AAPEX Interview: Valerie S. Hart — AAPEX Interview , Valerie S. Hart — AAPEX

Thursday, August 18, 2011

AAPEX Interview: Valerie S. Hart

"Tumbling Woman" by Eric Fischl

When I was an undergraduate at Chapel Hill, I took a course in the Philosophy of Art. Our final assignment was to write a paper on the topic "What is Art?" I got an A on the paper, but that kind of bothered me because I felt that I really had no idea about what art was - and the question nagged at me until, in graduate school, I read a book titled MAN'S RAGE FOR CHAOS by Philosopher Morse Peckham. The subtitle of Peckham's book - Biology, Behavior and the Arts - points clearly to his thesis: Art, like all human activity, has it's roots and purpose in biology. Which lead me to formulate my own thesis - Art is the DNA of species memory. Nothing has ever come along to illustrate this thesis better than Valerie S. Hart's thought provoking new play RISING & FALLING, the current offering of Rhubarb Theater Company at The Darkhorse Theatre, directed by Trish Crist. As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Hart looks back at the role that a work of art played in the commemoration and controversy of the aftermath of the attack on The World Trade Center. At the center of the play is a bronze nude statue of a young girl falling backwards, representing those people who jumped and/or fell from the burning towers. The actual statue, by artist Eric Fischl, was placed in Rockefeller Center, but was shortly draped over and then removed because some found it offensive and felt that the artist was capitalizing on the tragedy. Hart fictionalizes this piece of history with her own work of art in which the emotional impact of the statue and it's controversy resonates in the lives of three characters - the artist who creates the statue, a mother who believes that the statue is of her daughter who died in the destruction, and a Native American construction worker who was one of the workers who built the Towers -which he and his co-workers thought were indestructible and which he refers to as "American Pyramids" - forgetting and realizing that pyramids were tombs. As the statue moves into the realm of its own mythology, Hart reaches back through the centuries to two other iconic female figures whose stories of sacrifice have endured through the ages, but raising the question - can we view the lives lost in 9/11 as sacrifice and as examples of heroism? How do we remember 9/11? What, if anything, did it mean and, above all, what role will art play in keeping 9/11 locked in the DNA spiral of species memory? Looking to understand what inspired the author to write this play, I asked Valerie to share with us something about herself and the inspiration behind RISING & FALLING. This is what she has to say:

1. What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing? Both of my parents performed music professionally. My mother sang for weddings and funerals. She could (and I believe still can) clearly nail the full octave above high C. My father played guitar, ukulele and banjo and was in a jazz combo while in college. He also painted. And they both love literature and film. So there were always visual arts, books and music in my house. The very first record albums I was given as my own property (I think I was in 3rd grade) were "The Monkees" and Bruno Walter conducting Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Regarding theater, a seminal event was going to Philadelphia with my family in the 70's for the first touring production of Sweeney Todd. That was the most amazing thing I'd ever heard and seen at that point. Until then theatre, and musical theatre especially, felt like some fun and beautiful artifice (aka Rogers & Hammerstein) . Suddenly musical theatre was real, visceral, relevant, even if the story was from eighteenth century England.

2. Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.
I wrote poetry in high school and was drilled in criticism. But I loved science as well and sort of abandoned creative writing while ambling along in the biological sciences. Then in my mid-thirties I was in a place where I had access to lots of visual artists as friends, teachers and mentors so I tried my hand at painting and sculpture. Sculpture is this absorbing occupation of problem solving: how to get to idea X while taming gravity, making a hard material look soft, spending as little budget as possible on something that is taller and weighs more than you, etc. It is challenging, stimulating and always different. But in the end I seem to return like a pigeon to words on a page. In 2004 I decided to make a real commitment to poetry, drama and fiction and matriculated at SF State for a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I had amazing colleagues and teachers there. My whole world opened up to all this information (like Dramaturgy) and the larger role of art as a way to understand both my own inner world and that around me.

3. What inspired RISING AND FALLING?
Because of my interest in sculpture I had for many years been interested in controversy around public art and art in public places. So I had read about the 2002 controversy around Eric Fischl and his sculpture Tumbling Woman. I could certainly understand that the piece would upset people who, for whatever reason, weren't ready to deal with a large bronze figure regardless of its rendering. But the controversy quickly became very personal, about him and what authority he had to address the issue. That incensed me because his intention was one of generosity and there seemed little recognition of that. And how were we supposed to integrate that awful event if we couldn't even permit this piece of his? The whole incident also seemed like a parable about the zeitgeist of lockstep denial the whole country was gripped in then; our rage to punish overwhelming our basic laws of freedom and civil, thoughtful discourse about what happened and why. So I started exploring more this sacrificial role that artists frequently find themselves in as well as the various genres of memorial art and other related topics. Then in 2006 I had a final project in my Dramaturgy class: create and present an original piece of theatre which is generated in some fashion other than the classic writer-with-the-blank-sheet-of- paper approach. In response to that prompt I wrote a one-act play about the removal of Fischl's statue and a woman who disagreed with that decision. In the exercise I was purposely exploring both impulse & process by creating a piece that was a collage and a collision of all those publicly available found materials with my own, very unformed impulses of sadness, loss, shock, etc., swirling around both 9/11, and the mistreatment of Fischl and his work. That first draft was very raw and quite different from the final version that Rhubarb Theater Company has mounted; but the idea of what it was like for someone who loved the statue to see it removed is still in the play and central to the overall narrative.

4. What is the significance of the character Iphigenia in the play?
Iphigenia is sacrificed as a teenager by her own father so that the Greek army may proceed to war. So for me she presents our cultural heritage of how we call on individuals (aka soldiers, nurses and doctors, etc. of every service and conflict) to make dear sacrifices in the name of national and political goals. Such actual decisions are usually shown with all the large words packed around them, words like duty, glory, honor. These are all concepts that mainly have meaning for the individual in relation to the group served. But the decisions to make those sacrifices and give that service are very personal, individual ones. My hope is that she shows both of those impulses.

For more information and reservations please contact rhubarbnashville@ gmail.com or call 615-397-7820. Photos and schedule info may be found on Rhubarb Theater Company's Facebook page: http://on.fb. me/RhubarbTC

Jaz Dorsey

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