What initially drew you and Phoenix Rep to Ionesco and to THE LESSON in particular?
AMY WAGNER:Our company was looking to build a repertory within our season and we had already decided that the other half of the rep would be Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. We wanted to create an evening of comical one-acts that would compliment that tragedy, and immediately thought of The Lesson. It seemed a perfect way to celebrate the versatility of French drama in the twentieth century. We were all familiar with The Lesson, but we did not want to pair it with the pieces that normally accompany it like The Chairs or The Bald Soprano. We didn’t even plan that the second piece would be another Ionesco play, but after some digging, we came across The Painting, a wonderfully funny play that is rarely performed, so then we built an evening of Ionesco. We consider The Lesson a classic piece of drama from an extremely important and influential period of absurdist writing. What draws me to it is its humor. It is a very funny play. Humor is very democratic, but here it isn’t situational or employed for the sake of a narrative. Ionesco’s humor becomes a method of delivering something much less easier to process. The play isn’t about being funny, and it isn’t about a message. This is what appeals to me.
As a director, how do you approach Ionesco's unique comic voice?
AMY WAGNER: I think that Ionesco intends his characters to be “types” and often clowns. Certainly, he’s saying something about people in general. The Painting goes even further. Ionesco subtitles it a Guignol and writes pages describing the clownish characterization he envisions for each role. Our production, directed by Kevin Confoy, also created a more circus atmosphere at certain points. There were even big shoes, fat suits, and confetti. For The Lesson, I found myself making cuts mostly to preserve humor and to spin us toward the ending with the right pacing. I also added a more sexual overtone, which was often blatant and sometimes buffoonish, both for the Professor and the Student. I even added a Groucho Marx impression. I actually like some of the more clownish moments in Ionesco’s plays for their ability to surprise us and send us in a new, unexpected direction.
Did you learn anything about Ionesco’s style by producing these two one-acts together?
AMY WAGNER: They seemed wildly different animals. Somehow, The Painting made The Lesson seem more “normal”. The Painting was a far broader and more outrageous piece, as far as the characterization and what happens are concerned. However, the language of The Lesson is more absurd and indulged. There were also some commonalities between these two early works. We began to notice how many of the same phrases cropped up in both plays, and also how the dynamics of authority shift back and forth for the characters in both, and of course, the violence. I think that by producing the plays to be performed together lets us explore the range of elements important to Ionesco’s style. Although The Lesson is a classic piece on its own, I think that The Painting provides us with a larger portrait (please excuse the pun) of the absurdist master’s skills and informs our understanding of the kind of theatre he was trying to create.
Which elements of Ionesco's particular brand of absurdism continue to be relevant today?
AMY WAGNER: The clutter of language seems particularly relevant, mostly because our culture is so cluttered with sound-bytes and nonsensical snippets of language delivering information. Look at email and instant messaging. We employ certain abbreviations and acronyms that become words themselves. When I was teaching high school, my students would actually turn in papers with @ symbols. Everything is short-hand, but that’s compensated by the fact that there’s just so much of it. We’re plugged in all the time, constantly streaming. That’s absurd. How can we possibly think we’re defining our own meaning in our lives when we live like that? This is what Ionesco was warning us. But then, maybe we’re not interested in dealing with the same existentialist issues that Ionesco and his contemporaries explored. Maybe we’ve moved onto something else. Perhaps today, the issue is not that there is no meaning, but rather that everything has meaning. How do we cope with that? Maybe finding our own meaning for is not about rejecting those meanings that are outside of us, but rather by selecting which meanings we want for ourselves. That’s our exercise of freedom in this information age. We’re not authors of our lives; we’re editors.
What is your favorite Ionesco play? Why?
AMY WAGNER: I’ve always liked The Lesson. I like that it challenges the subject of knowledge itself. The notion that education and just the process of transmitting learning becomes a method of subjugation and conformity is fascinating to me. I’ve been both a student and a teacher and I consider myself someone who loves learning. Ionesco warns that in learning we are accepting what we are told and simply aping back what has already been determined for us as knowledge; it is decided for us. A similar case is made in The Painting about art. Certainly, societies have made up the knowledge that they want taught in order to suit political aims. History textbooks are a prime example, but the fact that even basic mathematics and philology are challenged in this play really crystallizes the idea. We cannot just accept what we are told is fundamental. We have to make our own meaning. Of course, what I got from the play when I first read it as a kid was that it was just an anti-Nazi play, but I see it has more to do with any society of conformity, not just that brand of fascism. I also like that the play poses its challenges without providing a solution or an alternative. We are left only with the notion that the consequences of this dangerous conformity, including violent destruction, will continue to play out. The cycle will repeat and that the same results should always be expected.
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?
Well, to be true to Ionesco’s type of absurdism means that you must be funny. However, the co-opting I think you may be talking about is simply the use of absurdism to be funny-for funny’s-sake. I think that Ionesco’s Absurdist Theatre, or I guess as he preferred, Theatre of Derision, was about mocking the world around us. For example, he sported excessive clichés and idioms to mock their usage. Most of today’s “absurdist” works, and I’m thinking more of television and film, choose to mock individuals; mean or disgusting things happen to “real” people, and none of us as the audience are actually implicated. Our own lives never come into question, because what we’re watching is meant as an entertainment for escape from ourselves. There’s also that particular genre of weird-for-weird’s-sake, which I think has its place too, but if we’re talking about what the major dramatists of absurdism were aiming at, then I don’t think it was simply about exploring nonsense, but also about burning questions regarding human existence. To me, the key to being true to the spirit of classic aburdist theatre is to continue to require audiences to question their lives and the world around them. It’s an awful lot to ask from audiences, and many will flinch or reject it. Many will just simply not like it. But an indie artist will present it nonetheless, because he thinks it is important.
What's coming up next for you and Phoenix Theatre Ensemble?
Rest. But not for long. Actually, the Phoenix is producing two more shows this season: On the Verge by Eric Overmyer, and Maud, or The Madness, a one-man play by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Those will open in April and May, respectively. We are currently developing a new play that is being written for us by our Playwright-in-Residence Glyn Maxwell, which will be presented next season. Later this month, we will also host a memorial event for Eve Adamson, our friend and artistic mentor, who passed away in the fall. The Memorial will be on January 29.