Theater In Conversation
Fear Becomes Exhilaration: BrandoCapote
SARA and REID FARRINGTON with Meredith Burns
November 7 – November 24
I first met Sara Farrington in the fall of 2017. Art House Productions, the arts organization I run, was opening a new space in downtown Jersey City and I chose Sara's play Leisure, Labor, Lust to inaugurate the new location. Two and a half years later, she is now Art House's artistic associate. Sara and her husband/director/collaborator Reid Farrington are passionate theater makers, parents, advocates, and friends. Their husband and wife run company, Foxy Films, is making BrandoCapote, which has been workshopped at Art House for the past nine months and will premiere at The Tank in November. I have been fortunate to witness it change and grow. This is not an easy piece to make given all the technical elements involved and the subject matter dealing with Marlon Brando and Truman Capote, two American artists so iconic that we instantly identify them by only one name. I asked Sara and Reid about it.
Meredith Burns (Rail): What was the initial impulse of this piece?
Sara Farrington: After our show CasablancaBox, we wondered what bigger American legend we could anatomize. Reid thought of Brando, and I was like, “Yes, please.” Laura K. Nicoll, our collaborator/choreographer, suggested we read “The Duke in His Domain,” a 1957 profile for The New Yorker that Truman Capote wrote about Brando. We breathed this collective “Eureka!” The profile is so contemporary, it zooms in and out, jumps around in time, brazenly reveals so much pain and confusion, and exists entirely in one spot: a hotel room in Kyoto. That specific space limitation is perfect for Reid’s and my work. Then the piece started to appear for all of us.
Reid Farrington: Sara and I landed on Brando because he’s an American Icon, a film and theater legend, and a subject that scared the hell out of both of us. That said, we try to keep the audience in mind when choosing our material and often gravitate to icons so the audience has solid footing at the top of the performance. That’s not often where they land, because ultimately, I’m fascinated with how elastic the form and structure of storytelling can be on the stage.
Rail: What was the biggest challenge making this piece?
S. Farrington: This play pushed us over the edge many times. We almost decided not to do it many times. It’s about murder, suicide, abuse, neglect, and the origin of the toxic American male. Facing that head on has been hard emotionally. But that’s what makes it compelling. The logistical challenge was huge, too. Making contemporary, experimental theater in NYC is much harder than it used to be. Which is ironic, because our world now is so backwards, facts are questioned, truth has no meaning. This oppression used to be good for theater artists. The greatest theater movements often came out of turmoil: WWI and German Expressionism, WWII and Theatre of The Absurd, etc... Our country is in deep turmoil, so I continue to assume the nonsensical, the weird, the unexplainable will be readily accepted on stage and in process. We find, instead, a constant pressure to explain, justify, motivate every aesthetic choice. This is a challenge for us, one that doesn't need to be there. I think the theater community needs to have a serious conversation about whether we are eating our own.
R. Farrington: This production has been an incredible challenge for all involved. For me, it’s particularly the life/art balance. The play itself asks me, and all involved, to look at our family structure and analyze our responsibilities as mothers, fathers, and children. We successfully turned the facts of Brando’s heroic and tragic life into an archetype versus a biopic, and in doing so I have found myself marinating on the horrific turns life could potentially have.
Rail: How does Noh Theater tie into this story? What motivated you to explore it here?
S. Farrington: It became this beautiful, natural choice for us both in world and story. I’ll let Reid explain—
R. Farrington: This play takes place in Kyoto, Japan, in a hotel room, on the set of the film Sayonara. In the film, we see various forms of Japanese theater including Noh. As I began to search for different structures to shape the work Noh continued to present itself, so I followed. Noh Theater is the antithesis of Brando, and it is used in opposition to his “Star Power.” A Noh play is given life through the sharing of the wills of all the performers, each anonymous. What better way to explore a man’s life who was anything but that?
Rail: How and why is BrandoCapote a political piece?
