Wednesday, September 03, 2014

I Interview Playwrights Part 689: Sari Caine


Sari Caine

Hometown: NYC

Current Town: NYC. So fun mildly-embarrassing fact about me that I didn’t realize existed until it randomly made its way out in conversation (for the first time) with Tina Howe during my Hunter grad school interview (I am happy to say I am going to be attending despite this awkward moment!)

I have actually not Left NYC for longer than a two month period of time.

I think Tina said something like, “Oh Sari…” there was a long pause, we were standing by the elevator, waiting, and that just said it all. She kindly added, “You need to go to Paris right away!” which I heartily agree with.

I tried to cover my NYC gaffe by saying something like, “I haven’t traveled out of NYC very much, but I think of people as my geography.” I do think this is true.

In fact, three years ago I actually moved back in with my parents so I could save money for producing and keep writing and taking acting jobs that didn’t pay enough and cut back on my chess teaching, and so now not only have I never left NYC for longer than 2 months, I am also right back where I started! However I recently read that Martha Plimpton still lives where she grew up in NYC, and I hope this is true, because it makes me feel much better. If it isn’t true, and you know me, please don’t tell me.

Q:  Tell me about Mr. Landing Takes A Fall.

A:  A woman secretly decides to put her family's longtime home up for sale. When a young couple stumbles into the house, a darkly comic dystopian journey begins. What does Home really mean, and how do you live with the ones you love -- or leave them?

It’s a drawing room comedy really. Which then gets turned on its head. Older couple and younger couple. Picture the Lunts in their twilight years, played by the remarkable (and non-twilit yeared!) Adam LeFevre and Kathryn Rossetter. They bring so much to it, they are hysterical and heartbreaking.

So it’s this drawing room comedy, taking place in what seems to be an American Suburban house, but things are slightly off (which is inherent to a Slightly Altered State productions) you can’t quite put your finger on it right away, and gradually the structure of the drawing room play falls apart, and –without giving too much of anything away- I will just say there becomes nothing ‘mannered’ about these four people anymore.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I try to always have at least two things to work on, so that there’s always something ‘fun’ I can turn to, when the other piece becomes not fun to work on anymore, but difficult. The eventual trouble with that, is as the ‘fun’ play progresses, it also becomes ‘not fun’ to work on, and spawns its own procrastination project, which will in turn take on its own life, becomes not fun, etc.

Interesting side note, I read that Dickens went mad at the end of his life and suffered from the ongoing hallucination that characters from his novels were chasing him, and he would run from them down the street, swatting them away with his cane. I fear that, add a cat or two, and some plastic bags and wild hair (perhaps Dickens had that?), that could easily become me too.

I started getting back into fiction this year, and am working on a novella The Earl of Edinburgh (and trying to find out what Novella really means these days) on the obligatory web series, and helping develop a new series for TV -if it gets picked up, that is… I’m also trying to finish three plays that are almost (ha!) done, and excited to be starting grad school at Hunter with Tina Howe and Arthur Kopit, I have promised them I am going to start something new, which excites and terrifies me.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I feel like philosophy and poetry and theater have become these things –I was just having this conversation with Adam in rehearsal actually today- that used to be considered essential to humanity, and now are seen as a bit obsolete, and even frivolous.

I think with all these gadgets we have now, and various other forms of technology, we are damaging our ability both to concentrate and also to day dream –which is crucial to our making progress both as individuals and as a species, most great discoveries result from daydreaming–Our actual instances of real “in person communication” when did that even become a term, by the way?? with our peers is diminishing. These are all areas where theater can bring us back to the present, and give us a shared collective experience. I guess I would change how exorbitant it is to produce, largely owing to space (I am working with a great theater advocacy group now called League of Independent Theaters which is currently beginning to address this, as well as other things, they gave us a GREAT rehearsal space grant) and I would try to take theater, in a sense, out of the proscribed box of ‘theater’ to not have it be something safe, and removed from life. As a culture, we have so few ritual ceremonies and things that acknowledge the need to feed the spirit as well.

Try to make it more instantaneous, more relevant to people –by which I don’t mean ‘contemporary themes’ persay- and to make it more available, because I do believe that it is an important and ancient outlet for people which allows them to question their lives, re-remember and reach for their dreams, and touch something larger then themselves. Theater, to me, should be something so alive that it crackles, and excites you and reaches you from the stage, and compels you to feel and think.

