Asked by an audience member to describe his creative process, playwright Charles Mee gave the audience an open-ended and disarmingly simple answer that very well summarized the spirit of his lecture last Thursday evening.
“When I sit down, I begin to see stuff, where you’re sitting and where I’m sitting and how that is,” Mee said. “And after a few minutes, I just wish a dancer would come through.”
Speaking to an audience of 70 people at the Memorial Chapel, Mee put forth his personal vision of theater as a vital and collaborative art form that speaks to our need for human connection in an increasingly diverse time. To achieve this, Mee insists on trusting the validity of personal experience as a means of creating theater. This method has guided his distinguished theatrical career, Mee’s many honors include the lifetime achievement award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Obie Award for Best Play in 1986 for his play, “Chiang Kai Chek.”
“I just choose the stuff that I really love and trust that it’s coherent, even if I’m not sure in what way,” Mee said during the post-lecture question-and-answer session.
Mee’s lecture, entitled “The Art Form that Says What it Is to Be Human,” focused on the need for transcending the boundaries of traditional theatrical realism that has dominated popular thought on theater since the rise of Henrik Ibsen at the turn of the 20th century. According to Mee, expanding beyond psychological realism and encompassing more varied forms of expression, including music and dance, allows theater to represent more varied perspectives and remain relevant in the age of television, film, and the internet.
“We don’t have a single narrative in the world today,” Mee said. “Now we have many ways of seeing, not one of which may be placed over the others.”
“This is the theater of cosmopolitanism or, as I like to say, conviviality,” he continued.
Thursday’s talk, part of the Outside the Box series, and made possible with the support of both the First Year Matters Program of the Office of the Dean of the College and the Edward W. Snowdon Fund, was the culmination of Mee’s brief residency here at the University. Over several days, Mee visited a number of theater classes, as well as a rehearsal of “We Can’t Reach You, Hartford,” the senior thesis production by Jess Chayes ’07. Two of Mee’s works, “Vienna: Lusthaus” and “Chiang Kai Chek” were produced last year by Second Stage.
“In conversations about theatre, the human being, and difference, he surprised us all by revealing that a playwright, the ‘author,’ can be an incredibly open and active listener,” said Assistant Professor of Theater Claudia Tatinge Nascimento during her introductory remarks. “And that flexibility, and not just tolerance, can be a firm ideological position.”
When asked about the process through which he has produced his varied body of work, Mee returned, again and again, to both the importance of trusting one’s own artistic instincts and the need for collaboration. He described his ideal theatrical process as a non-hierarchical sharing, and sometimes stealing, of ideas amongst a group of committed and talented individuals. By working with others, theatrical productions become more representative of the world that surround them.
“I think the most liberating thing is to riff off other people,” Mee said.
Mee’s personal method of constructing theater left an impression on both those attending the lecture and those who spoke with him throughout his residency.
“I thought it was amazing to learn about his creative process and how he is able to select what material is meaningful to him,” said Jessica Posner ’09, after the lecture.
“All he has to say to us about the creative process and how to make great art is, ‘I don’t know, man. I like what I do and I hope you like what you do,’” said Kieran Kredell ’07, a lecture attendee and member of the cast of “We Can’t Reach You, Hartford.” “There’s something striking and refreshing about that.”
True to his own rejection of strict artistic absolutes, Mee admitted that his intensely personal method of playwriting does sometimes result in plays of little interest to the general public. He recalled writing a play soon after the death of a friend with whom he had shared an interest in literature. The play, entitled “Gone,” collaged bits and pieces of the works of deceased writers. Mee soon realized that, while therapeutic, the play could not be translated into a production that would engage the outside world.
“It comes totally from this internal place that defines everything I just said about creating theater in a 3-D space,” Mee said. “I don’t want to write Noel Coward comedies when I’m in that mood.”
Mee’s candor proved endearing to Chayes, who said she appreciated Mee’s willingness to both attend a rehearsal for her thesis and offer words of encouragement. The visit also provided a chance for her to clarify her own intentions for the project.
“I was able to communicate the goal of this production,” Chayes said. “I had never done that until then.”
Mee himself seemed to remain hopeful when discussing the future of theater, which he described with the same intelligent optimism that characterized the entire evening.
“Part of the pleasure of working in the theater is there is no final answer,” Mee said. “There are endless possibilities.”