A Conversation with Rubén Polendo
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to Rubén Polendo, the Founding Artistic Director of Theater Mitu to talk about reinventing the classic American play by Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, and making theater in a time of change. A look inside his company’s process is a look inside one of the most innovative and creative minds in today’s American theater.
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: Why Death of a Salesman? Why now?
Rubén Polendo: I’ll tell you a bit about the arrival of the project, and then connect it to the now. When we first started exploring the piece, it came into the company’s conversation in a really particular way. We had been, as we often are on a yearly basis, in a conversation about what the next works we’ll be doing are. And I realized that as a company, we had fallen into a bit of a rut of saying, oh we don’t like that, oh we don’t do that. So there was an instinct in me to really unpack that. So I told the company — these are members who have been with the company for eight, six, or seven years, so there’s a fluency flowing through the dialogue — to make a list of all the things that we hated, that Theater Mitu “doesn’t do.” From making the list — and Arthur Miller ended up on that list — and it was oh, Arthur Miller. Who cares! It’s boring! It’s old-timey! All these things. After making that list, I told the company that I believe that this must be our next three years of work. If we’re asking audiences to open their hearts, their minds, their conversations, then there’s a kind of arrogance in the artist in then saying we only do that which is comfortable to us. I challenged the company away from saying Theater Mitu doesn’t do, be it Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, or musicals, into how does Theater Mitu wrestle with, or do, or engage with. It was such a wonderful space. So that was step one.
That summer, we had one of our training intensives, when we were in Thailand. I had packed my Arthur Miller plays and was reading them. I was gravitating towards The Crucible, just because the thematics I had some interest in and so forth, but I had several of his other plays with me. It happened to be that that moment landed during a company retreat, and in the timeline of the founding and original members, that while we were in Thailand, we started a whole other conversation, which was about really reaching that adult moment in your life as an artist and really coming to terms with who you are as an artist. The way that for me, in my early 20’s, so much was driven by what I was going to be and do, like it was a really conscious shaping of the future. Something really happened on the outset of reaching my late 30’s, which is that kind of realization of so this is who we are, and this is what the company has become, and it was really a celebration and admission to what it is. In some cases, it has become a letting go of what didn’t happen, or what did take shape, and so forth. And so in taking part in this part joyful, part sad conversation, and realize how much external pressure there was for us to be what we thought we were going to be, and do what we thought we were going to do, and so it became a very personal dialogue about aspirations that one has when young, and the realizations of where those land when you are truly an adult. I remember that night I went back to the place where we were staying at in Thailand, picked up Death of a Salesman, and then all of a sudden saw this incredible spectrum around that exact conversation, of Biff, saying, I am who I am, I am proud of it, let go of everything else, right up to Willy saying no, no, no, I am what I was supposed to be, I’m going to keep fighting for it. So there was a kind of entrapment to that, and within it are contradictions and nuances and so forth. I became incredibly moved by the piece. When I was rereading it, the four central characters became very clear to me quite instinctively, and their aloneness became very clear to me. And everybody else in the world of that Miller play felt so pre-recorded somehow, in the way that when you’re in some kind of crisis and you come to somebody and expect them to listen, that person always says, It’s going to be okay! Cheer up! – these kind of pre-recorded clichés. So that propelled a further instinct that all of the other characters would actually be pre-recorded, and the void of the humanity turns into these objects. That’s what started the process.
As we developed the piece and continued into the present time, it continues to reveal itself. One of the big revelations was, of course, being in this political moment — we’re in such a, I mean, the most benevolent framing would be to call it a moment of transition — there’s a way in which one of the biggest threads is this constant attempt to rewrite what is to be American. To actually see how literal it is to write people out of what is means to be American. To look back at Miller’s piece and realize he was dealing with the same things, which was revealing with this creature, Willy Loman, whose entire identity is tethered to his function, yet his function is being written out, by nature of industrialization, by nature of his age, and the nature of all of this change that is happening into the 50’s. The world is moving forward to this idea that it’s progress, it’s a new way of thinking, and people are being written out; Willy Loman is being written out. So to me that takes on a kind of Greek Tragedy quality to it, which really sets everything sail to where it is headed. I feel like it becomes a cautionary tale and a reminder of the moment and echoes the words of the play, which is that if we don’t pay attention, this is where it ends, just so everybody knows. The piece reveals itself so vibrantly. Manifesting it now really became important to us as a company.
DAH: Can you talk about the theatrical approach to Death of a Salesman, and how you’re using the theatrical elements to answer the question of “What happens when you’re written out of the American Dream”?
