Venetian Ruminations

Mar 22, 2017

From now through April 2nd, you can catch SITI Company’s brand new production entitled Chess Match No. 5, Tuesdays through Sundays at the Abingdon Theater in midtown Manhattan. We hope that you will join us. 

Chess Match No. 5 is a two-person play that has required the combined talents of a large number of collaborators to bring to fruition. The production is the initial step in the journey towards a large multi-disciplinary project to be entitled Theater Piece No. 1. The plan is for Chess Match No. 5 to eventually become the central action and organizing principle for Theater Piece No. 1, which will incorporate the talents of many artists from multiple disciplines that include dance, music and visual art who have been influenced by the example, innovations and life force of John Cage.   

Having spent much of my own life immersed in John Cage’s ideas and having been strongly affected by the artists that he influenced, I have long imagined a project that would excavate and celebrate his seminal ideas and extensive impact upon the world. But until about a year ago I could not conceive of a structure that could provide the necessary breadth and depth to encompass Cage’s extraordinary notions of art, life, interpenetration, multiplicity, indeterminacy, performance methods, structure, and so on. Finally, in the city of Venice, Italy, in the middle of last winter, I grasped the shape and scale of the project.

A year ago January, my wife Rena and I spent two weeks in Venice. We spent the days roaming museums, churches and palazzos and we wandered along the canals. We sat in cafes and ate splendid meals in the few restaurants left open during the quiet mid-winter. After dinner back in our hotel, I entered the world of John Cage. I perused the hundreds of conversations that John Cage engaged in throughout his life. I learned about Cage’s private chess games with Marcel Duchamp and his wife Teeny. Then I discovered that in 1968 he organized a public performance in a theater in Toronto entitled Reunion during which Cage played a chess tournament with both Duchamp and then Teeny. The chessboard was engineered so that each chess move activated a lighting change or an electronic sound. I also learned about an evening in a dining hall at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1952 where Cage organized a large-scale multi-media event that came to be considered the very first Happening. The evening included the separate contributions of Cage, Merce Cunningham, Franz Klein, M.C. Richards, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor and others who separately but simultaneously read poetry, played records, danced and provoked audience participation. At the time, people simply called the evening The Event, but in retrospect it became known as Theater Piece No. 1.

Thanks to the uninterrupted nocturnal immersions into Cage’s world in Venice juxtaposed with the time and mental daytime space of looking at art and architecture while making free mental associations, I was able to begin envisaging the world of our own Theater Piece No. 1, a new multidisciplinary, multi-layered performance event that can incorporate the talents of dancers, visual artists and musicians. I decided that the process of constructing this large-scale project would start with a smaller one, Chess Match No. 5, which would become a handbook of Cage’s basic theories embodied by two actors over a game of chess. During the months following the trip to Venice, I continued to transcribe the parts of Cage’s many public and private conversations that felt enlightening, fun and informative. And I also began to draw on the talents of many close collaborators.

Jocelyn Clarke, the Irish dramaturg and writer, has created the scripts for many productions with SITI Company, including Alice’s Adventures, Bob, Room, Score, Antigone and Trojan Women (After Euripides). After some discussion with Jocelyn, I sent him more than one hundred pages that I had copied from the transcripts and recordings of Cage’s conversations. Jocelyn studied, edited and ordered them, adding a number of text excerpts from Cage’s performances of Indeterminacy, in which he told micro-stories that function like Zen Buddhist koans (simple stories about enlightenment). The result of Jocelyn’s work is a beautiful 30-page script entitled Chess Match No. 5.

Sound designer Darron L West waded into the project with all of his guns firing. In many ways I believe that Chess Match No. 5 was written for him because it is a play about listening, sound and silence. Darron could immediately imagine the soundscape for the play from beginning to end. He understood the journey that he wanted to take the audience on and during the rehearsal process he was consistently in touch with the dramaturgical red thread that draws the audience along.  

Barney O’Hanlon is not only a SITI Company actor I love working with, but also a choreographer who brings a great sense of musicality and movement to every project we embark upon. He immediately went to work on making the dances for Chess Match No. 5. But he did far more than that. He brought his aesthetic sensibilities to every choice that we made during the course of rehearsal.

Set and costume designer James Schuette brought his hyper discriminating taste and minimalist sense of “the essential” to the process.  He recognized the necessity of creating a physical environment that used the features and given architecture of the Abingdon Theater, where we are premiering the work. His costumes do not imitate John Cage and his friends in New York City, but lightly suggest that era.

Lighting designer Brian H Scott took one look at the theater and decided to bring in 62 differently shaped light bulbs to suspend over the stage. The 62 bulbs complement the chessboard’s 62 squares. Every time a chess move is made during the play, a light changes.  He also created a look for the koans and filled the theater space with his gorgeous if unconventional lighting.

Founding SITI Company actors Ellen Lauren and Will Bond embarked upon this journey with infinite courage. I admit that Chess Match No. 5 is one of the trickiest plays to perform that I have ever encountered. There are no conventional characters, no standard dramatic action and no catharsis. Ellen and Bondo embody two musicians performing an unconventional concert of quotidian sounds in front of a live audience. Their tools, their musical instruments, are their footsteps, their vocal timbre, a toaster, a radio, a coffee maker, a chess board with pieces, two chairs, a small plant and not much else. Because the script is non-linear, non-narrative and structurally complex, they are both skating on thin ice. But the experience for the audience is, I believe, experientially rich and satisfying.

When the opportunity to produce Chess Match No. 5 arose, SITI’s Executive Director Michelle Preston and her staff immediately shifted into high gear to make the project fiscally and physically possible in short order. She carved out the time and the space for us to quickly realize the production without us feeling the stresses and interferences of a curtailed process. Then Tony Speciale, the Artistic Director of the Abingdon Theater and his team provided a physical structure in which we could robustly meet our initial audiences. Ellen Mezzera, SITI’s Company and Stage Manager crafted the schedules, the necessary meetings, and provided the conditions for supportive and productive rehearsals, tech environment and smooth performances.  The SITI Company actors not in the production took over teaching slots in our full-time Conservatory and generally made it possible for us all to be in rehearsal making Chess Match No. 5 happen.

Please join us at the Abingdon Theater.  For more information and tickets, follow this link: