April 4, 2004
Exorcising her demons
Rebecca Gilman's new play about a tortured painter parallels the playwright's own life in Chicago
By Chris Jones
LONDON -- At the Royal Court Theatre, the birthplace of modern English drama, famous American actors like Gillian Anderson might get their picture on the program, but they don't get their name in lights. The incandescent bulbs on the historic Sloane Square facade that once proudly announced the premiere of John Osborne's seminal "Look Back in Anger" in 1956 remain reserved for two things only.
One is the title of a new play. The other is the name of the person who wrote it.
In the 1950s and 1960s, those famous naked white bulbs illuminated unknowns such as John Arden, Arnold Wesker and Edward Bond. In the 1970s and 1980s, the theater introduced the soon-to-be-famous Caryl Churchill, Terry Johnson, Mark Ravenhill, Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. Since the era of artistic director Ian Rickson, a decade ago, the Royal Court's most frequently produced playwright has not been a British writer at all, but Chicago playwright Rebecca Gilman.
But if Gilman's dark, startling and intensely personal play, which opened here on Wednesday, is read between the lines, Gilman is seemingly using her prestigious but distant London perch to exorcise demons unleashed by her rapid rise from unknown local Chicago playwright to a prominent national figure expected to have a major career.
To a London audience that knows her past works well, Gilman's provocative latest, "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball," is likely to be seen merely as a play about how the pressures of the art world, a broken love affair and her own internal expectations cause a talented 38-year-old female painter (played by Anderson) to slit her wrists in her bathroom.
At the end of the play's first scene, Gilman's central character, Dana Fielding, is hustled off to an institution by those who either care for her, live off her or both. Comfortable among the lost souls in the hospital, the painter then contrives a ruse to stay in this safe sanctuary and dodge the need to start painting for money again.
She decides to take on an alternate identity in the shape of Darryl Strawberry -- among baseball's most dazzling professional successes and perhaps -- with his descent into drugs -- its biggest personal disaster.
But to the Chicago viewer familiar with the author's career trajectory over the past decade -- from her emergence at the tiny Circle Theatre in Forest Park to her status as a favorite daughter of the Goodman Theatre working on commission, the play has a more jolting and immediate impact. It can easily be read as an indictment of the pressures placed on an emergent local playwright by prestigious Chicago theaters, fickle local critics and agents and hangers-on who want their piece of the fiscal action.
As of last weekend, Gilman had done no interviews at all about the play and had no desire or plans to do any. Since the play is, in essence, about the tyrannical effect of such things on an artist, it's a decision that makes some sense.
"I've told them I won't do any press at all. What could I possibly say about this play?" Gilman asked rhetorically last week in an upstairs office at the Royal Court, betraying roughly equal measures of shyness, amusement and nervousness as her eyes dance around the room. She was almost, but not quite, doing her only interview to date on her latest play. "It would have to become," she said, "like a meta-interview. And that would be weird. I think you know what I am talking about. Better if people just see the play."
Indeed. In "The Sweetest Swing," Gilman also takes aim at those supportive -- and maybe also jealous -- peers who unreasonably demand that a writer receiving so much attention and success has, at the very least, an obligation to be publicly cheerful and personally happy.
Sure, the names and even the creative field have been changed. But to a visitor from Chicago, at least, the real-life sources of the angst are perfectly recognizable. There are, er, art critics' names that look decidedly familiar -- as do their opinions about, er, Dana's work. The big prestigious gallery that commissions the painter's work has distinct echoes of the Goodman. And, of course, the painter talks a lot like Gilman -- a shy and complex writer who tends constantly to feel pressured to produce. Like Gilman, Dana says she doesn't read her own reviews.
"It's been a steady decline," says Dana, Gilman's self-execrating painter, in an early monologue. "My first show, everybody was all hyped up. They were all saying I was like, the new vision of a new generation or something, but with every other show since then everybody's been acting like I'm never going to live up to that original potential."
To some degree, that self-view mirrors Gilman herself, whose play "The Glory of Living" in 1998 at the tiny Circle Theatre was the beginning of copious amounts of attention from big Chicago theaters, especially the Goodman. Gilman, who went on to write such plays as "Spinning Into Butter" (among the most produced works in regional theaters over the last three seasons), "Boys Gets Girl" and "Blue Serge," quickly became Chicago's most successful resident playwright, even though most of her plays have often attracted mixed reviews.
Goodman artistic director Robert Falls declined to comment on a play he hasn't yet seen, but did say he's on his way to London shortly.
And there's even more complexity in the air at the Royal Court. Anderson -- a solid actress who has become favorite prey for the London tabloid press since she took up residence in the United Kingdom, where "The X-Files" remains a cult hit -- also has a few issues with being the object of media hype and criticism.
In 2002, Anderson appeared in the London production of the Michael Weller play, "What the Night is For." It got bad reviews.
Paired with Gilman in this mood, Anderson is formidably intense.
Notwithstanding Anderson's presence in the starring role and the play's largely peripheral connection to the boys of summer, "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" is an unlikely title for a box-office hit in the country that invented cricket. But at previews last weekend, the place was packed.
Freedom to write
The Royal Court, which has produced all but one of Gilman's major plays and paid her to write this arresting affair on commission, couldn't give a hill of baked beans about the commercial viability of what Gilman chooses to write about. As far as Rickson is concerned, Gilman can write whatever she wants whenever she wants. He thinks she's that important a figure in the modern American theater.
"Rebecca," Rickson said last week in his office, speaking slowly and with utter certitude, "is one of the most important playwrights to emerge from America. We consider premiering her work in England to be a great honor."
