One of the most exciting parts of journalism, for me, is the opportunity to discuss the creative process with some of the most exciting theatre and performance artists working in New York right now. Last week, I had a chance to sit down with Marianne Weems and James Gibbs of the Builders Association to discuss their latest show House/Divided, which opens at BAM on October 24th.
If you are not familiar with the Builders Association, a quick look at the mission statement on their website describes them as:
A New York-based performance and media company that creates original productions based on stories drawn from contemporary life. [...] Based on innovative collaborations, Builders' productions blend stage performance, text, video, sound, and architecture to tell stories about human experience in the 21st century.
I would like to add that these elements are not just talking points, but are, in fact, very obvious in the Builders' works themselves.
With this in mind, when I heard that the Builders had chosen John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as their latest subject, I couldn't wait to hear more about this new piece. I was not disappointed. From the start of the interview, Marianne Weems, who founded the Builders in 1994, gave a description of the show that made clear how House/Divided is different from a pure adaptation.
The motivation for choosing the novel is evident as Weems explains that many characterize the piece as:
Idea-driven theatre, not necessarily often driven by a text -- or a canonical theatrical text -- it's more driven by a kind of hot-point topic, cultural, social, economic conflict that's happening out in the greater world and that is kind of the impetus for the show. And then sometimes it does settle down to fit in with a story. So in this piece, it is John Steinbeck's incredibly prescient novel, The Grapes of Wrath. And, essentially, that is intercut with material from the foreclosure crisis.
For a company called the Builders Association to do a show about the housing crisis seemed wonderfully appropriate to me from the start. It turns out that the original concept for the Builders' next show had been for them to return to the topic of their first show, Master Builder, based on Ibsen's The Master Builder, in which their set consisted of a three-story house. Though the concept eventually changed, the Builders will again feature a house as one of the characters on BAM's stage, as their set is an actual foreclosed home.
The way that Weems talks about this aspect of the production is telling, as she describes how "it is very resonant because the house onstage is kind of a character -- like an extremely present iconic object." It is clear how important the physical house is; it is more than a simple set or prop, but rather a physical setting that is both a specific home with an actual history and a symbol of the American concept of a home. As Gibbs notes, "the idea of the foreclosed house became kind of a container to put different ideas into," which in turn inspired the juxtaposition of Steinbeck and the documents from the corporate conference calls from companies like Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers. Throughout the course of the show, the house will grow and change both as a result of narrative and technology, which will keep shifting its meaning.
But, don't let this make you think that Steinbeck's novel will not be properly represented! As so often happens, this piece will in some ways be a truer adaptation of the novel than the most famous theatrical version written by Frank Galati. First of all, the Builders restore one of the two narrators cut from Galati's adaptation. But on a less literal level, this adaptation brings the piece into direct conversation with our times in a way that allows the novel to live and breathe in a theatre as opposed to being studied as an artifact from another time.
I am very excited to see House/Divided at BAM, because I know that it will appeal to me on both aesthetic and intellectual levels. If these words aren't enough to whet your appetite, click through the links in this piece and let the visuals do their job. I'll be in the house, will you?