Whatever you may have heard about the death of the printed word, the world of publishing plays has only grown. Grand old dukes like Samuel French, Inc., still issue their indispensable acting editions; the one-time whippersnapper Playscripts, Inc., has widened its net and its accessibility to playwrights; TCG issues monographs by playwrights and curated anthologies alike. But for the reader eager to study a text in hand, the sacredness of a certain kind of play-book seems to be disappearing.
The published volume tends to encourage solitary meditation, and it is one measure of theatre’s infinite pleasures that such a collaborative, audience-oriented form can lend itself (when the text rather than performance is the focus) to lonely contemplation. But where are the beautifully bound objets d’art of times past, the little editions that could fit in a coat pocket, that call out for an afternoon and a shade tree to think under?
Enter 53rd State Press, Karinne Keithley Syers and Antje Oegel’s exquisitely anachronistic venture. Chosen like bijoux from a dressing table, each play in this rigorously edited imprint reflects the founders’ care and adventurous taste. Based on a subscriber model (and printing on-demand), the press allows its customers to create their own collections, or to join, letting the press send its small roster out one by one. Choose a cluster of plays online (www.53rdstatepress.org), and soon each will arrive separately in the mail, that other delightfully old-fashioned institution.
The plays themselves, though, sit right at the leading edge of the genre that could be called, variously, the Brooklyn School, the Avant-Weird or the Neorealist Uncanny. Many of the playwrights have connections to the great modernist poet-playwright Mac Wellman (The Hyacinth Macaw), whose Brooklyn College program has been a training ground for the vast majority of the writers in the 53rd State stable. Wellman himself has a work in the 2012–13 catalog, an “Occasional,” a sort of almanac of responses to questions about theatre.
Syers too is a poet, playwright and Brooklyn College alum, and 53rd State publishes her cubist portrait of a mysterious asylum, Montgomery Park, or Opulence: an essay in the form of a building. When Montgomery Park was produced, the performance even included a “museum” of associated ephemera. Clearly, materiality and thing-ness is important in Syers’s work, so it is crucial that a printed version of her play have the deeply struck, handsome serif font on each page, listing the “Card Catalog Headings Pertaining to Montgomery Park” or elliptical phrases like “What’s illimitable is its brightness.”
Just as Montgomery Park requires a retro delicacy, others of these post-dramatic works need more robust editions: Sibyl Kempson’s riotously character-stuffed carnival Crime or Emergency sports an irreverent picture of the playwright’s aunt making an obscene gesture; Rob Erickson’s lunatic golf rant-cum-language poem, Off the Hozzle, comes complete with pen-and-ink cartoons by the writer’s golf-expert dad.
These three pieces particularly skirt accessibility, requiring frequent, dedicated reading—you will certainly need a few afternoons with that shade tree. Others in the catalog, though, do read more or less traditionally: for example, Erin Courtney’s Obie-winning, symmetry-obsessed thriller A Map of Virtue, and the valuable collection of plays by the Philadelphia collective Pig Iron Theatre Company (see page 66). One of the most important New York groups, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, has three play texts on offer (the playful Rambo Solo, the verbatim phone-conversation collage No Dice, and the biographical Life and Times, Episode 1-4), and no library of current trends in performance should really be without them.
Looking at the 2013 lineup, we see Kristen Kosmas’s opaque party for a mysterious candidate called The Mayor of Baltimore; the environmental fable Ich, KürbisGeist and the Secret Death of Puppets from the wild-child lyricist Kempson (who invents her own pidgin German for the purpose); and a searing compendium on genocide by Erik Ehn (Soulographie). It’s a strange cornucopia. All, though, will have been as scrupulously designed as cross-stitch samplers, making them a pleasure to handle, to read and reread.
The relationship between text and performance is a looser relationship in these experimental works than in more conventional ones, so reading them feels entirely different from reading the scripts we’ve grown used to. If theatre likes to focus on the small, exquisitely crafted moment, 53rd State Press’s publications force us to actually cradle a small, exquisitely crafted object in our hands. Some theatrical publications—like the hefty anthology, say—may not have a future, but they do have a beautiful past, and Syers and Oegel’s artisanal approach reminds us that looking backward may be the proper companion perspective for any aesthetic surging ahead.
Helen Shaw is a New York–based critic and theatre specialist.