by Adam R. Burnett and Mars Mraz · January 22, 2013
Adam R. Burnett and Mars Mraz are the authors of the plays in Indie Theater Now's Buran Theatre Company Collection. We asked them to interview each other, and the result is below.
Q: Buran is a very unique theatre company. It has several "bases" all around the world, i.e., Lawrence, Kansas, Los Angeles, California, Vilnius, Lithuania, and of course New York, NY. What do you see for the future of Buran? In what directions would you like to see the company grow? What kind of work do you see yourself pursuing?
A: The model for Buran comes out of a reality: space is expensive and it ties you down. The intention has always been to premiere new work and tour it throughout the constellation of cities where company associates reside. Funding makes it incredibly difficult, but if we were tied to one place and paying rent, it would be impossible. I don't believe that New York ought to be the loci for experimental work. The community here is quite wonderful, but if experimentation lives and dies in New York then what's the point? Buran Theatre will keep returning to my hometown of Topeka and to Albuquerque and Lithuania and other places because it's important that the work is shared as openly as possible. This is what drives me more than anything. Our next tour will be in Spring 2014 and we'll be returning to Kansas City, Topeka, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and extending our arms to Minneapolis and LA.
Q: The first play I saw of yours was The Big Come at the Words Afire Festival at the University of New Mexico in 2009. I was immediately floored by the casually anachronistic world you created—a real hallmark in your writing, that we don't question these things, we're just there with you. In other works—Greek Row Tragedy, The Cotton Plantation, and now your newest play, Little Red—you are riffing on previous texts or stories. Is this something you seek out to do? or does it happen naturally?
A: In my writing I am constantly struggling to find the value in stories, both previously told and my own. Along with this search for value, I am deeply drawn to mythology, fairy tales, religious stories, etc. I am drawn to their timelessness and their ability to be retold again and again. It fascinates me that each time they are told they change, they morph into something new. Much of my work aims at finding their purpose for the present day and the community to which they are being told.
Theatre is, arguably, the most conservative of all art forms. Theatres need to ensure ticket sales and are, therefore, often less likely to do an original work by an unknown author. Theatre calls upon its traditions and conventions and continually places itself in line with its genealogy, more so, I feel, than other art forms. What interests me is when these stories, and characters in these stories collide, with our modern perspective, or collide with each other, as in the case of The Big Come. Some of my works are simply inspired by previous texts of stories, some are riffs, some are a blending of texts/stories, and some are straight up adaptations. With that being said I feel that it is always important not to rely so heavily on the original material, or text, that it distances an audience that is less familiar with it. I distill the essentials and use that as a base to launch my own stories, or spin.
Q: One of the things that has always interested me was Buran's artistic aesthetic to investigate new narrative structures that involve the audience before and after the performance. How does Money Buckets! fit into this model? Were there any discoveries made during the development of Money Buckets! in 2008 or 2009 that informed the Buran aesthetic?
A: This aesthetic has a lot to do with attitude. I'm very conscious when I write that I am not going to dupe the audience; that they must be complicit in what we're doing. I don't talk to performers about characters or motives or objectives because I don't think this has anything to do with being present in a space with an audience. It's always about what the performer is capable of doing and what their interests are on any given night. This has the potential to extend to an audience. The process of rehearsing Money Buckets! presented me with performers divided into two camps: those who wanted to work this way and those who resisted. It was a challenge for me as a director to absolve the differences into a coherent performance style.
Q:What was your experience, as a playwright, having The Cotton Plantation workshopped and developed by Buran? How was it different from other experiences?
A: I will begin by saying that to some this may seem like the standard way of going about developing new scripts; for me, however, it entirely changed my outlook on new play development. Working with Buran on the development and workshop production of The Cotton Plantation was truly a valuable experience for me as a playwright. To put it bluntly I had come from a school of playwriting that had never really used actors to their full potential when working on a new script. My experiences in developing new plays, up to that point, had been primarily driven by the playwright/director team and didn't fold actors into the developmental process on a creative level as much. When Buran workshopped The Cotton Plantation actors were just as active in the development as any other player. And, the actors brought many things to the script that I, the playwright, did not have the insight to see. Ever since that moment I have understood how beneficial it is to work with a trusted group of actors on a new script and how much insight they have into character. I have only worked in that way since.
Q: I know from having worked on The House of Fitzcarraldo with Buran that shows evolve tremendously from production to production (sometimes even performance to performance). How many productions has Money Buckets! had? How has it evolved from production to production?
A: Money Buckets! has only been produced once—in the summer of 2009. It changed only slightly from night to night. As I mentioned earlier, I was working with a group of actors who wanted a finished product with the audience. There's nothing wrong with this, it's just not how I work. On the other hand, The House of Fitzcarraldo had five runs in different cities and the performance changed every night. I was cutting and rearranging in the MIDST of the performance. I'd come off stage and tell everyone, "Cut the next scene, move scene nine to scene four" and such and such. We didn't have a final running order until the last few performances of our run in Brooklyn at The Brick. Now that the show is set in this way, I'm finished. I have no interest in ever revisiting. And as far I'm concerned, until I find some reason to alter it beyond recognition, it won't be performed again.
Q: With your newest play you pulled a Noel Coward and wrote Little Red over a 24 hour period, am I right? But I know that The Cotton Plantation took years and it may still not be finished. How do you discern when something is finished?
A: I often think about this. I suppose the only truthful answer is that as long as you are still working on it then it is not finished. Not yet. Most of my scripts that go into production go through 7, 8, 9, 15, 32 drafts, depending on the play. The Cotton Plantation changed dramatically over the many years I worked on it. With Little Red I thought I had accomplished something that I hadn't before which was that the first draft was pretty much the final draft and I was ready to move on. I have come to learn that this was incredibly naïve. Two weeks into the run I realized that there was something wrong with the last 1/3 of the play. So I rewrote it, and rewrote it and rewrote it again. The third week of our run had a different ending every night. Ultimately, I got much closer to finding the ending, but I also know that I have a little more discovering to do. So, I'll let the first production absorb a little bit and then get back to work on it.
Q: I am curious about your statement about change in the political dialogue, or the dissolving of political dialogue. Can this intention be seen as a political agenda in itself? A social agenda? Or is aimed to engage a different vocabulary altogether? Can you elaborate?
A: I'm always interested in a more heightened dialogue because I'm not always sure we're talking about the essential things. Language has been hi-jacked for the sake of abbreviated digestion. We all act like we know what the other is saying, but we really don't know what we're saying. Words stand in for each other, dissolving any kind of specificity or subtlety. Thus it's dangerous to talk about art. Performative arts must be aware of their audience. This is why the space where theatre and performance art intersects interests me so much. I want to engender an attitude through the performance, one that is not intellectual or narrative-based but gut-based, endorphin-based—a theatrical form that is inclusive and constantly aware of the bodies in the space. When I go see actors on stage and they are disappearing into these characters, these "roles," it makes me want to rip my hair out. But this is the form that is taught in conservatories and universities, that this looks good, that this is what we're after. I'll be honest, Mars, it's kind of offensive.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: After Little Red I desire something a little more humorous. However, there's this piece that's been tugging on me for a few years. It's inspired by the 'Murders on the Mesa' in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They uncovered the dead bodies of over a dozen women on the mesa a couple years ago. It turns out that most of these women were prostitutes. And that's how people view them, simply as prostitutes, though they had families, many had children, one was pregnant. I would like to tell the story of one of those women, not as a biographical piece, or a murder mystery or anything like that. Just a story about a woman.