“There are many things that we can talk about, but we all have to be on the same page regarding fearlessness. We’re never going to do anything because of fear.”
Thomas Bradshaw is talking about what he looks for in collaborators. His answer surprises me because of its simplicity, but it’s certainly fitting from a writer whose work elicits strong reactions across the board—you’ve got to be fearless to stand by this work or, in Bradshaw’s words, to “go down for it.”
Bradshaw and I studied with some of the same teachers—namely Mac Wellman. Wellman taught us to be able to look at a thing, a play, and find what it wants to do, without ascribing any expectations to it. Relying on conventional or dated models of scripts to understand a new script can come from a genuine place of fear or uncertainty. Respecting the new terrain of each new script—as a writer and viewer—certainly requires leaving fear outside the room.
Take Bradshaw’s play Mary, which was commissioned by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and premiered in 2011. The play started when a friend of Bradshaw’s told the story of his boyfriend’s family who lived on a plantation in southern Maryland. The family had two servants, Mary and Elroy, whose families didn’t leave the plantation after emancipation. Instead they became domestic servants in the household.
“[Mary and Elroy] worked and lived in a shack on the property that had, like, a space heater or whatever and the parents casually referred to this maid as ‘Nigger Mary,’ and the boyfriend was like, ‘What the fuck is going on here, ya know, it’s 1983?’” Bradshaw explains. “They [Mary and Elroy’s families] had been in the boyfriend’s family for hundreds of years. Mary couldn’t read or write. So I was like, ‘That’s a story that I need to write about.’”
It’s also a story that requires fearlessness in the telling, because it involves dipping into a collective American past that is unsettling. This glimpse is all the more disturbing when it is constructed out of the actual language that we’ve all been trying so hard to pretend no longer exists—they actually referred to this maid as “Nigger Mary,” and so do the characters in Bradshaw’s play: Bradshaw does not hesitate to shove in our faces aspects of the present that we might not like to look at.
Bradshaw’s Intimacy, which is playing at the Acorn Theatre now through March 8th, presented by the New Group, began when he was living in West Orange, New Jersey. “Honestly a lot of the motivation [for Intimacy] was like, ‘what the fuck are we doing?’” says Bradshaw. “I spent so much time standing in my lawn talking to my neighbors about the most inane things. You see it in the play, small conversations about your grass, and how to make it grow well, and the hedge clippers.”
Every spring, when the grass starts to grow again, these purple weeds overtake my yard. But it doesn’t happen on James’s property.
You need TruGreen.
Is that what you use?
Even in the winter?
Did you hear about Patrick and Jane?
(James shakes his head no.)
They’re getting a divorce.
Yup. Apparently they’re swingers.
Well, here’s the kicker. Kevin got Jane pregnant!
I hope she’s planning to keep it.
They shouldn’t count their chickens before they’re hatched. At 46 years old there’s a high likelihood that she’ll miscarry.
Here, it’s the pairing—things we say we don’t want to see, or admit that we ourselves might think (“there’s a high likelihood she’ll miscarry”), alongside the mundane, non-remarkable things people say all the time (“you need TruGreen”). Bradshaw serves up the entire realm of the normal, which contains everything that we humans do: pooping, wiping, watching porn online while masturbating, and eating cereal without milk.
In Bradshaw’s work, sex is normal because it happens all the time in real life. People are racist because people are racist, and teenagers have sex or at least simulate sex (“frottage”) onstage because teenagers do simulate sex in real life. And Bradshaw’s characters do not make psychological explanations for their desires or their actions because people do not always, or perhaps ever, know why they do the things they do. “Most theater presents these really clear psychological motivations for what people do,” Bradshaw tells me. “I find that people are amazingly un-self-aware in my experience. Suddenly onstage you have these characters that are super self-aware and I’m like, ‘who are these people? This is not my experience.’”
