Nick Lantz is the author of two books of poetry, We Don't Know We Don't Know (Graywolf Press, 2010) and The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors' House (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010). He is the recipient of fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. His plays have been produced in Portland, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin. He is the current Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.
Across A Distance Website
How did your collaboration begin?
The collaboration began without me. Julia Faulkner, an opera singer, and Robert Schleifer, a Deaf actor, had met a few years back and very much wanted to do a piece of theater together that incorporated their different experiences. In 2006, they enlisted a composer, Scott Gendel, and then later a director, Kelly Bremner, to work with them on devising this project. After a little over a year, they decided they needed an actual script, and that's where I came in. Kelly brought me in to one of their rehearsals, and after looking at some of the themes they were dealing with, I went home and sketched out a story that I pitched to them at their next meeting. This was in early summer 2008. They liked the idea, so I started working on a draft of the script and had it finished by that fall. In the summer of 2009, we had a week of reading, rehearsal, and revision, and they performed a selection of scenes at a play development workshop in Chicago that September. Then the show was picked up (I say that as if it just happened, but really Kelly was doing the work of shopping the project around) by the University Theatre in Madison as part of their fall 2010 season.
Have you collaborated outside your art form before this? If so, how did this differ from those collaborations?
I think that theater is a fundamentally collaborative art form in a way that poetry and prose aren't. I've written several plays before this, and whenever a play of mine has been performed, I'm always amazed at how the interpretation that appears in the final performance is so dependent on the efforts and intentions of so many different participants. When writing a play, I always try to leave things with a lot of wiggle room for the director and performers. In fiction or poetry, I feel like I need to micromanage every little detail, because there's very little mediation between me and the reader--it's almost a direct line--but with a play, I don't think it's even possible to do that. For example, in fiction or poetry I might spend several sentences/lines describing how a character peels an orange: how he's standing, where he's looking, what's around him, how his hands move, what he's thinking about. In a play, though, those are the blanks that directors and actors and set designers fill in. The playwright's job is to point in a certain direction, to suggest something compelling, and to trust everyone else involved to make good choices with the rest. A playwright is in charge of the language as it appears in dialogue, but even that, to me, is flexible, especially when directors or actors are working with a living playwright. I think that if a playwright sees her play in rehearsal or performance, that will change how she sees the lines she's written. Some things don't play on stage the way you expect them--I think this is especially true of playwrights (like me) who do most of their writing in other genres. What works on the page isn't always what works on the stage, and so as a playwright, I always want to leave myself open to the commentary of the people who are actually going to be making the performance happen. They have expertise and intuition that I just don't have--they're coming at the script from an entirely different angle. So I want to leave myself open to the idea that the actors or director might have valuable changes to suggest about the dialogue itself. But this project was a step beyond that, even. First of all, I was commissioned to write this piece. Also, this is the first time I've written poetry that was set to music and the first time my work has been translated into another language (American Sign Language). My musical talents and familiarity with ASL are about zero, so I was really dependent on others even at times when it came to the actual language of the piece.
Once they began adapting your work for the opera, was there any additional feedback on either side?
I was commissioned to write the script, and being paid to write something is a very odd experience (for a poet, anyway). But because I was writing this script for a group of people who were going to perform it, I approached the writing process somewhat differently. I got some initial notes from Kelly (the director), and then about a year after I'd finished the first draft we had a whole week in which we met, read through the script, and discussed issues that came up. I took notes at these sessions, then went home and make revisions based on what we discussed. I've had my writing workshopped before, certainly, but this was different. In a creative writing workshop class, you're never really obligated to make any particular changes that your peers suggest. But in this case that's exactly what I set out to do. I very much wanted the final piece to be something that would work for everyone. So I often went home with very specific notes from our meetings that I tried to incorporate into revisions of the script. We had lots of debates about different aspects of the show. One sticking point was the title--we spent what felt like hours working on the title, because we wanted something that worked both in English and ASL. Another issue was onstage translation. Contemporary opera performances are often accompanied by projected captions or translations (especially when the opera isn't in English), and Deaf theater also often includes on-stage sign interpreters for spoken parts and so forth. An idea I was committed to from very early on in the development of this project was that significant portions of the show would not be translated. The themes of the show have to do with both the frustrations of human communication and the sensory beauty of language, separate from its meaning. Leaving parts of the show untranslated simulates that frustration and (hopefully) encourages the audience to just watch the performance, to let go of having to understand everything and instead simply appreciate language as a sensory experience. My original stance was that none of the show should be translated, but this was something we negotiated in the process of revising the script, and the end result (in which only key parts of the show are left untranslated) certainly worked out better than it would have if I had gotten my way. So that was a really important example, for me, of collaborating to find a middle ground that was both practical and made sense thematically and was ultimately better for the show.
What did you learn from this collaboration? Did it affect your own work?