RP: This goes back to that initial instinct. We as a company not only make work together, but we train together as well. One of the big goals is really to lean in and trust the artistic instinct, and to know that following that instinct will actually reveal the reason for that instinct. Often in making theatrical work, the artists have an instinct, and immediately that instinct is interrogated. So as an artist, you see the color blue, and someone says why is that? Why is that in the script? And you think, I don’t know! That was an instinct! We as a company actually feel that the rationale for all of our instincts we usually don’t see or truly understand until the work is complete because you’re being impacted by the text and your own ideas in the moment.
The instinct for me as a director became to manifest these four central characters and to really place them in a complete austere aloneness. That already had a kind of aesthetic implication which sort of implied an incredibly bare space, dry and absent of humanity. Once we did the pre-recorded voices, once that started, my instinct was to follow that and make [the supporting characters] these objects. There was also obviously a gravitation towards the time period so they became these objects of the time and they really became about manifesting the metaphorical language one uses for people. So if someone says, “that young man is so bright,” it literally manifests as a bright light that no one can even look at because it’s so bright. It was about taking the poetics of everyday language and manifesting them on stage. There’s something about that clarity that is so fantastic and exciting.
The equation that is then created is this world that has somehow stopped paying attention to the changes happening, but in fact, is just very blindly becoming another object or cog or piece in the machinery. We use this emotional focus on the family that is actually trying to stay human and ask questions and explore. The result is this very asphyxiating experience with, say Willy, as he’s sitting surrounded by these other characters that have now become objects, and truly saying, help me, please help me. And the objects are completely inhuman, and out of the recording comes, It’ll get better tomorrow! Willy, what’s going on next Thursday? And they keep ignoring him. It’s really frustrating to watch, because the objects just go about themselves, and it really becomes this cautionary tale of what happens when you ignore.
DAH: Thank you for sharing that; I just learned a lot. It makes me really curious about your work with your design team, and how they’ve all come together to create this very unique Theater Mitu aesthetic.
RP: One of the things that’s really important to us is to really promote a unified process, which is to move away from creating a kind of space that separates between director, designer, and actor. This makes for a longer process for us in terms of how it long it takes to develop work, but we do this because designer and actor and myself and all the other collaborators go from day one together. We actually don’t have pre-production meetings, we don’t have design meetings, we’re always all together. So what starts happening is that the aesthetic is really shaped in a unified way and links directly to the style. There’s never an aesthetic or design choice that is made and then revealed to one of the actors. It’s really about artists sitting together, having equal voice around this text, and really have it come from a central space; it becomes quite democratic. My job becomes much more curatorial, actually curating those ideas into unison.
I think of it as these three moments: First, it’s a really unified collaborative moment around the tables, the other is the moment is which everyone begins to bring out their skillsets, then the last – which is probably the most divided moment – is when we really separate to designer and actor on stage. In many ways that’s the least interesting moment as a director, but obviously is the one that gets us to the result.
RP: Yeah. So Ellen and Ada are incredible. They were very much in that first moment of sitting around tables. We were still trying to understand the piece and the instincts of it. For me, music played a really key role because it manifests a kind of emotional landscape to the piece. The entire piece is scored beginning to end. It’s a score that’s looking at a lot of source material that at first glance have nothing to do with Arthur Miller, so we did tons of research into funerary chants and songs from different parts of the world. Then of course we did a ton of research into 1930’s and 1940’s jazz, particularly into the 50’s and really begin to transliterate and play in that. Ada and Ellen are and have been in every moment of the piece. Every rehearsal they are there, creating along with the actors. So the score interestingly is really attached to the piece. I don’t know that I’ve even heard many of the scenes without music; I don’t know what that would sound like. What happens is that the rhythm, the emotional space, and the pitching of the actor’s language are really linked to the music. The music is music, but the music is soundscape, in a lot of ways.
The other pieces are from Willy’s long monologues. There are about four per act. Well, they’re more soliloquies, not monologues. And I hate them. I think they’re so incredibly boring. [Laughs] I always like it when the company kind of gives in to them. At the beginning we decided that we would not touch the text. So we sat there with this instinct of working around it, and then we started playing with song. With orchestrating and pitching and adding chromality to those moments, they kind of become these song-speak moments. And then I loved them. And then we all loved them.
When the character goes into these song-speak moments, it’s like madness. It creates these beautiful moments of madness that’s quite stunning. So the music is not only a score, but is integral to each Willy Loman scene. I can’t imagine it any other way. A couple years ago, I saw another production of Death of a Salesman and it was so confusing to me! [Laughs] He doesn’t sing? What does this mean?! [Laughs] I say that because the instinct I have for it was actually such a clumsy one, where it was not born out of this rigorous dramaturgical map. It was born out of an artist saying, When I hear this monologue, I, the director, disconnect. It’s uninteresting to me. So the music heightens it in many ways. Ultimately there’s a full score, and [Willy] is the only one who sings in this way, because of his state of mind.
