are creating the adjacent possible for future generations. 

The composer Philip Glass’s father ran an auto mechanic shop in Baltimore. Working on people’s cars eventually led him to fixing car radios. Finally he got rid of the cars and opened a store that sold and repaired radios. This led to selling records and a music store. As a young boy, Philip worked in his father’s music store. One of his jobs was to break faulty LPs that had been returned by customers in order to ship the pieces back in boxes to the manufacturer. I imagine Phil Glass in the basement of the shop, jumping up and down on damaged records. Perhaps his music reflects that. We make hay from the fields that we are treading across. 

We are debris arrangers – we take what we have inherited and we try to make a life, make a living, or make art. We are assemblers. We forge received parts into meaningful compositions. This state of affairs is our plight and our destiny but it also offers the opportunity to find meaning as well as find communion with others. 

The breadth and width of the rummaging is key. Cultivating our fields with influences that are beyond our own immediate understanding will allow for the necessary irritation and cross-fertilization that leads to advances. The notion of an isolated genius forging a new world in private is erroneous. The concept of exclusivity and segregation is essentially anti-creative. I am even suspicious of the idea of sole ownership.  It is by transgressing the boundaries that separate us that we will begin to find solutions to the world’s present complexities. Inclusion and incorporation of the “other” will create the conditions in which we can chart new territory.

Café Variations is greater than any single person involved in its genesis. In the spirit of Chuck Mee, who allows others to sample freely from his own plays, I hope that Café Variations will enjoy a long trajectory and exist in many different manifestations, brought to life by many different groups of theater makers. We are building it in what we call “modules.” Each module can be lifted out of our production and placed into different contexts. It is my dreams that modules will show up in museum atriums, public parks and, indeed, cafés.

I dislike Starbucks. I do not like the atmosphere, the coffee, the odor or the way that people interact with one another; or rather do not interact. I feel cheated that I did not have the opportunity to experience the cafés of the Enlightenment or the cafés of Paris and Vienna during the early part of the 19th century where so many artistic movements were formed, cafés that celebrated pluralism, where revolutions were incited, where conversation changed social systems. A café as alternative context, a third realm, separate from the realm of the home or the realm of work and commerce. The third realm is the realm of public intercourse.

The café of Café Variations is a café of the imagination. It is a special magnet of a space that draws people out of themselves and towards one another in an arena that is both public and social and yet in which privacy is also possible. I wanted to create a café that instills the audience with a desire for such a place to exist.