Directing Thesis Interview: 'MUD' and 'SPRINGTIME'
For his thesis production, student Colm Summers directs two rarely-staged short plays by María Irene Fornés.
In the dustbowl of America’s first Great Depression, trapped by her poverty and the men around her, Mae will stop at nothing to make meaning of her life. Twenty years later, a forbidden relationship disintegrates as two women try to understand what will make them free. Told across two plays, MUD and SPRINGTIME by María Irene Fornés is the story of the power it takes to break free of destitution, moral judgement, and the people whose love will drown us.
Why did you decide to do this particular production for your thesis project?
The plays of Fornés speak directly to the questions of our moment. Thematically they touch on the intersections of poverty, illness, and agency. But more than that - it seems to me - they engage closely with a problem that’s been on my mind lately. And I like problems. This one, the problem of intimacy, is a problem for our times.
That word “intimacy,” has very specific connotations in the theater nowadays. Could you say more about what you mean by using it now?
I mean that it has been useful for me to think of the distance that I feel is wedged between us as people nowadays - as a generation, by the pandemic, capitalism, white supremacy, empire, class warfare, the anthropocene, the list goes on - under an umbrella term.
An existential umbrella?
Exactly! We are losing touch with one another and our inability to be intimate is in turn making us more inhumane. If live arts have anything of value to offer today, I believe it lies not in their “hybridity” or ability to keep up with trends in mainstream storytelling, but rather in the elements of the art form which make it most stubbornly itself, most inimical to change - most alive, most one-of-a-kind, most-in-your-face, most up-close-and-personal, sweaty, accidental, holy.
So when I say “intimate,” I also mean it in the verbal sense - a theatre that intimates; that is, in a close, and personal way, indirectly and deeply communicative. I think if we were all a little better at that, our present catastrophe would be less lonely, and we would be less alienated from one another’s struggles.
How is that manifesting in this work?
I feel it’s an attitude more than anything else. It’s an attitude that is supportive of Fornes' storytelling. She is unrelenting, unforgiving, and unsentimental in the way she reveals her characters to us. I hope that my approach, which has been to try and put them - Fornés’ people - front-and-centre, will make for an essential evening. In MUD & SPRINGTIME, the spiritual struggles of Fornes' characters are revealed when we put their immediate circumstances under a microscope.
This sounds like hard theatre work to make post-COVID? Do the protocols around distancing on-stage, masks in rehearsal, etc., make it harder to make work which is so actor-led, or focussed on the personal?
Yes, it’s difficult. Masks are hard, but I like them. They’re a good obstacle for the actors. It means they have to listen to each other deeply. There’s a lot of good eyebrow acting going on! Actually, in a sense the “social distancing” rules and “contact” protocols introduced in theaters have consolidated my instincts about the kind of experience I want...and what I think we can offer an audience, rather than changed my mind.
I have felt for a long time that I wasn’t interested in broad gestures on the stage, that there was something compelling to me about the tiny little things; a breath here, the back of someone’s head there. The more I work on Fornés, the more I come to understand the subtlety of her work as a writer - especially in terms of relationships - and the subtlety she is demanding of me as director is such an exciting challenge. When I was a kid, I did a lot of playing with legos, and it’s very bitty you know. I think that bitty-ness stayed with me. I like little details. They always seemed more profound to me.
So what should an audience expect from your thesis, MUD & SPRINGTIME?
As an audience member I want to feel the heat of an actor's body - that is true now more than ever. I want to see the sweat in their eyes. I want to breathe the same air. I want something I cannot get in a mediated way. Why else am I sitting in a room? Especially now, after we’ve all been taught to fear other people and closed spaces, now that we’re still mid-pandemic.
Well, why? Why should people be in that room?
The world is deadly: colonialism, capitalism, your cell phone. Everything is conspiring to make your life less full of wonder, to make it a commodity experience. We’re led to believe there’s no mystery anymore. That you can only go to space if you have the fungible billions. It’s a pay-to-play reality. I think live arts - and especially theatre - can now play a crucial role in enlivening those dying parts of us; to re-teach us things we are forgetting: how to sit together in our collective fear... and awe. How to demand empathy for one another. How to reach across the aisle. How to be present, and humble before people we do not understand. How to make mysteries. So that’s what I’ve been thinking about.
Also, Fornés plays are funny...and she’s gritty, and she’s got a big heart.
What do you hope the audience will get out of the performance?
I hope what happens in the room thrills them, and that when they are standing in the street after the show they look a little harder, and listen a little more closely, and the fuse in our imagination which controls “wonder” is turned to “On.”
What was the most exciting part about this project?
Actors in a room with an audience.
What has been a crucial lesson from your training?
At the end of each semester at Columbia, Anne Bogart and Brian Kulick host a small one-on-one review with each member of the directing cohort. At the end of my first review, my advice from Brian was “don’t try to be such a good student.” What I interpret this to mean as I reach the end of my education at Columbia is that there is a difference between seeming to be a good student, i.e., attempting to show everyone that you are a good student and really learning, really doing the thing.
What do you mean?
There is a tendency among young people, I think, and especially young creative people, to overcompensate, to show all their work, to over-present themselves. I have been guilty of this so many times - and in the worst case you become pretentious - you can try so hard to show that you know all the right words to say, and are doing all of the right things, that you end up actually showing only that you are a “show-off.”
It’s usually a symptom of insecurity or fear, and results in distraction and block. There’s a barrier between you and your creativity because you aren’t dealing with material when you’re busy trying to show everyone that you know the “proper” way to deal with material. But maybe Brian was just trying to tell me that I should give up and go live on a desert island somewhere.
Tell us something that you found surprising about the process of putting up this production?
Contrary to what you might expect from the austerity of Fornés writing, working on her characters with the ensemble has been joyful, since what it requires is depth of “play-pretend” not “style.” That has been satisfying.
What is your philosophy for directing?
First, do no harm. Say no more than you need to. Surrender to the event. Serve the audience.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Colm Summers is an Irish theater and opera director based in New York. He is a published playwright and essayist, and has assisted Raja Feather Kelly, Milo Rau, the Wooster Group, and Pan Pan. He founded Felicity, a Dublin-based live performance company, in 2016. Next: love is hard and absolutely (probably) worth it by Johnny Lloyd '20 at Clubbed Thumb, Wednesday at New York Live Arts ‘21, and The Inheritance at the Geffen Playhouse ‘22.