Dallas — Undermain Theatre presents the Dallas premiere of Really, Brooklyn-based playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s latest play, a work New York Times critic Ben Brantley called “stylishly contemplative” in its New York production last year. In 2014, Undermain produced Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation...a compelling drama about the effect of producing a play based on an historic African genocide on the modern young actors stepping into the roles.
Really is a three-character play about photography, and the ways in which the photographer’s vision influences the perception of the subject matter, particularly how the resulting image influences the people photographed. In this work, an acclaimed young photographer named Calvin has died recently. The beautiful woman he loved and lived with, also a photographer, invites Calvin’s loving mother over for a photo session in her studio. The cast is Laura Jorgensen, Kristin Lee, and Brandon Murphy, while Carson McCain, a 2014 graduate of Southern Methodist University, will direct Undermain’s production. The playwright will attend the opening night performance on April 15.
TheaterJones talked with Drury about Really in a phone conversation last week.
TheaterJones: What drew you to the subject of photography for your new play?
Jackie Sibblies Drury: I think I would say photography chose me. I’ve been interested in photography for a while, and love looking at exhibits and thinking about the craft involved in capturing the photograph. I took a class in photography and performance in graduate school, where we read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. [French structuralist philosopher Roland Barthes published this influential book on photography in 1980, two months before his death. The book questions whether the photographer captures the true reality of the subject.) I reread Barthes and the idea of the play began to form.
Barthes talks about the photograph as a kind of memorial of the subject. How do this idea work in your play?
The moment that is captured is different from reality; the photograph changes what you are. Not only is the image two-dimensional, it doesn’t show the presence of the camera in it. You feel it’s a documentary and the technological process is infallible. You go back to a photo and it takes on the larger life. In the play, two women are the photographer’s primary subjects. It’s these pictures of the women that they find so compelling. I am intrigued by this dynamic male gaze, and the way it locks the women into a view of themselves as he saw them.
Do the two women like each other?
Yes and no. A part of their relationship is stereotypical: the young lover versus the older loving mother. There is a tension between these women, insofar as they are expected to have a style of their own. But as memory drifts, the women realize that part of themselves is sacrificed when you support someone, when you take ownership of him.
How does the third character, the late photographer, show up?
I think the play is quiet and no reality is clearly defined. They are in a real space, and they let their minds wander over this artist. The performer is there is flesh and blood. He behaves as someone who embodies two peoples’ version of him.
You indicate that sometimes the reality of the photograph overtakes what really existed historically. Do you think Facebook selfies and other social media postings are somehow a different reality?
There is something so weird about posting selfies on Facebook. The person posting these photos seems self-important or vain. I’m not big on taking selfies. I think there are people who think so well of themselves they like looking at their own image.
The photographs in your play capture a moment seen from an onlooker. How is that different?
Barthes talks about how it is a relatively recent thing in human history for a person to look at an image of a loved one after he’s passed away. Now it has become commonplace. There are often photographs at a funeral service. You can go to Facebook and see an In Memoriam page. Barthes was intrigued by the ways the image stands for the person.
What do you want your audience to leave thinking?
When I go to see a thinky play that leaves space for me to think, it’s almost like a meditation. These plays invite me to use my brain in a fresh way. Most of what I do is take in information or respond in a guided way. Plays that make you think are different than watching a sitcom or reading a newspaper. I also want people who come to the play to view the women as older and younger persons. One of the women is white and one is a woman of color. I hope people will think of their mothers and their children. I believe people will think about how people of one race are treated by another race. Also we think about who we allow to be artists and why.
What about the guy, the photographer?
He’s at the center of the women’s lives; he’s not at the center of the play.
Does the play reflect your experience with artists and the way they impact people they have a personal relationship with?
[Laughs] I’m not in a relationship with an artist, so it’s not about that. But a number of artists I know are the typically self-involved bad boys. These men or women see their friends and acquaintances as support networks. But people are drawn to them anyway. The artist just thinks he’s amazing and he doesn’t see the bodies falling around him because he’s looking through the lens.
Did you see We Are Proud to Present when it was produced at Undermain?
No, this will be my first trip to Dallas and I’m really excited. I’m looking forward to meeting [Undermain artistic director] Katherine Owens and seeing the opening night show.