Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Interview: Charles L. Mee of UTOPIA at Cutting Ball Theater Creates a World We Would All Love to Live In

Article Pixel

The Obie-Winning Playwright Continues to Explore the Boundaries of Theater in This Virtual World Premiere

BWW Interview: Charles L. Mee of UTOPIA at Cutting Ball Theater Creates a World We Would All Love to Live In
Playwright Charles L. Mee

San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theatre has scored quite a coup in presenting the world premiere of Utopia, the latest work from Obie-winning playwright Charles L. Mee, available for streaming from October 16th through November 15th. Directed by Ariel craft, who is also Cutting Ball's Artistic Director, the play is a multidisciplinary fantasia that explores the question "How do you make a life?" Cutting Ball is partnering on the production with RAWdance contemporary dance company, and Creativity Explored which supports artists with developmental disabilities, to create a work that harmonizes theater, dance and animation. Audiences can stream the play from home October 16th through November 15th. Additional details can be found at CuttingBall.com.

At this point in his long career, Mee could be considered the doyen of experimental American Playwrights. He is the recipient of the gold medal for Lifetime Achievement in Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two Obie Awards for what are arguably his best-known plays (Vienna: Lusthaus and Big Love), the PEN/Laura Pels Award, and the Richard B. Fisher Award. He was part of the seminal Off-Off-Broadway scene in the early 1960's before turning his focus to writing highly-regarded political non-fiction, including Meeting at Potsdam about the 1945 conference and A Visit to Haldeman and Other States of Mind about the Nixon era. Since returning to writing plays in 1985, he has created scores of new works that often incorporate found texts and movement and have been performed all across the country.

Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking to Mee from his home in New York City. Interviewing him is a fascinating experience, as he runs the gamut from beguiling whimsy to blunt matter-of-factness. If he answers an open-ended question with a terse, 2-word response, it's not to be glib or dismissive; it's because that's all he needs to convey his meaning. At other times, he goes off into flights of fancy that provide an enticing window into his creative process. He is also, unsurprisingly, extremely knowledgeable about theater. Just read his succinct explanation (below) of the evolution of theatrical form from the Greeks to present day, and you'll see what I mean. He has a knack for explaining seemingly ethereal concepts simply and clearly, and utterly without pretension. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you originally connect with the folks at Cutting Ball?

Well, Ariel Craft just called me. And she's wonderful so I loved her right away. She asked me if I would do a commissioned play and I knew I would be delighted to do it. I wrote something for her and then she came to New York and got some actors together and we did a little workshop of it, and it was just great working with her.

Your plays can defy easy description. How would you describe Utopia?

I think my plays are hard to describe because really I've been hugely inspired by a lot of the dance theater work that you see in Europe, ever since Pina Bausch. I love to do what could be called dance theater, or performance theater, that I then put language into. I don't know anybody else who does that exactly. So that's why I think it's hard to describe.

I love that you include so much movement in your plays. Do you start with the words or with the movement?

I start work just sort of daydreaming. I mean I'll wake up in the morning and think, "I see these people, I see a guy with a bird for a head wandering around looking for somebody and then we hear some music and so he starts to dance to it, and then a woman in a red dress comes in with a floor lamp in her arms and dances with that. And then, oh - he says this, she says that." So that's kind of the way I do it.

To be a little more classical about it, the Greeks wrote plays where the principal characters advance the plot and then the chorus riffs, the principal characters advance the plot, the chorus riffs. And the chorus riffs not by 20 or 30 people all saying the same thing at the same time, but they can sing, they can dance, and what they have to say can be [just] a line or two from 20 different people. As the history of the theater goes on, by the time you get to Ibsen, the structure is the principals advance the plot, the principals advance the plot, the principals advance the plot. There's no chorus. By the time you get to Pina Bausch, it's the chorus riffs, the chorus riffs, the chorus riffs. There are no principals speaking. So if you go back and throw those two things together the way the Greeks did, then you've written my plays.

You're known for your use of collage in much of your work. Do you use any found texts in Utopia?

Yeah.

How do you go about finding them? How do you choose them?