We live in this day and age of ‘how to’ there’s a ‘how to’ book for everything, and an obsession with doing things the right way, it’s important to see people in our society who don’t try to find the right way to do things, but search for the genuine and honest and individual way, and don’t try to identify and follow the rules all the time.

I’m sorry if I’m on a soapbox here, but I’m also a teacher, and I see everyday how overscheduled kids today are or on the other end of the spectrum, not given access to arts in the education system, and in terms of education, the idea of ‘teaching how to think’ is being replaced with trying to stuff their heads with memorized information regardless of what it does for them, what they will make of it, and whether it will give them an independent and self-capable way of looking at and understanding the world once they leave school.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  I have so many! I can’t put them all here but, to list a few: I grew up acting as a kid in NYC, and a lot of my theatrical heroes were the older actors I would hang out with backstage. There’s a new breed of actor today, who does yoga, and sells real estate, and a lot of self help and vegan food. Now, that descriptions also describes me! but I still miss the old days with these actors who smoke and drank and swore and got into fistfights. There was a wonderful combination of these erudite people, who spent a lot of time on the road and were pretty street-wise, who could quote Shakespeare, or anything, at the drop of a hat (and often did), lived out of suitcases, and were the most open, available, compassionate (in an often hidden way) hugely humorous people, who would have gigantic rages, and get into brawls. It’s just another time, but I do miss those grandiose yet humble personalities, and they always find their way into my plays. Especially this one.

I was so fortunate in that I have had some wonderful mentors, who are now sadly both departed. They were such artists in their own right, Freddy Kareman who was my acting teacher, and Stephanie Scourby who was my singing teacher, and so much more than that. They were completely devoted to their craft, and they were also amazing people, with strong values and opinions and understandings of the world. They would tell me wonderful stories of my favorite American playwrights, and the Lunts, and Eva La Galliene’s company, and the Adlers, and Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof, and many more. When I was a kid, I read all the old biographies and autobiographies of actors who were on the vaudeville circuit, and then others who were part of the Group theater scene. The life of an actor has changed so greatly since then, and I am constantly inspired and humbled by the foundations they set for us, and how hard they worked. A few books that come to mind are Leo Adler’s, Shelly Winters’, Elia Kazan, Harpo Marx’s book, Fred Allen, Ruth Gordon, and Arthur Miller’s Timebends.

In terms of writers, Shakespeare is still the most amazing writer for me. He is capable of anything, and has everything in his plays. There are so many writers I love, in no particular order: Tennessee Williams, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Oscar Wilde, Beth Henley, Phillip Barry, Noel Coward, Kauffman and Hart, Clifford Odets, Herb Gardner, Euripides, Brendan Behan, Shaw, and Tina Howe, who I am excited to start studying with at Hunter this fall!

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Good theater excites me! I don’t mean that in an obnoxious way, but if the material is good and the actors are engaged, I don’t care about the style or format.

I guess my caveat is that plays are things which should belong in theater and not on a tv screen.

My favorite show growing up was Fawlty Towers. I adored it, still do. I even had a dream where I got to meet one celebrity, and my dream self chose John Cleese! Of course I never ended up being able to meet him, even in my dream.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Write a lot, and read a lot. I love Stella Adler’s take on being an actor, which is not exclusive only to her, that actors are studiers of human behavior –again, just had this conversation with Adam in rehearsal! I firmly believe writers, directors, musicians, for all people in creative fields, that it is our job to be aware of what is going on in the world, to have a comprehensive knowledge of music, literature, history, philosophy, science, and especially all mythological. Everything that is human, animal really, is our collective history and unconscious, and feeds our ability to create authentic work that will speak to us all throughout all times. Stay aware of your dreams, all my material ends up eventually featuring a dream or two! Deadlines! Surround yourself with people who’s feedback you can trust, and learn who to listen to when. Have a project that is the ‘fun’ project to work on, while you’re working on your main project. Hear things outloud read by actors!

I read something in Earnest Hemmingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ that I loved, he wrote –I’m being lazy here and not finding exact quote- that you should always leave a little something for tomorrow. In other words, stop while you’re still excited, before you’ve written down everything you wanted to say, so that the next day you can return with a clear entry point.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  My show, Mr Landing Takes a Fall, will be premiering at The Flea, Sept 12- Oct 5. My theater company Slightly Altered States is producing it, we have an amazing design team, and Wonderful cast with Adam LeFevre, Kathryn Rossetter, and then myself and David Rigo (my producing partner). Dave and I first formed the theater company 3 ½ years ago with the goal of producing this play, and didn’t want to do it until we had all the right circumstances, which I’m happy to say now we do have.

