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Embracing the Margins: Play a Journal of Plays

Noble Fir by Jonathan Berger, part of “Scene Seven: a result.”
Noble Fir by Jonathan Berger, part of “Scene Seven: a result.”

The editors’ note to the newly published Play A Journal of Plays (Issue Number Two) is a typewritten text, marked up with discursive handwritten notes that spill out into the margins: riffing on content, aligning personal histories, bickering playfully yet passionately about writers and aesthetics, and ultimately forging a narrative about the pieces in the journal you are about to read.

The conversation you are turning the journal (and your head) askew to read is between co-editors Jordan Harrison and Sally Oswald. In a pragmatic sense, the text reflects the conditions in which they created the journal—Sally lives in New York, Jordan in Minneapolis; the document was faxed back and forth, thus forcing the dialogue onto the page. But most editing conversations end in the galleys, and what the reader sees is the final product: lean, arch, narrative-driven, comments integrated, digressions lopped off in a mercenary fashion, all wrapped up in a sound-bite finish. Polish is achieved, a single narrative chosen, but at what price?

Jordan and Sally, both playwrights, felt that this was exactly the process plaguing theater. At the same time, they saw genuinely new ideas spilling over the margins into new forms that rarely advance beyond the playwright’s notebook. As Jordan pens in an editorial aside: “Walking through a gallery of Jasper Johnses recently, sketches on the wall. A playwright friend and I think: we’re jealous of an art that displays false starts, noodlings...that has a looser sense of PRODUCT.”

Play A Journal of Plays (Jordan comments that they get a perverse pleasure in trying to always use the full name) was conceived as a venue for plays written for the page. The editors met at Brown in the MFA program for playwriting, a place where chair Paula Vogel actively laments the “plasticity of plays on the stage,” and encourages writers to explore the potential of plays written for the page—with diagrams, impossible staging requirements, sound effects, no actors, a hundred actors, in short all the extremes that send most producers into quivers of horror.

Certainly these pieces could be seen as writing exercises that defy producible convention and open up the writers’ minds, so that they might then return to the fold and add something new to that very devil of a producer-friend model (naturalism, eight characters max, four characters preferred, etc.). But Sally and Jordan saw that this experimentation extended far beyond the Brown community. They put out a call for submissions, and discovered a body of amazing pieces of theater that might never see a stage, but could happily exist for a theater of one, between the reader and the page. The pieces also point the direction to a very real and exciting new genre-bending model of what produced theater can be.

The first issue of the annual journal was published in 2003. In selecting the pieces, they found the focus was definitely towards “exploring the farthest reaches of the possible”: most of the featured work had either never been staged or was impossible to stage. Sawako Nakayasu’s play is “a multiple wedding structured around a hockey game, taking place inside a cake.” K. Silem Mohammad contributed a piece composed using text from Google search result pages. Robert Quillen Camp’s five-page play features 25 performers; Mark Tardi’s has “at least zero characters,” but its sparse beauty on the page has the quality of a poem; In Thalia Field’s The Smallest Something Not Quite Nothing, the characters are invisible; in an excerpt of Jordan’s play Dead Act, a traveling attraction, the audience members die off until at the end there remains only one, who takes over the narrative. In Sally’s short play, a section entitled “How To Make Part Of The Heavens Grow Slowly Clouded” features protagonists who are actual lines from an astro-map (AB, EF, GH, etc.) Erik Ehn’s play The Way They Shine has impossibly beautiful stage directions: “Silk song pulled from Merle’s throat by tiny fairies poling time boats.” Certainly, all this can be staged, but something of the language and the open imagery is lost. In the reading, the imagination is irreplaceably stimulated.

