Venice Saved: A Seminar


“The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. The incautious person, who, having entered, takes a few steps, is after some time unable to find his way back...If he doesn’t lose courage, if he continues to walk, it is absolutely certain that he will arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there, God is waiting to eat him.” —Simone Weil


On a Friday afternoon David Levine and Gordon Dahlquist emerge from the NYTW after a morning of auditions. The first snowfall of the year brings hope of a White Christmas (dashed by sleet two hours later), and we slide across West 4th Street to a pub for lunch. The waitress is surly and weird, even by New York standards.

David Levine “fuses performance, theater, and visual art.” He lives in New York and Berlin, where he is the Director of Performing Arts at the European College of Liberal Arts. Gordon Dahlquist is a New York based playwright and novelist.

Venice Saved: A Seminar, is a collaborative effort that will be seen at PS 122 in March. It was inspired by a little-known play by the French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist Simone Weil (1909-1943), called Venise Sauvée.

What follows is a dramatic staging of the Brooklyn Rail’s meeting with Gordon, David, and the off-stage surly weird waitress.

GORDON

Weil’s play is about a 17th century plot of the Spanish Empire to destroy the Venetian Republic by bribing key elements of Venice’s mercenary army to betray the city. The plot would have worked, but the night before it was to happen a key conspirator, having pity for Venice, went to the city’s secret council of 10 and—in exchange for amnesty for he and his main companions in the plot—gave them all the info. The council promptly had everyone but that guy—including the companions—arrested, tortured, and executed. The one guy, Jaffier, basically went crazy and killed himself.

DAVID

I first heard about Weil in a seminar with Elaine Scarry. There’s a wonderful quote by Weil in Scarry’s book, On Beauty—

RAIL

(aside)

(See quote above.)

DAVID

(continuing)

Then someone handed me a play Weil had written called Venise Sauvée. It was terrible.

GORDON

Poorly translated.

DAVID

Yes, and unfinished.

GORDON

It has four pages of notes written in the margins trying to identify what is a play.

DAVID

Gordon has taught with me in Berlin. Weil’s play turned out to be a great vehicle for us to talk about playmaking.

GORDON

It was written in 1940 when the Nazis were occupying France. Weil and her family were fleeing to Marseilles, and she’s writing this as she’s fleeing.

RAIL

(aside)

In 1936 Weil joined up with the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, but that ended quickly when she scalded her foot over a cooking fire and had to leave Spain. She was a union activist, Marxist, pacifist, philosopher. Weil believed that action, one’s obligations to fight for social justice, was the link to the spiritual and a way to confront power. She joined the French Resistance in 1942, and a year later was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While she was recovering in an English sanatorium, she ate only what she thought the average person in occupied France had to eat. This exacerbated her condition and led to her death at the age of 34.

GORDON

Venise Sauvée is about torture, war, mercenaries, and empire, among other things.

DAVID

Obviously very topical subjects.

RAIL

(aside)

David was just coming off a project called “Re-Public”, whose goal was to “reconceive the Joseph Papp Public Theater for the needs of 21st century New York.” [You can read about the resultant project here: http://cineinitiatives.net/Re-Public.html]. He saw a lot of plays with a political bent being done but felt they took a lot for granted.

DAVID

And so the play [his and Gordon’s], raises the question for us, how does theater embody current politics? What do you mean when you say political theater?

GORDON

And is it in any way effective? Theater is cultural and intimate, and overlaps between political action and a grass roots way of thinking. So this led David and I to question how and why we make theater; to challenge our assumptions about theater.

RAIL

(very much in the scene)

For example?

GORDON

That non-profit theater is more political than for-profit theater. Is it really? [Shouldn’t we] at least track where these assumptions come from, the institutional building blocks of theater?

RAIL

(aside)

I.e.—TCG, graduate programs, regional theater, etc.

DAVID

Neither of us have a clear idea of what political theater is and we want people to define their own terms. We want people to come out of this thinking political theater is an unclear concept. If you embrace the notion of a clean gesture, then something is always going to be wrong.