DAH: The theme of the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab this year, which I am a part of, is “Theater in a Time of Change.” What your play is asking is very timely: What happens when you are written out of the American Dream? Can you expand on what it means to make theater in a time of change, responding to the current political climate? I’m thinking also about increasing diverse representation in theater.
RP: Absolutely. The theme behind the lab this year I think is terrific for obvious reasons. As a whole, I actually think oftentimes where there is dialogue or conversations around change, it either vilifies it, or somehow triumphs it too much. I think one of the big things that’s missed is that there is a great amount of responsibility in change in that change is often deeper than the aesthetics of change, but the big change is actually a change in the belief system. I feel that artists are essential in assuring that the process is a healthy and productive one for the great societal space. I feel very deeply that the kind of language we use in our company around the subject of mythology — and I don’t mean mythology as in ancient or western idea of myths, but more of the anthropological definition of mythology, which are the set of stories one tells to make sense of the world around them — I think that as artists, we create the mythology. In creating that mythology, we have this incredible opportunity to celebrate the belief that we have at the moment. So I feel the space of change, and the conversations around change — capital C Change in terms of belief systems — really can be impacted by artists. That’s what makes our work political and spiritual and social.
This piece is certainly key in that. But more than that in many ways, Theater Mitu in many ways is constantly looking at this notion of change and how we make art, and how that changes. How do we innovate, collaborate, have ideas of inclusion — how do we truly truly do that, knowing we can lead the conversation in terms of how beliefs develop and change. So that to me I feel is the work at the roots as artists. To me, that becomes an important part of our responsibility, regardless of the piece. I take it on very directly as a company who is interested in that. Forgive me for being a bit esoteric, but when we hear the word “change,” it’s very easy to get caught up in the cosmetics in terms of a change, but I believe it’s key to look at change in terms of belief systems and values. What in that is changing, when is it changing, and do we want it to? If we don’t, we get a chance to speak to it. But that also means we have to look at how we make work, and how we organize, and who we give voice to.
DAH: That’s incredible. What is next for Theater Mitu? What is next for Rubén Polendo?
RP: [Laughs] For Theater Mitu, after we premier Death of a Salesman [at BAM], we begin it’s tour by going to Chile, and that will begin its trajectory in the next year. We’re developing a new piece called Remnant. And Remnant is a piece that’s made up of interviews with soldiers that have gone to combat all over the world — Middle East, Southeast Asia, the United States, Latin America — and interjecting that with sacred text concerning the subject of death. It’s quite an ambitious project. It’s at its very early phase. And then we have another project which will be premiering next year, which is a huge investigation into Hamlet. So it’s not a version of Hamlet, but more a dissecting of Hamlet. Those are our two development projects, but for now Salesman is our focus.
For me, I was appointed in September as chair of Tisch Drama, so I will continue doing that and building and shaping and continue to serve the department of drama at Tisch, and really bring a lot of the conversation you and I are having here more into the blood of the department. In many ways it’s already there, but it’s about activating and using innovative ideas of change. So that takes up my time just a little bit.
DAH: That’s wonderful. And congratulations on that position. I remember when it was announced.
RP: Thanks! It’s been really fun. Everyone keeps asking me, but I’m having a really good time, because I’m approaching it as a director and I love coming together with people and making things. Students have been really key in that. Colleagues have been really key in that. It’s a really great moment to do exactly what you were talking about which is what is the role of the artist in the time of change? It’s key to look at everything in terms of diversity and innovation and sustainability of the artists, so it’s been really cool.
DAH: Do you have any advice for an artist making theater in a time of change? I’m specifically thinking about a theater director entering this current landscape. How do we make innovative theater today that challenges our audiences but also sells tickets?
