The Buddhists propose that pain is caused by personal attachment to desire. Accordingly, I consciously and vigilantly police my own burning desires in order to live closer to and in harmony with the realities of the unfolding present moment. I try to stay free from what I perceive as a prison of “wanting.”
In public I have often suggested that the word “want” is killing the American Theater. I propose that in rehearsal we employ the word “want” excessively. A director says to an actor, “now I want you to walk downstage,” or an actor asks a director, “is this what you want?” In so speaking I believe that we unconsciously set up parent-children relationships between the director and actors. And I see this manner of speaking as an endemic and a serious spiritual and political problem in our field.
In a recent open forum in the SITI Company studio in midtown, I mentioned my problem with the word “want” in the American Theater. Present in the room were Stacy Klein and Carlos Uriona of the Double Edge Theater in Western Massachusetts. Both jumped into the conversation vehemently. “Our desires and wants are what drive all of our work and achievements,” they said, almost as one. The more I thought about their point, the more I recognized that indeed their considerable achievements with Double Edge Theater are probably largely attributable to the elixir of their shared desire. From nothing, over the past 20 years, Double Edge transformed a dilapidated farm in the midst of cow country into a destination for theater people and theater lovers everywhere. They created a theater center with renovated barns as performance spaces and rehearsal halls. They developed an acting company and have mentored countless students, apprentices and interns. They found funding and support in the vicissitudes of shifting economic climates. They have involved their surrounding farm community and injected a love of theater that did not exist beforehand.
I also realized that the most compelling and satisfying life achievements, experiences and relationships that I have enjoyed are directly related to deep-seated desires. Indeed my career in the theater owes a great deal to an intense longing for what always felt to be just beyond my reach. As a girl, the circus that I wanted to run away to, the exotic community that I wanted to be a part of, or the rarified atmosphere that I wanted to breathe regularly, felt tantalizingly close and yet distant, possible and yet impossible to locate. Perhaps this is why I moved to New York City after college.
Many successful comedians describe watching the Johnny Carson Show as children, in front of the family TV, longing to be there, on Johnny’s couch, part of that exciting world. I am convinced that their longings and their desire to be “there,” is part of what gave them the necessary fuel to advance in their cutthroat careers.
My own intense youthful desires were activated by the combination of a compelling dissatisfaction with my life situation and an early exposure to books. I was brought up in a naval family and every year or two we picked up and moved to a new city or a different country. Books became a great solace and rescue from the sense of isolation that resulted from losing beloved friends every time we moved. Literature and particularly biographies were a place of escape from what felt like the unbearable realities of family and school. The books also proposed parallel universes promising flight, adventure, rescue and nothing less than alternate existences. These books activated a compelling desire in me for all of those things. I felt a lack, an immense craving and a gnawing frustration, which in turn created an intense desire for alternatives to the life that seemed prescribed for me.
We want something. We desire something. We are frustrated by the lack of “it.” We marinate in our frustration. The frustration drives us towards of vision of what it is that we desire or long for. The more frustrated we are, the more motivated we are to achieve what is lacking.
Frustration is a necessary ingredient to the achievement of a vision. We cook it and it cooks us. Frustration linked to desire furnishes the fuel, the energy to proceed. If we do not undergo enough frustration perhaps we will not cultivate the determination and endurance that gives our action-in-the-world hands and feet.
I admit, I’m driven but I’m driven by desire and that’s the formula. Desire is so powerful, like you are propelled as if from a canon. Desire to me is the driving force, but action is the result. (Phyllis Sues, a 90 year-old dancer)
Perhaps frustration, longing and desire are also part of the recipe required for an artist to transform the quotidian into the sublime.
In Amsterdam I recently saw a striking still life painted by Rembrandt suspended above a glass case that contained a collection of the same objects that he used to model for the picture. The contrast between what felt like a drab collection of random objects in the case and the stunning luminescent painting that seemed imbued with nothing less than intense energy and beauty gave me pause and clarified something I have been curious about. I started to consider the power of art to transform the frustrations and irritations of daily life into a realm of grace and to embody, through arrangement and composition, nothing less than the secret elixir of life itself.
We necessarily encounter daily frustrations, irritations and obstacles. Perhaps we feel hampered and limited by our hit-and-miss upbringing, our apparent limitations and our imperfect ongoing circumstances. And yet Rembrandt’s still life demonstrates that it is within our power to transform the random, the everyday and the prosaic into an arrangement instilled with grace and poetry. Is it the arrangement of these objects that lends such a spiritual quality to the painting? Is it the sensation of light captured upon canvas? How was this transformation of the quotidian into an uplifting vision of life captured by Rembrandt?
It was during my own teenage years that I began to look beyond the catalogue of Disney movies and naval base culture that was my daily existence and started to imagine something different. Happily, music, visual art and theater followed my exposure to books and were equally galvanizing, helping to locate specific targets for my arrows of desire. At the age of 15, a pivotal event occurred that provided my “Johnny Carson” moment. A school outreach program took my high school class in a yellow school bus from Middletown to Providence, Rhode Island to see a play at the Trinity Repertory Company. During the play, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, my entire being reached towards the stage and simply longed to be part of that community. Not to necessarily be “on” the stage, but to be conjoined with the rarified world that was teeming up there. This new object of desire felt close and yet so distant simultaneously. And suddenly I had a target, I had a vision, I had something specific to work towards.
The process of assuaging the intense desires and realizing my dreams required time and perseverance. I waited. I worked and I learned, step by step. I soaked in what felt like a constantly accelerating well of frustration and longing. But the longing gave me perseverance and passion. I studied and practiced and made slow process towards my desire – to direct theater.
Currently, immediate gratification is the tantalizing prize of living in our current on/off/ping/ring-tone culture. The distance between what we desire and the fulfillment of that desire is rapidly shrinking. Increasingly we acquire objects, information, music, books and clothes, whatever sparks a whiff of desire, with a single click. Our digital technologies empower us to make so many choices about so many things and so quickly. But the staccato nature of digital choice also thwarts our efforts to stay fully connected to our greater through-lines and to one another.
Waiting is not encouraged by the culture that we presently inhabit. We click once to satisfy the longings and desires that are, for the most part, manufactured by multi-national corporations, ubiquitous advertising campaigns and product placement. Perhaps a significant step has gone missing. Perhaps we are lacking the dissatisfaction that craves time. Perhaps the concentration of frustration and the sensation of lack that intensifies personal desire have diminished to the detriment of our development as artists. Perhaps if we do not feel enough lack and frustration, we will not fight long enough to realize our hard won vision.
Desire arises from an inspiring sense of lack. Perhaps the sense of lack in our day-to-day lives can be the inspiration for our actions. Perhaps it is the gap between what we want and the way that things actually are that is actually our link, our connection to the world. Perhaps what matters most is what we make out of the frustrations that we feel.
As you may already know, SITI Company turns 20 this year. In celebration of this milestone, please join us for a very special evening on Saturday, May 11th at the new Fischer Building at BAM: the SITI Company 20th Anniversary Jam/Gala. This is NOT TO BE MISSED! Join us for Cocktails. Join us for Dinner. Join us for the Performance/ Jam, an Open Viewpoints session featuring SITI Company members along with actors and dancers with whom we have collaborated with over many years and live music by some of our favorite musicians. Join us for the After-Party. Yes, there are many ways to join in. You can indulge in the full-blown evening of Cocktails/Dinner/Jam and After-Party. You can come to the Jam and the After-Party. Look for exact details here.
If you have any questions, please contact Michelle Preston in the SITI office.
We would be delighted to see you on May 11th.