TINA HOWE: I’m so thrilled to be in the same room as Anne and Chisa, I can hardly speak. Both have written plays in which a bewildered American finds himself in an alien land where no one speaks English, but even worse, their language doesn’t even exist since Anne and Chisa made them up. It’s tempting to dismiss these languages as gibberish, except the rhythms and phrasing sound so familiar. So what started out as a panel on gibberish quickly morphed into a discussion on why and how they invented these languages that keep veering into ecstasy.
To my mind, the enduring plays show characters struggling to communicate and failing. The more desperate they become, the better, so throwing a fellow into a landscape in which he can’t speak or be understood guarantees verbal chills, and I’m very curious about their process. I’m very curious if they had a dictionary. I have the feeling that Chisa has a dictionary and a publisher who has published the dictionary. [Everyone laughs] And there are three people in some tiny kingdom somewhere who speak that language. I don’t know but it all seems to make sense. And when I saw her play I kind of understood everything which didn’t make me wonder if I was in my right mind. And I sort of hope at some point and the apex of her play, one of the characters launches into a long speech completely in his language and I was sort of hoping that Anne would read it and then maybe that Chisa would read it and that maybe you all would read it and we would all rejoice together. I’m just so excited to be with such radiant, fearless women who dare to write in languages that haven’t been invented yet. I guess I should start with Anne because I think she did it first, tell us about your process, particularly with The Internationalist, and tell us what your relationship with the language was. Was it hard for you? Did you enjoy it? Did you rewrite your language when you made a mistake? Did you get upset and was rewriting the order of language more complicated than writing our language? So just answer any of these questions about what your process was like and if you went to a sort of ecstasy writing it that I went through reading it.
ANNE WASHBURN: For a couple of years I had a great job as a document manager in a Swiss-based reinsurance company. A job for which I am temperamentally, extremely unsuited. But the hours were great and the pay was good and so I did it for two years until I became really concerned that was gonna, you know, I just had to panic all the time to keep on top of it because it really isn’t something I’m good at doing, keeping logical track of things. Because my team was all based in Zurich, once a year I would go for a week to Zurich on a team-building visit.
The first year we did this, I went with my team to a fancy team-building lunch at the very fancy corporate headquarters out in some suburb of Zurich and we had a long extremely fancy lunch, and then we had cheese, and meanwhile, we had many different wines and everyone grew increasingly mellow and convivial. We were conducting this entire day’s long worth of meetings in English for my benefit and some members of my team were very fluent in English and some were not, at all.
We were relaxing at the end of this lunch, and one of the members of my team told a great story which is in the play, pretty much in its entirety, just a wonderful story about a woman who thinks her cat is being attacked by a fox and rushes out into the backyard to save it, and wrestles what she thinks is the cat away from the fox and then discovers that she’s holding a weasel instead, and the fox is looking at her in astonishment, and the weasel is looking at her in astonishment, and then the weasel and the fox exchange a look—it’s just a wonderful story about communication and miscommunication.
And then, another member of my team told this story which started out in English and which swiftly went into Swiss-German, though he kept kind of meaning to get back to English and he would occasionally throw in a couple of things in English... which made it all the more inexplicable, and I never really knew what the story was about, but it was apparently a great story and everyone was laughing.
I went home after the meeting to my hotel room, and I wrote down the story which I could remember, and then for the story which I couldn’t remember I sort of wrote dot dash, dot, dot, dash, dot, dash and kind of noted the places where I knew rhythmically he had said a thing which I could sometimes remember and sometimes not. And I knew that was going to be the start of a play.
I thought initially that I would write the story which I didn’t know and get someone to translate it for me into Swiss-German but then I realized that if it ever got done and someone in the audience happened to know Swiss-German, they would be denied the pleasure of not knowing the story.
So it became gibberish. I had done a lot of work with gibberish throughout my life. I was a child who sang in gibberish a lot when I was quite wee, and then at some point gave that up, but it came up in grade school. When we were in a drama class we were given the assignment—I think it was based on an Andy Kaufman routine—to tell a joke in a made-up language and I was very good at it because of all that early practice. So, positive reinforcement—and I would rehearse myself sometimes, in gibberish, when I was acting and working on a scene alone, and when I was directing in college and after college I would sometimes have the actors rehearse scenes in gibberish, if improvising scenes in gibberish was something they had a facility for.