RP: Again, the root of that kind of goes back to the previous questions. For me, it goes a little bit back to the making of the work. I think that the mindset becomes very important. Something we really believe in in the company and something I’m really trying to espouse at Tisch, is to move away from thinking of theater as an industry, and to begin to look at theater as a field. In a very small part of that field, is the industry, and the rest is this incredibly artistic field. So the job of the artist is to actually navigate that field versus to look at it as an industry space. What that means in the year 2017 is that the artist has agency. We can navigate, propel, make, communicate, on digital spaces, on a range of ideations and create new collaborative models. There’s some of us that are stuck in this 1920’s model that the phone is going to ring, and someone is going to go, I’m going to make you a star! I honestly believe that that is so debilitating to the artist, and absolutely goes against sustainability. I say this because I feel like that 1920’s model is so placed in me in grad school, that even though I kind of knew better, I still was kind of waiting for it. And that waiting is deadly. Waiting won’t create innovation, and in fact will limit you in the shaping of the artist to try to fit into an industry. So it should be the field that changes the industry. I feel like an artist should be doing, say, a large scale project within the industry, and then a global collaboration, and then should be publishing something, and then should be writing a column, and then should be teaching, and then should be doing an experimental piece in Mongolia, and then come back to New York and do something. So this navigation, all of a sudden, impacts the artist, maintains their sustainability, and frees them from this waiting model, which to me is so crazy. And I think we’re inspiring as artists, but also insecure as artists, in that when that phone rings… I mean, you literally feel like Willy Loman, right? They’re not calling him anymore! We make this crazy equation! I always tell my students that things happen in the artistic life, we really have to move away from making things a metaphor, so it doesn’t really mean anything. I say that because, for example, all the folks who are now graduating from Tisch drama, some of them applied to graduate school and didn’t get in. So their first response is, that must mean that I am fill in the blank. So I feel like, stop making your life a metaphor! It doesn’t mean anything! You didn’t get into grad school. So the next question should be, what’s next? You have agency. You’re not in a place where if you don’t get into grad school, forget it. We love making our lives a metaphor, whether it’s grad school, or any opportunity, or an audition. We keep beating ourselves up in that way. I’ve seen too many students who became colleagues who got lost in that. I see them 10, 15 years later, and they’ve left the field, because they believed it was only an industry and they couldn’t find a way to fit into that. It’s a little idealistic, but it’s also the idea behind Theater Mitu.
DAH: Wow, that’s incredible and so generous. Thank you for a wonderful conversation. Is there anything else you want to add that you didn’t get a chance to?
RP: No, your questions have been great. Thank you so much. It’s really a joy to chat with you.
Rubén Polendo is the founding artistic director of the permanent group of collaborators, Theater Mitu. He and his company work towards expanding the definition of theater through rigorous experimentation with its form. Polendo and his company research and investigate global performance as a source for their training, work, and methodologies. This is all driven by what he calls, “Whole Theater,” a theatrical experience that is rigorously visual, aural, emotional, intellectual and spiritual all in the same moment. His practice investigates trans-global performance; interdisciplinary collaborative models; the performativity of non-violence; the geopolitics of objects; contemporary mythology; artist training and education; investigations of the ritual and the sacred. In addition to his scholarly work, Polendo produces theatrical productions that bring these ideas to life. He has directed, curated and/or written a great many of Theater Mitu’s work, which has premiered in theaters Internationally and in the United States. Internationally, these include: The Cairo Opera House (Cairo, Egypt), Teatro DUOC (Santiago, Chile), Od Nowa (Torun, Poland), Mansion (Beirut, Lebanon), Centro Cultural Paso Del Norte (Mexico), Black Box (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), Visthar (Bangalore, India), Patravadi Arts Center (Bangkok, Thailand), Manarat al Saadiyat (UAE) and The NYUAD Arts Center (UAE). In the United States, these include: Mass MoCA (North Adams, MA), Contemporary Arts Center (New Orleans, LA), Los Angeles Theater Center (Los Angeles, CA), Ignite Arts/CaraMia (Dallas, TX), and Z Space (San Francisco, CA). Additionally in the United States, Polendo’s work as been seen at Baruch Performing Arts Center, New York Theater Workshop, CSV, The Public, INTAR, Blue Light, Lincoln Center, A.C.T., McCarter, The Perseverance, NAATCO, Mark Taper, Alliance, ETC and South Coast Rep. His Awards and recognitions include the prestigious MAP Fund Grant, the CEC Arts Link Grant, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, NY Cultural Development Fund, National Endowment for the Arts, NEFA’s National Theater Project award, the Rolex Protégé Arts Initiative, Company Residencies at NYUAD Arts Center and at New York Theater Workshop, New York State council for the Arts Grant, The Rosenberg Foundation Grant, Alpert Award, Greenwald Foundation Grant and The Mental Insight Foundation Grant, The Watermill Center Resident Artist, and a Sundance Theater Lab resident artist. Polendo has an MFA in directing from the UCLA School of Theater, an M.A. in non-Western theater from Lancaster University in the U.K., and a B.S. in Biochemistry from Trinity University in Texas. Currently he is Chair of Undergraduate Drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Based in New York City, he continues to create, develop and present work in the US and Internationally.