An Interview with the Creative Nucleus Behind Fail Better

A delicate balance in UMO's Fail Better.Photo credit: Jeff Dunnicliff.
A delicate balance in UMO’s Fail Better.
Photo credit: Jeff Dunnicliff.

UMO Ensemble’s 2014 production, Fail Better, is, in many ways, what an ideal union between Beckett-ian themes and the ensemble’s brand of physical theater would look like. While our publisher raved about it back in November, your correspondent felt it was likely the best local theatrical production of the year. The ensemble, which has called Vashon Island home for over 17 years, is known for self-generating works of physical theater that are usually based on an outside source or historical movement or society. These are led, or “instigated” to use their own parlance, by a company member who then oversees the project in perpetuity, until they decide to hand over the reins to someone else. When not being produced, the shows become part of the ensemble’s repertoire, to be called up into production at the discretion of the company.

The Star sat down with Elizabeth Klob, Maria Glanz and Lyam White. Mr. White has talked to us in the past in relation to Maldoror, another UMO project; Ms. Glanz is a local artist primarily known for her solo works See Me Naked and Pu’uhonua, as well as Vic, an ensemble piece, all of which graced various Seattle stages and were directed by Klob. Ms. Klob was one of the founding members of Open Circle Theater, directing a large number of that company’s self-generated works, developing a storytelling skill that naturally lent itself to UMO’s fantastical and physical storytelling inclinations.

Seattle Star: Who was the instigator this time through?

Lyam White: Elizabeth was the instigator for Fail Better.

Seattle Star: What inspired you?

Elizabeth Klob: Well let’s just say, Beckett is my A1 writer/playwright and I have been wanting to do something of his since forever. Last year’s Seattle Beckett Festival gave me an excuse.

Seattle Star: Had you been wanting to do something along these lines with UMO for a while?

Klob: Beckett themes have been part of UMO for a while now. Beckett clowns and themes were certainly skulking around the Red Tiger Tales characters, for example. But, I never saw UMO doing a straight up Beckett play. There is the estate, for one thing, which will not allow for any manipulation or new interpretation of Beckett’s text. I just needed a really good reason to go to bat for this project and the timeframe of the festival gave me that push.

Maria Glanz: I also wrote the beginnings of a piece called Beckett Goes Surfing a while ago — a two character piece with ladies locked in a room, à la Endgame.

Seattle Star: You wrote this on your own volition? Or was it in relation to this project?

Glanz: Beckett Goes Surfing? I don’t remember if I wrote it as part of an UMO compost session, or if it was before that. It was long before there was a Seattle Beckett Festival or this show–that much is true. We’ve all loved Beckett for years.

White: I recall Surfing being part of the compost session.

Seattle Star: Which is…what, exactly?

White: There’s a movie where a record producer refers to jazz disdainfully as what musicians do when they’re not getting gigs, adding, with a sniff, “It’s like theater.” In the best possible way, that also describes a compost session. When nothing’s in the UMO hopper — at least nothing with a clear, grantable center and the force of company support — we get together and read writing, do exercises, generally play, see what the ensemble is at the moment, that we may extrapolate from that what is next to do.

Seattle Star: Was Surfing a reaction to Becket’s infamous “no women allowed” stance?

Glanz: Well, you know me, I am not one to gracefully accept a No Girls zone. I didn’t accept that when I was 21, much less now.

But a tiny bit of Surfing came into this piece, though Fail Better is all new, for the most part.

Seattle Star: Is Fail Better based on an existing work, is it a rumination on the Beckett universe…how do you define or explain it?

White: Elizabeth may be better able to summarize, but my shortest answer would be that Fail Better is an original work of movement, sound, and text strung between the poles of two excerpts of Beckett’s prose.

Klob: Specifically, the piece is strung between two pieces of text from his novel entitled The Unnamable. Everything in between is ours. The Beckett text is isolated and read verbatim at the beginning and end of the show.

That was the final agreement with the estate. I kept asking for permission to do a ton of text. They kept saying no. I kept asking and well…this went on for 5 months. I am pretty sure they just got tired of me and figured there was no other way to shut me up, other than to let me do something.

I specifically stayed with the prose since I was pretty sure all the plays were being covered at the festival. His prose writing is so rich and unexplored. From there, we chose about ten pieces of source material, identified overlapping themes, and then I came up with ten questions as prompts for Maria and Lyam to write from, and…that was all I needed to do.

Then we threw a giant teeter-totter into the mix.

Seattle Star: Could you give me an example of a prompt?

Klob: “We all are a little afraid of insanity…write a ten-line circular conversation with yourself.”

“Convince me to give you my shoes.”

“Tell me why you are leaving me..take your time.”

“Tell my why you love me…make it brief.”

“What do you regret? Is it better to be with or without?”

Each prompt had a five minute limit to it. Later, we would return to their responses and rewrite them at different times in the process. Then again. And again.

Glanz: One piece I really enjoyed writing this way was a two-voice response to “Are we with, or without?” For me, it was immediately a scene of one person leaving or trying to leave the other. Very little dialogue, literally one or two word sentences for the most part. It became a scene between David and Terry.

Seattle Star: Elizabeth, if you hadn’t settled for The Unnamable, would you have used another piece? Which?

Klob: Probably First Love or How It Is.

Seattle Star: So, I guess the question is, how does one physicalize Beckett?

White: Well, it seems that something physical already lives in Beckett, doesn’t it? Some idea about man or woman as a collection of parts? Once you strip humanity down to an organism struggling with its own absurdity and mortality, the parts, the objects, become terribly important.

The inhabitants of his plays are already so physical that finding a physical universe in workshop is pretty intuitive.

Seattle Star: In thinking about this piece, it strikes me that you all might be exploring a typical Beckett pause…

White: Ha! No, just fielding my own existential demands.

Like most of my favorite writers, any piece — indeed, any passage — by Beckett is a microcosm of the whole. Moreover, when riffing on themes, the lens takes over, somewhat. One cannot adapt another writer’s work, or even address another writer’s themes, without it being colored by our own experience of that work.

My attachment to Beckett, for what it’s worth, is that his mix of the demotic and the esoteric fits it neatly into that broad non-category of transgressive, experimental, but still populist thread through the whole of art history that I call “punk,” for lack of a word less robbed of meaning by its overuse.

I cannot imagine how anyone makes it through so much as a moment without posing existential questions. An ant may have will without reason, but the history of human endeavor is a catalogue of purposes. We give ourselves gods, we create societies and work ethics and ideal forms. That is, we need reason to be, to expend effort.

I think a lot of what Beckett asked was about what we hang our hat on if we no longer entertain our Western mythos of deity and work and the Great Chain of Being.

Glanz: One of the coolest things about his whole process has been getting to write, solo, then experience Lyam’s writing, and some pieces of writing from Elizabeth and the others in the ensemble, and then weave them — not blend them, but weave, like a tapestry.

The other element I’m not sure Elizabeth mentioned is that she rooted all six of us in a character, sometimes two, or inspiration of sorts from Beckett. My “character” is the voice from Eh Joe, a television script Beckett wrote. The voice is of a woman who commits suicide. So, I’m a ghost. And a secretary. A jealous and bitter one.

Seattle Star: Lyam, what was yours?

White: We anchored my character in Lucky from Waiting for Godot, actually, though he became something else. Actually, the real world ended up creeping into this during the process, until my “Lucky” began to take on aspects of Robin Williams. Now that has become more subdued as the onstage relationships have developed.

Seattle Star: Lucky. That seems fitting, doesn’t it?

White: Heh. Maybe.

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