Issue 2 of Play A Journal of Plays (2004/5) launches a new direction for the journal: a “Portfolio” section dedicated to a discipline outside of playwriting. For this issue it was puppetry, guest curated by Dan Hurlin. The intention, as in the first volume of the journal, is to open up the convention of what a play can be. “When you don’t know what the conventions are, you’re kind of freed from them,” says Jordan. Or as he and Sally explain in their intro, they are looking to “find (i.e. plunder) new playwriting notations” and expose these findings. “By looking at the way ‘outsiders’ use the page to map spectacle-to-be, or to preserve a past one for posterity, perhaps we can learn less standardized, less tried and true, less automatic ways of writing for theater.” The result is an intriguing series of production sketches that read like high art cartoons, and have been performed with puppets at various locations from Mabou Mines, La MaMa and St. Ann’s Warehouse to Seattle Repertory and CalArts.

Thick with slides, diagrams, montages and other journeys in pictures, it is a stimulating collection that evokes a performed visual experience, but also follows a commitment to the kind of theater that exists between the reader and the page. Theodora Skipitares’s Helen, Queen of Sparta features a scroll that unfurls from the page and a “cloud pocket” hand-stuffed with cotton. The stage directions and illustrations to Jonathan Berger’s Noble Fir read like visualized poetry. Dan Hurlin’s Hiroshima Maiden employs a puppet airplane and visuals to recreate the attack on Japan, then turns the narrative abruptly personal as a woman runs out from behind a scrim. The sequence ends with a simple, resonant sketch illustrating the caption: “Michiko’s face falls off in chunks.”

Jordan says that they want to showcase writers who work on the page “with the rigor that a poet might.” The more traditional “play-script” portion of the journal features scripts from some linguistically and visually evocative, open texts—Mac Wellman’s Jennie Richee, the Pig Iron Theater Company’s Anodyne, Alice Tuan’s Ajax (por nobody) and Anton Dudley’s Pleaching the Coffin Sisters.

Play’s origination story is one of seizing agency. Having just met, Sally and Jordan were driving from Providence to BAM (they’d bought season subscriptions to force themselves to see theater in New York), discussing what they wanted to do and be in some comfortably distant future. Sally mentioned her dream of creating a journal some day. Jordan said: “Why don’t you do it now?”

A big question behind the journal was “How do we seize the means of production?” says Sally. In doing so, part of their goal has been to expose the innovative work of their peers and bring it to the attention of the people (literary managers, directors) who should be looking at it, but don’t know where to find it—or necessarily how to read it as viable theater. Towards this end, they have joined with Ingram Periodicals, a major national distributor—a decision not without its difficulties, but one ultimately suiting their goals. “I think there’s a real supply and demand going on in terms of the realistic chain of dramas,” Sally explains. The idea is that by giving exposure to a new kind of work, and giving a potential audience a context in which to appreciate it, a new demand just might be created.

And in the process, Sally and Jordan have made that transition from isolated theater artists fighting their own private battles, to empowered champions of other artists and their common interest. “It’s about being able to serve the field instead of asking the field to serve us,” Sally explains. “It’s about giving something—not constantly being the little starving artist down the street. We don’t want to be beggars. We want to contribute.”

Issue 3, for which they are currently accepting submissions, will feature a “Portfolio” on installation art. They’re hoping to reach out to visual artists who loosely work with a script, or are otherwise engaged in the dialogue of what it means to bring an audience into a room, what kind of performance takes place, and how that interaction is planned.

“We want to play with the notion of what a play is, what a play can be, to get outside of the notion of proper play format or even a notion of a theater,” Sally explains. “We’re going to look at different forms, to get out into the world and see where plays are happening—what conversations would these works have if they were placed next to each other?”

Both Jordan and Sally are worried about coming up with a sound bite for me. “We hope to serve an audience by widening the definition of what playwriting can be,” says Jordan, towards the end of our conversation. “There,” he sighs, relieved. But as with so much theater, it’s the false starts and digressions that carry us furthest.

To contact the editors, submit material, talk about ideas, or subscribe! (two-year subscription  $22 or volumes can be purchased separately), visit the website or write to


Emily DeVoti


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 04-JAN 05

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