Playwrights on Playwrights: Adam R. Burnett on Theresa Buchheister and Sarah Graalman

by Adam R. Burnett · January 22, 2013

In this second installment of our “Playwrights on Playwrights” series, Adam R. Burnett talks about collaborators Theresa Buchheister and Sarah Graalman. He is directing their upcoming show Destructo Snack, USA at Incubator Arts, starting June 1, 2012.


I saw Theresa Buchheister and Sarah Graalman perform Destructo Snack, USA at Dixon Place in September 2011 and was immediately drawn in.  What struck me initially were the moments of honesty and surprise.  And even though at no point in the performance did I know where it was heading, I felt incredibly safe in Sarah and Theresa’s hands.  Destructo was something I had not seen before.  It did not need to explain or clarify itself.  And it disregarded, even ignored, the political and academic microscope that gender has been put under for the past 30 years. It was not a gender play. It was not feminist theatre. It was in no way deconstructing gender roles. It was attempting to destroy, to destruct, with articulation and acceptation of the confusing realm we slop around in, what it means to want others so very badly, when we must ultimately carry out this event alone, in our heads.

The day after I witnessed the performance I e-mailed Sarah and Theresa and said, “If you choose to move forward with this piece, I will do everything within my power to get you audiences.  Please, use me. This really needs to be seen by everyone.”

Theresa and I have been collaborating for many years with our respective companies, Title:Point and Buran Theatre, respectively, who are both doing very different things aesthetically but share a similar ethos in exploring uncharted territories and the possibility of failure in performance. You might say we share the self-same masochistic need to prove how wrong we are. I have given Theresa the opportunity to assist in developing many of my plays in workshops and readings, and in turn, I have been a pair of eyes and ears for her projects, last time assistant directing and performing feats of strength (guzzling bottles of wine and eating boxes of doughnuts while mildly masturbating onstage) in FIELD 309. I don’t know anyone (any lay-person that is) who sees as much theatre as Theresa. She’s an incredible collaborator to have in the room if only because she can say, “You do realize that So-and-So just did a show where they stuffed rubber duckies up their ass…so…just know that.” Not that these comments ever halt the progress, but Theresa is more aware of the zeitgeist than anyone else I know. Theresa has spent years honing her voice to the minimal for the greatest effect possible.  Her last production GRADIENT HAIRCUTS: GOING DOWN ON HUMANITY, a sight-specific performance at Housing Works Soho, was a complete realization of how she is using language to isolate: sometimes awkward, sometimes profound, vaguely familiar, a little grating, and always incredibly unsettling and funny.

I first saw Sarah tell stories in a monthly cabaret I frequented called Mama Rice and Friends; it ran for two plus years at the Public Assembly in Williamsburg. Her stories were the highlight. Sarah has a very special way of being sentimental while simultaneously telling the truth about what she sees and how she sees it. Not many people, I think, can get away with first-hand narratives without multiple eye-rolls and the remark, “Wouldn’t this be better in your journal? The journal that no one sees. No one, but you?”  Sarah’s stories however, as personal as they can be, are rich with a humble worldly experience and a constant itching, a burning in fact, for idealism, common sense,  and kindness. When you look at these words all next to each other, they might seem in conflict with each other, but this is where Sarah’s voice blossoms, and unlike Theresa’s, her writing tends to leave you feeling a little more hopeful. Or in my case, it leaves me wanting more. After hearing Sarah read one of her stories, I am hungry for another. Sarah is a rare storyteller in that she will prompt a yearning and nostalgia for places you haven’t even been.

When I came on board with Buran Theatre to co-produce Destructo Snack, USA Theresa and Sarah expressed they didn’t want a director. And Theresa knows, better than most, that most of my direction involves attempting to destroy any training an actor might have previously had.

But Sarah and Theresa are not actors. They are writers.  And other things, too.

Theresa is a director. Sarah makes her living as a makeup artist. They didn’t need to talk about character or motivation. They didn’t need to do exercises. What they’re doing is what they’re doing and they needed someone who would keep them honest in that. The question became for me: How do I collaborate with as little influence as possible? It has led me to act as mediator, sometimes practical, sometimes creative, but always revealing for me to experience their processes.  I have attempted to ensure that the script remains intact as a representation of the myriad of people (women) that Theresa and Sarah are, with all of their voices and experiences intact. It is the overwhelming and uncontrollable hilarity of living right now that Sarah and Theresa are after, with all we are equipped with, with all of our faults and our failures stacked up against us, with the comfort of others over whiskey or a theatre (or both).  The result is not a show that coalesces in clarity but remains as dirty and viscous and wet as it can be. And this is the true power of theatre: being present with those who are with us right now. And Destructo Snack, USA really gets this.





Broken Bone Bathtub
After being asked who is comfortable with audience participation, we are lead one by one into the small room and guided to our seats. A young woman sits amid pleasantly floral scented bubbles, face turned away from us.
Broken Bone Bathtub
After being asked who is comfortable with audience participation, we are lead one by one into the small room and guided to our seats. A young woman sits amid pleasantly floral scented bubbles, face turned away from us.
Adapting: Five Takeaways
The fifth (and last) in a five part series on adapting a play from a novel as it occurs.