I think there were two catalysts for making the leap towards writing in gibberish. One was reading a wonderful play by Madelyn Kent called Black Milk, which has a lot of made-up Albanian which is always translated. And around that same time, I saw Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, which has a couple of extensive moments in Dari that seem important and are never translated. And so I think that all of these things sort of came together. That’s the very long answer.
TINA HOWE: Were you mindful of some sort of a dictionary in terms of the things that people were saying and being somewhat consistent in terms of their use of language, or would you make up, you know, make up new words according to how they were feeling?
ANNE WASHBURN: I can’t wait to hear about your dictionary, Chisa. Reading it I thought, “Yes, she is really doin’ it.” No, there’s no dictionary, it was really just sonic. I thought it was that I was kind of crossing an Asiatic language and a Turkic language and a Roman language. So those were the sounds that were going on, and I felt like there was something in the language where it was more elegant if you have a kind of syllabic lineup in the word. It turns out it sounds a lot like Hungarian. But making it was strictly sonic—the sound of it and more importantly the rhythm of it, trying to capture that half haphazard rhythm of speech and trying also to capture the degree of roundaboutness in speech, the sheer time it takes people to really get to a point... so there’s a lot of ‘extra talk’ in there, a lot of language where I don’t know what they’re saying exactly but I’m pretty sure it's just social padding as they feel their way into a situation.
TINA HOWE: What was your feeling about the audience? Did you ever feel you had to make it easy for them? Were you thinking about them? Were you worrying about them or were you just having a ball writing what you wanted to write? Were you worried about how they would receive it? Was that something that bothered you, or did you not care?
ANNE WASHBURN: I worried about the actors. I didn’t think anyone would ever do the play because I thought, “How can you ask actors to memorize whole sections of gibberish? They’ll go mad.” I didn’t worry about the audience just because I thought, “Oh, they’ll enjoy this.” It’s the kind of thing I really enjoy when I see it; I thought they could handle it.
TINA HOWE: It’s fascinating. Well, I think at this point we should ask Chisa about her impulses to write her play. Where they came from. Where her language came from. And then once she explains that then I think the two of you can ask each other questions about problems that you—it was interesting because both of you at certain points ended up doing charades. At certain points, the language wasn’t enough and so charades became the sort of way of communicating. Tell us the subject behind your play. I mean, what you were really writing about and why you chose to set it in the setting you did. And why you chose to make the other characters so exotic and so huge, so enormous in size. And tell us about how the decision came to give them another language and the kind of language that you chose. Anne talked so beautifully about [she makes sounds] did you make those choices to just—tell us a little about your process and the joy and or the anguish that you went through pulling it off.
CHISA HUTCHINSON: The Wedding Gift is about this guy, Doug, a regular guy, who just finds himself one day in a cage at this otherworldly wedding and with no fucking idea what’s going on. And there are these human-like creatures, very tall and imposing, who are speaking this weird language. It becomes clear that they’ve just gotten married. There’s this parade of gifts and Doug is the last, the biggest, most luxurious gift who’s wheeled out in this cage and inspected and scrutinized. So the play becomes about Doug and his attempts to escape this situation because he’s basically like a pet for this couple. He attempts to get back to his family. He has a daughter and one ally who is sort of a hybrid of these creatures and human, who speaks a little bit of English. They’re able to sort of cobble together an understanding and she tries to help him but shit just goes horribly awry.
I think the impulse there came from some movies lately that are about slavery in this country. They’re either very literal or hyper-real—like Jhango, which is a ridiculous blood bath. It’s like slavery to the whatever degree. They’re beautiful films. They’re very important and I think they’ve done a lot to open people’s eyes to the horrors of slavery. But we can also pat ourselves on the back and go, “It is so great that we don’t do that anymore and it’s so far, far, far, in the past that we don’t have to worry about that anymore.” This made me yearn for some sort of art that made the subject more immediate, more visceral. I think that’s where the impulse to create this whole other language came from because it really does need its own language. This situation of being ripped from everything you’re familiar with and plopped down into this strange world that has nothing to do with you, yet you’re expected to deal and integrate and serve your function. I wanted to create an experience for people who think about slavery but from a safe distance. I really wanted to close that gap.
