We could all use a little Chuck Mee in our lives, especially now. The legendary playwright of Berlin Circle (a.k.a. Full Circle), Big Love, and bobrauschenbergamerica, among dozens of other works, is known for a playfully avant-garde approach to text, whether he’s adapting classics or writing wistful romantic comedies. Charles L. Mee (he/him) is also known for a long view of human history that is remarkably sanguine without being saccharine, and it is that quality that he’s revisiting in Utopia, a new play commissioned by San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater and set to have its online premiere on Vimeo, streaming on demand from Fri., Oct. 16 to Sun., Nov. 15. (Tickets are $20 to $50 per household.)
Ariel Craft (she/her), Cutting Ball’s artistic director, told me that this is the only one of the company’s planned onstage productions they’re adapting for an online format at this point, because it’s “so poetic and so odd, and so loosely bears a resemblance to a traditional theatre play anyway, it lent itself to the flexibility and the call to innovate of this opportunity.” The play, true to its title and Mee’s disposition, Craft said, is “idiosyncratic yet constantly joyous, unashamedly optimistic,” and as such it “requires some emotional gymnastics. It’s an incredibly challenging and nourishing experience to work on this play—to envision utopia in a time of dystopia.”
I spoke to Mee a few weeks ago about the play, his craft, and the world. Like my conversation with another theatre elder, André Gregory, earlier in the pandemic lockdown, my chat with Mee didn’t quite set my mind at ease about the world, but it did give me some much-needed spiritual sustenance to engage with a lively and circumspect artist with his share of wisdom.
CHUCK MEE: How are you?
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I’m doing okay. It’s not an easy question right now—there’s more substance to it than small talk. How about you?
MEE: Just fine. I am sitting at my desk, and I look out the window, and that’s how I spend my life anyways.
WEINERT-KENDT: Yes, I’ve heard some people say that this pandemic is giving everybody a chance to know what it’s like to be a writer. I want to talk about this play, but also just anything else that comes to mind, since you have a lot of things on your mind. Is this play Utopia related to your previous play Utopia Parkway, or is it a totally new work?
It’s totally new. Utopia Parkway is a dreadful, horrible play—I mean, it’s tragic and awful. This play is: What if the dream came true?
Were there any terms or guidelines to the commission from Cutting Ball?
No. Just, “Would you write a play?” Weirdly, I wrote it before all of the tremendous protesting and everything was going on. The play is, a girl and her mother go to a café for coffee and ice cream, and I get to listen to all the other people in the café having conversations. The people are Black and white and Asian and South American and Indian, straight, gay, lesbian, young, old, abled, disabled. But none of them happen to mention that—they’re not denying any differences in race and gender and age and ability or disability, but they’re not living in a world where these are difficult issues that need to be addressed anymore. They live in the world that has evolved beyond that, to a place where everyone’s living together and feeling good together, and just needing to talk about food and tea and love. This is the world that the nine-year-old girl wants to live in: a world that feels really good to everyone. So of course they sing and dance and eat croissants.
I guess this is a dreadful kind of critic question, but where’s the drama in a place where everyone is happy? Where do you find conflict in that?
Well, the Greeks wrote plays where the principals advanced the plot and then the chorus riffs, the principals advance the plot, the chorus riffs, and so on. By the time you get to Ibsen, the principals advance the plot, principals advance the plot, principals advance the plot—no chorus riffing. And by the time you get Pina Bausch, she’s just: The chorus riffs, the chorus riffs, the chorus riffs. So this is more like a Pina Bausch piece. There are some principals and the plot is, how do I make a life for myself? We watch these people and think, yeah, this is a good life.
So it’s a world that’s moved beyond the conflicts we face now. Does it allude to how those were overcome? Or is just like, we’ve moved on and now we’re talking about other things?
It’s that we moved on and this is what it’s like when you get there. This is the reality, that life is going to be utopic.
Okay, I’m not digging for darkness here. But the meaning of “utopia” is literally “no place.” So are you suggesting this is a sort of afterlife, or a place that’s not quite real?
No. It’s really, this is how it will be when we get to heaven, but heaven on earth. We just live together without any of those issues coming up as issues.
You wrote this before the pandemic came along and shut everything down. Have you been involved in adapting how it’s going to be staged now?
No, I haven’t.
You just did the words, right. A lot of your work does read like poetry. Do you think of your work as a kind of stage poetry?
No, I think of it as Greek chorus. You know, there’s a tremendous amount of European dance theatre—Pina Bausch, Alain Platel, Sidi Larbi Cherkaou, Pippo Delbono, Romeo Castellucci. They have no plot, no narrative, no storyline. They just take a theme or a feeling and they riff on that for the evening. So the sort of formal structure is a little bit more like the visual arts or music or dance.
You’re also known for appropriation and sort of a cut-up approach to text. Is that part of this piece too?
