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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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OCT 2020 Issue
Theater In Conversation

Rehearsing a Self: David Adjmi on Lot Six, A New Memoir and An Outsider's Anthem

Award-winning playwright David Adjmi (Stunning, Marie Antoinette) has gifted the literary and theatrical communities with a bracing new memoir rich with insights into not so much his creative process, but instead a more personal one: the process of unraveling and restitching his tapestry of selfhood.


Last summer, David Adjmi invited me to direct a workshop of his play, The Blind King, at what ended up being the final in-person convening of the Sundance Theatre Lab. The invitation surprised me, first of all because the author of Stunning and Marie Antoinette and 3C loomed large in my imagination, and also because I am not a director. It didn’t matter; he had a plan. In our rehearsal room, David was puckish and brilliant, effortlessly synthesizing ancient intertexts with the kind of casual flair a lesser intellect might bring to a conversation about sitcoms or reality television. Which isn’t to say he couldn’t talk about those, too. I was intimidated and—is this weird to say?—enchanted.

His new memoir Lot Six—the title refers to an odd one out, of little estimated value—is a surprising, if not unlikely, offering from the iconoclastic playwright: a monumental work of prose, tracing his development as a thinker and artist, from his childhood in the Syrian Jewish community in Midwood, Brooklyn, to his first high-profile theatrical production at Lincoln Center. The book is a dazzling achievement, tracing the history of a life lived not as a string of events, but a fractal pattern of thoughts thought, ideas and identities tested and abandoned—the rehearsal and revision of a self. David spent a decade writing it. When I met him last summer he had just finished, and seemed almost dazed.

If Lot Six is a virtuoso feat of storytelling (and it is; the confidence of Adjmi’s command of a second form is staggering), what vibrates on every page is its almost devotional appreciation for storytelling—the hard-won understanding of what it costs to live without witness or coherence, and what it means to fight for both.

We spoke last month on Zoom, I in Brooklyn and David at home in Los Angeles. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Sarah Lunnie (Rail): The book chronicles your formation by (or in response to, or rebellion against) a host of influences. Some that were foisted upon you, and others that you actively sought out. Not only literature and drama, but also, for example, religious study at the yeshiva, philosophy or, again and again, fashion. I was interested in the voraciousness with which you sought out influence.

David Adjmi: The Syrian Jewish community I come from, and this Jewish Republican world that I was kind of situated in—I just had no relationship to it. I thought something was wrong with me. I was like a dog with a treat, and I was just looking at the treat and going ew. And so I was really trying very hard to impersonate someone who could be part of that stuff. I wanted it all to appear really natural so that people wouldn’t know. I was closeted in that way before I was closeted as a gay person. That was a kind of dislocation I lived with that I didn’t even really start to identify until I was a teenager. At which point, I thought, okay, well I don’t want this for myself anymore. I want to become myself. I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but I knew that to do that I had to introject foreign things into me—things that were not part of my native life or immediate surroundings. So influence became—you know, seeking it out—that was for survival. Even if I was unclear on what being influenced meant when I was younger—would the influence change me on some core level, or would it help shape what was already inside of me? I think in the end it was both.

Rail: It struck me again and again reading it that two things which seem to me often opposed seem to be unified in you. On the one hand, you are rigorously analytical, and this seems to have been true from when you were very young. There’s a real rigor to your intellect, your organizing mind. But you also seem incredibly porous. And just, influence-able. And hungry to be influenced and changed. I’m like, “what is that quality?” And I guess I would say it is sensitivity. I think I usually use the word “sensitive” in a sort of approximate way. But you seem like a very sensitive person.

