Dallas — Aside from local playwrights writing for their home theaters, there probably hasn’t been a playwright/theater relationship more prolific than Undermain Theatre’s association with New York dramatist and novelist Len Jenkin. The works premiered at Undermain include Jonah; Margo Veil; Port Twilight, or the History of Science; Time in Kafka; Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel; and Poor Folks Pleasure.
The seventh collaboration is How is it That We Live or Shakey Jake + Alice, which follows two people and their relationship over decades. You can read Martha Heimberg’s review of the production here.
Just before the production opened, Richard Bailey met with Jenkin to discuss the play and themes and symbols in his work. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
TheaterJones: Let’s begin with the subject of myth. Liminal spaces are often explored in your plays—the thin life between waking and sleeping, between life and death, between the human and some other form. In your play Jonah, which had its world premiere at Undermain in 2016, you drew from a specific story. Have there been certain myths or legends you’ve used as the basis of other plays, as well?
Len Jenkin: With the exception of Jonah, I don’t ordinarily set on a particular myth or legend as the basis of a play. But American lore, in general, is rich source material: Native American mythology; American tall tales; Appalachian Jack tales; stuff that has roots in New Orleans; and contemporary stories, too, that rise up out of local legends. I have a storehouse of these stories in my head. They’re important to me.
Do your characters exist to explore numinous conditions?
The characters exist for me as human beings. They occupy a particular situation. And although they wander into circumstances that have elements in common with myths, the stories are never about those elements. The stories are about people. When I’m writing about someone, it’s true they cross a kind of threshold, a way of entering some kind of saner, surer, or more abundant state of mind. The circumstances shape them as they pass. Myth is part of the story, but the emphasis is on people.
You employ the image of “the American night” in How is it That We Live or Shakey Jake + Alice, and in other plays, too. It seems like a clear image when taken at face value, but then, upon reflection, it opens up beyond clarity. Do you have specific ideas about the American night?
Just stand in the middle of Kansas and look up! [Laughs.] Any vast vision of the night sky, with the millions of stars that are out there, is a different sort of vision in America than it is in England or France or anywhere else in Europe. There’s a wider sense of space in America that informs our view. We have our own archetypal image of the night sky here in America, one that involves stars above and neon signs below, and taillights disappearing into the distance. The image of the American night is something I always keep in mind.
And how about the image of water?
Whether it’s the ocean or streams or rivers or rain, water is an important image to me. I use it all the time. It’s not like I deliberately say, “I gotta put a lot of water in this play!” [Laughs]. But it is an important image. Water somehow comes into these plays, and once it’s there I work to strengthen the image, make sure it’s appropriate for what the characters are going through. It goes back to the old stories, an elemental image having to do with journeys, barriers, and other things, too.
In Shakey Jake + Alice, the young couple comes to the bank of a river for a car park date. They seem like figures out of a classic Rock 'n' Roll—his fast car and leather jacket, her situation of dating someone from the other side of the tracks. Did rock music have an influence on this play?
Not really. Maybe at the beginning, when Jake and Alice are young, because that’s the music they’d have in their heads, right? And so it might define them in the first scene, but afterwards, no. They don’t so much grow out of it. The root of that attitude stays with them, as they grow older.
I find that once a song hits you—like when you’re 11 years old—the experience of that connection doesn’t really go away. You can reconnect with that feeling when you hear the song again at age fifty. It’s not as immediate an experience this time. Probably you won’t get up and dance to it. But there’s recognition.
So yeah, you could say Jake and Alice start as rock ’n’ roll kids in a small town, and that image stays with them even though they don’t stay kids.
Shakey Jake + Alice is a play in verse. Did you look to certain poets or songwriters while writing the play?
I was reading a lot of Chinese poetry. Tang Dynasty poetry. Starting with Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. There’s something in the pure and lyric quality of these poems that appeals to me, enormously. I tried to apply some of the simple strength of these poems to the play. And that’s mostly present in the voice of the narrators, Clarence Nightingale and Snake Hips. Rock ’n’ roll comes into it too, particularly the music of Bo Diddley. His music is so simple and so blunt, and occasionally the imagery is shocking. And that chunk-a-chunk rhythm is always there, propelling everything forward. Some of his crazier stuff like Who Do You Love? —“Got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind, I’ve lived long enough and I don’t mind dyin’”—some of that sort of imagery crept into the text, as well. But mostly it was informed by Chinese poetry. My inclination over that last few years has been: simpler, simpler. To be simpler and more honest. Less flesh and trash, which by now I can do with my eyes closed. But there is some flesh and trash in this one, too [Smiles].
