by Ruth Maleczech (2009 Grantee)
Published in the Foundation for Contemporary Arts' 2011 Booklet
As I sit here in a hospital bed having heard that I won the Theater Fellowship from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, I'm watching the cheap nylon curtains whipping back and forth between the beds. They're on skinny metal rings, and they make an awful grating sound. Never spent any time in a hospital before, and this first experience is a shock. I'm starting to get ideas for the next theater work I want to make. A suggestion from my daughter: Molière's The Imaginary Invalid.
There are seven ballets—original music by Charpentier. No descriptions of them that I have found. I want to explore the changes in the American medical profession from healer to doctor and somehow connect this to the play and to the ballets. Argan would be the part I would play—the imaginary invalid who wants his daughter to marry a doctor who will then take care of him. Molière played the part when his theater did the play. He performed the role sitting on a commode, because he couldn't walk—four performances—and he died the night of the fifth. The composer Charpentier died in a freak accident. It's a comedy.
The movement of the curtains would reveal and change the sets in a very loud and awkward way. The play should be in English and bad French. Need a new translation, but Richard Wilbur, the great contemporary Molière translator, only does the verse plays, and this one isn't in verse.
Recently received an award for making post-modern or political theater. The host asked how I viewed my place in contemporary theater and what I thought my legacy would be.
I flashed back to that hospital stay, and I said my work had brought me the undeniable fruits of my labor: I am now older, sicker, poorer. As for a legacy…
I've spent 40 years working in live performance. Most of that work has been done with a tiny experimental theater collaborative called Mabou Mines. Although this group has won lots of awards and is highly regarded throughout the performance world, very few of those awards or notoriety has led to money. The Company, now in its 40th anniversary year, is still on the cliff's edge of extinction it was on in 1973 when we all went on welfare—the difference being that in 2010 we no longer have welfare to petition for help.
When Mabou Mines began we started with these ideas: we didn't know what we would make together, but we would each have the absolute freedom to follow our creative instincts wherever they led. We wanted to make a body of work—as a company and as individual artists. By the early 1970's the art world had definitively moved from Paris to New York. New music and post-modern dance had taken root in New York. And now it was the theater's turn.
Surrounded by friends and colleagues who were cross-referencing and interrogating concept and context, Mabou Mines found its first supporters—other artists. That is what kept us alive and still remains a cornerstone of our work. We are the luckiest of artists. We still work with composers—not musical theater composers. We don't usually work with set or costume designers, but rather with painters, sculptors and media artists. And choreographers and dancers have brought their new dance narrative to bear on our work.
Just to think that a kid from the desert in Arizona could be part of this explosion of American art, could be the beneficiary of the generosity of other artists, could continue to pursue the elusive, ephemeral art of live performance—is a miracle of sorts. This work provides no product. There is nothing to sell or own. It is the most transient fleeting experience, and its marks are left only on the grooves of the mind. That is the legacy.
The avant-garde has become an old, out-of-use term. Yet it is a near perfect description of what my colleagues and I do. It is originally a French military term meaning: those who are sent out first in a battle—not because they are the heroes or even the most gifted fighters, but because they are the ones the forces can best afford to lose—in other words, cannon fodder. I am part of that cannon fodder. And proud to be so. I salute all who choose this path and say, with the Italians, the curse designed to keep us safe: In bocca al lupo.*
* Trans. - In the mouth of the wolf or some say in the wolf's asshole—an Italian curse to protect performers much like the English curse that protects dancers: break a leg. By wishing the worst that fate can bring, it is hoped that the artist will be visited by grace.
Ruth Maleczech is a founding member and co-artistic director of Mabou Mines, an experimental theater company based in New York City.