GORDON

There is automatically a moral dimension assumed in theater because of the narrative component.

RAIL

(aside)

We discuss the low or non-payment situation of the American actors, vis-a-vis workshops, readings, and equity showcases. Why, for example, is this situation pretty much the norm in the United States while the sweatshop scenario in third-world countries is a cause for concern? The point being:

(now in the scene, at the table, at the bar, surly weird waitress still absent)

Is this a form of exploitation? Is it acceptable?

DAVID

How do we pat ourselves on the back about the virtuous content of a play when the form is fucked? You go to a play that is politically “virtuous” yet the actors on the stage are making less than minimum wage.

GORDON

We also want to talk about the personal stakes when one sees a play.

DAVID

Yeah, look at how much energy there is in a post-show bitch session at the local bar. I think if you don’t give a shit enough to rag on theater then you probably don’t give a shit at all. The Rachel Corrie incident—

RAIL

(aside, explaining)

When the NYTW postponed the production of Rachel Corrie.

DAVID

(continuing)

—is an example of the ferocity that theater can engender.

GORDON

And, by the way, we’re not in any way above all of this.

DAVID

Theater and what goes on around it is about vanishing. The actors, the audience, the director, the writer, everyone vanishes when a play is over and no one is held

accountable. We want to make a piece where everything is transparent.

GORDON

What does it mean to have $10 or $50 tickets? What kind of political access do people really have? How is a television program or film more or less political? Does going to a political play engage you?

RAIL

(aside)

Three dramaturges—Nina Mankin, James Hannaham, and Gideon Lewis–Kraus—will make a short presentation about Weil each evening because, as David says,

DAVID

“We believe in knowledge.”

RAIL

(continuing, aside)

Actors will perform scenes from Weil’s play as well as other plays; the audience, limited to thirty, will sit around the table and be invited to engage in the discussion about Weil, political theater, ideas about participation and related issues the presentation brings to mind, thus the seminar-like format of the project. It will be process-orientated, and the audience engagement will shape the evening inside this framework. For example, in a previous workshop of the piece actors performed a missing scene of Weil’s play in the style of the West Wing. It is that kind of exploration that puts the project on contemporary ground.

GORDON

The format is designed to strip away the notion of invisibility. Towards that end, we have to give up a certain amount of control. When an audience member talks, that is what the event is about so you have to pay close attention.

DAVID

The event will be quantifiably different each evening.

GORDON

Audience members get a gift bag—swag.

DAVID

You know what swag means?

RAIL and GORDON

No.

DAVID

Stuff we all get.

GORDON

You know what posh stands for?

DAVID and RAIL

NO.

GORDON

Port out starboard home, which refers to the best seats on the ship from England to India and back. 

RAIL

(aside)

These guys know their acronyms.

GORDON

Theater can be a religious experience, it is about people in a room and it is a unique experience.

DAVID

Even though we are interested in political theater, I think what we’re really getting at, in some  basic, way, is “is seeing or making art an adequate response to political questions?” And what do spectators and artists hope to accomplish through this response? Empathy? Clarity? Enlightened action?

GORDON

We’re not interested in plays that have an ending with an answer—that is ridiculous in terms of democracy and the hope for art. We want to frame some questions.

RAIL

The surly weird waitress returned with the bill. Instead of listing two hamburgers, one veggie burger and three fuzzy navels, the writing on the bill was an inscrutable web of letters, something perhaps written in a fever dream of turboculosis. Finally, our combined knowledge of French and pig Latin paid off. "Viva la resistance," it said! "I thought she looked familiar!" Gordon shouted. We desperately searched for our waitress­—our Simone!—but alas, she had vanished.

Venice Saved: A Seminar, conceived by David Levine and implemented by David Levine and Gordon Dahlquist, will be performed at PS 122 March 21-April 5, Wednesday thru Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 6pm. http://www.ps122.org/performances.

Contributor

Gary Winter

GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.

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