TINA HOWE: And what are the semantic rules of the language that you chose?
CHISA HUTCHINSON: Oh, I geeked the fuck out. This play has taken me the longest. I really don’t take a long time to write a play. Usually, I can crank one out in like a week or two when I’m left alone or on retreat or something. But this took me a year, which for me…
TINA HOWE: A year…[they laugh] oh me, that speed, that speed…
CHISA HUTCHINSON: Which is a long time for me. And I have a day job, so it was a year of lunch hours and Sunday afternoons. The dictionary came about because I was trying to remember what I had written a week ago. “Did I create a word for that already?” And I would have my handy, dandy glossary. “Oh yeah, there it is, ‘hoohah,’ all right.” And then I would use that word again, later. I was trying to take good care of the audience because there is no translation…
TINA HOWE: Right. Was there any template in terms of the sound of the language that you were going for? Any particular sound?
CHISA HUTCHINSON: What’s bizarre is people who’ve heard this whose native tongue is not English will come up to me and say, “Oh, did you study Hindi? Did you study Swahili? Did you study Spanish? Because it sounded just like Spanish.” It was kind of gratifying, you know? To have all these people, with all these different languages coming up and saying there were clearly some elements of their native tongue in there. No, there’s no particular template, but I am a lover of language. I tried hard to keep the rules consistent and create an entire grammar. So there are suffixes that are present tense and suffixes that are past and future. There’s subjunctive mood in there. If it begins with “Ko” it’s I should, could, would, you know. Lots of rules, because I knew that people who come to the theatre tend to be lovers of language and will pick up on that stuff and I really wanted to make it easier for them to recognize particular words and to get that feeling of, “I’m smart because, you know, I know what they’re saying.”
TINA HOWE: So you were aware of the audience when you were writing?
CHISA HUTCHINSON: Yes.
TINA HOWE: Did you have moments of wild ecstasy when you felt that you were sort of hearing voices doing that? I felt that you must have had those moments.
CHISA HUTCHINSON: Yeah. There are certain scenes in there in which the physicality illuminates the meaning. Scenes written entirely in the made-up language... Like there’s a wedding night scene. Everybody knows what goes on on a wedding night, right? I feel like sex is just one of those things that sort of transcends language. They’re talking to each other and the woman comes forward wearing this celestial lingerie. The guy is uttering phrases of appreciation and he stands up and touches her boob but then he laughs, he laughs and says “o, o, o, beedie, beedie, beedie,” you know, like he’s saying, “Oh they’re so small.” He’s basically insulting his wife on their wedding night. So she points at his crotch and uses the same language “o, o, o, beedie, beedie, beedie,” like “Oh that’s so cute, he’s so small.” And you know exactly what they’re saying because they’re pointing at each other’s genitals. Moments like that, I think, really brought me ecstasy where I thought, “Oh good, I created some kind of context that makes it clear and people are going to understand what is going on without knowing specifically what is being said.”
TINA HOWE: As a playwright who dives deeply to explore and to mimic the chaos of what it is to be alive, where do you go next?
CHISA HUTCHINSON: To an audience?
TINA HOWE: In terms of sort of dismantling or heightening the form. That’s something that I used to worry about. I was so influenced by Ionesco and I thought no woman has written about female experience or female rituals with the same sort of energy or imagination in which Ionesco writes about power and identity and confusion and society, and I wanted to shed light on the mystery and strangeness of female rituals. So, I began writing very naughty, frisky plays that either weren’t done or closed in a night. I thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” If I wanted to have a life in the theatre, I had to behave myself and follow certain rules but there’s a part of me… You know, I so admire the two of you because I think you’re much freer than I. I sort of reigned myself in and realized, I can’t write the sorts of plays that I want to write. But you both had the courage to write the sort of plays you wanted to write. I think women’s voices are now beginning to be heard a little more, but do we feel a sort of a challenge and a need to sort of push the envelope even more? Now that you’ve done it in terms of language, are there other ways that you want to find expression that perhaps we haven’t heard or seen before?