To that point you make about velocity in Bo Diddley’s music: Could this be part of the attraction Alice has for Jake? Young lovers in those classic Rock songs come from opposite sides of the tracks. Typically, the young woman is the more affluent of the two, and one way for her to escape the stasis of a well-mannered home is to date a boy with a motorcycle or fast car, something he’s souped up, probably as means for his own escape, or at least to provide the illusion of escape, from a situation of hard knocks.
I like the idea of this cliché. It’s an appealing place for the characters to start. But I don’t stay with it. The play isn’t about that sort of difference, having come from opposite sides of the tracks. It goes beyond that.
And yet, when Alice decides to go to college, to remove herself from the velocity of Jake’s dream of driving off together, he abandons her. It seems he can’t reconcile the class difference.
He doesn’t abandon her. He never gives up hope. He’s pissed. He’s hurt, and he goes off, but he never gives up. He’s honest about his emotions. No one lies in this play. They tell each other the truth. They’re separated for a long time. And when they come together again, she’s honest about how she feels. She demands to know, “Where’d you go?”
They have very different experiences while they’re separated. Jake has adventures, becomes a soldier in Honduras, and explores new frontiers. Alice goes to college, has a child, and settles in. Does it seem to you her life is more “boxed in” than his is?
No. They both have huge speeches when they reunite, they tell each other their whole life story. It’s a life in full, for both of them. His story isn’t better than her story, for all the travelling he’s done. She’s had a lot of life experience, too. They’re equal that way. Alice isn’t boxed in at all.
I like the speeches when they reunite. There’s excellent verse throughout the play. I especially like the verses spoken by the shadowy characters, Clarence Nightingale and Snake Hips. These two seem to arrive out of some myth passed down in the Mississippi Delta, like they’ve stepped out of some spooky old Blues song.
That’s fair. They’re not real people. Kat Owens [Undermain Artistic Director Katherine Owens, also director for Shakey Jake + Alice] calls them wayward angels. They’re spirits. And they’re in the world for Jake and Alice, to serve them in some way. The way they serve them isn’t always clear. Clarence and Snake Hips bring up all kinds of associations, all kinds of issues for Jake and Alice to consider. They’re poetic in a way that Jake and Alice are not—more self-consciously poetic, because they’re “show people.” I love having them in the play. I’m much freer with their language than I am the language of Jake and Alice.
I didn’t think about this until the play was finished, but they remind me of Lucky and Pozzo from Waiting for Godot. They’re so full of words, compared to the two tramps. Although Jake and Alice have a lot to say to each other, when Clarence and Snake Hips come in, the language gates fall open. I like that kind of alteration, these different characters, different styles of language.
The structure of this play is rather strict. Clarence and Snake Hips come into it in a calculated way. They’re mysterious, but there’s a structure in terms of how they enter and exit the play. They’re show people, and their performance is for Jake and Alice. The message in their performance is, “Pay close attention, for soon we’ll be gone.” They come out of the dark and go back into the dark again. That’s the force of their appearance. They’re reminders for moments in life when one ought to pay attention.
This movement out of darkness into light and then back again, it seems Clarence and Snake Hips possess similar abilities with the character Mr. Bones in Jonah, who can appear in Jonah’s dreams and his daily life, and acts as a narrator in both realms.
There are similarities. I love onstage narration, where there’s a figure on stage describing another figure on stage. There’s a sense of play in this for the writer and director to explore. It’s a very interesting way of playing with narrative. If a narrator is standing there and says, “Alice strokes her hair,” Alice might do that or she might not. She might do something else. Or she might do it before it’s said. A line in a play is a piece of language, and it can be interpreted, played with. It’s interesting to me to have a narrator like that, who can be interpreted.
Clarence and Snake Hips, as narrators, get some help from the weather, which seems a correlative for Jake and Alice’s emotions.
Yes, there’s weather in every part of this play. It’s most evident in the first part, with all the rain and lighting. It’s a very charged atmosphere. And there’s snow at the very end. The natural world is always present. That’s important to me, as a writer. And these elements have symbolic significance, too. There’s a weasel that shows up, not on stage, but is discussed. The weasel is brought up three times, once in each scene, and then it dies. And the moon is huge part of the set design. The natural world shows the passage of time and suggests how time affects the inner lives of these characters. It also involves the audience more, creating a sense they share the same world.
You mentioned the set design. You have frequent collaborators at Undermain.
I’ve worked with set designer John Arnone for about 35 years. He’s brilliant. His influence extends beyond the usual work of a designer for a set. His reading of texts is terrific. For this play, he also did the lights and costumes. He’s done a lot of terrific things for the Undermain, and he did beautiful work on this play. I’m lucky to know him and to have him around.
