Michi BarallPlaywright, 39, Cobble Hill
Also an accomplished actress, Barall writes radically unsentimental re-imaginations of classical narratives. Defying today’s trend towards magical realism, the Brooklyn-based playwright and doctoral candidate deploys an intensely stylized, self-reflexive and intellectual postmodernism—at intermission of every performance of this spring’s Rescue Me, extracted from Euripides’ obscure Iphigenia in Tauris, an invited Classics scholar expounded upon the texts’ portrayals of class difference and celebrity gossip. She’s workshopping another unconventional legend: How We Became Nomads, a multimedia puppet play about the life of Genghis Khan. Don’t miss that miniature invasion.
The L: You were a successful actress for many years, what made you decide to become a playwright?
Michi: I never really decided to become a playwright. In 2005, I had an idea for an adaptation of Iphigenia in Aulis and I asked my husband if he would write it for me. He had already been working on an Atreus cycle and had his own ideas about Aulis and so he very politely refused. I was an unemployed actress at the time (so much for being successful!) so I resolved to write the adaptation myself. I can't remember what I meant to do with Iphigenia in Aulis, because in the course of doing research I fell in love with Iphigenia in Tauris and that was that. Euripides is a wonderful playwriting professor because his plays are so deeply strange—at least for a 21st century American—but they feel very accessible. And the way he structures his plays is so surprising and so deft. I've always thought that everything we think about plays would be completely different if Euripides had written a Poetics. In any case, I wrote my adaptation and I kept going. I was very lucky. I started studying playwriting with Tina Howe soon after I wrote the adaptation, and she did the best thing a teacher can really do: she gave me permission to follow my own interests and instincts.
The L: You're also a scholar, a vocation that was especially evident in your most recent play, Rescue Me, which managed to be entertaining, engaging and (for lack of a better term) educational all at once; what were your greatest challenges in bringing these often-antithetical styles of writing together?
Michi: I think, I hope, that my bio says that I'm a scholar-in-training. Because I am by no means an actual scholar! I'm really just a perpetual student. I took ten years off after graduate school for acting to do regional theatre, act and try, generally, to behave like a grown up. But I returned to school because I love being in a classroom. At their best, classrooms are very dramatic and theatrical environments where ideas really matter. Part of what I really wanted to do in Rescue Me was to puncture the academic packaging and stuffiness often associated with Greek tragedy (and classics in general), while at the same time activating the excitement of, effectively, classroom learning. Greek drama is also very much about education, and so it seemed appropriate to create a forum in which both learning and debate were an explicit part of the evening. I don't know that I felt like bringing the two forms of writing together was a particular challenge, since I tend to like shifting the tone of a piece, although I remember it made me anxious. I was scolded more than once for being a "smart aleck," which wasn't what I meant at all. I think I was mostly inspired by Anne Carson. She's really my hero, both as an artist and as an academic. I'd probably give up an organ to be able to think or write like Anne Carson for just one day.
The L: Your plays tend to be very elaborate and stylized, which can be a risky proposition for Off and Off-Off Broadway companies with relatively modest means; to what extent are you preoccupied by technical and logistical details while you're writing?
Michi: I'm incredibly lucky because Ma-Yi Theater Company took a chance with Rescue Me. And they never once said, "we can't afford TVs, forget about the TVs, or can't you do without the dancers?" They produced an 8 character play, which is unheard of these days. When I wrote Rescue Me, I was mostly thinking about what I wanted to see. I never really imagined anyone would do it. I try now to remember what it felt like to write that way, to write without concern for cost or feasibility. And it seems that it is just my instinct to write seemingly unproduceable plays because the only naturalistic play I've ever written, with one set and four characters, was completely inept. The projects I'm working on at the moment all call for many characters and some degree of spectacle. I'm just a sucker for spectacle. This said, I don't think I write pieces that require huge budgets. I'm interested in low-tech options that point to the technologies in use. I always think that the best theatre magic is the kind that's completely exposed.
The L: How have your experiences as an actor shaped your work as a playwright and scholar?