ANNE WASHBURN: I think that theatre is a deeply under-exploited medium. I think I understand your need to rein yourself in at the start of your career, but can you not go back to that impulse now?
TINA HOWE: Oh man. I’m tired.
ANNE WASHBURN: Are there extraordinary, loopy Tina Howe plays that are now…
TINA HOWE: I’m doing one…
ANNE WASHBURN: Excellent.
TINA HOWE: And nobody’s gonna touch it! Nobody’s gonna touch it, but I simply don’t care. I’m so old it doesn’t matter anymore. But you’re young, so I’m wondering in what ways can you continue to kick up your heels? You’ve certainly done it with language.
ANNE WASHBURN: Something I thought was really marvelous about your play, Chisa, was the degree to which it is both, you know, it’s a sonic experience, there’s that language but it is also, because of the way you’re employing the language, a very visual experience. There’s such a lot of pantomime and I love that we’re taking the story in in that way as well and the way that that develops—that at the beginning the stakes are very large and also very obvious: Man has appeared on a strange planet. Weird looking people are using him as a sex toy. He wants to go back home to [his] six-year-old daughter. The stakes are really huge and very immediate and very realizable. But as it goes on, the problems are more abstract and to understand the play we have to watch it very closely and more subtly. It went to a visual, behavioral, observer-based storytelling place that I think is a thing that is so pleasurable in the theatre. Just the naked exercise of social attention.
CHISA HUTCHINSON: Wherever theatre goes next, I think the thing that makes it so exciting is the liveness of it, right? And whatever it is, more audience participation, site-specific stuff, guerilla-style, whatever it is, it has to take advantage of the fact that theatre is a live medium. You know, this thing that we do [She pantomimes texting on her mobile device]. We have to work to compensate for that, to snap people out of that Twitter, text, Facebooky, zombified stupor that we get into—even if it’s just for 90 minutes—to really sort of shake each other and get us to pay attention. Pay social attention.
ANNE WASHBURN: I think everyone’s freaking out about that. It’s like Twitter vs. the Theatre.
CHISA HUTCHINSON: Yeah.
ANNE WASHBURN: As well as Twitter IN the theatre. Could Madonna really have been tweeting all throughout Hamilton?
CHISA HUTCHINSON: And that dude who friggin’ charged his phone…
ANNE WASHBURN: Oh, that poor young man, yes. But although it is a huge problem and we do need those special rays that stop all electronic communication once you’re in the theatre, the fact is that, although we are absolutely addicted to these things, there IS a palpable sense of relief after the first ten minutes of withdrawal. I think it’s to our advantage that there is something in our souls that wants to be free. You see all those studies where spending two hours on the computer makes you more depressed than spending two hours reading or chatting or staring dimly into space or exercising or doing any other thing apart from being actively abused. No one actually thinks that it makes them feel better to go online, they just do it because they can’t help desiring it. It gets harder to convince people that not having their phones at their beck and call is a good idea, but once they’re actually engaged in the non-phone activity, some part of them really does genuinely on an animal level love it. So, I like to think we have that in our corner.
TINA HOWE: That gives me hope.
ANNE WASHBURN: Although we have to get them in there to begin with.
CHISA HUTCHINSON: That’s true. And it will probably take a lot of social media marketing.
ANNE WASHBURN: Exactly. Oh irony, oh beautiful irony.
TINA HOWE: Yes, women have far fewer plays produced than the fellas, but I also feel we haven’t begun to mine the length and depth of our gifts—the dreams, fantasies, and language that bubble within. Since language is our medium, I felt an entire issue of The Dramatist should be devoted to the myriad ways we use, abuse, or celebrate it. Hence a panel with the two of you who delighted in crafting languages that don’t exist. Where many of the fellas write in explosive outbursts laced with expletives, we women seem to have a more circular approach, taking our time. Witness Annie Baker’s three-hour plus, fearless The Flick in which most of the action involves watching two guys sweep between the rows of a run-down movie theater, and Anne Washburn’s sublime 10 out of 12 that drops us into a shatteringly repetitive technical rehearsal. Yet the balletic staging and repetitious dialogue of these works create dream states that are both hypnotic as well as wildly original.
