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Truthful Ambiguities: Sibyl Kempson and ERS at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write about our performances. This ongoing series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski shares her thoughts in anticipation of Fondly, Collette Richland by Sibyl Kempson, […]

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write about our performances. This ongoing series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski shares her thoughts in anticipation of Fondly, Collette Richland by Sibyl Kempson, a new collaboration with Elevator Repair Service that opens for a preview run at the Walker this Thursday.

“It’s a snowball, accumulating, but then at some point the image solidifies, like the snowball gets dipped into a batter and deep fried… yeah, it gets dipped into the Big Daddy fryer…”

Sibyl Kempson and John Collins are finishing each other’s sentences as they search for an apt metaphor to explain how Fondly, Collette Richland, a new play written by Kempson in collaboration with Elevator Repair Service, has been evolving.

It is Sunday morning, less than a week before the show opens for a preview run at the Walker. We’ve been drinking large cups of coffee and pondering the mysteries of life and performance for almost two hours. As John and Sybil elaborate on the fried snowball (“The audience is grease!”), I feel like we’re approaching the benediction of our own funny little church service.

Fondly, Collette Richland rehearsal photo © Jim R. Moore

Fondly, Collette Richland rehearsal photo © Jim R. Moore

The conversation had started with me saying, “I won’t ask you what this piece is about,” and then John saying, “It’s about two hours.” We laughed, and yet as we kept talking, I became pretty convinced that his response was a legitimate synopsis. Fondly, Collette Richland is asking overlapping questions about theater and about being – existential questions that have everything to do with the bizarre mysteries and truths of time. To some extent, it is very much “about” the complex layers of living juxtaposed with the steady march of time. Where do we find ourselves? What’s beyond these walls? What’s in our own minds? What will happen? What won’t?

Numerous recent articles have offered insight into the collaboration between Sibyl and ERS, how they’ve been working (see here and here for some particularly nice ones from the Walker). While ERS is not your standard theater company and Sibyl is not your standard playwright, I’ve been surprised to discover they’re working in a somewhat standard configuration for new play development. The writer churns out pages; she gives them to the director and actors; the company plays with the material; the writer makes revisions; so the loop continues—“only it’s more dynamic,” Sibyl and John agree. While it’s their first time collaborating in this way, they have known each other for many years and share a deeply engrained vocabulary, sense of humor, and innate trust. They’re not afraid to fail in front of each other. This part is particularly crucial, according to John: “I don’t really start getting ideas until things start going wrong.”

Speaking of failure, I bring up a 2011 BOMB interview in which Sibyl described her tendency, as both child and adult, to be drawn to details rather than the larger picture or point – sitting in math class, for example, fixating on the teacher’s mannerisms instead of the lesson. This way of perceiving the world resonates strongly with me, though I’ve long felt like it’s some kind of failure on my part—focusing on the wrong things and missing out on what I’m supposed to be learning. “Oh and they want you to feel the guilt,” nods Sibyl. “But focusing on the ‘wrong things’ can lead to another way of knowing.” That’s been a guiding principle in the making of Fondly, Collette Richland. Sibyl didn’t start with a single clear concept or subject or framework; rather, she set into motion a sea of details (“a kind of organism”), and the collective work has been about getting those details talking to each other. Some details meet quickly, others more slowly—and some never find each other at all. John’s role as director is recognizing how and when details approach each other, a process that requires immense patience, intuition, and trust (“I have to be an active observer”). Over time, larger concrete elements emerge—concrete and yet highly nuanced, complicated, layered. I think of painting, pushing around color and texture until the composition reveals itself.

A few days ago, The Star Tribune published a preview piece about this show. “It’s the first thing that comes up when you Google ‘throws narrative out the window’!” John reports, amused. He’s referring to the headline: “Elevator Repair Service Throws Narrative Out the Window at Minneapolis Theater.” The subhead reads, “New York theater collective Elevator Repair Service gives us a first look at its amorphous new creation.” It’s a great piece; and yet the more we talk, the more it seems clear to me that Sibyl and ERS are not throwing narrative out the window, nor are they making something amorphous. Rather they’re approaching narrative from an unusual angle, exploring new and unexpected shapes it might take. “We’re attempting to look at things in a different way,” Sibyl explains. “It’s not just a fun mess,” John adds. “We’re getting at truth.”

The catch, of course, is that truth is complex. It can be ambiguous. It is maybe always ambiguous (“Nothing’s more truthful than ambiguity,” declares John). Yet even in its ambiguity, truth is specific and real. That’s the nature of our world, of course—the tangible and ineffable all tangled up together. But our culture doesn’t like this kind of contradiction. We want things to be one or the other, order or chaos, not both simultaneously. I ask Sibyl and John about this resistance, why it’s there, and we agree that of course it all comes back around to fear of the unknown. Truth is larger than us, larger than our capacity to articulate it, and facing that reality can be terrifying. John suggests that many people go to the theater to escape the ambiguity of everyday life; yet as a director, he’s interested in illuminating this ambiguity, not evading it. The three of us ponder what is revealed about our fears when we’re unhappy with ambiguity. Sibyl proposes that creative or spiritual practices (some might consider them one and the same) are vital precisely because they teach us to open up to that ambiguity, to come to peace with uncertainty. John shares that one of the most meaningful works of theatre he’s encountered, The Wooster Group’s Frank Dell’s the Temptation of St. Antony, was “confusing and intimidating” to him at first. But he saw it again and again (and eventually worked on it, running sound). Once he realized it didn’t have a singular meaning—that different interpretations and experiences were not only possible, but preferable—he found himself utterly exhilarated.

“Is that the dream you were talking about?” asks Sibyl. “Yes!” exclaims John, and suddenly they’re both very excited. A few nights ago—Friday night, after their first full week of rehearsals in Minneapolis—John had a dream that Liz LeCompte had decided to remount St. Antony, this time in some kind of old house. In the dream, John was having “a very strong emotional reaction” to the piece, “laughing and crying at the same time,” a kind of bizarre joy. Not surprisingly, John’s been thinking of that show a lot throughout this current project, because his work with Sibyl is so close to the heart of theatre that he loves, a “core pursuit” of truth that can’t be found in any other form. The strange emotional reaction in the dream reminds him of a founding goal of ERS: “We wanted people to find themselves laughing and not know why”—encountering truth that transcends intellectual articulation.

We all shake our heads, smiling, as the feeling of the dream dwells for a moment. “I don’t know,” says John, “but I think it bodes well.”