I woke up this morning and for the first time in weeks I felt I should write—for whatever reason, I suppose it will come out in the ensuing words.
Once again, someone in Los Angeles asked me to write some copy about my play, Under the Desert, to stimulate a production that is supposed to go up there in mid-July. This is not an indictment of this production, but I have endured more of my share of disappointments in regards to production, so I still hold out some reservations. However, I think the writing that I found in its regard is worth posting, and I don't even know when I wrote it, but I do know that I was trying to wrap my mind around why I had written the play in the first place. Here is some of it.
Under the Desert, a starting point.
Expressionism: An artistic movement that flourished in Germany between 1905 and 1925 whose adherents sought to represent feelings and moods rather than objective reality, often distorting color and form. 2. A literary movement of the early 20th century, especially in the theatre, that represented external reality in a highly stylized and subjective manner, attempting to convey a psychological or spiritual reality rather than a record of actual events.
I just re-read Under the Desert again, in an attempt to explain the play in my terms that might help you understand its foundation and its form. The above definition is really helpful, as during the time I was writing the play I was simultaneously studying all forms of painting, especially expressionism, it adheres so well to theatre, heightened emotions, heightened understanding, heightened senses, etc. However, I was not intellectually conscious that I was writing in this form at the time, but in retrospect, I was radically influenced by the form, and was fusing my own personal experiences using what I had learned. As for the personal experiences, I was going through a period, coming out of a radical Christian conversion experience, and trying to make sense of what had happened to me, using psychology, sociology, and science to explain the intensity of my original conversion. William James's classic book, 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' was a book I was reading and studying at the time, for I was not convinced that the 'religion' that I was studying at the time was the only 'true' religion, rather I was coming to the conclusion that Christianity was only one form of faith, and that being contrary to what I was being told by my teachers. (One day, they asked me not to come back, because I was stirring up the congregation!) Although theatre was not a new experience for me, (my mother was a playwright and I had been in many plays and readings growing up) I went back into it with a new fervor, primarily because it was such a vocal and visual form of expression, and because it embraced any idea, whether it be religion, philosophy, science, and knowledge and experience of any kind. This was transformative for me, and I sought to spend as many hours inside of a theatre as I could, which now is probably well over twenty thousand hours.
Every play that a playwright gets to, in my belief is an attempt to get at something the writer is experiencing, and to make the full experience readable or accessible to an audience, for they are also bringing their own experience to the medium. Under the Desert uses many forms of language and experience to do just that, nursery rhymes, dreams, imagination, human experience, metaphor, love, and most importantly, human connection by way of relationship to enhance the experience, finding common ground no matter how complex or simple it may be.
Under the Desert attempts to skirt the fine line of manipulation in procuring relationship, as well as using the power of a certain kind of 'religious experience' and psychic knowledge to draw conclusions from the reaction of human interaction, thus finding a super-bonding power in a very short period of time, thus expressionism. (The paintings of Vincent Van Gogh are the most accessible forms of expressionism.)
On a very basic level, the relationship between Tom and Ellie happens very quickly and completely in a short period of time, but the relationship is a complete one, and seeks to adhere a very complicated connection using simple language, both in the conscious mind and more importantly, striking the subconscious mind with an onslaught of both questions we ask all of our lives, beginning with childhood. Is there God? What happens when we die? How do we know if God exists? What is love? Can we achieve that which we dream? How far and wide can our dreams be?
One other element I attempted in the play was to also ask the question: What constitutes a true religious experience? Do the players of religious experience have to be sane for it to be legitimate? Is a schizophrenic who hears the voice of God a legitimate form of faith based experience? What makes a prophet? (One great example of this is the Old Testament prophet Daniel, who saw visions from God and wrote them down, but had also fasted for ten days before he saw these visions. Was he experiencing hallucinations?)
