The Designated Mourner

For the last year now, I’ve been working on the first production of Denver Poet’s Theater: Wallace Shawn’s chamber tragedy, The Designated Mourner. Tonight, Aaron Angello, Elisa Gabbert, and myself are mounting the first performance at Dianela Acosta’s house in Boulder.

I’ve wanted to direct this play since the first time I read it, somewhere between the spring and autumn of 1997. I remember buying my copy at Rizzoli books in the Copley Mall, then walking home and reading it in one fast, chain-smoking, sunlit sitting. I don’t smoke anymore, thank heaven, but the play is going to be real, at long last, in only a couple of hours. I’ll try to make a few notes on this blog, here and there, about how the production is going. To reserve your own show, drop me a line or contact Denver Poet’s Theater:

I’m pasting my director’s note below, because why not. But host us, and by gum you’ll get a real paper copy of your own:

Director’s Note

It’s appropriate that writers stage The Designated Mourner—it’s a kind of outloud novel, one that eschews stage props and customs to take shape in the theater of the mind. Indeed, the show’s first New York performance featured New Yorker short story writer Deborah Eisenberg in the role of Judy. (Eisenberg played for creeps – her Judy told a ghost story, pitched low, as if from beyond the grave). Writers first, we took on the text as a complex literary work and talked together about how much was packed into it, how to pull that out. Although I call myself the director here, the production was thoroughly collaborative, with lots of rehearsals indistinguishable from study groups. We spent a year like this before inviting anyone to watch. By then, of course, we’d made our choices. I don’t remember who suggested performing the play for small groups in private homes, but we all latched onto the idea once it was in the air.

There’s a primacy to an individual speaking voice encountered face-to-face: Homer by torchlight, speaker’s corner, bedtime stories. As so much of the play takes the form of a series of confessions, a lot of our early conversation had to do with who the audience was intended to represent. Are you interrogators at our famously cold, famously damp local prison? Are you old friends in a bar? Are you the generation who succeed Jack and Judy, smugly incurious about the time of the upheaval, when the dirt-eaters finally rose up and the new government set them and all of their sympathizers firmly to rest?

Were the characters ghosts? It didn’t matter that not all of them were dead. A ghost isn’t someone who has died, at least not necessarily. A ghost is someone you can’t let go of, who follows you and badgers you, who you talk to when they aren’t there. Those mistreated and lonely people who walk the streets shouting are talking to ghosts. They’re who we talk to when we talk in our heads. Perhaps the audience are ghosts as well.

John Donne is a ghost here, one losing his power to haunt. Marxism is a ghost—beaten down by authoritarianism. (“It’s like the play takes place in Pinochet’s Chile,” one of us said in rehearsal—I can’t remember who, “but Chile is a part of New York City.” That’s probably as good a description as any of the inside of Wallace Shawn’s mind). Jack and Judy are ghosts to one another.

This, to stretch a metaphor, makes the actors a kind of medium. So: a table for a stage, writers to act, and neighbors—fellow citizens!—to behold our shared dilemma.

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