Undermain has put on a lot of my work. I’m very appreciative. It is a great theater. They’ve been staging plays for 35 years, which is an extraordinary length of time. The same people have run it throughout [founders Owens and Bruce DuBose]. I don’t think that situation duplicates in any theater in the United States. To me, that means they’re treating people right. All the productions they’ve done for me, I feel all of them have been outstanding. And a lot of those plays are plays that many other theaters wouldn’t touch. That’s because the plays have so many people in them. Shaky Jake + Alice is an exception. But Jonah has a lot of people in it, and so does Time in Kafka, and Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel. Theaters tend to shy from so many people in a production. But Undermain always makes it work. I’m very appreciative of their willingness to stage these plays. And I’m proud to be a member of the company. I’m the only writer. They couldn’t get Chekhov to join.
Let’s talk about music. Although the script for Shaky Jake + Alice doesn’t feature singing like in previous plays scripts, such as Jonah and Abraham Zobell, this is a play in verse. A song in one of your plays is never a delivery device for exposition, and so song is treated differently than it is in a typical musical. Song gives voice to the spiritual lives of your characters. It has a metaphysical quality.
I’ve never used a song for the purpose of exposition. But a song doesn’t necessarily have to be about the spiritual life of a character. It can be about feelings not otherwise expressed by the character. What you call spiritual, it could also be the life a character experiences beneath the surface.
It’s true there aren’t any songs in the script for Shaky Jake + Alice. Well, there is one song I wrote into the play, an old folk tune called “Little Birdy.” And that song, I wouldn’t let anybody change. The production has added several songs, but I haven’t heard what they are, yet. Paul Semrad is the sound designer for this play. I look forward to hearing what he’s come up with.
Is song an artistic principle with you—something essential to your work?
I never really demand that there be song. But I do keep a playlist when I write. It’s music I select that seems to connect somehow with what I’m doing. And so music is, in a sense, a seed for some elements contained within the finished play. But the music I select can be a huge mish-mosh of genres, various influences. Maybe not an artistic principle, but music is part of the process of my writing.
Let’s talk for a moment about sexuality in the play, particularly when the characters are young. We already discussed velocity—the driving rain in that first scene, Jake’s muscle car, and the velocity of rock ’n’ roll. All of that rhymes with the velocity of attraction between these two, how Jake and Alice are totally swept up in one other. But on the page, the driving velocity of this attraction has little to do with the body, the heat and friction of it all, and more to do with a spiritual connection between them. It isn’t very long in their date before a spirit or wayward angel shows up, Clarence Nightingale.
It’s both things: physical and spiritual. But it’s fair what you say, that it seems to be more about a spiritual connection. This is a love story with a capital “L.” We follow these two though a lifetime. It’s a poetic telling of their story. This isn’t The Postman Always Rings Twice [the steamy 1981 remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange], but there is heat and friction. It’s just handled differently.
You’re also a painter. Your paintings present realms similar to those in your plays—atmospheres charged with mystery, the real and the imaginary co-existing. Is painting an experience-enhancing exercise for you, conducive to writing plays?
[Several of Jenkins’ paintings are on display in the Undermain lobby for the run of the show. They’re wonderful.]
It’s all the same to me. It’s about the process of composition, both in painting and writing. The paintings are sort of snapshots of a larger story. What happens in them is like what happens in a play. I don’t feel any difference between the processes of writing and painting. In the most important ways, thy both require he same type of effort. And I hope, for anyone that looks at them, that the paintings and the plays inform each other. Writing has always been visual to me. I’m always thinking about what’s on stage.
I made abstract constructions out of Plexiglas and mirrors before I ever wrote anything. This was a long time ago. I dropped that and became a writer. And then about fifteen years ago, I started painting. Not abstractions this time, but story paintings. The work of writing and the work of painting are not separate experiences for me.
What about the effect of time within the narrative? The paintings have a velocity all their own, a deeply mysterious sense of time. But with Shaky Jake + Alice, I expect you want the audience to feel the weight of real years.
Time is important in the play, but I didn’t write specific intervals. If you were really looking at the text, you could say 10 years goes by between scenes one and two. In the course of the play, the characters go from about 17 to their mid-sixties. But I wasn’t concerned with being specific, with regards to time. This production was cast older, and I think that’s a very good decision. The actors play younger people in the first part, and I prefer this decision to casting 25-year olds playing older. I think that, in this way, the passing of time is felt more. Time isn’t specific in the play, but it’s felt. And this cast is great! They know what to do with verse, how to play it.
My last question involves your work with the director, Katherine Owens. Because the play is in verse, did you specify to her a meter or cadence in the dialogue?
My input along those lines isn’t particularly necessary with actors of this quality, because they look at the text and they know what it is. They know how it’s supposed to go. And I’ve worked with Kat many times before. And she has a very good sense for how I want words to hit the air. I love working with her as a director. And I love how Undermain is run. There’s a “down home” feel. I’m comfortable here. I couldn’t be more delighted that they’re still doing my work. And I hope it will continue!