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Letter from the Artistic Director on Up

by Martha Lavey

We conclude our season of the imagination with Up, a new play by Bridget Carpenter, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro. Our journey of the imagination has been guided by voices from around the world. Kafka on the Shore, by the contemporary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, in an adaptation by ensemble member Frank Galati, took us through the mind of a young boy in his struggle for identity, weaving between the streets of Japan and the landscape of his dreams. The Seafarer, by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, set in a basement apartment in suburban Dublin, landed us in hell when the devil strolled in wearing a sharp suit and a smile. Iranian-French playwright Yasmina Reza gave us a blank canvas onto which we shared the characters’ projections about friendship and its value in Art. And The Tempest, Shakespeare's great meditation on the power and limit of our earthly magic, was set on the island of our imagination—a mystical place in a timeless sea. Up takes us home. It is a story about an American family by an American writer. It is about our most quotidian concerns: our work, our survival, the negotiation of our domestic relationships. It is also a story about our biggest dreams: the imaginary life we live alongside that quotidian life--the imaginary life that makes the quotidian bearable. Up is based on a true story. In 1982, Larry Walters realized his dream of flying by attaching 45 helium balloons to a lawn chair and lifted off the earth. He flew to an altitude of 16,000 feet until his balloons began losing gas and he headed toward earth, saved in his plummet by the interception of trees. His story became a sensation and his flight has been replicated since by a number of like-minded dreamers—men who have taken flight in their handmade vessels, headed toward the sky. The story of transcendence is age-old, and one that seems particularly relevant to this cultural moment when: Up is performed on our stage; Disney is releasing a movie, also called Up, about the same flight; and, germane to our play, Man On Wire, a film about wire-walker Philippe Petit, who appears as a character in Up, won the 2009 Oscar® for Best Documentary. What is it that makes Up so tantalizing? Why the persistence of that metaphor of flight, of leaving earth, of aspiring to the sky? Why is heaven above us? What is this upward-looking yearning? There are cautionary tales about soaring too high. In Western literature, we have the story of Icarus. To escape the labyrinth in which they had been ensnared, Icarus' father, Daedalus, constructs wings of wax, and he and Icarus fly toward freedom. Daedalus warns his son to fly a “middle course” over the sea because flying too high would risk melting the wings in the heat of the sun. Icarus, exhilarated by his flight, ignores his father and, true to his father's warning, the wings melt and he is plunged into the sea. Like Daedalus and Icarus, Walter Griffin and his wife, Helen, feel trapped in the circumstances of their life, constrained by their economic situation. Helen is a letter carrier, treading the labyrinth of a large bureaucracy. The work itself, walking the paths of her postal route, is an inscription of that labyrinth--a trap she cannot escape. Fifteen years into their marriage, Helen is the cautionary voice of Daedalus: fearful that because of Walter's dedication to flight "everything in our life is going to shatter into pieces and float away." Up is an imagining of the life a man might live when he becomes dedicated to recapturing the peak experience that defined his early, and carefree, life. It is an opening to an inquiry: when are we most ourselves? In the rapture of our dream, in our most transcendent moment? In the dutiful execution of our responsibilities to our spouse and family? (Even when, like Helen, that means the daily walk through the labyrinth?) Which is the authentic course? Does the authentic course demand cooperation with constraints? What is the difference between "growing up" and "selling out?” Money plays a central role in Up and the pursuit of wealth is another "up" in the play. Walter’s 15 year old son, Mikey, befriends a young woman, Maria, who arrives at his high school pregnant and living with her Aunt Chris, having been abandoned by her alcoholic mother. Aunt Chris is running a business, selling office supplies over the phone. She is dedicated to the acquisition of wealth and she deploys her expertise with the Tarot to recruit Mikey into her sales force. Her dream, into which she enlists Mikey's imagination, is unlimited wealth. The fates, as described by the Tarot cards, designate Mikey as a "winner" and in the confluence of the mystical direction of the cards and the earthly reward of wealth, Mikey makes his dream. He will be rich, he will transcend the circumstances of his life and save both his parents and Maria. The suggestion in the play is that the dream of transcendence through the acquisition of wealth is the American Dream. We will get free, we will realize our dreams—we will soar—if only we can get enough money. (How we get that money—legally, ethically, happily—is, often, immaterial. That we get it is essential). We do our work in order to free ourselves from the labyrinth of the working day: we forfeit our present for an imagined future—we buy ourselves out of the constraints of this world. The conflation in the play of flight and wealth, and Walter's counter-narrative of flight as an escape from wealth, produces a wonderful confluence in the terminology we apply to both psychological and economic conditions. In the realms of both economic systems and psychological interpretation, the words "inflation" and "depression" have resonance. In psychological terms, "inflation" describes a condition detached from reality: one believes oneself immune from the circumstances and consequences of lesser mortals. It is a transcendence narrative: "I float above the conditions of this world, I am special, I am unto myself." In the psychological economy, inflation is often answered by depression: when the fantasy of transcendence is punctured, we "crash," and sink into depression. When we chose to produce Up, over a year ago, the world credit market was not yet in the extreme duress we witness today. But the psychological grid of the play was vivid—then and now. As the Icarus myth suggests, it is the "middle course" that permits our release and preserves our survival. The imbalance that the play explores between the trajectory of Walter's dream and the ground of his life is a refusal to negotiate a middle course. One wonders if our current financial crisis will produce a more nuanced negotiation of our wants and needs? One wonders if the shock of fear we have experienced will quash our collective creativity, our daring for innovation, our imagination? A common phrase being invoked, in describing our current collective consciousness is "no one knows where the bottom is." We do not know the ground. We watch ourselves, like Walter when his flight balloons deflate, rushing toward earth, unsure if we will crash or be saved. What do we do with this fast, fast rush toward ground? Can we keep our imagination alive? Can we pass on the learning to our children? Can we locate a middle course?