Jul 1, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 204: Ruth Margraff
photo: David Little-Smith.com
I grew up all over Ohio and Michigan staring up at my Dad preaching brimstone in tiny churches full of grieving widows. Mrs. Aho for example. Was an Ishpeming widow who screwed the piano stool up too high for me to reach the pedals when I played the ofratory in 2nd grade. So she landed in my play THE CRY PITCH CARROLLS which is a nativity set in a nostalgic nuclear winter. Spent my 20s as a New Yorker, trying to hustle through the skyscrapers and scrape by. Learned a lot from a bum on Thanksgiving who ranted and raved as he jumped down to get a sandwich from the subway tracks. There was a rich and lonely widow in my building who bashed her mouth on the lobby door and ended up in my play WALLPAPER PSALM. I kept leaving New York for Providence, Austin, Dallas with a few stints in Minneapolis and out to LA and then years abroad but I didn’t know what I was missing until I found Chicago.
Current Town: Chicago
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just recorded a 2nd album with CAFÉ ANTARSIA so we’re working on the mix and release of that. I’m touring and recording also with a rock band FEVER IN THE FUNKHOUSE so I’m playing more organ and honky tank piano and jamming with Kenny Withrow of the New Bohemians who is our lead guitar player and I love the soul-splaying lyrics of Nikos Brisco. I’m tackling some Tolstoy with Bonnie Metzger, starting to conspire with Little Jack Melody/Steve Carter who is the bass player for Brave Combo, something classical with O-lan Jones, finishing a trilogy of martial arts operas with Fred Ho into a book, just starting to work with Trap Door Theater on my Ottoman/Greek opera for next season and tearing through the sculpture gardens on my bike which is how I meditate.
Q: Tell me please about Cafe Antarsia.
A: CAFÉ ANTARSIA ENSEMBLE is…very Balkan/Greek boudoir sort of lyric portraiture set in operatic miniatures. It’s dark and gypsy and the passion is thick as blood. There are icon paintings like this in the mountain monasteries of Crete where the nuns get drowsy and you have to know how to cross yourself to get in and you have to cover your hair. You can see where the Ottomans fired into the paint where the wood is torn and yet you see something almost figurative there. The shape is not at all like a mirror – but it holds a sort of power over you that makes you want to light a candle and stay there in the quiet of it as the blazing sun goes down and the wind starts to howl to the darkness. I’ve called it working-class opera for a while because we do everything by hand - making the props and costumes and hauling them around on our backs through trains and flights. We’ve toured all over the world, and the music of the marketplaces settles like dust on our shoes.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: It was hard to remember all my sins to avoid eternal damnation when I started taking communion so here were a few:
Saying the devil blew me off the porch when I ended up with a tooth through my lip.
Eating all the scallions and lettuce after a flash flood out of the garden. They always said I ate like a rabbit. Was it my sister or me falling asleep on a landing between staircases? And finding the cauliflower at my Aunt’s house – I just remember all the kittens were dying, my cousin was covertly slicing open leather chairs and pulling up my dress to look under it and getting his mouth washed out with soap. Some of this ends up in ALL THOSE VIOLENT SWEATERS.
Opening my eyes during communion and seeing the kid in front of me gutting the stomach of a skunk pin from Avon and scooping out the wax perfume. A later bottle of Sweet Honesty inspires a few lines in FLAGS UNFURLED.
