Gary Winter (Rail): In his novels David Foster Wallace (DFW) wrote copious notes, and at the Prelude Festival performance it was interesting to watch the notes interacting with the narrative. Notes are always the thing one skims over or skips, but during this performance they seemed to take on equal weight. When staging the piece are you concerned with distinguishing the notes from the main narrative?
Daniel Fish: Yes I am. For the most part the notes are distinguished from the main text by a change in speaker. They become shifts in energy, intrusions which can move the language/story in another direction for the duration of the note.
Rail: Could you talk about how you got interested in staging DFW’s work?
Fish: When I first read his work I very quickly found it compelling, and just fun to read. I also felt as if I was somehow seeing more, in a more heightened state—like he cut open my head and put in some super smart lens that made me see more deeply and compassionately—with greater attention to what’s painful and what’s funny. Amazing right? So I thought, I need to work on this material. What would happen if I put it onstage? Then I came across these audio recordings of Wallace reading his work and these became the way in.
Each performer has headphones and is fed DFW’s voice live in rehearsal and performance. S/he tries to get inside his voice, find it, and repeat it. Ultimately, each actor has her own intimate relationship with Wallace’s voice—a voice the audience never hears. It’s not that I find the writing to be inherently theatrical (it may not be at all). His voice becomes an artifact that, through the performer, simultaneously evokes his presence and his absence. What I think makes it theatrical is the effort it takes the actor to reproduce it. That effort can at times be really, almost physically, difficult and—I hope—compelling to witness. It’s a real workout for the actor and maybe for the audience as well. And this perhaps mirrors the experience of reading him—the reader has got to work hard, but in the end it’s deeply rewarding.
Rail: What does DFW’s work mean to you personally?
Fish: Awareness, being hyper-alert. I think he’s writing about what it’s like to be a human being. I’m always just blown away by how fucking aware and alive his writing is. Sometimes he gets this rap of being a dark, gloomy guy who writes about addiction and boredom in these incredibly long impenetrable sentences. That’s not my experience of his work at all. What strikes me, and it happens over and over, is the sheer generosity of his vision and just how, at the risk of using an overused word, true it is. So as dark (whatever that means) as some of the work is, I have the sense that much of it comes from a very deep need to communicate—and that strikes me as life-affirming. DFW talks a lot about this in some interviews—the need for the artist to work from a place of loving and the allure and trap of working from the sometimes easier, more commercial, remunerative, narcissistic place of being loved. It all sounds kinda schmaltzy, but I think there really is something deeply positive in his work and literally inspiring in that it animates the mind. And that seems to me a very good thing.
Rail: You said this piece will cobble together selections of interviews and DFW’s writing. How will you be selecting material for this play?
Fish: The root of it is his voice—so I’ve listened to a lot of these recordings (books on tape, YouTube clips of readings and interviews, etc). Working with Dan Kluger, we broke them up into cues—some short, some as long as 30 minutes. There are several hours of material that I select live at each performance. A lot of it is the same every night, some not. The plan is to do one marathon performance of all of the material on March 6. I have no idea how long that will be. Maybe five hours, maybe longer. Normally, the performance will last about two hours.
Rail: DFW’s novel Infinite Jest was about a film that entertains people to death. Obviously DFW was concerned with overwhelming amount of media and entertainment that saturates, and thus deadens, our lives. In an interview Rick Moody said that DFW is asking how we can stay awake in light of this deadening. I’m curious if DFW offers any ideas about how to stay alive in the world, and I’m curious what ideas/themes/strategies of DFW’s writing you’ve discovered as you’ve spent time with him.
Fish: That’s an interesting question. I think what he offers is his writing, which if one spends time with it, is a way of being more alert and also somehow makes one more alert, for a while anyway, when you put the book down. At least it does me (I hope).
Rail: I’m curious about your approach to design elements for the show. And along this line, what considerations about working in the Chocolate Factory space influenced design.
Fish: As far as the rest of the design, we are really trying to focus on the interaction of the performer with DFW’s voice, trying to strip away anything that’s not part of that, so that those exchanges kind of float in the room and are in sense the design. That and we want an intimacy—maybe only 30 people a night—one row.
Oh and there are a few tennis balls. About 4,000.
Daniel Fish’s A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (After David Foster Wallace) runs from March 22 – April 7 at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City: http://www.chocolatefactorytheater.org/e_danielfish.html.