As women we’ve been domesticated for so long—with or without kids—but we still maintain rich imaginations filled with wonders that haven’t begun to see the light of day. See how this panel which started out being about gibberish has blossomed into a discussion about creating entire languages that never existed before! How would you describe this far-flung discussion of ours?
ANNE WASHBURN: I mean, I think we’re talking about invented languages but I think we’re also talking about the pleasures of not understanding, or of having to really work to understand. I think people since the dawn of time have enjoyed disarticulating speech. I think it’s interesting how long Catholics wanted to keep the mass going in Latin, which nobody understood. That it was reassuring to have huge truths spoken in a language that they didn’t understand because that made it more convincing.
I think there’s a streak of dramaturging in the theatre that is all about clarification. Which I think is good up to a certain point, but there are real pleasures in mystification. Everyone has the experience of loving and having a very deep experience with a pop song you barely know the words to. You know when you love the song and years later you find out what it actually means and you’re dismayed and can no longer love it? You think of the pleasures of humming, just sort of tunelessly. You’re giving expression to something and you can’t be bothered to quite put it into whatever because if you don’t pin it down with language, it can be about many more things than if you do. I was interested in that editorial in the New York Times—about the translations of Shakespeare the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is doing—which made the point that even in his time, Shakespeare was considered difficult to understand and that some of his speeches were considered unintelligible. Is unintelligibility sometimes the byproduct of really potent expression? Or is it something we actually enjoy in and of itself because it is the highest potency of expression?
TINA HOWE: Nice.
ANNE WASHBURN: I think it’s both. Splitting some kind of difference.
TINA HOWE: To my mind, writing for theatre is all about what you don’t say—the art of evocation. Leaving room for the actors and the audience to move in. But you’re right, there’s also something exhilarating about going nuts and having a blast. Straining for clarity can be deadly. Our job is finding the balance between what can’t be articulated and the sublime—which both of you do in spades. It was such a blast reading your plays. What about collaborating on an opera next? But without a composer. Your silences and glorious words would be the music. I can almost hear it now!
CHISA HUTCHINSON: I was listening to you talk about why we’re so taken with Shakespeare and why he stuck around for as long as he has... you ever watch the Olympics? And maybe it’s not your country, your country isn’t even anywhere in there, but you’re like still watching the little Russian gymnast do her thing and you’re just so proud to be a human? You’re just like, “Wow. The things we can do.” And you feel this vicarious sense of achievement or accomplishment or pride. I feel like that when some playwright takes on a new form. I read your play and I’m like, “Oh my God, I just can’t believe she just fuckin’ did that! A human invented this whole new thing!” And taking language to a new level is like setting a new world record for an Olympic event. There’s this feeling that not everything under the sun has been done yet. I think that gives us hope. I think that’s why people like Shakespeare, who seemed to just pull words out of his ass. The deliciousness of that comes from a sense of joy, just being a human and still trying and searching for new things—trying to create new things. And I just happen to be sitting here right now because I tried.
TINA HOWE: Well, you succeeded. ●
Excerpt from The Wedding Gift by Chisa Hutchinson
[Ed. Note: For clarity, the English translation appears in bold ]
KAMSUH: Laleh shimsuh, ah?
Beautiful specimen, yes?
DOUG: Miss, you look like a nice lady. Both of you look like nice ladies. You…you just got married, right? That’s what…all that was about, right?
(NAHLIS continues to scrutinize DOUG, even daring to grab the bars of the cage to pull herself as close as she can get. Meanwhile, ONJAH appears in the margins of the space, unbeknownst to NAHLIS and KAMSUH.)
DOUG: I was married, too. Not anymore, but I…I have a daughter. We have a daughter…she’s six—
DOUG: (excited at NAHLIS’ acknowledgment) Yes! She’s only six years old, her name is Hannah…
DOUG: Yes! Yes!!! Oh my God, I—
(NAHLIS beckons DOUG with her pinky finger.)
DOUG: You…you want me to…?
(DOUG cautiously walks over to NAHLIS, stopping about a foot away. NAHLIS beckons for him to come closer with her pinky. He obeys, hopeful. Suddenly, NAHLIS slips her fingers between the bars of the cage and lifts whatever strategically placed thing is concealing DOUG’s bits and pieces. DOUG jumps back, appalled.)
DOUG: What the…?!
(NAHLIS and KAMSUH crack up laughing. At that moment, ONJAH clears her throat. KAMSUH is immediately defensive, as she does not know how much the priestess has witnessed.)
KAMSUH: (sharply) Pa kah tesh onseh? Pa kah tesh eh win?
What do you want? Why are you here?
ONJAH: Esh…desh bortreh esh hixameh yevah.
I…they told me to keep guard over the gifts.
(KAMSUH looks annoyed, but convinced.)
KAMSUH: Ah yo. Boh, tesh kini hixameh vah yevah…
Ah yes. Well, you better watch this gift… (indicates DOUG)
(Winks and smiles at NAHLIS)
Weh, picha. Otri kesh ginseh.
Come on, sweetie. Let’s go have that drink.
NAHLIS: Ah yo, Ama.
Yes, of course, Mother.
(NAHLIS and KAMSUH exit snickering and chattering like schoolgirls. When they are safely out of sight, ONJAH looks at DOUG, who is backed against the farthest bars of the cage. He looks forlorn, like he has just been hit with the gravity and probable permanence of his situation. ONJAH then beckons the man with her hand. He looks at her and does not move. ONJAH beckons him with her entire arm. He does not move. ONJAH lets her arm fall by her side and gives DOUG a look: “I’m not going to do anything bad to you…” DOUG is convinced and slowly, approaches the woman, with his hands nevertheless shielding his crotch. When he is close enough, ONJAH passes a piece of exotic-looking fruit, which she had concealed in her garments, between the bars of the cage…DOUG cautiously takes it from her and doesn’t quite know what to do with it, as he has bigger concerns…ONJAH checks her surroundings to make sure that no one is watching. We see her make the decision to speak.)
ONJAH: I have a daughter once too.
(DOUG looks up at her.)
ONJAH (cont.) Eat.
Excerpt from The Internationalist by Anne Washburn
SARA: Listen carefully. I’m going to tell you the truth.
(This isn’t a confession of love, it’s probably not so even so much about him, but it’s emotionally raw, strikingly naked.)
Dim tia. Hag alla pom timin tee fay. Yil seeva saan amhalio pro bimin fee karal nee—sits yee amb hen dockt. (Beat.) Gim see fa heyal adana mimca cray duelist manda eyeb saat, gaha neen tomil farlio pit surhanio warra gee sal. (Mini beat.) Kilt foit darcat bearat hantfidia qin garrio sora niy koral hibinimatia dor kand lor. Kamul eets beddic. Lihurin rol circumstat binda pint fits toi, toya harric, fits harric guradat empt ill inst deen malhalan abarat emladahatanfiyad haloran em sendact empam fayal lorin tal semphit adan. Larashtat horguric ti amin alfa feyut murid hoymak lalchtin ora tideit fidyan fiswa dalha naag undurit pitwa byed. Morgah am aiyda lorha speesen adak feyo yeltak kereve fusit poian lald impeznik tor kampatsufuric tulten artot. Sazhenpetz. Harlio temerek. Fuio ped aybit helicteren sormsul gashfoyan peltit zonya temtoyinattik arlat heem. Oim poran metchik tsiop fuunsen felem urfil samtrat ninvag turit pantap fiya ulnsudhedichen boraganad roitbamatelen sutfaten yor gem beeldtaap oshat emeetstu.
LOWELL: (Gently.) What was that.
SARA: (She knows he didn’t.) Did you understand any of it.
SARA: Do you remember any of it?
LOWELL: No. Of course not.
SARA: Not even, the littlest word? (Beat.)
LOWELL: tsi—norrid something.
SARA: Nothing else?
SARA: That’s a conjunctive.
SARA: I’ll never repeat it. Everything that I said is disappeared forever. Dissolved into the air. But I meant it. Now it’s your turn.
LOWELL: I don’t have a way to speak unintelligibly.