Hiding The Broccoli
As I wrap up my semester, all of my theatre classes are in full swing, pushing towards final projects. I’m working on all kinds of creative projects that determine my entire grade, but one of them is particularly interesting.
For my theatre directing class, I’m directing a 20-minute scene from Cowboy Mouth, a very unique play written by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. It follows a delusional young couple trapped in an apartment, living in a constant state of anger over the fact that he hasn’t made it as a rock star. Set in the early 70s, when rock was almost two decades old, but heroes like Dylan and The Beatles were going into hiding, it is a fascinating look at people in transitional stages of their lives during an equally transitional stage for music.
Cowboy Mouth was supposedly written by Shepard and Smith passing a typewriter back and forth, each writing every other line. It’s very obviously the work of inexperienced writers, lacking the structure and crispness of his later work and the precise language of her best songs. But to some people, that’s part of the charm. Its raw nature beautifully captures the poetic, emotional feelings that people have about rock and roll. From a directing standpoint, it’s almost more similar to working with a Shakespeare piece than directing a modern play. The words are so poetic and abstract that no real person would ever say them, so the story almost becomes a vehicle for the words, not the other way around. Yet for all of its insanity, the play has a surprisingly coherent message about the pursuit of professional success. The two characters eventually realize that they’re not gaining anything from living in a fantasy world inside their apartment. They realize that there’s nothing romantic about living in bohemian squalor without any ambition. And they realize that success will never come to them, it’s something that you need to make for yourself.
The practicality of the message does not align with the attitudes of many people who consider themselves artists, but perhaps that irony is a reason why the play continues to survive. It’s a strange play, to be sure. The third character is a man in a lobster suit (appropriately named Lobster Man) and the play features discussions about the best way to cook a Tyrannosaurus Rex. And yet it’s almost like the writers were hiding broccoli in a pile of dessert. The kind of audience that attends schools like mine and sees this kind of Off-Off-Broadway theatre loves weirdness. Anything that takes you out of reality and makes you feel more creative than everyone else is always a good thing. I often joke that my fellow theatre students are similar to William F. Buckley, discriminating between “contemporary” and “Contemporary” theatre, with “Capital C” theatre being the only form that is sufficiently weird. Believe it or not, that joke rarely lands at theatre parties, but the point remains true. Contemporary theatre is often a race to the bottom, with everyone attempting to make their work as strange as possible just for the sake of doing so. In that sense, Smith and Shepard are giving their audience exactly what they want to see. But by ending the play with a real message about individualism and personal responsibility (that I can confirm is desperately needed by many young artists), it is the rare Contemporary piece that actually has meaning.
That’s a big part of why I chose to stage it at my school. The idea of providing my audience with something they need hidden inside of something they want was intriguing, and it’s a goal to which people in many different pursuits can aspire.