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      4 28 21Horror writer Stephen King once recalled a gift from his then girlfriend, Tabatha, of a ream of blank typing paper. He wrote, “to a writer, a ream of blank paper is like an unopened fifth of Scotch to an alcoholic.” He was, I think, referring to the irresistible desire to fill those pages with words. I see his point, but when I approach directing a new play, it feels less like getting a ream of blank paper and more like being invited into a really packed-to-the-rafters antique shop. There’s already a play. You’ve been asked to read it. You probably know the limitations and possibilities of your performance space. So you walk in, not to an empty stage, really, but to a warehouse full of interesting stuff. You think, “Oh, this is cool,” or “Wow I love this bit here,” or “What on earth is this thing?” As a director, you don’t start with nothing. You start with almost everything, and you have to begin paring it down.

      I read Sarah Ruhl’s play, DEAD MAN'S CELL OHONE, about two years ago. I saw a production or her play, EURIDICE, the year before (directed by my daughter, Alice Hakvaag) and so had an example of how a Ruhl play can work. Still, I admit to feeling somewhat intimidated. Here was an obviously funny, but extremely absurdist play. Six characters, a hand-full of props “and light,” or so the play’s set description reads. It involves a death, a funeral in a cathedral, a dangerous flight to Johannesburg, and a trip to the after-life. And loads of beautiful, stinging and hilarious words. A lot of them. How, on earth, could I stage this? I know what I can do, but can I do this?

      Let me summon another pop culture icon, the comic book writer Frank Miller. In his graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, he places a 60-something Bruce Wayne in the cockpit of a heavily armored Batmobile, looking down the sights of a machine gun at a young villain called The Mutant. Wayne scans the man’s body – rippling with muscles and teeth filed to sharp points. “He’s just the sort of strong and fast that I don’t want. I honestly don’t know if I can take him.” And, because he is Batman, of course, he opens the hatch of his protective tank, and climbs out.

      Full disclosure, Batman is nearly killed here, in this story. I tell it to remind us all of the stakes. Trying to do something you aren’t sure you can do means risking failure. But not risking failure can lead to another type of death. So, whether it comes from addiction, compulsion, or a maniacal desire to fight crime, it is good to push yourself to the edge of failure. Because while there is an important value in masterful competency, there’s also a value in pushing to the edge of failure.

      A blank piece of paper. An empty stage. A roll of unexposed film. All art starts in the same place. I’ll be sharing more of this trip into DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE, but for now let me savor the moment of unknowing. At the start, nothing has been decided. No choices, aside from the choice of this play, have been made. The first step will be casting. Seeing who is willing and deciding who will play each part. That act alone will change the stage. And we’ll go from there.

      To be continued . . .

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