Marissa Skudlarek unpacks the luggage, la-la-la…
On Monday April 15th, around lunchtime here on the West Coast, the bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I saw the headlines, kept the breaking news feed open in my internet browser. I watched the shaky footage of the explosions, with the Boston cop saying “This is fucked up ovah heah.”
And then I recalled that I was producing a show that night at Theater Pub, and quickly reviewed the script of Orphée in my head, wondering if the day’s events would lend any moments in the play an unintended resonance. I realized, with a jolt, that in the first scene of the play, Orphée says “Someone had to throw a bomb.” He’s speaking metaphorically, of course – he’s expressing his belief that the artist’s duty is to “throw a bomb, create a scandal, [provide] one of those storms that refresh the air.” Nonetheless, I wondered if it was appropriate to include that line in performance, on a day when real bombs (not metaphorical ones) had been thrown. Would it upset the audience? Would it prejudice them against the character of Orphée?
I emailed the director, Katja Rivera, and the actor playing Orphée, Andrew Chung, to say I was thinking of cutting the line. Both of them responded that they’d prefer if I left it in, and, upon reflection, I decided that they were right. If we left the script as is, we’d make a statement that art cannot be constrained or cowed by terrorism. And if our audience was mildly scandalized, so be it – one of the messages of Orphée is that true poets do not fear scandal and death. If we cut the line, I realized, we’d betray the spirit of Jean Cocteau. And the terrorists would win.
And really, why should I be afraid to leave the “Someone had to throw a bomb” line in the play when, all around me, people were doing far braver and bolder and more provocative things with their art? For the 2012 Olympians Festival, Stuart Bousel wrote a play (Twins) based on the myth of Artemis and Apollo killing Niobe’s twelve children – and then the Sandy Hook school shooting occurred the day before Stuart’s staged reading. Stuart didn’t cancel the reading, though he did warn the audience that the play dealt with a difficult and sensitive subject. Perhaps some people stayed home rather than see a play about the murder of children; perhaps a few people were offended. But many of the people who did go see the reading found it incredibly cathartic and moving. No Olympians Festival show has ever made people weep the way they did at the reading of Twins that night. Art needs to tell difficult truths; otherwise, it’s just pabulum.
I attended some of the 2012 Olympians Festival readings with the man who is now my boyfriend. The festival must’ve made quite an impression on him, because a few weeks later, he wrote me an email telling me about a dream he’d had:
I dreamed that we were at the Olympians Festival and the city was in panic because the gods were coming to punish us for blaspheming them. “But we didn’t blaspheme them,” I protested. “Oh, but we did,” you said, turning to Stuart, “in so-and-so’s play and in what’s-his-name’s play too, really.” You turned back to me and nodded slightly. You seemed not the least bit concerned and Stuart had his usual air of interest and mild amusement. Your body language suggested that this was part of the writer’s life: sometimes you win trophies, sometimes you inspire blogs, and sometimes ancient gods come to punish the city, and that’s just how it is.
I was flattered that he was dreaming about me, of course, but even more flattered by the way that I appeared in his dream. I liked how the dream-Marissa had the artistic and moral courage to say “An artist must be permitted to write whatever he wants, even if he blasphemes the gods and attracts divine retribution.” These sentiments also seemed to tie in nicely with Stuart’s Theater Pub blog post about artistic courage (otherwise known as “the post with all of the Lord of the Rings in-jokes”), which appeared the same week my boyfriend had this dream.
In real life, I may not yet have the courage of Eowyn the Shield-Maiden, or of Orphée the poet who faces an angry mob, or of the coolly nonchalant figure in my boyfriend’s dream. But I’m trying to be braver and more honest in my work this year. I’m trying to live up to that ideal.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.