Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ionesco Interview #1: Edward Einhorn

Untitled Theater Company #61 describes itself as a modern theatre of the absurd. How did this mission evolve for you as an artist and for the company in general?

EDWARD: My brother (who runs the company with me) began reading me Ionesco as a very small child. He’s nine years older, so I was introduced to the theater of the absurd as a seven-year old. Obviously, it has always been very important to our aesthetic as a result. I gravitated towards choosing plays from that genre from the beginning, and I gradually realized that everything we did owed something to theater of the absurd.

However, having said all that, I think that we will be changing our official mission a bit to a Theater of Ideas. I think it encompasses the Theater of the Absurd, but I find that people are having an increasingly hard time knowing what Theater of the Absurd is; or rather, sometimes people believe they know, but what they believe is not what we do. Calling ourselves a Theater of Ideas gets rid of some of that baggage. But it won’t truly change our programming—it will still be as indebted to Theater of the Absurd.

Stolen Chair was still in Philadelphia when the Ionesco Festival was happening in 2001. According to your website, the events of 9-11 happened 5 days into the festival. Aside from the logistical difficulties this must have created, how do you think it shaped audience reactions to the festival?

EDWARD: To an extent, Theater of the Absurd is shaped by tragedy. Ionesco was shaped by World War II. Havel was shaped by the oppression of the Communist regime. One doesn’t need to have tragic world events surrounding you to understand Theater of the Absurd—but it certainly does serve to highlight the meaning of absurdism. Life is full of tragedies, sometimes many and severe, sometimes less so. We survive through them, only to die in the end. And it’s funny. The worse it is, the more the need to laugh at it. Theater of the Absurd fills that need. And certainly, New York was a city in need of laughter after 9/11, the kind of laughter that still acknowledged the tragedy, but laughter nonetheless.

The Village Voice wrote, at the time, that "Dizzying ambition is what animates every aspect of this sprawling festival, which generously provides New Yorkers in the grip of a dark time an opportunity to encounter an unfailingly inventive playwright's response to his own traumatic age." I think New Yorkers were able to understand absurdism in a whole new way after 9/11, a perspective that I still see to an extent currently.

Did you learn anything about Ionesco’s style by producing his entire oeuvre?

EDWARD: Definitely. I knew a lot about Ionesco coming into the festival, but reading the plays and seeing them all on their feet are two very different things. Sometimes I felt like I was watching one, long play. Ionesco varies between a punchy comic absurdism more common in his early plays and a surrealist almost lyrical form of absurdism more common in his later ones. But seeing them all together I could see how even in his earlier plays there is a underlying hint of the wistful, lost and tragic feelings of the later plays, while the later plays suffered unless the productions found the moments of the sudden, unexpectedly ridiculous.

Which elements of Ionesco's particular brand of absurdism continue to be relevant today?

EDWARD: All of it. Of course, you’re asking a prejudiced party, but I think the basic themes of Ionesco’s plays are eternally relevant. One of the difficulties Ionesco tackled was the basic failings of language and the difficulties of communication, a theme that only gets compounded over time. When his characters can’t find meaning in language, they look for it in ideology or, in his later plays, in their own selves. Always, the search is a doomed one. But it is a search that human beings will continue to go through, throughout time, and that essential theme is something that never ceases to be relevant.

What is your favorite Ionesco play? Why?

EDWARD: The Bald Soprano. He wrote a nearly perfect play, if there is any such thing as perfection in playwriting, but it followed none of the rules of theater. It is an object unto itself, and the fact that it works is almost a miracle. It changed theater, but even Ionesco could never write anything else quite like it.

Though once a scathing critique of both theatre and society, absurdism has been fully co-opted by both. How can indie theatre artists continue to be true to the spirit that originally informed this work?

EDWARD: Theater that is truthful can never be co-opted. Absurdism is just a style, a way of getting to that truth, but saying something truthful, especially if no one else is saying it, is always dangerous. But being truthful doesn’t just mean repeating the truths found in old works of absurdism, it is finding new things to say, things that need to be said now.

You just wrapped the enormous Havel Festival. Who's on the short list for your next featured playwright?

We may not do a playwright next—it may be a novelist or writer whose works we will adapt for the stage. There are a few I have in mind whose style would really fit the style of our theater. But I’m not saying who yet.

For more information on Edward Einhorn's work, please visit the homepage of Untitled Theater Company #61.

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