S. Farrington: We use Brando as a lens to look at an American problem: toxic masculinity. (Brando also provided the movies and media as a palette to tell the story.) But this piece is in no way specific to him. It is about the explosions of violence we see daily in the U.S., always enacted by men. It is about paying attention to little boys from babyhood on. Although we may be obligated to “cancel” predatory men, I know this first hand, culturally it solves nothing, really. Boys need to be tended to. This is the core of BrandoCapote. This is really important to Reid and me because we have two boys. It’s some scary shit to screw up on as parents. Artistically, it is really political, too. Reid and I are looking to the avant-garde and counter-culture New York theater work that shaped us both as inspiration.
R. Farrington: I’m taking the lead from Toni Morrison right now. As artists, it’s our responsibility to be as loud and constant as possible. It’s less about the message and more about the work. Working as hard and with as much excellence as you can muster. We need to celebrate the originality and complexity of life in every aspect of what we do as artists. “This is about being a complex human being in the world, not about finding a villain. This is no time for anything else than the best that you've got." (Toni Morrison)
Rail: How do you avoid people going, "he is nothing like Brando" or "he sounds nothing like Capote"?
S. Farrington: We love playing with that inclination people have. It’s the reason we cast against type. We want the audience to immediately understand that this is not a biopic; historical accuracy isn't what we are interested in, we're just using a public figure or famous film as fabric. Everything is fabric: tech, performers, sound, script. The important thing is that the audience already has an opinion about the subject matter so we can innovate form. That is such a joyful playground for us.
R. Farrington: This is not a biopic, it’s bigger than that. We shy away from impression and impersonations because we are using Brando as an archetype to talk about more personal questions. What is our responsibility of being a parent? What can be the result of our negative influence on our children? For me we are using the life of Brando just like Aeschylus or Sophocles used Oedipus. Our Brando and Capote are American myths.
Rail: How did you and Reid meet and start working together? What is the experience of making art with your significant other?
S. Farrington: I met Reid when we were both working at The Wooster Group 16 years ago. Wooster was one of the most influential forces in my life. I was a nervous intern, I couldn’t believe they just let me walk in there and watch what they were doing every day—it felt religious to me. Reid was designing video there then, and I quickly became endlessly fascinated with him. I still feel that way daily. Making theater with Reid is the most satisfying artistic experience I'll ever have. Reid’s eye is quick, visionary, rigorous, critical, feverish—he is ahead of his time. Reid helped liberate me from a once crippling ego, transformed me from a traditional playwright into, literally, another designer in the room. He’s taught me the value of failing, of deleting everything and starting over, of the whole being superior to the parts, of taking enormous risks. I’m braver because of him. Working with Reid is the first line of the “The Futurist Manifesto”, which we love: “We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness!” (Filippo Tomasso Marinetti)
R. Farrington: I met Sara on the staircase at the Performing Garage; her first words to me reminded me of my favorite author. It was love at first sight. Making a life with her is the best decision I’ve ever made. And I’m so excited to be part of her work as a writer right now. We’ve struck an insane balance between our two children, day jobs, and being career theater artists. She is the heart behind this work, our work. It’s her passion and support that keeps me a sharp and fearless artist. “... and that's when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms...” (Hunter S. Thompson)
Rail: Brando notoriously did not want to act because it was a painful experience. And Capote all but stopped writing and, some say, slowly committed suicide after getting too close to the killer in In Cold Blood. Can you relate to this making this project?
S. Farrington: Oh yeah. This made me realize the danger of any American version of “method acting” when making contemporary theater. (Film is different.) Drawing upon personal trauma in rehearsal and performance, night after night, is unhealthy and derails everything. I think it mires the art in the importance of feelings, dangerous ones, and so the imagination is cast aside and becomes a slave to feelings. It’s just not fun. Brando and Capote both got too close to their art like this, and it was destructive (paired with their destructive personalities). Looking inward seems so limiting when the human imagination is limitless, our capacity for empathy is limitless. Imagination and empathy are far more creative tools than personal trauma, than one’s own small experience. Stella Adler had this right, and I have really internalized it making this piece. “Method acting” as a technique, I realize now, is crippling to art making, deeply exploitative to women, does a disservice to young actors.
R. Farrington: Somehow this has become the most personal work I’ve ever made. I’ve had to confront my role as a dad and as a son. I’ve found connections to the tragedy in this story in my own life that I didn’t even know existed. I’m completely enthralled with the process of creating this work and, at the same time, can’t wait for opening night, for it to be over.