Adjmi: I never thought of it that way, but yeah, it’s very true that I am—that I have a two-pronged self. It’s odd. But this is why I love writing adaptations so much. I sort of love feeling indifferent to the subject matter in a way, and opening myself to it. It’s like being an actor. You feel the contour of the role, and you’re sort of allowing that role to take you over, and it has its own shape and logic and rules, and you’re just trying to learn about it. There is something so beautiful about that kind of passivity, and that kind of openness. And then I do—I have a very autocratic part to me. Like, I would go into rehearsal early on in my career, and I’d be like, “No” like a conductor with his baton. I was a real asshole. People got very angry with me. And then I became the opposite way, and I was very passive and obsequious, and tried taking in everyone else’s ideas even if they felt wrong, and my shows got very bad. It’s been this long, long learning curve—to both stay porous and have defined boundaries. But it’s not actually a bad tension.

Rail: Can I ask about mentorship? Your book is full of mentors who open windows into new possibilities, but who also inflict damage. Like the therapist who first encouraged you to study film when you were a teenager also told you that with time you could become a “functioning bisexual.” Or many years later, you spent months desperately contorting yourself in failed attempts to please a woman that you call Gloria in the book, who continues to deny her approval, and who eventually kicks you out of the playwriting program at Juilliard. You set out on this hyper-conscious project of self-creation, and mentors feel like part of that. But then the dangerous thing is that those people are people, and flawed, and potentially just limited or maybe even abusive.

Adjmi: I think the mentorship thing … I don’t know. I always wanted—everyone wants a mentor. I always wanted one person to come in and take an interest in me, and tell me I was special, and show me what to do, and see all the good in me. But in the end I don’t know if I ever really had one. So I had to become my own mentor, and I had to learn to rely on myself. And ultimately, I think a great teacher is someone who can teach students to do that. To mentor themselves. Can you take care of yourself at the end of all of this? Can you continue to grow and learn? You know, it’s like those AI systems—can this student develop tools to adapt and change and stay in the world?

Rail: The book also traces a series of very intense friendships. People who at different moments offered models for new and appealing ways of being, and also the space to rehearse and maybe master them, or maybe move on from them. Or in other cases, where there’s not the same sort of aspirational obsession, they become anvils on which you can forge your identity, or they come to represent something that you want to reject or escape. Does that resonate? And do you still do that?

Adjmi: Well, there’s a little more equanimity in my adult relationships, thank god. But I definitely felt this urgency when I was younger. I was always proving something, or I wanted something proven to me. I was always in contention with my friends. I was fighting for the truth and fighting for myself at the same time in these relationships. I used to fight to the death, because I felt so much like my life was at stake—my psychic life, my foundational idea of reality. I didn’t have parents who were terribly attentive, so I guess my friends became proxies for my parents. I was sort of retroactively demanding parenting from my friends, and then rebelling against them. [Laughs] But I think I’m past that.

Rail: I was very moved by some of your descriptions of yourself in college. There’s a scene where you get high for the first time—you’re hanging out with some friends, and then you get very upset and you flee. If I’m remembering it correctly, the fear inside that experience was: If my capacity is diminished, then I can’t continue to micromanage how other people perceive me.

Adjmi: Right.

Rail: Which also made me think about those Barron’s Vocabulary Builder flash cards that you said you taped up by your bed at Sarah Lawrence. Which I believed, by the way, because I have never referred to a dictionary so many times while reading a book as I did reading your memoir!

Adjmi: Oh no [laughs].

Rail: But it strikes me that it was a successful project in the sense that you actually did integrate all of that material, all of those influences. You were able to synthesize them and make them your own.

Adjmi: Right, I wasn’t really successful in micromanaging how people perceived me, or I just gave up because I eventually realized that was a stupid life project. But I did synthesize my influences. That was very mysterious, that process—who knows how you develop fluency in anything. But at some point, I lost the self-consciousness. I mean, I still felt—and feel—foreign and weird, but it’s like relocating to a foreign country: the locals might ding you for getting certain idioms wrong or whatever, but you can get by. That’s how I see myself as an artist—I can pass. And I basically can accept myself, but there’s always this other impulse I have to hide—or like, to camoflauge myself. I mean, when I smoked pot that night, it was like, “Something’s wrong with me, and they’re going to see. They’re going to see, and I don’t want them to know.” Like, I have a secret that I have to hide, and the secret is my strangeness. And it’s not just about being gay, but that’s a part of it. This is why I love Kafka so much. Because in everything he writes that’s the core anxiety: “What’s wrong—why are they after me?”