You know I can't keep myself from reading books or going on the internet or looking at The New York Times or magazines and TV shows and other things like that, so whatever strikes me as terrific, I steal. I've also been hugely inspired by the artwork of Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell and other 20th-century artists who did collage. Rauschenberg, after he graduated from art school, was living in Soho before any other artists were living there, and he'd just get up in the morning and walk around the neighborhood and pick up pieces of junk off the sidewalk and come back and glue them to his canvas. And when he finished [the artwork], that was the world he lived in, wasn't it?

So that's kind of how I feel. When I first got out of college I was writing plays, this was in the 60's, and then it was the time of the Viet Nam War and I got very caught up in anti-war activities. I began writing anti-war polemics, which led to writing books about American foreign policy and international relations. You'd quote this guy or that guy, or take a piece of evidence and quote it in your text, so that idea of picking up evidence of who and how we are today and sticking it in the book you're writing is kind of what I'm doing with plays. The text I steal from other writers is just that [it] was a piece of text from the 21st century that I put in there as evidence of who and how we are today. And I don't get to change it, I don't get to just fiddle with it because that's my taste. I have to be truthful and honest about the evidence of who and how we are.

Did you approach writing Utopia any differently, given that audiences will be experiencing it virtually rather than in person?

Oh, no, because they were going to do it in their theater. When Covid hit, Ariel called me up and said, "Hey, would it be OK with you if we just did it on the internet?" And I said, "Sure!" So, there they go.

In a New York Times interview some years ago, you lamented the decline of theater as an essential art in America, and were quoted as saying it had become a reduced art form "best suited for small television sets, not for large theatrical spaces." How can you avoid that kind of reductionism with Utopia, given that folks will indeed be experiencing it on a small screen?

Well, that'll be up to Ariel, won't it? She's doing it totally. Because the truth is I'm also kind of a rare playwright in that I never ever go to rehearsals.

Oh, wow!

Years ago, traveling around Europe seeing things, I thought "Wow, I think it's the dead playwrights who get the best productions." And that's because they don't go to rehearsal, so the director and the actors are free to do whatever they want. I'm not there in the rehearsal keeping them from going down the wrong path to the right event. So I never ever go to rehearsals. They're free to do their thing. Ariel was the one who said "How about we do it on the internet?" She's the one who had the idea, so let's see what she does. I'll be very eager to see it.

Your own daughter has directed a number of your plays. Even when she's directing, you still never go to rehearsal?

Right.

I think a lot of directors would find that really freeing.

Well, I think they do, generally. I'm the only playwright member of the SITI Theater Company that my friend Anne Bogart runs. It's something she started years ago with Tadashi Suzuki, from Japan. Anne does a lot of physical stuff in her productions and cause she's an old friend of mine, she'll say to me, "Why don't you come to rehearsals?" and I'll say, "Sure." So occasionally I'll go to a Siti Company rehearsal. I remember vividly one time going and they were doing this play of mine called bobrauschenbergamerica and it has Scene 1, Scene 2, Scene 3, like that going through, and then you get up to, I think it's scene 16, and all I wrote was "A beating occurs." And Anne said, "Now, Chuck, what did you mean by that?" I looked at my wristwatch and I said, "Oh, Anne, I'm really sorry, I forgot I have a lunch date today. I have to get going." I left, so they were stuck with it. So one of the actors, Will Bond, just went backstage into their storage rooms and found a garbage can and a baseball bat and he brought it out and just beat the garbage can into a piece of junk with that baseball bat. [pause] It's the best scene I've ever written.

You've also had quite a successful career as a writer of political histories, and in the 1970's co-founded The National Committee on the Presidency, a grassroots organization which called for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Do you see clear parallels with the Nixon and Trump presidencies, or is that just lazy thinking?

No, no, there are certainly parallels. Actually, one of the things that's terrifically sad for me is that back in the days of trying to impeach Trump, I didn't see any strategies that were working very well. What we did with Nixon was we launched a campaign in favor of impeachment in the congressional districts that had representatives who were on the House Judiciary Committee. So we built under them a constituency in favor of impeachment. That was kind of the strategy, and I didn't see anybody doing stuff like that this time, which was very disappointing. And I actually think he's worse than Nixon. I think Nixon was terrible, but I don't think Nixon was driving the country into people going into the streets shooting each other.