I don’t think I drew from outside sources so much in this piece. Sometimes I just get up in the morning and write something. My process has been hugely inspired by all the dance theatre of Europe and by a number of visual artists, and that definitely includes Robert Rauschenberg and others who make collage. Aside from fact that Rauschenberg came to N.Y. and lived in Soho, wandered out his horrible studio, would go out and pick shit up off the street and put it on his canvas. I was inspired by that.
You didn’t create Utopia in the room with Cutting Ball, for many reasons, but you have made theatre that way, in the room, on its feet with the performers?
Oh, definitely. Starting back in the ancient days I graduated from college in 1960 and had plays done at La MaMa and Caffé Cino. And then I got caught up in anti-Vietnam War activities, which began to consume my life, and then I began to write books about American international relations. That argument consumed me for about 20 years. I didn’t get back to writing for the theatre until the 1980s. And the first piece I did was a piece with the choreographer/director, Martha Clarke. In that world, you go into the room with Martha and some dancers and they begin to look at some paintings from Vienna at the end of the 19th century, and say, “Oh, I could do this, I can do that.” And I watch them move around the room and that makes me think of a piece of text. That’s how pieces like that are made. But otherwise I can write a bunch of text and hand it to a director.
The other thing is, wandering around Europe for the past few decades looking at theatre, it occurred to me: Oh, the playwrights who get the best productions are the dead playwrights. Maybe that’s because they don’t go to rehearsal. The director and the actors are free to do whatever they want to do, and they can go down the wrong path to get to the right place. I’m not there to stop them from going down the wrong path. So that’s a big part of it too.
It’s striking that for someone named Mee, you’re very self-effacing. What I hear from some American playwrights about European productions is that they feel that their work gets butchered that way. But you’ve never been that kind of playwright.
Right, and that means that though I work in theatre today, I get to have the life of the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare.
I often say the best scene I’ve ever written was for a piece with Anne Bogart and SITI, bobrauschenbergamerica. They were in rehearsal and they got to Scene 16, which was, “A beating occurs”—that was all I wrote. Ann asked if I could come into rehearsal one day, and when they got to Scene 16, she said, “Chuck, we’ve been wanting to ask you…” I looked at my watch and said, “I have a lunch date, I’ve gotta run.” While I was gone, one of the actors found a garbage can and a baseball bat. When I came back to see it, for that scene he came in and beat the shit out of the garbage can. It’s the best scene I’ve written.
When you don’t devise in the room with the other folks, how do you write? Do you conjure the whole play in front of you? Edward Albee told me that he could see the whole play as he was writing. Do you think that way, or do you think more in fragments? Do you think about bodies in space, words on the page, or all of the above?
I see bits and pieces. I see something happening onstage and I think, Oh, gee, well, when he does that, he could say this, and then she’d say that, he’d say this. Over the course of weeks, I’ll write a little of this and a little that, this here and that there, and then I’ll cut and paste—take this and put it there and move this here. So as I’m writing, I don’t write a first draft, second draft, third draft; as I’m going I write 746 drafts along the way. And when I can’t think what else to do, that’s called finished.
You were a historian before you were a playwright, and you lived through a plague, polio, that had a permanent effect on you. You also talk about the Greeks a lot, and the level of tragedy we’re dealing with now does seem almost Greek. I wonder if you’ve got thoughts about where we are now as a nation and as a species.
I have no thought that 150 million other people that haven’t had. I have the hope that as bad as this is, it’ll end a little bit like the Black Death, which ended in the Renaissance.
But that’s a lot to go through to get to the other side. Do you think the world you depict in Utopia is possible?
Yeah. This is the world people say they want—a world that doesn’t have racism in it, and isn’t where people are judging you if you’re gay or lesbian or straight or young or old, or have disabilities or don’t have disabilities, where people are not putting you in those categories anymore with judgment, just enjoying, hanging out with all the other human beings on earth. And actually that feels good.
Is this optimistic vision a story you need to tell yourself, or is this really how you see the world?
It’s just how I see the world. In my world, this is a form of realism. My wife is Japanese American. We’ve adopted a little girl who’s from China. My eldest daughter is married to a man from India. This is how we live. Obviously right now is a dreadful time, and all I do is sit here waiting, hoping for the vaccine. And then we’ll see what we can put back together.
Do you mind me asking what year you contracted polio?
It was a couple of months before the vaccine came out. I was 14 years old. It was 1953. I think Dr. Salk did a wonderful thing. I wish he had just spent a few more sleepless nights and gotten it finished a little sooner.
My birth mother had it, and I know Joni Mitchell did too, and I’ve read and heard such terrible stories about isolation and quarantine—my birth mother was in a coma, and when she came out of it, the doctors were afraid to tell her her brother had died in the interim. Were you put in isolation?
I was in an isolation room in a hospital and my parents came to the door, and two nurses put their hands up and said, “You can’t come in.” So they stood at the door to say goodbye to me. And my mother came in and gave me a kiss goodbye. I never forget that.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. email@example.com
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!