In Under Construction, a 2009 work by endlessly curious playwright Charles Mee, a character says, “If I understand something, I have no further use for it.”
Considering the world premiere of his latest play, Orestes 3.0: Inferno — now playing at City Garage — is the third installment of Mee's examining and re-imagining of Euripides' Greek tragedy Orestes, he must still be mulling over the violent and politically and sexually challenging myth's parallels to contemporary society.
We called Mee to discuss his fascination with the Greeks, why he feels like a dead playwright and his staunch belief in stealing.
With this being your third take on the Orestes myth, is it safe to say you have a bit of an obsession with it?
Well, the first installment belonged to Euripides. I just did numbers two and three.
What keeps you coming back to it?
What keeps me coming back to the Greeks is their plays are fantastic. They're gorgeously constructed and they don't deal with any small issues, no tiny misunderstanding that will be resolved before the final commercial break at the top of the hour. I'm drawn to the immensity of their material.
Years ago, I got a call from Michael Dixson, who was then the literary manager of Actors Theatre of Louisville, who asked me if I would write something for their Millennial Festival. And I thought, hmm, I'm not going to write some science fiction play about the future of the world, how 'bout I go back to one of the oldest plays in the Western World and see if it still speaks to us today? War between the sexes, people seeking refuge in foreign lands and being rejected or accepted, all these issues that are very much alive today. That's the other thing that's amazing to me about the Greeks. They didn't deal with the small, popular issues of today; they dealt with the big eternal themes, the things that keep coming back again and again, unfortunately.
Does that bother you about contemporary plays, the quietness of many of them?
I'm not bothered by them. Everybody loves what they love and that's cool. It's just that I'm particularly drawn to these plays. Large, eternal themes.
When you start working on a new play, how do you first approach it? I know you've said you take the structure and then get rid of it.
Yeah, that's really what I did with Orestes. I took the play by Euripides and wrote stuff in the margins, things it made me think of as I read it. Then I took my marginal notes and wrote scenes, then threw away the play and had those scenes so they had the invisible structure of the play as the foundation. It took off from there.
Did you come to L.A. to work with City Garage?
No, I didn't. I handed it to Frédérique [Michel, co-founder of City Garage] and hoped she'd do whatever she loved doing. I love to work that way, for the actors and director to be free to do their thing like I was free to do mine. Not for me to be in the room inhibiting them by saying, “Oh gosh, that's not what I meant at all.” I'm a person who believes there's no definitive version of anything. Another version feels good to me.
Have you ever been just completely surprised by an interpretation of your plays?
Oh, sure. And I have to admit sometimes I don't like them. But honestly, this way of working I get more wonderful productions than most playwrights. Years ago, it seemed to me the playwrights who got the best productions were the dead playwrights. And I thought, maybe that's because they don't go to rehearsal.
It's a special gift to be able to create something and then let it go. Did you ever struggle with that?
I mean, we're all gonna end up dead playwrights eventually and let go and hope people still wanna do the plays. If I'm incredibly lucky, people will still do my plays after I'm dead, but I get the chance to see them now as though I were dead. So that's cool. That's fun. This is how it'll be after I'm gone if I'm really lucky.
Is your long-running relationship working with Anne Bogart and SITI Company different just because you're the playwright in residence and you create plays specifically for them?
Well, no, sometimes I go to rehearsal 'cause those are my folks and it's fun to be with them. I usually just drop in and spend some time with them for the pleasure of it. But it's also true that sometimes with the SITI Company I do what kind of resembles devised theatre.
Years ago, when we first did [my play] bobrauschenbergamerica, I asked the SITI Company to assemble a room of 15-20 actors, designers, choregraphers, musicians, and they brought these people in with a couple people who worked in the SITI offices. I brought in a list of 15 images that when I looked at the painting of Robert Rauschenberg, I thought occurred again and again. Also 15 pieces of text and 15 events those images made me think of. Lists A, B and C. Then I asked all the people to come in with lists, too, and we had a few hundred items. I asked them to choose one from each column, and that's called a composition. Put that together so it's like a mini collage. I also told them, “Don't bring anything into the room you don't want me to steal. Also, feel free to steal anything I bring in. That's the rule of the game.”
They brought stuff in and I arranged it into an overall composition, then took that to SITI when they were teaching their summer workshop. They used that so-called script as a basis for their actors to make additional compositions. I went up and came back with hundreds of scenes. At my desk in New York, I thought, “This isn't a play, what would Rauschenberg have done?” He would've taken the stuff he loved and called it a painting. So I just took the stuff I loved and called it a play. Because his psyche is coherent, the work that comes from it would have to be coherent. So that was the working principle. That's a fun way to work. I love that.
One of the things that stood out to me about Inferno is that there are a lot of things very L.A.-centric about it, such as when Helen marches out and begins a monologue on her skincare regimen. It could be ripped from the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. What do you watch and absorb that keeps you in this very relevant cultural space?
That's awfully nice of you to say. I wander the city. One of my favorite things in life is sitting in a café and watching people walk by and wondering about them and listening to conversations at other tables. I go to cafes in all parts of town. I think I pick up — I should say I steal — material all the time from just wandering around town.
What part of New York City do you live in?
I live in a neighborhood called Cobble Hill in Brooklyn. And I love Queens. Forty-six percent of the residents of Queens are foreign-born, not second or third generation. So if you just wander Queens, you get to travel to a lot of different countries in an afternoon.
Do you watch television or see movies?
Not in any regular way, but I'm all over the Internet and into Youtube.
Speaking of, you're such an early adopter of the Internet–
I was an adopter of the Internet really before there was an Internet. I used to support myself by working in the publishing business, and the guy who was the chief of research for this little publishing company had a masters in library science and was a crazy, avid researcher. And I'm going to get this wrong, but it was something like there was a computer server at the University of Southern Illinois that had information kept there for the Defense Department. And I said I wanted to put my plays out where people could get them on their computers, and he initially put them on that website. He and his wife still maintain [the (re)making project].
You teach at Columbia. What excites you about a student's work?
What's phenomenal is that I get to choose the playwrights. So out of a hundred people who apply, I get to choose 10 who I think are terrific. One-third to a half are from other countries. I believe Aeschylus and Shakespeare and Molière proved there's no one way to write a great play. I give them assignments like, “Take a Greek play, set it in the modern world and do it in eight pages.” Back will come 10 radically different plays. It's really wonderful. Because I'm not trying to teach them there's a “right” way to write a play, they feel quite happy and full of energy to come in with their own versions.