Certainly, that's how it feels to me. And I don't know how we get out of this.

Yeah. Well, I certainly hope we don't vote for him.

You were a part of the seminal Off-Off Broadway scene in the early 1960's, having your plays done at places like LaMama and Caffe Cino. As a person who didn't experience that era, I think I can tend to sentimentalize it. I have this mental image of all you young artists hanging out together, being endlessly creative, probably in a haze of cigarette smoke, making no money but just living off your passion for theater. When you look back on that time, what comes to mind?

I think you just described it. That's exactly how I felt. I loved it. And to tell you the truth I think it's also one reason I've continued the life that I have. About 20 years ago, we did a piece called Big Love that Les Waters directed at Actors Theatre in Louisville and then it went to Berkeley Rep and La Jolla and The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, travelling all around the place, and came back then to New York, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Instantly, a few Broadway producers asked us to come and talk to them. They wanted to do it on Broadway, though they said we should replace a few of the actors with some Broadway stars. Les and I looked at each other and said, "We don't want to replace these actors who have been working so hard and gone everywhere with us. No thanks." And that's kind of been my feeling always. I love the feeling of Off-Off-Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway.

You're very prolific and have been at this for a long time. What's the best part of your job as a playwright?

Writing plays. [laughs] The truth is it's an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I can't stop myself. Back in the day that I was writing those history books, I was a really disciplined writer. I got up in the morning at 7:30, had my first cup of coffee at 8:00, [wrote] at my desk from 9:00 to 1:00, then a brief lunch break, back at my desk by 1:30 at the latest, and then stop at 3:00, so that I would know that I wasn't just writing when I was worn out, and go out to art museums and galleries and stuff.

Now, as a playwright, I have no plan at all, no discipline, no schedule. I get up in the morning whatever time it is, I don't do anything if I don't have anything to do, or if I'm thinking about something, I'll go make a note about that and oh, if it makes me think about something else, I'll do that. During the day I just end up either going back to my desk and writing something or going somewhere and texting myself on my iPhone. And by the end of the year I've written more than I should've. The past, like whatever is, 15 years it turns out that I've written like three plays a year. And it's just cause I can't stop myself.

On some level, creating something new is always an act of hope. At this point in your life and in your career, what drives you to keep creating?

Just that I love to do it. I don't hope for anything, I just - I think of something and I think, "Oh, wow, that's cool. Oh - there's a guy, an accordion player who doesn't have a head, that is his jacket and shirt and tie are up so high they cover his head so you can't see it, and he's playing music as he walks across the stage." And I just like that thought so much I can't help from making a note, and then that makes me think of something else, something else, something else, and then I've done it. So I just do it cause I love it, that's all.

Thanks so much for giving me some of your time today. Before we close, is there anything else you'd like to tell me about Utopia?

I don't think so. I mean, you know what it is about, right?

I would love to hear what you think it's about, because it's described on the Cutting Ball website in ways that are very tantalizing but hard to get a bead on. For instance, they call it a "genre-defying dreamscape."

I mean, again I started out by a girl and her mother go to a café to have coffee and ice cream. And then they're listening to all the other people in the café having conversations. [And then I think,] "Oh, who would be in the café?" Yeah, so the people at the other tables are Black and white and Asian and South-American and they're Indian, and they're straight and gay and lesbian and young and old and..., but none of them happen to mention that because they're not denying the differences in race and age and abilities and stuff, but they're not living in a world where these are difficult issues that need to be addressed. They're living in a world that's evolved beyond that, to a place where everyone's living together and feeling good together and just needing to talk about food and tea and love, and this utopia. This is the world we want to live in, this is the world a 9-year-old girl wants to live in, a world that feels good to everyone, and so of course they sing and dance and eat croissants.

And that's where we hope the world will get sooner rather than later.


Related Articles View More San Francisco Stories   Shows

From This Author Jim Munson