For more than ten years Lisa Dwan has blackened the bottom half of her face, put on a blindfold, put in earplugs and manacled her wrists to a piece of wood in order to remain still and sensory deprived. Placing her mouth through a hole so that only her lips, teeth and tongue are visible from the front, she performs a 9-minute feat of verbal legerdemain by Samuel Beckett called “Not I.”
Dwan calls it “the soundscape of consciousness,” and it’s the first of three late-career Beckett plays, including “Footfalls” and “Rockaby,” that she’s combined into her “Beckett Trilogy.”
She’s been performing “Not I” since 2005, and touring her Trilogy around the world, but when it arrives on April 7, The Broad Stage will be the next-to-the-last-stand for this production. She’s ending this physically challenging and injurious run permanently at its final stop in New York.
Why Beckett? While to some his work may be intimidating or incomprehensible Dwan says, “I grew up in Ireland, so Beckett’s language and landscape were not foreign to me. I knew the poetry and prisms he was seeing through, I’ve heard those voices, I know those nuns, and the old crones who walk the roads. So I didn’t find him this intellectual mountain, I found him in my world and in my streets.”
Except for her bad knees, Dwan might have been a ballet dancer; she wound up acting instead in film and TV, appearing in Irish soap operas and fantasy shows. But she wasn’t satisfied.
“As a woman all you hear is ‘no you can’t.’ As a blond haired, blue-eyed performer, people would say, ‘The thing about you, Lisa is you don’t look how you sound, you need to be this kind of actress,’ and you try to squeeze yourself into other people’s idea of your identity. Women’s roles usually consist of the sidekick, the bitch or the bimbo, and aren’t much more nuanced than that.”
As she began exploring dramatic literature for better roles, she discovered both the Greek classics and Beckett. And while she doesn’t consider him a “flag-waving feminist,” she says that, “As the greatest innovator in 20th century theatre, Beckett probably created the most extraordinary roles ever written for women.”
About “Not I” she says, “This work is so accessible and honest, I’ve performed it in Hong Kong, Paris and Germany in English without translation and people ‘get’ it. These are universal truths that Beckett is telling us. They’re not just for lofty intellectual institutions or high art.”
Dwan tells a funny story. “When I first started rehearsing “Not I,’ I was doing it at Battersea Park (outside London) as a memory technique, to feel sensory connections to real things like grass and soil. I remember one time finishing the monologue, taking off the blindfold I saw that I’d collected an audience of park bench drunks. They were totally captivated by this piece that seemed to be a reflection of what they were thinking and what their cans of cider were silencing.”
And, she said, she rehearsed it at home in front of her “hyperactive 9-year old niece, who watched me with her mouth wide open, didn’t flinch a muscle and when her mother asked her what she thought it was about, she said ‘everything in the world.’”
Asking what a Beckett play is “about” may not be the right approach. “His themes cover what it is to be a sentient being, to be in despair, why are we still talking and moving about. He’s not telling us a story; he’s simply putting our minds up there on stage, with all its wounds and dreams.”
The late actress Billie Whitelaw, who had no formal acting training, was Beckett’s preferred performer, and he directed her in the play’s 1973 U.K. premiere. At first Dwan chose not to reach out to Whitelaw. “I knew if I met her right away, I would be intimidated and I didn’t want to mimic her. I wanted to find my own access point into this piece.”
But after hearing about Dwan’s performance, the BBC put the two together for an “In Conversation” program. After that, says Dwan, Whitelaw helped coach her performance. She even shared Beckett’s notes with her.
“Billie was an immediate, guttural kind of actress. When I first began to perform ‘Not I’ I was doing it in an artificial monotone, because I thought Beckett didn’t like ‘actors.’ But Billie said ‘rubbish.’ She gave me permission to put this work into my own landscape, to connect with what I felt. This play had a profound effect, making us both feel less lonely. She gave me the keys to access my own nervous system.”
There are just five performances of Lisa Dwan’s “Beckett Trilogy,” April 7-10 at The Broad Stage. This is your once-in-a-lifetime chance to see her; call the Box Office at (310) 434-3200 or email email@example.com.
Merry Murderous Mayhem
Don’t miss “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” the Tony Award-winning musical now onstage at The Ahmanson Theatre downtown.
It’s a laugh riot, the costuming, stage sets and technology are outstanding as are the actors (take special note of John Rapson who plays multiple characters in the D’Ysquith Family). Kevin Massey is Monty, who must murder his way to his long-lost aristocratic inheritance and does so with aplomb…and a lot of creative methods.
It’s onstage through May 1. Contact http://www.centertheatregroup.org for tickets and info.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications.