A visit to the Bay Area from David Greenspan is a rare treat. A visit by Gertrude Stein even more so. It’s kind of a twofer this weekend as Greenspan delivers his version of Stein’s lecture on the theater, Plays, amid a wide-ranging Stein retrospective (Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (which occurs simultaneously with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, The Steins Collect). Although Greenspan is not often seen on stage in these parts, the inimitable New York City playwright-actor — whose brilliant comedies are often as rich in humor as in formal and intellectual surprises — has had his share of productions in the Bay Area. SF Playhouse recently mounted the musical Coraline (for which he wrote the book) and She Stoops to Comedy. A little further back. Thick Description and the Jewish Theatre had a hit with their coproduction of Greenspan’s Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain. Greenspan spoke to the Guardian by phone from New York ahead of his appearance at CJM.
SFBG The Stein lecture you’re presenting ran in rep with the New York revival of your 1999 play, The Myopia, in which Stein is also referenced. Was that the first time you’d done the lecture as a piece of theater?
David Greenspan I’ve done it periodically, one night here, one night there. And then I did it for a benefit for a theater company. Melanie Joseph, who runs the Foundry Theatre in New York, I invited her and she loved it. So when we began playing The Myopia, we decided we would include [a performance of] the Stein lecture in tandem. I had never had anything approaching a run before.
SFBG What drew you to that lecture as something to perform?
DG I’ve become interested over the last number of years in the theatrical possibilities of nontheatrical texts. I did this piece called The Argument, which is based on Aristotle’s Poetics and the writings of a man named Gerald F. Else, who wrote about The Poetics. The Argument recites the first half of The Poetics. I’d been toying with that for a while, and I’d also done — in a reading for a friend, a fellow playwright — the Stein lecture, and it went over so well, people so enjoyed it. So, besides the interest in the non-theatrical text as a performative work, it is an intriguing lecture.
And I should say, it’s not that it’s not performative. Even The Poetics. They’re both performative pieces in the sense that they’re both lectures, so they would have been given. Whatever difference between a lecture and a performance, it’s a presentation. So there’s theatrical potential in them. But I guess I was fascinated by her observations about the theater, how it addressed her own concerns, recollections, and reminiscences about growing up watching plays, and references to her experiences when she finally moved to Paris. I found it rather rich historically as well.
SFBG There’s that wonderful line you quote in The Myopia about theater as something that’s actually happening&ldots;
DG Right. Well, she says that something is always happening. And that anybody knows a quantity of stories, so what’s the use of telling another story? There are already so many stories. I think what she’s trying to get at is that there is something beyond simply telling the story. There’s some essence of what is happening. And she’s trying to depict [that] without actually telling a story. It’s almost a series of impressions that she’s molding, almost like a sculpture, to give an audience a sense, without a story, of an experience. Of course, in The Myopia I pickled it because The Myopia is filled with stories. In a sense, I use it as a way of separating myself from her because my concerns are different. But I still find her delightful.
SFBG What do you think of Stein’s plays?
DG I’ve seen a few of them on stage. They’re difficult to describe, and they’re difficult for me to talk about. The closest experience I’ve ever had to performing in something like Stein would be a Richard Foreman play. I acted for Richard Foreman once. His work eschews traditional action. It’s somewhat different, but it’s the closest I’ve come to something like Stein. Like she says, she’s not interested in story and action. She’s interested in emotion and time.
I think also what she’s interested in is coordinating to her own satisfaction a visual and aural experience, one that is not dependent on following a story. Because she had problems with that, she found that it bothered her to have to pay attention, particularly if it was a story that had any kind of nuance. She wanted to keep backing up and seeing it again and couldn’t do it. But to get back to your question, the plays themselves I can’t speak to, but the lecture itself with its analysis and observations of the theater experience — and it’s a very personal lecture, very personal descriptions for her — and the rich theatrical reminiscences, I find very satisfying and continually intriguing. Also it begins to elucidate what she was trying to do in her plays.
SFBG What kinds of things do audiences relate to?
DG When she describes her experience of theater as a young person, it’s all about San Francisco and Oakland. So it should give people a little bit of a peep hole into what it was like to see theater [back then]. It was very important to her, the arrival of foreign companies. And Sarah Bernhardt came through, and that was an important thing for her to see. It was very significant for her to see a play in a language she really didn’t understand. She didn’t have to follow it. She could just listen to it and look at it without dealing with a story. That’s what’s most important to her — how to coordinate seeing and hearing in the theater.
DAVID GREENSPAN’S PLAYS
Thurs/26, 7 p.m.; Sun/29, 1 and 4 p.m., $20
Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission, SF