News & Articles

Letter from Artistic Director on Detroit

by Martha Lavey

Welcome to Steppenwolf's 35th season. We are delighted that you have joined us for the world premiere of Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. I encourage you to return to Steppenwolf for our season-long conversation about Our Public/Private Self. When we considered a theme relevant to the way we live now, we were intrigued by the idea of the public/private self in contemporary culture. The myriad of communication technologies that have gained currency over the past decade have pressurized the dynamic tension between our public and private lives. The 24-hour news cycle has made elusive the maintenance of privacy in the lives of our public figures: whether in the arena of politics, entertainment or sports, we have witnessed the disclosure of their intimate lives. Social networking websites have provided a platform for the anonymous to give voice and visibility to the minute details of their most private thoughts and behaviors. Facebook and MySpace provide platforms for the construction of a public self that gives permission to whatever level of intimacy a person chooses to mine. People clamor to participate in reality TV to expose their private interactions to a world-wide audience. YouTube provides a venue for the broadcast of whatever ideas and intimacies seize the participant's imagination. Twitter makes possible the constant broadcast of our thoughts, opinions and current activities. It's not surprising that the rules surrounding access and privacy, taste and decorum, are undergoing constant revision. The theater is a particularly appropriate venue to interrogate questions of the public and private because the essential action of the theater is the disclosure of private lives for a collective, public audience. We watch the characters in a drama in their homes, at work and play, in their most intimate relationships, all within the conceit that they do not know they are being watched. The “truth” of their lives is revealed to the extent that they have not constructed a persona: they are being overseen, discovered, by a public audience. They are not broadcasting self, they are being. It's a complex conceit. Because, of course, the actor playing a character knows full well that s/he has constructed a character who is being watched. The actor designs a performance to convey a self, the actor plays a role, and in the strange alchemy of the theater, both the self of the actor and the essence of the character merge. For the actor, the role is a not-me condition that is, nonetheless, a deeply personal condition of being. Theater has been described as “lying in the service of the truth.” The fiction of the play is designed to reveal the deeper truths of our lives. There’s a delicious irony in play: the fiction of the play promises a deeper insight into human truth than everyday behavior can provide. And why? Because we spend so much of our lives hiding our truths. Part of the social contract we make with one another is to play our roles, to respect the conventions of any given social situation, to cooperate with the script. We are our “family selves,” our “work selves,” our “just-among-friends selves,” our “all alone selves” and, increasingly, our “multiple online selves.” Are we lying? No, we’re human. We are a multiplicity of selves. Like the actor on stage, we construct personae that are me/not-me in any given situation. In any given situation we live simultaneously in a public/private self. The dynamic tension of these various selves can provide a creative space in which we can re-invent who we are: the self we create in one space - virtual or real - might provide a way to try on an aspirational self, to play the role of who we’d like to be or become. It’s this terrain that we are interested in exploring this season in five plays that make vivid this human dynamic. In Detroit, we meet two couples at a moment of re-invention. Both couples are committed to revising the narrative of their lives and their roles in that narrative. To start their lives over, they try on the identity of suburban homeowners. The setting Lisa has provided for these couples is eloquent: the play is set in a suburban community outside of Detroit, a city in desperate need of re-invention. Suburbia is the Eden to which they have migrated to escape the detritus of a previous, failing life (for which Detroit stands as a metaphor). We learn that the identity of their suburban neighborhood, built in the late ’60s, has been conceived around metaphors of “light.” The subdivision is called “Light Houses” and the streets all take their names from the concept of light: “Sunshine Lane,” “Ultraviolet Lane” but also “Feather Boulevard.” This conflation of light in both its meanings of illumination and weightlessness is marvelously clever: we understand that their journey away from the dark center of their lives is a search for illumination that ­is, at bottom, weightless, untethered. (“Holy shit!” says Kenny, “Helium Street.”) Helium, indeed. The giddiness that ensues as the couples explore their new lives explodes into a backyard bacchanal that prompts Ben to shout, “I'm feeling like telling the truth!” The burden of Ben's public face, his aspirational self, is laid down and the momentary exultation of coming to “zero” is promptly succeeded by Mary's question, “But what are we going to do?” Detroit is a wonderfully insightful exploration of our public/private negotiation of self. Lisa offers us an imagining of what it means to find the ground zero of our lives. What happens next? What is beautiful about the play is the way Lisa weaves these lives into the larger narrative of the American dream. The suburban home is the putative Eden of the American dream: home ownership, family, a neighborhood. This is the public face of the American dream. What is its private life? The front yard/backyard metaphor that Lisa deploys throughout the play is an eloquent expression of the way that we organize our lives in community. The final image of the play is one expression of what the collapse of those boundaries looks like. Mary's question hangs in the air: “...what are we going to do?”