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Unfreezing the Play

by Polly Carl, Director of Artistic Development

Theater is a series of ongoing interpretations. The playwright, director, dramaturg, designers and actors come together in a collaborative process seeking a multitude of possibilities for the presentation of a play. At some point, in order to bring in the audience, the play freezes - the script is finalized, the set is built, the sound and lights are programmed and the actors find their rhythm. But the possible meanings of the play go on in post-show discussions, drinks after the play and late night pillow talk. My hope is to provide some heat to your conversations when you leave the theater: to thaw what we’ve temporarily frozen and invite you to collaborate in making meaning and theater with us. "Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same." These 1962 Malvina Reynolds lyrics that open the Showtime series Weeds evoke an image of the kind of first tier suburb described in Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. The song is a reflection of static mid-20th century America where we all wanted the same things—the American dream of job, family and home ownership. The great attraction to Weeds is the way it subverts its theme song, subverts the idea that the suburbs perpetuate a comforting familiarity and sameness among neighbors. It’s a show about a neighborhood where the houses might look the same but the neighbors aren’t what we expect. Nancy Botwin, played by Mary Louise Parker, is a widowed soccer mom who turns to selling pot to keep her family living in the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed. Nancy is the opposite of the traditional mini-van driving suburban mom. Her desire to escape her circumstances puts her suburban community of Agrestic at risk - at risk of becoming the center of a large drug trade and at risk of eventually (over six seasons) of burning right to the ground. Weeds suggests that even if our houses look the same, our neighbors’ lives are a mystery. In his book Violence, Slavoj Zizek, in the chapter ‘Fear Thy Neighbor as Thyself!,’ redefines the term neighbor from both a local and international perspective. He suggests, “What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed, which is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.” In a sense this is a suburban value. Each home in the suburbs is built a safe distance from the next and daily activities move to the backyard where a chain link fence to keep the dog “in” has been replaced by a six foot high opaque “privacy” fence - to keep the neighbors out. The suburban condition perpetuates what Zizek would contend is our intense desire not to know each other. A public façade of uniformity on the outside perpetuates the lie of sameness on the inside - enforcing a belief in a human condition driven by similar wants and desires. The myth of the tranquil, peaceful suburb relies on neighbors being alienated from each other. “I know, but I don’t want to know that I know, so I don’t know.” For Zizek the neighbor is the “traumatic intruder - someone whose different way of life disturbs us, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails.” Weeds has been so successful because it turns the “little boxes on the hillside” inside out, exposes every private act and confirms the eventual public impact of what we wish we did not know about the people living next to us, of what we wish we could hide about ourselves. As Sharon says in Detroit, “If you get home and the neighbor is out setting off the timer on their watering system then you look at the ground or maybe give a quick wave and run inside... and when you get inside behind your closed door, quiet in your house, you make a pact with yourself to talk to them the next time.” Although I don’t live in the suburbs, I do have neighbors. When we moved to our little bungalow a year ago there was a jar of homemade cherry jam on the front stoop from our neighbors. What a perfect welcome! But then every time we saw them in the yard they never acknowledged us. We realized that the jam was a way of saying “hi” and please respect our desire to be left alone. Detroit takes Zizek’s definition of neighbor as its starting point in part because our alienation from one another in this new economic reality has gone from being privatized to being made fully public through foreclosures and boarded up homes. In this new suburbia, although the neighbor may still be a traumatic intruder, alienation is no longer comforting. The public exposure of private pain (economic and social demise) is so imminent for Detroit’s Ben and Mary that reaching out to their neighbors is a preemptive strike so to speak, some recognition that conditions are such that we can no longer live side by side and ignore one another. Detroit places us in a completely new reality and the play is an opportunity to rethink the purpose of a neighborly backyard barbecue.