Kef production is doing ITS ONLY KICKBALL, STUPID at Hartley House, and Metropolitan Playhouse is doing ICEBOUND.


Q:  Tell me if you will a story that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  STORY

Alright guys, I have put this at the end, because it is a long one. Read it, or skip it, but it is a good one! And one I’ve never even tried to put down before. This is the story of “that time I took the Jimson Weed by mistake at summer camp, thinking it was something else (obviously) when I was ten.”

When I was ten, I as at this wonderful working farm school and camp, Treetops, and there was this ageless woman there, Mildred, who has since passed on. She knew everything about the woods and how to make pancakes out of acorns and blueberries, what to eat, what to use medicinally, and having just read My Side Of The Mountiain, I found this thrilling. I still do! So August comes, and it is time for the annual Wild Foods Festival, in which we forage the woods during the day, and have a huge “wild” feast at night. I was sent to collect Milk Thistle, and went off happily with a basket into the woods. If this sounds like a version of little red riding hood, read on!

Now, I had a terrible habit of eating things I found, mostly lemon grass, blueberries, and the occasional pine needle I would chew on. In this case, I tried some of what I thought was milk thistle, went back to the feast, and as it progressed, began to feel distinctly odd. Faces were growing larger and smaller, colors brighter, and I began hearing strange melodic riffs, not entirely unpleasant. So, being a shy and internalized ten year old, I excused myself without mentioning any of this to anyone, and went back to my lean-to. In my lean to –which I shared with three other girls- sound began going in and out, as though someone was cupping my ears over with sea shells, and then letting go. There were a couple older campers sitting on my friend’s bed, and I was trying to be cool for them, and not the weird quirky person I had developed a reputation for being. As I’m sitting there trying to be cool, my friend who had beautiful long blond hair suddenly grew a tail and other distinct mermaid features and started singing the loveliest song into a sea shell, then the older girl suddenly grew long talon-like fingernails, aged into an old crone before my eyes, scratched her face off, turned into a huge bird, and flew away.

So, once again finding myself unfit for company, I excused myself, and left the lean to. I assumed –and rightly- that whatever was going on was clearly something going on with me, and not anyone else, and I thought I’d wait it out and whatever it was would pass, then I would figure it out later. I’ve always tended to be more of an observer and disliked drawing attention out of vulnerability. I came to the edge of a hill that went steeply down to the lake, stood over the edge, and contemplated my sudden confidence in my ability to fly. As I stepped toward the edge to do so, a giant wooden cross rose up from the lake before my eyes. Now I am not, nor have I ever been religious, so this cross was a somewhat bizarre sight for me. I stared at it, focusing sharply trying to figure out what it was doing there, until my eye was caught by a tiny ant. This ant was struggling to carry an enormous burden up the wood, and kept falling down. In a flash of –I don’t know what? Some kind of ten year old spiritual enlightenment?!- I thought, That’s It! If we all helped each other, we could make it all the way up, carrying any burden.

I moved again towards the edge of the hill towards it to help. Just then my lean-to mate came out to find me and ask if I was okay. I discovered I had lost ability to speak. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t, as that, when I started to formulate words, it seemed so unnecessary and burdensome, I chose not to. But I wasn’t concerned, as I felt like I could, if I really wanted to. So she took me to find the late night counselor who of course always played his guitar by the dying embers of the fire, in the center of the farm. I’ve actually never tried to set this down in writing before, I think it’s really meant to be told out loud. But, to sum up, I had decided at this point not to talk, really overall not to engage or express myself unless there seemed to be a real need, because breaking the stillness and the pool of quiet I found myself in, seemed to require a dangerously high level of reason.

They took me to the nurse at the nurse’s office, who wasn’t there, and tried over the course of that night and I believe the next day to feed me saltines and bananas, I remember smiling kindly (I think) but refusing both. I was much more interested in everything that was going on, not in a looking around and paying overt attention feeling, but I was aware of many things, like a deep thick spider web of the strongest waves, gently pulsing all around, of which I was a part. I was too full for food. You’ve probably deduced by now I was on some kind of wild-growing edible drug, and I was; I had quite randomly picked and eaten –it was later determined- Jimson Weed.

Apparently the soldiers of Jamestown in 1776 had an encounter with Jimson Weed too, it was rather Shakespearean:

Captain John Smith, founder of Jamestown. In 1676, British soldiers were sent to stop the Rebellion of Bacon. Jamestown weed (Jimsonweed) was boiled for inclusion in a salad, which the soldiers readily ate. The hallucinogenic properties of jimsonweed took affect. As told by Robert Beverly in The History and Present State of Virginia (1705): The soldiers presented "a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll.

