What were the specific challenges and/or joys of interacting with Bowles’s texts?
Kempson: I’ve loved taking little samples of objects and certain crazes or expressions and inserting them in my own text, and letting them sort of cook in there, and seeing how everything else changes around it. And then sometimes taking the original thing out and burning it away, like making bouillon.
There’s a real specificity of location that we’ve lost, and that I mourn and grieve for. I remember as a child visiting my older aunts and my Aunt Alice saying, “If I’d known you were coming I would’ve baked a cake.” Nobody says that kind of stuff anymore. All these details—stuff that I recognize and identify with in a very deep and strong way that I don’t even have words for it. And I don’t know that Jane Bowles does either, but somehow she captures this in the objects and imagery of a particular class existence and a particular time, without defining it.
Jarcho: What you say about the specificity of location is totally right. I grew up in New York City, and the basic narrative of everything here is like, “Whoa, too bad for you, you missed the ’70s. You’re fucked forever.” I loved seeing an open rehearsal of Fondly, Collette Richland; ERS is really great at creating a world. There’s that thing of being in a place, or occupying a place. Your characters occupy a place in such a way where they’re never allowed to not be aware of where they are. Part of what creates that emphatic placedness is awkwardness. It’s the way that people’s consciousnesses bump into everything around them. I’m thinking about April Matthis in your piece, and the way she’s extremely elegant and impressive, but that elegance is crashing against everything else around her.
In “downtown theatre,” or whatever you want to call it, we love and value our performers less for their abilities to “transform” into some role and more for the particular bizarre presence that they bring to what they do. There is a kind of analogy there with Bowles’s work. There’s incredible specificity in those characters, who just refuse to resolve into your expectations of them. They are always a little more and a little less than.
Kempson: It’s as though the triumph of feminine individuality always ends up looking like Jane Bowles or like Grey Gardens.
Jarcho: Yeah, totally.
Kempson: These women chose a certain way or mode of existence. But it’s a heavy-duty price in our society to be a woman who’s like, “I’m not living by anybody else’s rules but mine.” And with Bowles, the male characters aren’t calling the shots. They are not being appealed to in the same way that they would be in Hemingway. Their viewpoint is only another viewpoint in the story. And that is really fucking rare.
I love the idea of being drawn to performers because of the particular presence that they bring to the work. Would you both talk a bit about the performers you work with, and why you continue to work with them? Do you write these roles for them, and do you know exactly who you’re going to cast?
Jarcho: Jenny Seastone Stern has a certain youthfulness that makes her feel like she’s wide open, in terms of the range of experiences that she’s willing and able to attack. There’s a certain vulnerability and an unfinishedness that she brings to a role.
That corresponds with the way that I write people. I would never write a character and know all about them. As a performer, Jenny doesn’t need to know all about the character she’s portraying. There’s a real level of contingency and questioningness to the way she performs. When I know I am working with her, it definitely enters into the way that I write certain characters.
Kempson: It was so great to see her do something really scary in Nomads. I’m writing Fondly, Collette Richland for ERS, a company I know well. I know what their struggles have been with other shows they’ve done. One of my goals in writing for ERS has been to bring equilibrium to the company in different ways. They’ve done Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald—a bunch of dead white guys.
I love writing for particular actors because I love their energy and presence, and it’s a way of getting involved with that presence and interacting and dancing with it. I often feel like the way an actor says something is a response to what I’ve written. The same goes for working with the director John Collins. It’s like a call and response.
Jarcho: What is it like to write for the person you live with [Ben Williams is a company member of ERS and also acted in Jarcho’s show Nomads]?
Kempson: It’s a big relief, actually. It’s funny, he’s so generous that I don’t have to think—and it’s the same with Mike Iveson, in a way. I can write anything for them. They’re the ones that really know me, so I have the freedom to write whatever and they’ll do it correctly.
Jarcho: I know I’m a huge nerd and you’ll have to forgive me, but I want to introduce another quote from an essay. Adorno has a moment where he says, “Each work of art is the enemy of all other works of art.” I know that’s very different from what we’re saying today at this table. My husband is a poet, and our work really moves in different spheres. But I do have a fantasy of working with him on a piece someday. As long as you have two projects in the house, there’s a kind of friction. Irreducibly, there’s a kind of…not competition but—
Kempson: No, it’s a competition. It’s like his rehearsal is more important because of all the practical stuff, like who’s going to take the garbage out.
Jarcho: Yeah, but there’s also another thing, though, like who has the truth. Whose art has the truth?
Kempson: Oh God, that’s terrifying.
Jarcho: And to be sharing it—that seems pretty utopian. We’re both making truth together.
Jarcho: Writing is so lonely, and I think the loneliness of writing is something that Jane Bowles writes about a lot. Part of the desire to turn her into theatre is a kind of reparative impulse, where you want to surround her with the people that you love, those you surround yourself with in order to make work. It’s like she’s your depressed friend and you want to bring her to the party in the room somehow.
Kempson: I know exactly what you’re saying. I keep picturing Kate Benson’s costume last night. Those costumes [by Ásta Bennie Hostetter] were a play in and of themselves. It’s like, “No, this is what I have to wear. And it’s going to be clumsy and awkward, but I have to wear this.” To me, that is at the center of Jane Bowles. I have to wear this fox fur and I’m going to be sweating, but it is essential and I must wear it.
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