Theatre always felt a little hokey to me.
Part of this is due to my own artistic bias; for most of my life I played the viola and moved within the world of classical music, staying clear of the kids that did theatre unless our skills overlapped during musical productions. I began playing the viola when I was ten years old, having heard our music teacher demonstrate all four stringed instruments for a room full of kids eager to pick theirs. As the teacher worked her way through the instruments, I remember first hearing the timbre of the viola and feeling something inside resonate with these sounds. I hadn’t known that the viola even existed, but from that moment on this sound became my voice.
Because of my instrumental affinity, I never understood the appeal of theatre, the bodies moving across a stage in a blocked pattern, voices saying things in that particular thespian inflection. It always felt too contrived, my disbelief requiring too much suspension to be able to enjoy what was happening on the stage.
But my mother and I visited New York City for a few days and, during the process of planning, we decided we should see a show together. We scrolled through the typical Broadway offerings, with little piquing our interest. Eventually, we came across a small off-Broadway production.
“What do you think about this?” I asked, sending my mother the link to a showing of Burn This.
Burn This is a play by American playwright Lanford Wilson, which first opened in 1987. It follows in the aftermath of the death of a gay dancer, Robbie, whose absence sends his close friends, and roommates, along with his older brother, careening into each other’s lives as they come to terms with his sudden death. One of Robbie’s roommates and dance partner, Anna, is at the center of the play, being pulled between various desires: desire for the type of life represented by her wealthy longterm lover, Burton; desire for the fiery unpredictability of Robbie’s older brother, Pale; desire to express herself through her craft (dance and choreography); desire for the possibility of another type of life than the one she finds herself in.
I went into the show knowing very little about the play itself besides which actors were playing the two lead roles: Anna (played by Keri Russell) and Pale (played by Adam Driver).
The cast is made up of four actors and, often, there are only two characters on stage at a given time with the bulk of the action happening through their verbal repartee. The set never changes from an industrial warehouse loft space—a large window taking up the back wall, framing an equally industrial view of the city, a tiny kitchenette on the side, a ballet bar in a corner that the actors comically, often drunkenly, lean against during various scenes. Visually, there was little for my eyes to settle on and, narratively, there is no complex plot to track. So I ended up doing what Wilson probably wanted me to do: I listened to the words.
Outside of my proclivity towards music, theatre never resonated with me because of a deeper-seated skepticism about language. My father was a drug addict and an alcoholic; from a young age I, along with my mother and younger brother, bore the weight of his demons. As with many addicts, language dissolved with the alcohol slipping down his throat or the home-made heroin going into his veins. I remember innumerable conversations where thought and language spiraled into utter meaninglessness, a chaos that was alarming to experience as a child. As a grew older, I realized that it was a Sisyphean task to try to talk to someone in these altered states; I also realized that anything I said to him—any tears, any attempts at rational conversation, any pleading to stop—ended up being wholly meaningless, too.
As a child, I learned that language ultimately didn’t matter.
The dialogue in Burn This is quick and cutting, dancing the line between despair, denial, and a desire for the pain of loss to recede and for there, somehow, to be a different future from the ones the characters imagine for themselves. So little plot happens in the story that all we are left with are the words, moving like spitfire between the characters. In Wilson’s obituary, run in The New York Times after his passing in 2011, Margalit Fox mentions a criticism that seemed to follow Wilson throughout much of his work: an emphasis on language and dialogue to the point of ignoring tight plotting. Wilson loved language and the dialogue in Burn This reflects that passion.
After the show, I read more about the play itself and found repeated mention of how it depicted the loss of so many talented young artists during the AIDs crisis. Robbie directly impacts the narrative by his very absence; a shadow figure audiences hear about from the beginning, slowly learning about him through the way the characters talk about him. The audience enters into the play after Anna returns from Robbie’s funeral and the smoldering push-and-pull attraction between Anna and Pale is unintentionally sparked by Robbie’s death when Pale barges into the warehouse apartment looking to pick up his dead brother’s belongings. The 80s setting, the death of a young gay man, the ache felt by those left behind, all these elements point to the crisis without explicitly naming it.
Talking about something without talking about it, that thing that hangs in the room with you even when no one wants to acknowledge its presence.
This was something I was very familiar with.
Not all art is directly cathartic and it would be disingenuous to say that each time I picked up my viola, either for a solo recital or for an orchestra concert, I was releasing some pent up emotion or speaking about abuse directly. Not quite. There are moments when I played the notes on the page and they happened to align with my state of mind at the time, giving expression to what constantly ate away at me.