Most of these questions that I ask are not really relevant in terms of the theatrical experience of the play, except that I believe that any great work of art must have a well thought out foundation, even if it is the subconscious mind doing the thinking or processing. On one level, Under the Desert is a not so simple story of a semi-stalker seeking out the girl/woman he loved when he was a child, (an arrested development situation) and the very real idea (to him) that when he enters the café, he better have something to offer her, (just like we do in life) only what he offers her is not the security of how and why he makes a living, but he offers her the answers to life's most difficult questions. He uses the fusion of her café in the desert to his artistic studio in the desert. (The power of art to seduce), to lure her and show her what he's created. He uses the very real facts of her life, and a sort of psychic connection that he makes of both these facts and where she is now. In short, he is a likeable and brilliant revelator, but also mentally ill… can she save him? Can he save her? Can they build a store in the middle of the desert together, (as Dali said some time in the future there will be museums in the desert) Can the sun and the moon understand each other's gravitational pull?
Okay, now you've probably read this and are thinking…is this guy nuts? No, in fact, I believe that Under the Desert's comparison is not unlike a mathematician who creates equations when their mind is most active, (late twenties and early thirties) and attempts to solve them for the rest of his life. Under the Desert in many ways is a perfect play in understanding the connection between men and women when it comes to what really constitutes a real connection between the two, and it is also the foundational play of all my work, the difference is that this play has ALL of my concurrent themes running within it, instead of the one or two that I later started working with. In other words, it attempts to find the one equation that solves the question of the 'whole universe' instead of 'how gravity works'. Its what makes it interesting, but also speculative, for I still don't know if the question is really answered, but it comes close...
A word about the play
Under the Desert was first produced as a workshop production in 1993 at Playwright's Theatre. It was subsequently developed and produced later in 'The Edge Project' in 1998. Five years later, it was produced at Metro Arts Exit Theatre.
Raymond says, "Under the Desert is a work in progress, and will be long after I'm gone. It's that one play that comes out of my crate at least three times a year for a look and a re-write. I wrote the play when I was thirty, but had to live twenty more before I could start to understand what I had written, and still, there is much of it that is a mystery. At the time, I was consuming all things Carl Jung, theology, existentialism, and expressionistic painting and writing. It's a special play to me because its genesis came in a creative burst that lasted for months. My conflicts with existence, psychology, and the meaning of art are in full concert here, but mostly, I just love these characters and their struggle…"
Under the Desert
By Raymond King Shurtz
Tom enters a café in the southwestern desert after being sequestered for six weeks in the desert painting petroglyphs on the walls of caves and walls. He is met by Ellie, the waitress of the café, who offers him water and conversation. Tom is weak but somewhat manic, and proceeds to explains that he has seen God during his pilgrimage. He tries to get Ellie to take the journey back out in the desert with him. Although Ellie is slightly paranoid about Tom's demeanor and his 'revelations', there is something familiar in several things that he says. However, after suspecting that Tom has been inside of her apartment ala stalker, she tells him to leave or she will call the police. Tom offers her a gift which changes her mind.
Tom and Ellie make the all night trek back to Tom's cave where they continue on with their revealing of each others' interior, ala, nursery rhymes, memories, and hospital visits. Tom reveals to her he has been a mental patient, which escalates both Ellie's fear of him and the prospect of meeting God. Finally, through a series of pseudo prophet psychology, Tom leads her to reveal who she really is, claiming that this is what she has been looking for, what she has been praying for, what she has been dreaming about. As the sun finally rises, Ellie and Tom break into another dimension of reality, childhood, and the collective knowledge of who each really are, both past and present.
Under the Desert is an attempt to fuse the subtle difference between religion, mental illness, and love, with elements of poetic language, symbols, and the collective memory of childhood.
It is interesting to note, (at least for me) that the quest for finding some equation that defines the universe is clearly expounded upon, in a play no less, and that when I wrote this commentary I wasn't thinking about the speed of light or light years, (6 trillion miles) or the quest of scientists to find that one equation that does define the universe, rather I was trying to define in a play a great puzzle. The puzzle was not how fast the universe was expanding, or the eleventh dimension of string theory, it was an attempt to cover and define the complexity of human relationships from childhood to death, further, it was an attempt at defining the nature of spiritual experience, which I am still seeking. This year it seems, rather than defining life in a relationship, (I have really none even on the horizon) it seems I've been trying to find God in an expanding universe. As I search for this creator in a universe with billions of stars and the ensuing quest of scientists to find other 'earth like' planets, I find myself going back and forth on the matter, struggling to make some meaning of life, (perhaps to seriously write again) or at least find some excellence at what I do.