"In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves - though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after 11 days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed."

Interestingly enough, that seems to be where Datura gets its American name Jimson Weed from –Jamestown. Otherwise, The genus name is derived from dhatura, an ancient Hindu word for a plant. Stramonium is originally from Greek, strychnos στρύχνος "nightshade" and maniakos μανιακός "mad".[31] Mad Nightshade, that seems apt to me. There’s also a little ditty: The phrase "Red as a beet, dry as a bone, blind as a bat, mad as a hatter" has been used to describe Jimson's effects, and it does a good job of summing them up.

The nurse was finally roused to come and deal with me on her one night off. They were all made even more angry by the fact that I would not speak, I was mystified by that myself. I felt certain if I opened my mouth and tried, I could. But, like I said earlier, the idea of starting to try to open my mouth, to say something, seemed… Obsolete?

So they took me on a midnight ride the next night (I believe it was the next night, the details certainly escape me, but I have done my best to piece it back together) to Lake Placid’s hospital, where the doctor there, a short squat little bearded man with a devilish looking moustache (or so I remember) told me to walk in a straight line (it tickled me to see I couldn’t, I hadn’t noticed that before) and then asked me if I was tripping. Relieved someone finally understood my difficulty with motor skills, I nodded my head yes. He released me, telling them I was on drugs. He wasn’t, of course, wrong.

As this “trip” progressed, I did see things. And I went in and out of varying degrees of awareness with the world. At times it was too difficult to concentrate on what was going on around me, because I was so absorbed; at others, I felt only mildly detached. Likewise the hallucinations; sometimes straight on visions, and others just a ceaseless throbbing-pulsing of the walls (which continues to occasionally visit me to this day), elongated faces of those around me, and echoey noises when they talked, most of which could be adjusted to and ignored. I don’t remember a lot of this. What I do remember clearly, is being locked in to the nurse’s quarters, a not uncomfortable if boring four white walls with a bed and a desk kind of room.

I had an interesting experience in the bathroom. As I was washing my hands, I heard a voice coming from behind me, and turned to see a full-length human-adult sized pink bunny lounging in the tub. It was talking to me, I can’t remember everything it was saying. But it had a sort of film-noirish way of speaking. Like a giant pink Humphrey Bogart bunny. The conversation (which was lovely because I didn’t have to reply out loud, it could hear my thoughts) went something like this (Bunny out loud, me silent):

Bunny: “You know what your friends are all doing right now?”

Me: “What?”

Bunny, slightly sardonic laugh: “They’re all getting their picture taken for the camp photo.”

Me: “How do you know?”

Bunny: “Right at the bottom of this hill. They’re all there now.” rising from the tub and coming to stand behind me at the mirror: “Bet you wish you could be there, don’t you.”

Me: silence…

Bunny, soft persuasive whisper in my ear: “So why don’t you?”

Me: “What?”

Bunny, impatient: “Why don’t you go join them?”

Me: “Because I can’t get out. I’m not supposed to go anywhere.”

Bunny, laugh: “You’re going to listen to them?”

(Side note: Any time I’ve heard voices in my head –only from hallucinogenic experiences- they’ve all been renegades, slightly mocking me, and inciting me to rebel against authority!)

Me: … What can I do? The door’s locked.”

Bunny, with a ‘oh I guess you’d better give up then’ gesture, put his hands in his pocket area, and begins to walk away.

Me: “I can’t do anything-“

Bunny –immediately beside me again- whispers in my ear: “The window.”

I look at the window. It is small and very high up.

Me: “I can’t reach that.”

Bunny: “I guess you’d better give up then.”

Sits on tub, mock-twiddles thumbs. Me: waiting, watching him.

Bunny: “Or, I could help you, give you a lift.”

Short end to this, the Bunny gives me a lift so I can reach window, I open it, and crawl out. I move through the blueberry bushes and get cut up on the thorns, reach the bottom of the hill, in time for the camp photo –they were all in fact waiting there at the bottom of the hill. All I can tell you about that is this, I was in fact in the photo, I was supposed to be shut into the nurse’s office, I can’t remember how high the window was, but I know for a child of ten suffering from poor motor skills and terminally weak upper body strength, getting out alone would have been very hard to do. Did an imaginary bunny really give me a boost out of it? I can only point disbelievers to “Harvey.” And that is all I will say. That, and I still have in my possession that photo, of August at Treetops, everyone smiling, doing regular camp photo things, me, dazed and glassy-eyed, having just tumbled through the blueberry bushes, not quite focusing on anything at all.

