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THE WAY OF WATER at University of California, Davis

by Josy Miller, PhD Candidate in Performance Studies

Caridad Svich includes two provocative clues in her introductory notes to THE WAY OF WATER that crucially guided our reading at UC Davis. While taking great care to clearly position the piece as a response to a particular historico-political event, Ms. Svich concludes her synopsis with a much broader invitation as to how we might understand the play. “It’s a play about poverty in America, rumors and truth, what is said and what gets written, and the quest for an honorable life.” The play does indeed emerge as a counter-narrative, as one of the contributors below has noted.  However, the ethical and existential quandaries posed in the piece speak far beyond the particularities of the BP oil spill. Through the rehearsal and production processes, the artistic team found our conversations continually returning to the question of how a person lives day-to-day with the knowledge that things – indeed that they - are not going to be okay.  Crucial, timely questions are at work in this piece: What are the relationships of our identities to spaces and places? How do people (and men, in particular) maintain a sense of self-worth in a capitalist society when they cannot make a living?  What is the utility of Beauty (and particularly Beauty as artistic creation) in a world that is unsurvivable?

The direction was primarily influenced by another of Ms. Svich’s notes, her framing of the piece as “poetic realism.” From the outset, her maneuvering of language between realistic and poetic attracted me as a tactic that could potentially allow a closer encounter with the profound existential problems of the play than conventional realistic dialogue.  The poetry interrupts empathic engagement and reminds the audience of the problems this single story points to, but cannot encapsulate.  Jimmy and Rosalie are evocative incarnations but Ms. Svich never allows us to get too attached to their realistic particularities.   In production, we attempted to extend the impact of these interruptions by incorporating movement alongside the poetic dialogue that gradually but visibly broke from the more realistic physical interactions that were sustained for the majority of the piece. (Actors performed the piece script-in-hand, but were fully choreographed).

Another particularly evocative question arose, as they so often do, from one of the central production challenges of the piece, the function and utility of objects. Particularly in a piece that is so environmentally concerned, how might – and how should – objects emerge from and reflect their environment?  In our production, the only scenic elements were projections of the oil slicks, abstractly gorgeous and actually horrific, and four black stools, which we inverted, turned on their sides, and stacked to become the pier, cooler, backyard chairs and so on. We found that simplicity in the staging of the play could perhaps work to uphold the play’s ethical confrontation with a culture of consumption that relies on the creation and transport of an infinite number of things.

Finally, we found the real power of this piece in its courage to move into abstraction, in both its form and its content, consistently complicating too simple answers.

The Way of Water by Caridad Svich was read on April 12th, 2012 at the University of California Davis Department of Theatre in collaboration with the EDGE Dance Festival.