Rail: There’s a memorable scene in the book where you describe hearing the voices of your characters for the first time, speaking in your head of their own volition. You wrote that you felt like the telekinetic children in Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), which really made me laugh. Is that still how you write your plays, channeling the voices of your characters? Do you always have access to that channel, or do you have to create the right conditions for it? And is it the same for prose, or does that feel like a fundamentally different activity? Is that still how you write your plays?

Adjmi: Well, I don’t know what the word “channeling” means exactly, but things that are sort of pre-formed … appear somehow. Sometimes it’s a tiny swatch of dialogue, sometimes it’s a monologue. So, on the play that we worked on at Sundance—that first monologue arrived in complete sentences. And I knew that there was a voice attached to it, and a person. But I didn’t get the whole play like that—like, I’m not in an altered state the whole time. But once I have the main voice, I can start to graft, or impersonate the voice, and build on it, and I can develop a character. But if I don’t have that—if I don’t hear the voice speaking directly at some point—there’s no play.

Rail: How do you think about creating the conditions to—

Adjmi: You can’t.

Rail: You can’t. It just happens.

David Adjmi. Photo: Kitty Suen.

Adjmi: Yeah, it just—like, when I wrote Marie Antoinette, I was just in a state; I wrote it in three days. I remember writing the last monologue, and it just arrived pre-written. And I started changing words as I was writing them because I was certain I’d plagiarized it from somewhere. And then I Googled parts of the monologue after I had finished writing it—I was like, where is this from? But it wasn’t from anywhere. So sometimes that still happens. But there’s no way to know how it’s going to happen.

Rail: And with the book—it’s funny because this started as a sort of formal question about drama versus prose. But I’m realizing it’s also a character question, because it’s a memoir, so the character is you. I’m curious whether the experience of writing the book felt, similarly, like an act of channeling. I mean, not transcription, but receiving and giving forth. Or if it felt more controlled.

Adjmi: It was more controlled. I spent a lot of time playing around with sentences and word combinations, and almost like sketching. I had a little book, and I would be sketching out different combinations of words that I liked. It’s different from a play, it’s just really a whole other beast. And the dialogue was so hard to do in the book!

Rail: Because you’re a playwright?

Adjmi: Dialogue bracketed with narration is really different from just dialogue in a play where it’s just—I mean for me, it’s pure musicality. But in a book, it’s very corseted—you know, bracketed inside of narration. So it took me a long time to write things like:

“Hello,” she said, “what are you doing?”

In the beginning I was like, do I put in “she said?” You know, stuff like that. I was like, how do I even do that? Like, disrupting someone’s dialogue mid-sentence with, “She rubbed the inside of her palm.” I was like, can I do that? I was very skittish and shy. And then I was like, I think I should do itthat kind of sentence has a certain kind of musicality. So then I had to learn how to play with musicality in a very different way. There are a lot of phrasing issues, and moving in and out of narration. And where plays are very open fields, books are like chain link fences. You can’t escape the text—it’s claustrophobic, in a way.

Rail: Was it difficult to apply that kind of aesthetic rigor when the raw material was your own experience?

Adjmi: I learned how to keep this kind of zen neutrality as I was writing, because I was really desperate to see, in a very non-warped way, what had happened to me. I was very curious about it. So I cultivated a kind of spiritual neutrality when I wrote. I’m depicting someone, and they seem like a total asshole. And then later they seem really nice. And then a little later they seem really stupid. And it is a little bit cubistic, these portraits. I would write it out the way I saw it in the moment without thinking of how I want the reader to feel about these people. I just didn’t put a value judgment on any of it. And that was really—I hate to use the word healing, because I don’t think this is a curative medicinal act, to do a memoir—but it was a beautiful thing, to be able to have that gaze on the past.

Rail: It would never have occurred to me to say that the portraits were inconsistent from one vignette to the next, but I think it’s because what emerged felt like a really coherent and deeply human portrait of a person. Like your mother—in some of those stories she’s ridiculous. And then in some she’s almost regal. I loved her. I never felt that you were trying to make me see someone in a certain way.

Adjmi: The early iterations of my book were not like that. I was very angry. Just very accusatory and bitter. What helped me write the book was not my great character, but my desire to be a good writer. [Laughs] I thought, well if I want to be a good writer—in my opinion, this is what good writing is. So I have to cultivate moral qualities that could get me to that place in the writing. And by training myself to be a better writer, I spiritually started to shift.

Rail: To be a different kind of person?

Adjmi: Yeah. A person who could write those things. Like write in that way, and depict people in that way.

Rail: Or feel differently about those relationships.

Adjmi: Yeah, it started because I wanted to be a good writer. And then as I was trying that, something took over. And then I realized—oh, that’s my best self.

Rail: In your play Stunning, Lily keeps emphasizing to her relatives that they are Arabs, an identity they vehemently reject. You also observe that disconnect, or disavowal, in your book, as you describe the Syrian Jewish community in Midwood where you grew up. It made me think about when we were at Sundance last summer—several of the artists in our lab cohort were from Palestine and Lebanon. I remember you were very moved by Faisal [Abu Alhayjaa] and Alaa [Shehada]’s play. At one point, like in the van at night, you expressed a complicated pang in relationship to your Arab identity. Something like yearning or grief, in relationship to clocking this community of Arab artists that you felt connected to, but separate from.

Adjmi: I mean, it’s so true. I also felt so sad at Sundance that I couldn’t speak Arabic with them, you know? I remembered my grandmother speaking it, but somehow—it’s like Yiddish in Cynthia Ozick stories, where it just gets phased out and lost. I sort of always thought of my Arabness as something—first of all, that it was kind of like this fantod or something. Like it was just not even really there. I couldn’t place it as part of my life. It wasn’t foregrounded or contextualized by my family in any salient, interesting way. So I didn’t know what to make of it. And I also was raised in a very, very patriarchal, conservative Republican community. And I associated Arabness with that. Like, I saw it as one big blob: Jewish, Arab, Republican. So I don’t want anything to do with any of it. And so I think seeing those guys at Sundance, these very sweet, progressive, interesting artists who were also Arab, made me see I threw the baby out with the bathwater, you know what I mean? For a minute I wished that I had had more of an attachment to a tribal identity, because I really have none. Sometimes I feel very happy about that. I don’t get sucked into groupthink, and I feel kind of fluid and free. But then I also did feel like there’s some inheritance that I never claimed, or something, and maybe I should have it.

Rail: To better understand yourself?

Adjmi: Or to expand myself.

Rail: Now, I have heard you bristle when asked, “How do you identify?”

Adjmi: I just find it confusing because I don’t know what I’m being asked. At some point, the current etiquette around identity becomes irritating to me. I mean, I kind of feel pretty fluid inside myself, but I don’t feel the need to micromanage or label or name the fluidity so that you can address me with the exact registers of my fluidity. And also, I don’t even understand the question. Someone asked me this question at Sundance and my heart started pounding. And that was that Kafka moment again, where I was like, “Oh no.”

Rail: What are they going to discover?

Adjmi: Yeah—and like, it’s not an answerable question.

Rail: I had planned to ask you about Tennessee Williams. You write about reading A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) in the first drama class you ever took, and what an impression it made on you. But now as we’ve been talking—have you ever seen this Jonathan Demme movie, Who Am I This Time (1982)?

Adjmi: Unh-uh.

Rail: It’s based on a Kurt Vonnegut short story I think, although I have never read it. And I saw this movie when I was so young—I would have to watch it again. Christopher Walken lives in a small town, he’s this very shy, introverted, weirdo kind of guy. But he acts in all of the productions at the community theater, and he’s an extraordinary actor. On stage he’s very dynamic, but then in life he’s very internal and remote. And Susan Sarandon comes to town, she only means to be passing through, but she gets cast as Stella in Streetcar against his Stanley, and she falls in love with him. But then when they’re off stage he’s very remote, and she can’t get to him. She realizes she has to figure out how to meet him through words. So she gives him plays, I think, for them to do these scripts together, so that she can be with him. He’s like trying on these different identities—

Adjmi: He’s trying on the identities so that he can find a way to communicate with her.