Most of the time, though, the orchestra was a siphonophore and the music something entirely separate from me. I let what was on the page filter through my fingers as one part of a larger whole, dissolving into the rest of the group. The blessing of being part of a large ensemble was the anonymity, of being lost in the large black-clothing-clad mass and producing something so completely removed from who you were. It didn’t matter what I brought with me on the day of a performance, the music required concentration and eventually led me to a place where nothing mattered but what was happening on that page, in that section, in that bar, on that beat.
It didn’t matter that no one was in the audience watching me, that my mother had to watch my younger brother and my father was either black-out or high in the basement, because it wasn’t really me on the stage anyway. It was a medium blissfully, gratefully channeling something outside herself, momentarily forgetting the things that plagued her.
There is a moment in Burn This where Driver’s character is on his knees, forehead pressed to the stage floor, screaming and screaming and screaming. A big voice coming out of a big person echoing in a theatre that is surprisingly small for someone like me, used to performances in large resonant halls built for black-clad troupes of a hundred or more. I know he must have learned this in his training, that most actors probably know how to scream at the right pitch and volume for heightened effect without killing their voice in each performance. I know not all art is cathartic and I know that these actors, as professionals, must play their roles compellingly in order to make us suspend disbelief.
But I picture that scene even now and imagine how good that must have felt. To scream and scream and scream.
I speak of my time in music in the past tense because I haven’t touched my viola since I graduated from college, though my slow letting go of viola performance began much earlier. It turned out that I was trying to make my art directly cathartic at one point; it turned out that I had been screaming and screaming through my instrument for years without being careful, without paying attention to my training. I ended up with a playing injury so bad that I was unable to fully lift my arms for a few months and, in the worst moments, I was unable to breathe. To this day, my shoulder still aches in the same spot if I sit too long or if I try to overexert it.
In the months following my injury, I came to the realization that I would never be able to perform professionally. I realized that I needed to imagine a different future for myself then the one I had held onto since I was a child.
At this point, I began my reluctant return to language; I started to speak about what I had experienced and I started to write.
In the final scene of the play, Anna manages to talk about things without directly talking about them. In her case, she uses the body; she choreographs a dance for multiple couples, one of the dancers representing Robbie. She also choreographs her and Pale’s chaotic but passionate connection as part of the piece, able to articulate something about both the sorrow of losing Robbie and the unexpected link she feels with Pale through dance. Like Robbie’s absence, the audience never sees the choreographed piece, but we are able to parse out salient details based on how the characters speak about it. There is something about the art of dance that allows Anna to be genuine about her affective turmoil when language fails her.
Yet, the dance cannot stand on its own.
Anna’s other roommate, Larry, secretly slips Pale a ticket to the performance, allowing him to witness the piece firsthand. He then waits for her to return to her apartment and they, finally, directly and openly discuss that thing that has been lingering around them for so long. The play closes with an uncertainty—Anna and Pale decide to explore their desire for each other but, as with most things, whether or not it ‘works out’ for them is left open. Perhaps their relationship implodes a few weeks, or a few years, after the end of the play. Perhaps they find stable happiness in spite of the tumultuous start to their relationship.
Yet, concrete resolution doesn’t seem to matter in this final scene. What matters, instead, is the very fact that they tried.
It took me years to reach a place where I was able to articulate what it was that I experienced growing up and much of that ability came with the loss of my musical voice, that voice that I initially thought was the only voice I had. It wasn’t until I was confronted with my particular ‘speechlessness’ that I learned to align words with my experiences. And from there I realized that words can have meaning and they did in fact have power.
On the surface, Burn This has little apparent resonance with my life and, had I viewed it a number of years ago, I don’t believe I would have found it as compelling a work of art as I did seeing it now. The words, far from being hokey or unbelievable, felt genuine and raw; I felt as if I were witnessing true human interaction on the stage, as opposed to carefully choreographed and scripted drama. In one sense, this could be a reflection of a maturing of taste with age; I am not the same person I was at ten, nor am I the same person who begrudgingly attended productions to support friends in college. But in a deeper sense, Burn This revealed that my own conceptualization of language as having changed.
Julia Shiota is a Japanese American writer whose work centers on questions of identity formation and belonging, mainly through the lens of literature. She holds two Master’s degrees, one in English Literature and another in Japanese Studies, both of which provide key methodological approaches to her writing. Her work can be found at www.juliashiota.com