And most regrettable: dressing up in all black and hiding in my brother’s closet while he stole a look at the forbidden television. I tapped on the door all through the program and then jumped out and scared him into a palsy – he was hyperventilating, he was dying and shrieking and I was tearing off the mask and saying no really look, it’s just me. It’s me.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: We would be more like Europe and Russia and India where theater is part of the culture so we wouldn’t scream at it like an alien in our backyard. We would treat it as art and be entertained by it as art rather than TV’s bratty stepchild. We would not be afraid of art or calling something art. We would enjoy parsing a play out intellectually in a cafe the next day or for the next few years rather than consuming it like a cheap hamburger in the moment. Theater would be more like music. Theater would be more like poetry which is how people talk if you really listen to people not induced by reality-programmed reality. Theater would attract the best minds and souls of our generation. Theater would be colder in terms of its ideas and hot as hell in sensuality. We’d have less of what I call “swollen protagonism” plays and more noticing of our swollen antagonism in the world. I would change a lot about theater as you can see and I kick at its pillars almost every day with every muscle because I have a deep love almost spiritually for the theater. One thing that has never changed about me is that I’m in my bones a rebel and always slightly outside of what I’m in.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: My sisters are from Dah Teatar in Belgrade with Barba and Grotowski as my brothers, Roma gypsy musicians like KAL and my teacher Djula Milosavljevic (Juliano Milo), Greek blues singers from tavernas in Crete and mainland Greece at the end of the Ottoman Empire. I admire the Brechtian/Weimar cabarets, Robert Ashley, Atom Egoyan’s early films, Dadaist manifestos, Picasso, Sartre… I line up with the neo-cubists in terms of language
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: The kind where I can see the raw labor – not the slick soulless high-tech expensive kind. Theater that shows us the tragic flaws and ecstasy of living, the sweat and tears sprung from a heart that aches because it is so unbearably wide open. I love plays that are thick with poetry so you have to pay rapt attention. Ivo van Hove’s MORE STATELY MANSIONS, Ken Prestininzi’s CHASTE which I just saw twice at Trap Door, Erik Ehn’s early musicals at BACA Downtown, Oksana Mysina in K.I. FROM CRIME, Reza Abdoh’s QUOTATIONS OF A RUINED CITY, Ozen Yula’s TREACHERY IN THE NEAR EAST, Nick Cave, Little Feat, Saban Bajromovic, a stunning play by Mattei Visniec I watched from an opera box in at the National Theater of Cluj directed by Mona Chirila which made me convinced I was born in the wrong country and there was a mistake, I should have been Romanian.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Get off the beaten track of playwriting. We’ve built in systems that churn out a pulp of American playwrights from which a few squeeze themselves to the top by writing the same story over and over. They are fought over by the same handful of cowardly theater capitalists. This work is dead. It has no real vision and is an instant gratification product that - as it expires - because of its toxic packaging and waste - will do great harm. Be singular and seek out the obscure even as you embrace the world. Read books not blurbs and sound bites. Try to figure out what happened pre-19th century and 10 minutes ago from contradicting points of view. Think long, strange, horrifying and ecstatic thoughts and spend a lot of time in solitude and with strangers and your family to find out who you are. Travel on long trains away from everything you know – not as an imperialist but as a pilgrim. Name yourself an artist not a wannabe celebrity. Don’t walk on people’s necks on your way up the scaffolding. Rich or famous or nobody you still have to sleep at night.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: SEVEN now touring Sweden, going to Istanbul in the Fall, introduced by Hillary Clinton in New York this Spring. http://sevenplay.org/
CAFÉ ANTARSIA ENSEMBLE playing July 31, 2010 Zebulon Café 9pm (Williamsburg, NYC) http://www.zebuloncafeconcert.com/ , August 13 opening for Patrice Pike (Chicago) TBA and Sept 3 at the Kessler Theater (Oak Cliff/Dallas) http://www.thekessler.org/
FEVER IN THE FUNKHOUSE playing Aug 26, 2010 Stubbs with the New Bohemians and Kevin McKinney from SoulHat (Austin); Aug 27 Last Concert Café (Houston); Aug 28 All Good Café anniversary (Deep Ellum Dallas); Sept 4th Jack's Backyard (Dallas)
July 1-18, 2010 (Los Angeles) very cool "trashy" opera I worked on awhile back with ingenious composer O-Lan Jones set to open July 1st at an abaondoned car dealership warehouse in Culver City
Recent work with Theater Without Borders: