Rick Burkhardt Talks Nonsense

The Nonsense Company

The Nonsense Company

It’s been a good year for The Nonsense Company. Last winter, they brought their show Conversation Storm to New York’s FRIGID Festival, where it attracted a lot of attention and critical acclaim. So much so, in fact, that Martin Denton, nytheatre.com‘s Grand Poobah, selected it for his latest annual anthology of new plays, Plays and Playwrights 2009.  

This month, The Nonsense Company brings Conversation Storm back to The Big Apple, where it will play in tandem with another piece of theirs called Great Hymn of Thanksgiving. Co-founding member Rick Burkhardt dropped by the ol’ blog to talk more about the shows and what else The Nonsense Company has up their collective sleeves. Here’s what he had to say…

First of all, what made you decide to bring Conversation Storm back to New York a year after its FRIGID Festival debut?

We were invited by Andy Horwitz and Vallejo Gantner, both of whom saw the piece at FRIGID, to do a longer run of the piece at the IRT space, performing at night, while using the space during the daytime to develop a new piece, to be premiered this Fall at P.S. 122. Who could resist an invitation like that?

This time around Conversation Storm is paired-up with another piece called Great Hymn of Thanksgiving. Tell us some more about it and why you thought it would be a good companion piece.

Actually, we nearly always perform Great Hymn of Thanksgiving and Conversation Storm together. Great Hymn was written first (in 2003), and Conversation Storm was written in 2006 as a companion piece to Great Hymn. Great Hymn is a piece for three people sitting around a dinner table, making all the sounds you’d associate with the table setting (squeaking forks, clinking glasses, scooting chairs, smacking lips, etc.) and a few sounds you wouldn’t (a steel drum, a toy piano, an autoharp). At the same time, they speak, pray, sing, recite the news, and generally sound more like a multimedia audio collage than a conversation — or you could say that the audio collage is their conversation. The performers read the piece off of sheet music as the performance occurs, and that also becomes part of the theater of the piece: we could perform the piece from memory, but it’s important for the audience to see that the performers are following instructions. I think it’s an interesting pairing because it sets up an intriguing way of understanding Conversation Storm. In that play, three characters have an argument about their beliefs on an important subject, but like most beliefs, their beliefs are also collaged together from words they’ve heard elsewhere (words we’ve all heard elsewhere), and the way the characters adopt, assign, and reassign roles in the argument shows how easy it is for the mechanics of the conversation itself to ultimately brutalize their beliefs and even negate their identities.

"Great Hymn of Thanksgiving"

The Nonsense Company in "Great Hymn of Thanksgiving"

According the shows’ press release, both pieces blur “the boundary between experimental theater and avant-garde music.” What does that mean exactly? And what interests you about blurring that line?

We want to combine the skill sets of contemporary music and theater. Imagine seeing a play where all the actors were constantly coordinating in split second timings like musicians do, or a string quartet where the musicians were all directing the audience’s focus around the room like actors do. There’s a subtle but important difference between the way we watch a performer in a string quartet and the way we watch a performer in a play: they’re both following instructions they’ve received and practiced beforehand (one is performing a score, the other is performing a script) — but we treat the performer in the play as if s/he is deciding what to do in the moment according to what his/her character wants to do in that moment, whereas nobody would ever ask the string quartet performer “why did you play a G sharp? That doesn’t seem like something your character would do.” Imagine a performance where those types of roles were constantly getting mixed up. For me, that kind of mix-up can say a lot about the social world and about human experience.

While you’re all in town this time, I understand that you’ll be developing a new piece inspired by King Lear. What’s that all about?

We were invited last year to participate in a performance of King Lear in which each act would be interpreted by a different company, with no communication between the companies beforehand. We took on Act Three, which is the one where King Lear goes insane and imagines that he’s putting his daughters on trial. In researching the play, we discovered a lot of fascinating stuff about the history of insanity and the history of political trials, so we wanted to expand our version of act three into a broader meditation on those subjects. It’s a fun, theatrical way to examine the distinction (another blurry distinction! I seem to love blurry distinctions) between the internal world of mental processes and the external world of social arrangements — both of them worlds whose logic can flip upside down at any moment.

Obviously, the work you guys do is very politically charged. Any closing thoughts or remarks about the recent inauguration of President Obama?

Well, I see life as being pretty politically charged — that’s the reason politics keep bursting into my writing. I want to write about life as a complex experience, including as many aspects of that experience as I can, and so I find it impossible to sit down at my desk and write as if political events aren’t happening. I think we’re moving into a period where economic issues are going to seem contentious and frightening, in the way that political issues have seemed contentious and frightening for the last eight years — so frightening that even avant garde artists have started talking about them! — and these issues won’t go away just because many of the most powerful politicians in the country suddenly appear strangely sane and competent. It’s tempting to believe that everything that’s happened in the last eight years can be laid at the feet of Bush (and Cheney, et al), and therefore it can all be reversed. But it can’t. I’m extremely impressed by Obama’s first days in office, especially his rapid moves to illegalize torture (of course, officially it was always illegal). But Obama by himself can’t make torture, or the effects of torture, go away, and more importantly he can’t erase the part of our national imagination which still finds torture legitimate. I mean, the show 24 still exists. So we all still have a role to play in helping to do what art does best, which is to intervene in the imagination, and ultimately to expand the national imagination, to make it include things which it can’t imagine now. The worst thing artists could do right now is to close down their imaginations of the political sphere, assuming that someone else has got it covered.

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