Rail: Yeah. It’s beautiful.

Adjmi: I can relate—I completely relate. But you can have intimacy with someone by creating an artificial frame around the relationship. This is what I keep … I really figured this out doing the book. That you need the artifice. You can’t do it without the artifice. Intimacy without artifice, I want to say … I’m throwing down a gauntlet: I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive, I think they’re actually essential adjuncts. You need them both.

Rail: Something that moved me so profoundly in your book is your deep hunger for stories, which offer not only witness but also the possibility of transformation. Writing your own story—was that a transformational experience?

Adjmi: It was a transformational experience in a way that I couldn’t have—plays don’t ask you to do these things. So it was completely challenging and terrifying. And then it was like a transubstantiation—but again, because of the artifice. It’s because of the demands of fiction, because of the narrative construction, because of the style. It was incredibly gratifying to find the pitch—almost like with a tuning fork—of the book, where it was sort of synthesizing lived experience with my own aesthetic and stylistic interests and influences as a writer, so that they combined into this kind of magical, new, third thing. And everything in my life felt burnished and brilliant. Like the most ordinary, gross, raw footage of my life suddenly became, like, you know, that Alfonso Cuarón film Roma (2018). You know what I mean? This mundane stuff, suddenly it all glittered, and all the boring useless stuff of my life was now mythology. There was something incredibly satisfying to reread stuff in drafts that worked. Almost as if by writing it, I changed the experience. It’s like there are new grooves etched in my head.

Rail: I think that’s a real thing, neuroplasticity. That the brain is really flexible. I think it’s sort of related to the memory thing—that every time you remember something, the next time you remember it, you’re remembering the memory.

Adjmi: There are elements in the book that I had to construct just for narrative detail. So it’s like, for example, when I’m sitting and having dinner with Cathy at the Indian restaurant near Barnard? I had to add in details like “she does this with her hair, and then she takes her fork and does this.” And she did do stuff like that, but I don’t know if she did those exact things at those exact moments. But now in my head, I have these visual memories of her doing precisely those exact things. I catch myself having vivid memories of things I crafted for the book, and I’m like—no, that’s fiction! But there’s something so satisfying about it.

Rail: Now you have a way to hold it. You organized it.

Adjmi: Yeah, almost like my past has an accumulated weight and force that it didn’t have. Because it lived in disjunctive fragments. And I think putting it together in a narrative, even if that’s fiction—because there is no narrative, because it is fragments—but putting it in a narrative and adding cause and effect to things, and constructing arcs, it makes you feel like—I feel like it’s going to change how I live the remainder of my life, because there’s a logic now to it. There’s a line I can follow.

There were these lacunae in my book where I was like, wait what? This makes no sense. Or I’d reread stuff and think, why is this writing so bad? And I’d be like, it’s bad because my memory of things is really distorted, probably because at some point that distortion was serving me because of some stupid narcissistic wound. So what happens if I let go of that false narrative? What am I refusing to see? So that stuff was incredibly interesting to confront, and kind of scary.

Rail: It feels sort of Buddhist.

Adjmi: That Buddhist thing is how you get to your smartest self, I think. There’s a kind of wise neutrality you can cultivate through the writing. And that was the position I had to take. That was the seat that I had to occupy to write the book. And if I didn’t sit in that seat, the writing was bad, or it didn’t make sense. And that’s beautiful. That’s kind of a beautiful thing.

Contributor

Sarah Lunnie

SARAH LUNNIE is a dramaturg, collaborating on new work with playwrights, directors, and other makers in New York and throughout the United States. She makes audio plays for very small audiences with Telephonic Literary Union and is a company member with the Mad Ones.

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