Michi: It seems weird to say it, but I think that my experiences as an actor have been most valuable to me as an academic, because I was trained to think of plays as production texts or texts-for-production and not literary works. I'm always aware of the practical demands and opportunities of a text.
I don't feel a real overlap between my work as an actor and my writing, but I do think that in the room I'm very aware of the needs of the actors. Mostly, I try to respect the acting process. It's really really hard not to make changes or give notes, especially in previews; you're finally seeing the whole thing come together and you begin to hear the rhythm of the piece and you want (or at least I wanted) to cut about on quarter of the text and give acting notes all over the place. I think that my time as an actor helped to keep me in check. As much as I want to intervene at times, I know that the actors will benefit most if I just let them take the play and run with it.
The L: What effect has your relationship with your husband Charles L. Mee, another very adventurous playwright, had on your work?
Michi: Chuck has been incredibly supportive of my work—as an actor, a writer and as an academic. I tend to think out loud and he's been very gracious—putting up with endless babbling about whatever it is I'm learning or working on. I also have a kind of manic-depressive work cycle. I get very very excited about something and do lots of research and then get really stuck and putter and complain and generally get no work done at all until Chuck finally cajoles me into actually working. So Chuck is very important to the process. We also see a lot of work together and we talk about theatre and art (Chuck loves visual art and could spend all day every day in an art gallery), although much less so since we adopted our beautiful toddler. Lately we talk a lot about poopy diapers and the architectural merits of various playgrounds. Still, on occasion we manage to resume our ongoing conversation about form and writing across media. Chuck also has a lot of courage. He wants to write what he likes. And he refuses to say that there's any formula. Having been an actor I tend to want to "take direction" and I'm a people-pleaser. So Chuck helps me to stay true to whatever it is I'm hoping to do (if I can actually figure out what that is.)
The L: What are you working on next, and how do you see your career changing over the next five years?
Michi: I have three projects in the cooker, which is more than I can really manage right now. I wish I could work on something in a very dedicated way for months at a time, but the way my life works I grab time when I can and then I have to let things sit for a while. I've convinced myself that the time in-between is very useful because it gives me a little distance, but sometimes you can lose your original (and perhaps strongest) intention or thread. Right now, I'm collaborating with two great friends, Jan Leslie Harding and Michael Littig, on a multi-media puppet spectacular about Genghis Khan. Jan (a fabulous actress in her own right) is building the puppets. Michael spent a year in Mongolia on a Fulbright, studying shamans, and he's brought back amazing material (including himself). This piece has been a real joy because it's a true collaboration and we're all finding the piece together. I'm also working on two plays that I think of as relatively "normal" plays although they both incorporate other media and are overtly theatrical in one way or another. The first one is about transnational surrogacy, with a focus on India, and the second is about women in the global factory, with a focus on Chinese workers in multinational corporations. I have to say that it surprised me when I realized one day that all my plays had "Asian" content. It's not something I set out to do out of some political obligation or cause, I think it just grew out of the context in which I live and in which I tend to make work. I tend to think of my work as being "about" globalization and transnational dwelling spaces. As an academic, my focus has become commercial productions in global markets (think Disney or Cirque du Soleil), so I'm thinking all the time about the relationship of theatre to nationalisms and transnationalisms and cosmopolitanisms, to sound, I know, hyper-academic.
How will my career change? I suppose the only thing I know right now is that I have to finish my degree and I hope, hope that in five years I'll be done. I kind of doubt it, but that's my hope. Since our daughter is still a little tyke, I imagine I'll be writing more and acting a little less, although I certainly miss acting. As a writer you're always on the outside. Still, it's something you can do, whenever you can steal time, as long as you disable your Facebook page.
The L: If you could collaborate with any other New York City artist (living or dead), who would it be, why, and what would you create together?
Michi: Everybody. I'd like to collaborate with everybody. I'd like to make a piece with a mass movement chorus and 10,000 puppets and singers and dancers and clowns and actors in the middle of Times Square. But of course I have my theatre crushes and secret hopes. Since I've spent the week thinking about spirit possession in Mongolia, I'm too superstitious to name anyone. If I don't say it, maybe it will come true.