Around this point, my family was called, and my sister and mom made the 7 hour journey (did they drive through the night?) to come up and get me, nobody quite sure what was wrong, “She just went…?” speaking in hushed voices, but in front of me, as though since I wasn’t speaking I couldn’t hear.

So my mom and sister arrive. My poor sister, who was always getting dragged into my scrapes. Distinct memory of kids huddled together watching me as my bags were packed and I was placed mute into the car. Still not speaking, no desire to. Communication felt like a heavy barrier.

On the car ride back, I do remember brushing my teeth, then spitting out the front window, realizing just in time the implications of doing that in a moving car and ducking, only to have the toothpaste spit fly back and hit my mother …

Once home, back to 23rd st in NYC, the round of doctors’ appointments begin. Trips to the neurologist: they placed foam-like things and wires on my head. Did I get an MRI? Catscan?

“Her brain looks fine.” They said.

Was it week two now? Still difficulty with motor skills and no speaking, not eating except what I was forced to, I felt different now, more with it, but still as though I were on top of a giant light house, looking at everything down and around me through a small point that widened into a wide sweep of a light beam onto objects far away. No longer strictly hallucinating, just the walls pulsing, and occasionally the floor rising slightly up and down, like it was its own private ship. Stairs were, and remain to this day, a challenge. Was I a clutz beforehand? Certainly. So I can’t blame it all on the ‘trip.’ Revolving doors, corners of things, moving away from things in time, or towards them, anything depth-perception related, coming into surprise-contact with mirrors, are all a bit tricky for me.

I don’t remember speaking, or feeling afraid, but apparently I told my sister I thought I was dying. What I remember though is not feeling scared, but that I had retreated, which I had a tendency to do anyway, only this time I was on the other side of things, with no real understanding of how to get back. Finally, at their wits end, my parents took me to Bellevue. There, I remember the chin-rest had blood on it, and I wouldn’t put my chin down and I wouldn’t tell them why. Coming back into the examination room to make me, my mother saw the bloody chin rest and had a fit. The regular questions, the regular confused responses. One day she was… and then she wasn’t…

As it happened, this time was different. There was randomly (I swear this is true!) a convention of poison specialists from around the world being held at Bellevue that day, just a few floors above us. I remember a room full of doctors, the typical ‘Walk in a straight line’ (I couldn’t), and that they kept hitting my knee with the rubber hammer, and saying ‘Look, no response!’ and me thinking, “Why do they keep hitting it then?”

It was they who determined what I must have ingested, looked at the pictures of milk thistle and jimson weed, seen it grew wild up in the Adirondacks, and matched it to my symptoms. Told us I was very lucky to have suffered no real damage. And then, it was like a mask had been lifted out from over me, I was fine, I was alright, it was a case of ‘food’ poisoning? At least, the doctors chuckled, her hallucinations were benign. An adult-sized talking pink bunny? Could have been much worse. Suddenly, I could talk again, it felt awkward and unfamiliar. I was secretly reluctant to try, knowing I had found a place of solitude and stillness, realizing I would lose that once I re-engaged.

The walking improved. For the next couple years, my immune system was weakened and I had to eat a very strict diet of basically rice and broccoli and potatoes, multitudes of supplements a day. Things like the smell of fresh paint made me dizzy, the walls throbbed and the floor rose at the slightest glance, as though mocking me. Then it faded too, though after that I grew fascinated with my newfound ability to make them breathe slightly in and out by will, a trick I still keep to this day.

I recently came across a folder with the doctor’s report covering the next couple years, listing symptoms, strict diet policy and supplements to follow, huge amounts of allergies. I remember finding all these restrictions and the supplements annoying.

“But when will they stop?” I asked the doctor.

“When you feel better.”

“When will that be?”

“When you don’t notice how you feel at all.”

I thought about that for years.

And returned to the farm-camp as soon as I was able, though the reputation of being ‘that weird girl who saw full-length pink adult male bunnies’ was one I never could out grow. One person even gave me a card with a bunch of pink bunnies on the front.

I hesitated about including this story, because I don’t want to give the impression that this happened and changed me, I don’t feel like it did that. I feel rather that it deepened / made me more deeply who I already was. And if you think this would have scared me away from either the Adirondacks or a real teenage experimentation with drugs, all I will say is this … I still go to the Adirondacks every summer.


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