This has caused some local questioning.
"American playwright Gilman enjoys an extraordinary favored status at the Royal Court; a staggering four plays of hers have now premiered here since 1999, a special transatlantic relationship matched only by Neil LaBute and the Almeida," wrote Dominic Cavendish in his largely negative review of "The Sweetest Swing" in The Daily Telegraph on Thursday. "Why she should be so beloved has long been a slight puzzle to me."
Yet as befits the head of a theater that gave the world British socialist drama, Rickson doesn't see "The Sweetest Swing" in personal terms at all. "It's a play about the complex relationship between capitalism and creativity," he says, warming to his political theme. "In Marxist terms, the central character of the artist refuses to be commoditized."
It's a reasonable position, but it feels less than the whole truth.
Gilman had tried to write about baseball before. Commissioned by the Goodman for its 2000-2001 season, her play "The Great Baseball Strike of 1994" appeared on the Goodman's brochure before the playwright had actually written it. It's an incident referred to obliquely in "The Sweetest Swing." In real life, though, the intended director, the late Goodman associate artistic director Michael Maggio, died unexpectedly, sending the playwright into a spiral that perhaps was more complex than some people in Chicago have realized.
That play never happened -- the brochure had to be changed. But it seems more than a coincidence that baseball once again is the refuge of an artist in distress.
Of course, one could be accused of taking these analogies too far. Gilman doesn't want to talk about the personal genesis of the play, which is, after all, set not in the theater but in the realm of galleries, dealers and hot contemporary painters. In her mind, the issue is not one of her own life, but of an artist's perpetual struggle to remain at the center of her own work.
"The company met with this person from the art world," she says of the Royal Court's rehearsal process. "He was talking about how the artist is the linchpin of the arts world, but that the people around the artist work very hard to marginalize the artist.
And is this how Gilman sees the world? Marginalized? Surely, she has enjoyed such success. Why not just be gratefully happy? Isn't she surrounded by unqualified admiration?
She smiles ruefully, a faraway look in her eye.
"It depends on where people are coming from," she says of fickle fans. "Darryl Strawberry's fans could turn on a dime."
Anderson's "X-Files" followers have proven rather more loyal.
After her appearance in the troubled Weller play, the Chicago-born and -educated Anderson and the Royal Court long had been looking to work together. Rickson says he can pay a star actress "only slightly more" than he pays the theater's cleaners, but both parties clearly can benefit from each other's reputation.
Thus Rickson put the actress -- who spent nine years playing another Dana (Scully) in "The X-Files" from 1993 to 2002 -- and playwright together when the Royal Court did a reading of the play last year.
The play's themes of the artist under attack have clearly resonated with Anderson, who has been trying to build a stage career in London despite newspapers more interested in whether she now hates or loves former co-star David Duchovny or when and if she will marry her fiance, the Kenyan-born Julian Ozanne. Ironically, he's a journalist.
More diminutive than many people realize, Anderson no longer has her famous red hair, but has sandy blond hair tied back. She has no love for doing publicity.
"Why is it built into the process?" she asks, eyes flashing recalling being contractually obligated to build her own hype back in the "X-Files" days. "Why is it built into the craft of what one wants to do?"
The resultant interviews, she argues, not only have nothing to with the art, but also they don't serve the fans she'd rather address directly.
"Hardly any interviews I ever have done have reflected the way I am," Anderson says.
"I read them and I cannot see myself anywhere in them. Isn't that part of what you are supposed to be doing? Aren't you trying to give a snapshot of a personality?"
A recent interview with the Financial Times had referred to Anderson yawning and, in the last sentence, falling asleep. Clearly, it had infuriated her.
"It just makes you disdain everything about it," she said. "There was not an inkling of me being a working actor enjoying what I do. I am doing a great new play. In the rehearsal room, I am enjoying myself."
"The Sweetest Swing," with its media-loathing protagonist, its disdain for the business of arts, its fragile, brilliant artist needing protection, would seem like a good -- even an empowering -- match for this actress in this mood.
"It's kind of cool," Anderson says with a half-smile. "It turns everything on its ear. If we're in the right frame of mind as human beings, what anyone else says in the world around us shouldn't matter at all. If we can find a place of internal equanimity, that stuff should make no difference at all. But there are people out there with an incredible amount of power to destroy."
Anderson's eyes flash even more.
"They have an opportunity to present an artist to the world. Can we in this business all not be kinder human beings to our fellow human beings?"
Clearly, Gilman is asking much the same question in her most personal play to date. It is not likely to be her most successful. While Anderson's performance garnered mainly positive reviews from London critics, the play did not fare as well. "While it displays Gilman's customary intelligence," wrote Michael Billington in The Guardian on Thursday. "It sometimes puts point-making above dramatic tension."
Such, perhaps, was the danger with this kind of play. To those struggling away in the Chicago theater dreaming for a hit play at a major international venue, or a cult TV series, it still might seem that the two women doth protest too much.
Following an early preview of "The Sweetest Swing," last week, the stage door was besieged by scores of Anderson's loyal and passionate fans, who first packed the theater and then spilled off the sidewalk to catch a glimpse of her after the show. And regardless of the vicissitudes of critics and reputations, Gilman is premiering a provocative new play--a play written from her heart--in perhaps the most famous new-play theater in the world.
When Gilman was studying at the University of Iowa, would this day in this place not have been the fulfillment of a wild dream?
"That's true," she finally allows. But it's clear she has come to believe that success and pressure are far better in the abstract.
"I guess you don't know the reality," Gilman says, "until it already has happened."