In American Theatre Magazine’s list of Top 20 Most Produced Playwrights of the 2018-19 season, New York-based writer Jen Silverman ranks number 14, ahead of towering greats Tennessee Williams and Sam Shephard, with a total of 11 productions across that season.
In line with the zeitgeist, Sydney is set to produce two of her works in 2019: The Moors at Seymour Centre in February, directed by Kate Gaul (Siren Theatre Co) and Wink at Kings Cross Theatre in August, directed by Anthony Skuse (Wheels and Co Productions).
Silverman is a prolific creator and a writer very much of our time and it’s no wonder her work resonates with artists and audiences alike. She presents a world rife with radical transformation.
Take The Moors, for example. Set in the 1840s, it is a dark comedy about two sisters, Agatha and Huldey, and their Mastiff dog, who live on the bleak Yorkshire moors and dream of love and power.
The arrival of a hapless governess, Emilie, and a Moorhen, sets all three women on a strange and dangerous path. The characters find themselves fixed in a prescribed identity and through questioning and role-playing they challenge those fixed ideas and begin to live out an imagined idea of themselves that isn’t constricted by societal rules.
There is no judgment as to whether their radical departure is good or bad, right or wrong, and they don’t face punishment; rather they are mostly life-affirming, shamanistic awakenings.
Silverman says: “I find myself drawn to very dark humour. I think the world is most often an unpredictable and heart-breaking place, and the one gift we have been given in all of this – as a species – is the ability to laugh at ourselves. I’m interested in stories about transformation, change, about the kind of courage or desperation it takes to completely reinvent your life”
By contrast, Wink is a contemporary surreal comedy, centred on Sofie, an unhappy housewife, and Gregor, her breadwinner husband.
Dr Frans is their psychiatrist. Wink is the cat.
And Gregor has just skinned the cat.
Each character is in search of answers and is always digging beneath the surface to reveal more and more layers of truth. Silverman’s characters are ready for answers. They have lived in a state of stagnation and believe the truth will set them free. There is a muscular economy to her writing because the desire for truth is pressing and there is much to question and reveal.
When her characters are in this state of burning honesty, possibilities open up. The revelation of innermost yearnings and the drive to uncover the core of feeling creates a space of movement, change and metamorphosis.
Silverman interrogates concepts of dominance and submission, power and vulnerability, secrets and lies. She also addresses universal themes of loneliness, happiness, identity, connection and self-discovery.
These are sometimes deeply personal subjects which we may not feel comfortable revealing and indeed perhaps keep hidden our entire lives.
Because they are too painful, we navigate our lives to avoid them, or we never have the opportunity to investigate them. Silverman provides us with the catharsis or a slap in the face, however you want to look at it.
Perhaps we are all looking to transform, to unlock dormant desires and reach our potential, but don’t know where to start.
Silverman gives us the push we need and she makes it fun. Her work is about action and movement, transitioning into something beyond what is and has been. And it doesn’t always have to be positive or right or wrong, that doesn’t matter. The key is the act of motion and transformation.
In 2019, we’re living in a great time of change.
The #MeToo movement, the divide between left and right, diversity, equality for women, LGBTQIA+ rights, climate change action and the voices of our First Nations people are tectonic plates shifting the ground beneath our feet.
Those of us questioning the dominant voices might feel a little bit like one of Jen’s characters. We have found ourselves stuck in this world that never fits us, that doesn’t suit us anymore, that we can’t find our way out of. Radical reinvention is required and it’s this boldness of change in Silverman’s work that is so appealing.
Destroy the old ways, forge new paths, break new ground, she says. Be and do the impossible. It’s refreshingly positive. And Silverman doesn’t judge. It’s time for a change and everyone can make it. No one is left out. All of Silverman’s characters go through a catharsis – even the bad ones.
Through radical transformation, her characters embrace and discover a sense of freedom they never had and real moments of once elusive happiness. Silverman challenges our compulsion to check in with ourselves as we ask, ‘am I happy?’
She argues that while questioning and introspection can alert us to our unhappiness, it is radical change that achieves it.
The gift of happiness requires boldness of action. Sometimes that may be as simple as being honest, vulnerable and offering yourself up for a human connection.
In The Moors and Wink each character yearns for some kind of connection.
They have each driven themselves apart from everyone in their life and stand singularly and are now painfully aware of how inextricably alone they are.
In Wink, Sofie and Gregor live in a loveless marriage and don’t talk. Dr Frans lives a monastic life without joy. In The Moors, each character exists in their own world with their own secrets and desires.
However, there are moments when two characters connect to create shared dreams and plans.
In Wink, Dr Frans imagines an adventure-filled life with Wink, while Wink and Roland share plans to grow a terrorist lair.
In The Moors, Emilie and Agatha decide to raise a child while the Mastiff and the Moorhen test out a life of intimate companionship.
These are the moments when life seems to soar as a dream is fulfilled. Ultimately though, it is short-lived because it’s not always what they both want. Silverman suggests that shared desires bare no fruit and ultimately we are alone in our pursuit for happiness. A connection with someone may ignite the engine but there can only be one driver. A sobering thought indeed and another one of Silverman’s (and life’s) ‘heartbreaks’.
But with every heartbreak Silverman proposes a remedy: reinvention.
The cycle must continue. Radical change doesn’t just happen once, it evolves and yes, transforms. Nothing is fixed. In 2018, world events and our collective consciousness provided us with a glimpse of what reinvention could mean for us all.
Freed from the weight of predetermined ideas and certainty, we saw a space open up for each one of us in the tetris of life, however fleeting.
How long before we can experience real change is uncertain.
Will it happen in our own lifetime? Silverman is an artist not waiting to find out and she wants us to see and hear this brave new world with striking clarity.
“Writing plays is a practice in rigorous truth-telling and dangerous questioning,” Silverman has said. “In the ‘real world’ there are so many incentives to avoid asking questions whose answers will make you uncomfortable, or substitute convenience for truth. The confluence of containment, intimacy, and community makes it possible to ask an audience to go to these places with you in a theatre.”
If you’re ready, a brave new world awaits you in the theatre in 2019.
The Moors plays at the Seymour Centre, February 7-March 1
Wink plays at Kings Cross Theatre, August 2-24