Our work together reinforced what I already knew about theater: that it is fundamentally collaborative, and that one will be better served by acknowledging and embracing that fact. In terms of the script itself, I think there were interesting parallels between what we were doing in or workshops/rehearsals and the themes I was actually working into the play. The show is about the struggles of communication, and what the characters realize is that communication is a collaborative act. You can't simply beam your thoughts and feelings into the mind of another person as if he or she is a satellite dish passively soaking up cosmic radiation. Communication requires effort and negotiation on both ends, which can be frustrating but also rewarding. That's the note the show ends on, for me, and it was certainly informed by our pre-production discussions.
Did anything happen in your collaboration that surprised you?
As I said, I went into this project knowing nothing about music or ASL. The process of setting the poetry to music was painless for me. Scott, who is a wonderful composer, took whatever I wrote and built this amazing music around it. I'd expected that he would have lots of requests for me about revisions to make the language fit the music better, but he basically set the words as I wrote them. We did get together and talk through some small issues, but the biggest surprise for me was how he was able to not only structure music around free-verse poetry but also create very subtle musical themes that carried through from song to song. Robert translated his parts into ASL, and this was probably the most exciting process of rehearsal for me. We ran into a few places where what I'd written in English just didn't have a comfortable equivalent in ASL, and often it was something that had seemed very simple to me when I wrote it. But ASL and English are incredibly different languages--ASL is unlike any other language I've ever encountered, and it was so interesting to see how Robert adapted what I'd written into ASL. In some cases, he had to actually create signs just for the show. Another pleasant surprise was the actual design that Kristin Hunt, another UW faculty member, executed for the show. The play as I wrote it calls for magical islands, with talking birds and trees, and Kristin's design achieved these elements in a very stylized but powerful way. The two human characters deliver probably half of their lines in "dialogue" with these birds and trees, who "speak" through gesture and prerecorded music, so it was essential that they resonate with the audience and give the performers something dynamic to play against. When I wrote the play, I'd imagined the birds and trees could have been realized with anything from puppets to other live actors in costume. I didn't have specific design in mind, and this is exactly the way in which I see theater being fundamentally collaborative. The suggestion of talking birds and trees is mine, but I hand that idea off to the director and designer and trust them to realize it in whatever way they see fit. And that's exactly what they did.
How do you feel about the finished product?
By the time the show was picked up, I had a good sense of the talent of everyone involved in the production, so I didn't have any anxiety about the performance being strong. What I did expect to find fault with was my own writing--that may be a natural thing for most writers, but however long I work on something, once I see it in print or on stage, I always have those nagging feelings like "that image could have sharper," "that metaphor could have been more surprising," and so on. For me, that's an inevitability, so I take it in stride. That said, it was immensely exciting to see the show, and I think the performance was fantastic, better than I'd imagined it, in many ways. The thing I worried about most was the reaction that it would receive, especially from the Deaf community. I believe that writers should be able to write about whatever they want, but I do think writers have to tread carefully when their work involves cultural groups and communities to which they themselves do not belong. The play is not a realist play--its framework is that of mythology or folktale--so it doesn't attempt to represent the "Deaf community" as such. But the premise--a play written partly for the Deaf that also incorporates hearing opera and deliberately refuses to translate significant portions of the script--felt a little dangerous. While I was in Madison for opening weekend, we had a post-show panel and discussion with audience members after a matinee, and I think that the members of the Deaf community who saw the show, at least those who stayed for the panel, understood the show, where it was coming from, what it was trying to say about human communication. The impression I got was that the experience of untranslated ASL was, by and large, probably more difficult for hearing audience members than the untranslated English was for Deaf audiences. One panelist, a linguist who studies ASL, made the point that Deaf people often find themselves on the outside of conversations, even at home if their families are hearing and don't use ASL consistently. Hearing people don't often have that same experience, and it's a difficult experience to deal with. I think some of the reviews the show received reflected that difficulty, but that for me underscores how necessary it was to build it into the play, how valid the point was to begin with. I'm not a proponent of easy art, art that allows the audience to remain passive. Theater, especially, should be challenging. It's a collaborative form not just for those responsible for writing and staging the show but for those viewing it as well. The audience can't merely receive; it has to engage. You should go home talking about it, arguing about it, puzzling over it. The test of good theater (or any art) is that it rewards the audience's engagement. I think the performance of Across a Distance was complex, emotional, funny, and visually and musically stunning, and I'm still a little shocked and awed that my name is on the posters. It's listed as being "by Nick Lantz," but that's always felt odd to me. Even though I came up with the plot and wrote the script, the project had its genesis years before I was even involved, and its eventual realization on stage had very little to do with me directly. The script was my contribution to the show, but the script was not in any way the final product--not by a long shot. It's hard to explain. I feel immensely proud to have been a part of the show, but I'm constantly aware of everything that everyone else did to actually make that show happen the way it did.