A Lover’s Guide to American Playwrights: Lisa D’Amour and Melissa James Gibson

November 21, 2011

This content is sourced from HowlRound. What follows is a series of selections from the full piece.

A Lover’s Guide to American Playwrights is a regular column by Todd London. It is part of an ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights. Mostly begun as speeches at New Dramatists—for career achievement awards, to mark the end of seven-year residencies, or, in a few cases, as eulogies—these portraits celebrate the body of work, lives, and singular gifts of those brave, ferocious, foolhardy souls of those who write plays for the American theater.

Lisa D’Amour and Melissa James Gibson

Mid-career is that moment most playwrights find themselves at the edge of an abyss. The moment can last years, during which the excitable support our field bestows on emerging and early-career writers dries up and playwrights who have finally developed the chops to write their mature works often leave the theater for the rewards and empowerment of TV or the stability of teaching. Playwrights have been calling for help through this rough passage for some time. They have been asking for reasons and means to stay in the theater at all. It was, therefore, a thrill, this past week, to see the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust throw a lifeline to two of my most beloved writers in the form of $50,000 Steinberg Playwright Awards, also known as Mimis.

Lisa D’Amour and Melissa James Gibson have been dancing the wire stretched over this midcareer abyss for several years. It is a precarious dance. In their hands, it can also be a beautiful one. While I usually write here about one writer at a time, I want to pair them up, as the Steinberg Trust (on whose advisory panel I serve) has done, because when I think about them together, I see how they almost define opposite ends of a spectrum, from Lisa’s macro vision, stretching the potential of the dramatic through the size and shape of events, to Melissa’s almost microscopic approach, that peers into the architectural insides of the scene to explode the very notion of drama.

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Lisa D’Amour. The word Playwright—even though it is a very roomy/spacious word—seems too small, too limiting for Lisa D’Amour. She is a playwright and she is many other things. She is a director, a performer, and a visionary of the event, large and small—the site-specific event, the art event, the group event, and, even, the party. She is a performance artist, a collaborative artist, an artist. She is, in other words, a stretch artist.

And as she stretches the words that would contain all she is, she stretches our sense of the possibilities of the stage, of space, words, songs, collaborations. And she stretches the container for reality as well. Her plays and interdisciplinary pieces—16 Spells to Charm the Beast, The Cataract, Nita and Zita, Detroit, Hide Town—encompass dream life and daily life, story and history, the natural and the supernatural, the mystical and the imagined, the so-called civilized and the surreal waters running under the civilized. They exist on the page but also in the world—a stone arch bridge in Minneapolis, a spectacular house in New Orleans, a man-made forest. Hers is a realm of all realms: human, animal, bestial, monstrous, or, maybe, it’s all one realm: the wild kingdom that lives beside and inside the human.

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Constituent elements of the work of Melissa James Gibson, organized by class or species, non-inclusive:

The mistake; the correction; the found; the discarded, i.e. garbage; the ruined, i.e. detritus, as distinct from garbage; the partial; the obscured; the incompletely overheard; the torn or piecemeal, which is both a subset of the partial and a class unto itself; that which is unmade; that which is unfinished; that which is unfinishable; that which is stuck a few bars into composition; that which is wished for and clearly—I mean who are we kidding?—will never come to pass; those who have left us; those who have left us but are coming back for their clothes at the exact moment we’ve offered them to the person we’d like to think of as our new girlfriend; the rumor of the tale of the return of the absent; the grammatically fragmentary, e.g. the subject without a predicate, the predicate without a subject, the interjection, or mere utterance; the conversationally redundant; repetitive talk; the interrupted; the overlapping; the middle separate from the end and the beginning; the money that has been borrowed and from whom; the architectural; the leftover; the etcetera, i.e. unspecified or yet to be collected. The “dinky” (her word).

Spaces in which and the means by which social intercourse occurs in the plays of Melissa James Gibson, i.e., where and how people have and hear conversations or in some cases how they hear other peoples’ conversations or, even, how they hear other people who aren’t exactly having conversations:

In the stairwell, across the apartment threshold but seldom in the apartment itself; in the hallway; on the front steps when the front door is locked and nobody seems to have a key; on a rooftop with a view of an office building in the distance where the person you imagine yourself talking to is currently working; through a window that is closed in the middle of a sentence; through a window that is opened for the middle of a sentence; over an intercom; over the shoulder of a person who is speaking through an intercom; over the phone; through the crack at the bottom of the door; through an intermediary; on camera; off camera; on tape or television; through the ceiling; across an airshaft; through a wall or door, by note, or from the bottom of the stairs.

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