Borders are silly. So are plays. But more on that later.
When I was first approached to direct Kieran Lynn’s An Incident at the Border, I was immediately tickled by its devilishly farcical premise. On the eve of an unspecified country’s declaration of independence, a young couple tries to enjoy a romantic afternoon in the park, when a border guardÂ unceremoniously re-draws the new border between the two of them. Hijinks ensue as the two lovers battle to reunite without igniting an international incident.
The play struck me as a brilliantly self-contained burst of absurdity, but naturally, the left side of my overly cerebral director’s brain wanted more. With the right design choices, this play could be so much bigger than a simple farce. It could be about the Mexican immigration debate! Or the Arab Spring! Or the formation of South Sudan! With visions of genre-changing thematic resonance swirling through my head, I raced to the internet to research world events that could lend a clever layer of immediacy to Lynn’s script.
As usual, my dramaturgical efforts became an odyssey of tangential rabbit holes. Around 3 am, I found myself forming very strong opinions about the concept of borders in general. As I mentioned above, borders can be darn silly. At their core, they are simple lines in the sand, but their significance to the sovereign bodies they divide leads to stringent, contrived, and sometimes downright juvenile posturing.
In parts of Belgium and the Netherlands, there are houses literally bisected by their countries’ borders. The US/Mexico border fence cuts through a Texas college-campus, forcing students and faculty to cross the border multiple times in a school day (silver-lining: trouble with customs is a fantastic excuse for tardiness). Between North and South Korea, there is a conference room built specifically for conversations between the two countries, with the official border drawn straight through the mahogany conference table. In Bangladesh, there is a small enclave that belongs to India, inside an enclave that belongs to Bangladesh, inside an enclave that belongs to India. Do yourself a favor and don’t think too hard about it. And finally, the border between China and Nepal divides Mount Everest firmly in two, splitting the peak itself (but it still may be an easier border to cross than some on this list).
All over the world, sovereign bodies posture and struggle to ascribe great meaning to protect the sanctity of their lines in the sand. So much so that, just like in Lynn’s play, absurdity ensues.
I eventually made it back to the world events I planned to layer over my play. It wasn’t long before I began to ask myself why I was trying to force a “ripped from the headlines” concept upon such a beautifully earnest and witty script. Much like the North and South Korean border guards making sure no one leans too far across the mahogany conference table, I was posturing and struggling to draw an artificial line in the sand. As much as I wanted to add something that my overly cerebral director’s brain could call its own, I realized my true responsibility was to Lynn’s script, and nothing more.
In our endless, frantic battle to prove theater’s worth in a town dominated by film and television, we may feel pressure to craft every project into a ground-breaking, genre-defining artistic enterprise. As directors, it’s easy to forget that our job is to make choices that serve the play to its greatest potential, to tell the story that connects to the audience on the level the script demands. Our purpose isÂ not to add our own spin that warps the playwright’s creation into proof of our own relevance, intellect, or so-called courage.
Don’t get me wrong, go ahead and pat yourself on the back for deciding to put Romeo and Juliet in Civil War uniforms. Just make sure that telling the playwright’s story comes first, and any and all design choices serve that aim.Â Â More often than not, the best choice a director can make is to remain invisible. Only do what is necessary to allow the script to blossom into something that can connect with an audience, and then call it a day. Cerebral brain be damned.
After all my posturing, I decided the best choice for this simple, devilish farce, was to stage it as a simple, devilish farce. Then again, it appears I have succeeded in over-intellectualizing this essay with contrived layers of theme and metaphor, so “” at least today “” the overly cerebral side of my brain has the last laugh.
Author’s Note: This essay would not have been possible without Xavier Jackson’s article, “The 5 Stupidest Things Ever Done with Borders,” from Cracked.com. All research cited above was used with permission from the author. http://www.cracked.com/article_19925_the-5-stupidest-things-ever-done-with-borders.html
An Incident at the Border, presented by the Transatlantic Theater Company. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun. 7:30 pm. August 4-September 9. Tickets $20. Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica 90405. www.IncidentattheBorder.com
***All An Incident at the Border production photos by Tracy Woodward
Tracy Woodward is a Los Angeles-based director, writer, and smart aleck, and a founding member of the Theatricians Theater Group. When not wasting time over-intellectualizing theater, he can be found wasting time performing improv and sketch comedy at various venues around town.