"Retreat and be excellent." (From the movie, The Tao of Steve) seems to be a phrase that is continually running through my mind, as a lightly intrusive obsession that I have no control over. What does excellence mean? I have no recourse as I choose to move forward, choosing life over death, and once again, coming to a crossroad. A crossroad does not define itself in a day, however, sometimes a crossroad is a long walk to get to the place where the other road comes into visibility, and the walking of it becomes hard and meaningless. Sometimes, all you can do is keep walking.
Yesterday, after talking to my mother for awhile on the phone, (and a couple of times in the days before) she took the conversation and wrote an analysis that was so accurate of the condition of my life that I couldn't help but shed some tears. God? Prophecy? Psychoanalysis? How she did this, I do not know, but I do know that there are words and direction all around me, that my mind grasps but my spirit fails to be able to take in the food. Perhaps the walk to the crossroads is in a very lush part of the road. (I think in image of the movie about Johnny Cash, walking the endless road to the bus station to start his stint in the service). I also think of Robert Johnson, and going to the crossroads to sell his soul for guitar prowess. I have no intention of selling my soul when I reach that crossroad, but the land beside me seems to be covered in fields of the spring planting, but the other road is still some distance away. Can I make it? Can I keep walking?
"Retreat and be excellent, and keep walking…" So I keep walking, and I keep talking to the few people that have stuck around me. I keep talking to the unexpected people who have somehow managed to help me survive in spite of the ignorance of what I have been going through for these many months and years. I never had the idea that most of my family would fall away. It has taken me many months to accept this, that the people you think are most important to you really have no interest in your welfare, especially if you are damaged or find yourself at a point of weakness. I say this now without bitterness, without rancor, it is human nature and the ignorance of being able to simulate the notion that some people must live on the edge to keep creation fresh. As life goes on, there is a finite thinking in human nature that defines a behavior that must be adhered to in order to wind up a life in comfort. Why should I seek comfort? Life has never been that comfortable to me although I have moments of respite. I recognize that I can seek enough comfort in my spirit to keep walking, but now that I am older am I supposed to 'act my age' and be like them? I simply cannot do it, and sorry, I won't. I NEVER have. I look around me at the people I used to create with, and recognize the bitter end of the creative spirit, that they have become like the people they chose to separate from to create art. I'm not advocating that they not do this, I'm only advocating for myself that I cannot live a life seeking the comfort of place and home. I am often tempted, but thankfully, the place and home that I came from had very little comfort, and so I am conditioned to survive and create. The question I have to ask, however, is the nature of finding the edge. Old habits die hard, and for survival, it is necessary to find the edge without self-destruction. Preserving the mind for simulating the edge of creation is essential, especially as one ages, for the mind becomes duller and unresponsive, like an older piece of fine machinery that has worked hardily for many years. Can it be overhauled and run again like a 68' Camaro? We'll see. As the fog clears up in my brain, (after months) I am beginning to understand what the overhaul process entails, and it is doable. It is possible to squeeze out that last act of former glory, to soar again, to find the edge all over again from a different perspective. It is possible to get the Camaro back in running shape, but for now, I keep walking.
I recognize that in this writing I am not defining what I am doing to complete this task, rather it is what I am thinking. For now, still retreating and working at a form of creative mastery is the order of the day. Although there is the constant spark of a theatrical epiphany, I keep playing music to pay the few bills that I can, and keep playing scales that I failed to learn early in my musical education. The rhythm that I also struggled with is coming to me, and the song directory is becoming fairly immense. Like many things here in Phoenix, the ceiling of where one can go is fairly low, but high enough to keep working and playing, so that's what I do. I'm playing three hours a day, seven days a week, and it is having an effect on what is coming out. Next week, instead of the cash payments I've been receiving, I'll actually go on the payroll, (Embassy Suites) and start receiving a paycheck like everyone else. I've really enjoyed playing a hotel, (five nights a week there) and have become like any of the employees, but the one who plays the music. So, I continue to walk to the crossroads, guitar in hand, and instead of the barren landscape of endless fallow fields, I can see some plants beginning to break through the fields where I'm walking. At night, I look up at the stars above me and am beginning to be able to call them by name, even though they are many light years away.