Rothko resonates: "Find your contemporaries"

by Artist Development Fellow

Daniel Giles ’13, a resident of Quincy House concentrating in English, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to participate in the the International Student Drama Festival in the UK. Giles presented his own piece CryHurtFood, performed in Fall 2011 at the Loeb Experimental Theatre, and attended ISDF sponsored master classes. Giles also plans to reserach material for a new work about Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. His work on CryHurtFood garnerd him the Phyllis Anderson Prize for Playwriting (2011). Additional theater work includes appearances in a number of on-campus productions including The Balcony, The Flies, and Sara Kane’s Cleansed. Giles plans to pursue work in theater, with a focus on playwriting and directing. This is part 2. Go to part 1.

There’s a line in John Logan’s play Red that I often find tumbling around my head not because it’s particularly lyrical, but because it strikes me as excellent advice. The play fictionalizes Mark Rothko’s relationship with his apprentice during the artist's painting of the Four Seasons murals, and in the closing scene, Rothko gently but firmly fires his helper, urging him to get out in the world and "find your contemporaries."

This summer, I went with a group of Harvard students to Sheffield, England, where our show was one of 20 invited from around the world to take part in the International Student Drama Festival. I left feeling like I’d met quite a few of my contemporaries.

Two of my favorite shows at the festival were by young British theater companies. The first, Inheritance Blues, was a boisterous, witty comedy created and performed by a talented ensemble that became its own jazz band. The second,Howard Barker’s Five Names, was a collection of vignettes: Exacting and elegant and alien, it was one of the most stylistically accomplished pieces I saw all summer. I became envious of British theater culture when I watched their shows. It’s difficult to compare it to anything in American culture—maybe it’s like hip-hop, or the short story, or baseball—but theater across the pond is alive in a way that is somehow both more mainstream and more transgressive than over here. For these young companies, it’s part of how they understand themselves. If there’s anything I want to take away from the summer as a playwright it’s this sense of vital immediacy—the idea that something can surprise you and challenge you even as it resonates in your bones.

A few of my other festival favorites came from the Middle East, from a combination of countries I’d never imagined would share a stage. The first two were from Israel: Good, a sly and stylish re-imagining of a play about Nazi Germany, and Stains, a funny and poignant memoir-play about being young and war-wounded. Then from Palestine came The Gaza Monologues, a powerful documentary about the experiences of children living under fire, and from Iran, Fatherly, a brave and fairly staggering family drama that ended in a stunning coup de theatre. Despite coming from countries that are openly hostile to each other, these shows had a lot in common: They all used playfulness to confront the rigidity of ideology with something more flexible and humane.

The diversity and scope of the festival was maybe its best feature.There was feminist dance theater from Zimbabwe, post-modern farce from Germany, post-war philosophical tragedy from Japan and a virtuosic deconstructed Our Town from Georgia. The sheer variety was both overwhelming and reassuring, and it’s difficult to sum up the impression this sampling platter of world theatre had on me, mostly because I’m still processing it.

Certainly it confirmed the comforting idea that performance can transcend barriers of language and culture. I’d always thought this idea was platitudinous, but when you see it unfolding in the real world, it’s more complex. For starters, there was the fact that nobody could agree on favorite shows. More often than not, opinions were divided, sometimes fiercely and always unpredictably. The performances spoke to everyone, but they said different things.

I experienced this phenomenon talking with our group about the plays and in the reaction to the show we put up. This leads me dangerously toward another potentially tired art truism that in experience feels new. You can’t know how your work is going to speak to others, so you have to pay attention as rigorously as you can when it speaks to you. Witnessing the peculiarity, specificity, and originality of the other work at the festival helped me to realize that if you can do that, you empower your work to reach out toward the world—toward your contemporaries—from a place of compassion. This seems, at the very least, to be a good start.

[Caption: Cast of CryHurtFood (from left to right, Joshua McTaggart '13, Sam Clark '15, Scout O'Beirne '15, Georgina Parfitt '13, Margaret Kerr '13, Ben Lorenz '14, Mariel Pettee '14, and me) in front of the Crucible theatre]

[Caption: Ben Lorenz '14 on the stage of the Sheffield Crucible]