In Intimacy, Bradshaw fearlessly investigates a difficult yet quotidian subject in our present world: porn. He says, “I wanted to explore the normalization of pornography in American life. It really has become part of the fabric of America, whether or not anybody is going to admit that.” The online porn industry and the way it is affecting our culture’s bedroom rituals—namely, negatively—is a popular topic of conversation (check out the buzz surrounding season one, episode two of Lena Dunham’s Girls). The general consensus is that expectations derived from porn videos are making it harder to get off on real life encounters. I ask Bradshaw if Intimacy presents the consequences of pornography on our American culture. “You’re not going to see anything moralistic in my work. It’s more about an exploration,” he responds,
It’s an uninteresting thing for me to wag my finger at the audience or pretend I have answers to questions that I don’t have answers to. I don’t know whether [porn is] good or bad but it’s probably good for some people, bad for other people, just like alcohol. I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil about porn. I know most theater seeks to answer these questions, but the answers all mostly seem to be false and artificial and don’t ring true. So why do that? I think there’s much more value in exploration, portraying the struggle, watching people just figure out how to get through their lives with the best of intentions without placing judgment on them.
Like any great writer, Bradshaw presents questions rather than answers. But, to leave the audience with questions rather than moral messages (about domestic servants who can’t read or write, about betting on the likelihood that your neighbor will miscarry, about porn) is to leave the audience in a precarious position. It feels dangerous to leave the theater feeling unsure as to whether it’s okay or not to enact rape fantasies involving a break in and black face—my number one question after leaving The Bereaved, presented by Partial Comfort in 2009. Then more questions come up. Should I judge these characters’ sex lives? Is it okay that I laughed when I did?
“What makes people laugh?” I ask Bradshaw. “Genuine laughter is hard to come by. It is surprising. It surprises the person who is laughing,” he tells me. “People laugh when you hit upon something that is so true and revealing that they can’t believe it’s up there onstage. There’s a delight in seeing an act or a picture of reality portrayed onstage. It’s showing all of those things that we go through that we don’t talk about.”
Within the audience, Bradshaw’s work stirs up questions about what is and is not okay to think, to feel, and to do. As we sit through his plays, these questions collect and congeal. For instance, toward the end of Intimacy, 18-year-old Janet asks—yes—her mother: “Mom, would you be willing to lose your anal virginity on camera with dad?” This exchange comes as a bit of a shock. When, as an audience, we’re presented with content which flagrantly ignores all implicit societal values, our first instinct is to search desperately for someone to tell us how to interpret this transgression. So we look to the actors who play Mom and Dad. They look okay, happy even. The actress Laura Esterman, who plays Pat (Mom), is calmly considering the request. None of the other characters look disturbed or disgusted. So we turn to the designers. The lighting hasn’t changed. The tone onstage continues to be jovial. Everyone is waiting to find out if Mom is up for losing her anal virginity to Dad on camera. No big deal. Bradshaw induces a panic in us. He curates this terrifying moment where we are compelled to search desperately for someone or something to help us make sense of what we’ve just witnessed. No aid is offered up from any of his collaborators.
Bradshaw’s work has often been called “shocking.” His work is not shocking because he presents shocking actions or shocking opinions. When he presents and then refuses to mediate these morally ambiguous interactions, he riles us up. We feel the shock, the visceral shock, of being abandoned by the theater, a theater that usually holds our hands and tells us how to interpret these events.
Bradshaw’s work, at its simplest, can be whittled down to “a list of things that people would say they don’t want to see” put up onstage next to mundane conversations about hedge clippers and grass growers. But at its most complex, it is an investigation of all the parts that make up every human being’s sincere attempts to do his or her best at living. “I don’t know what the order of the world is,” Bradshaw says. “I don’t know why we’re here. I think most people would be hard-pressed to tell you that. But I think we’re uncomfortable with the mystery and the lack of order so we place this order on things, this morality.”
Bradshaw tells me that this is one of his only plays with a happy ending. He posits that that is why the audiences keep leaving the theater all aglow. But, I think they’re so happy because Bradshaw’s theater is a space where the audience can come together to feel their hearts pound and to triumphantly join hands in celebration of the fact that we don’t have any fucking idea what we’re doing or why but we’re trying our best. It takes fearlessness to sit through something like this. It takes fearlessness to have faith that our audiences are indeed up for it.
Intimacy, by Thomas Bradshaw, directed by Scott Elliott, produced by The New Group, runs through March 8 at the Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further info, visit www.thenewgroup.org.