Anne Bogart Makes Her Move: “Chess Match No. 5”

Will Bond in Chess Match No. 5. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Editor’s Note: The Clyde Fitch Report was pleased to publish an interview with the great director Anne Bogart back in 2010. On the occasion of the premiere of a new work, Chess Match No. 5, running at Off-Broadway’s Abingdon Theatre Company through Apr. 2, Bogart agreed to compose a guest post on the genesis of the piece.

Chess Match No. 5 is a two-person play that has required the combined talents of a large number of collaborators to bring to fruition. The production is the initial step in the journey towards a large multi-disciplinary project to be entitled Theater Piece No. 1. The plan is for Chess Match No. 5 to eventually become the central action and organizing principle for Theater Piece No. 1, incorporating the work of artists across many disciplines, including dance, music and visual art, who were influenced by the example, innovations and life force of composer John Cage. This is the story of how Chess Match No. 5 came to be — our opening gambit.

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Having spent much of my own life immersed in Cage’s ideas and strongly affected by the artists he influenced, I have long imagined a project that would excavate and celebrate his seminal ideas and extensive impact upon the world. But until about a year ago, I could not conceive of a structure that could provide the necessary breadth and depth to encompass Cage’s extraordinary notions of art, life, interpenetration, multiplicity, indeterminacy, performance methods, structure and so on. Finally, a year ago January, my wife Rena and I spent two weeks in Venice, Italy, and there I grasped the shape and scale of this project.

Anne Bogart. Photo: Craig Schwartz.

Rena and I spent days roaming museums, churches and palazzos, and we wandered along the canals. We sat in cafes and ate splendid meals in the few restaurants left open during the quiet midwinter. After dinner, back in our hotel, I entered Cage’s world, perusing through hundreds of recorded and captured conversations that he engaged in during his life. I learned of his private chess games with Marcel Duchamp and his wife, Teeny. Then I discovered that, in 1968, Cage organized a public performance in a theater in Toronto entitled Reunion, in which he played a chess tournament with both Duchamp and then Teeny. The chessboard was engineered so that each chess move activated a lighting change or electronic sound. I also learned about an evening in a dining hall at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, in 1952, where Cage organized a large-scale, multi-media event that came to be considered the very first “Happening.” That evening included the contributions of Cage, Merce Cunningham, Franz Klein, M.C. Richards, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor and others who separately, but simultaneously, read poetry, played records, danced and provoked audience participation. People at the time simply called it The Event. In retrospect, it became known as Theater Piece No. 1.

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Thanks to the time with Rena in Venice, and thanks to the uninterrupted nocturnal immersions into Cage’s world, juxtaposed with the mental daytime space of looking at art and architecture and the additional time to make free mental associations, I began envisaging the world of our own Theater Piece No. 1 — a multidisciplinary, multilayered performance event incorporating the talents of dancers, visual artists and musicians. I decided that the process of constructing this large-scale project would start with a smaller one, Chess Match No. 5, which would become a handbook of Cage’s basic theories as embodied by two actors over a game of chess. During the months following the Venice trip, I continued to transcribe the parts of Cage’s many public and private conversations that felt enlightening, fun and informative. I also began to engage and draw upon the talents of many close collaborators:

Jocelyn Clarke, the Irish dramaturg, writer and critic, has previously created the scripts for many SITI Company productions, including Alice’s Adventures, Bob, Room, Score, Antigone and Trojan Women. After some discussion, I sent Jocelyn more than 100 pages that I had copied from transcripts and recordings of Cage’s conversations. He studied, edited and ordered them, adding text excerpts from Cage’s performances of Indeterminacy, in which he told micro-stories that function like Zen Buddhist koans (simple stories about enlightenment). The result is of Jocelyn’s work is a beautiful 30-page script.

Our sound designer, Darron West, waded into the project with all of his guns firing. In many ways, I believe Chess Match No. 5 was written for him because it is a play about listening, sound and silence. He could immediately imagine the soundscape for the play from beginning to end. Darron understood the journey that he wanted to take the audience on; during rehearsals, he was consistently in touch with the dramaturgical red-thread that draws the audience along.

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Set and costume designer James Schuette brought his hyper-discriminating taste and minimalist sense of “the essential” to the process as well. He recognized the necessity of creating a physical environment using the features and given architecture of the Abingdon Theater, where we are premiering the work. His costumes do not imitate Cage and his NYC friends but lightly suggests their era.

Similarly, lighting designer Brian Scott took one look at Abingdon’s space and decided to bring in 62 differently shaped light bulbs to suspend over the stage as a complement to a chessboard’s 62 squares. Every time a chess move is made during the play, a light changes. He also created a look for the koans and filled the theater with gorgeous, if unconventional, lighting.

Barney O’Hanlon is not only a SITI Company actor that I love working with, but he is also a choreographer who brings a great sense of musicality and movement to every project we embark upon. He immediately went to work on making the dances for Chess Match No. 5. But he did far more than that: he brought his aesthetic sensibilities to every choice we made during the course of our rehearsals.

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Two more SITI Company actors, Ellen Lauren and Will Bond, appear in this piece and show infinite courage, for Chess Match No. 5 is one of the trickiest plays to perform that I have ever encountered. There are no conventional characters, no standard dramatic action and no catharsis. Ellen and Bondo embody two musicians performing an unconventional concert of quotidian sounds before a live audience. Their tools, their musical instruments, are their footsteps, their vocal timbre, a toaster, a radio, a coffee maker, a chessboard with pieces, two chairs, a small plant and not much else. Because the script is non-linear, non-narrative and structurally complex, they are both skating on thin ice.

The experience for the audience is, I believe, experientially rich and satisfying.

When the opportunity to produce Chess Match No. 5 arose, SITI’s Executive Director, Michelle Preston, and her staff immediately shifted into high gear to make the project possible — fiscally and physically. Michelle carved out the time and space for us to quickly realize the production without us feeling the stresses and interferences of a curtailed process. Then Abingdon Artistic Director Tony Speciale and his team provided a physical structure for us to robustly meet our initial audiences as Ellen Mezzera, SITI’s company and stage manager, crafted schedules, set necessary meetings, and provided the conditions for supportive and productive rehearsals, tech environment and smooth performances. The SITI Company actors not in the production took over teaching slots in our full-time conservatory and generally made it possible for us all to make Chess Match No. 5 happen.

Chess Match No. 5 runs through Apr. 2, performing Tuesdays through Sundays at the Abingdon Theater in Midtown Manhattan. We hope that you will join us.

Anne Bogart is one of the three Co-Artistic Directors of SITI Company, which she founded with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki in 1992. She is a Professor at Columbia University where she runs the Graduate Directing Program. Works with SITI include: Lost in the Stars, the theater is a blank page; Persians; Steel Hammer; A Rite; Café Variations; Trojan Women (After Euripides); American Document; Antigone; Under Construction; Freshwater; Who Do You Think You Are; Radio Macbeth; Hotel Cassiopeia; Death and the Ploughman; La Dispute; Score; bobrauschenbergamerica; Room; War of the Worlds; Cabin Pressure; War of the Worlds – The Radio Play; Alice’s Adventures; Culture of Desire; Bob; Going, Going, Gone; Small Lives/Big Dreams; The Medium; Noel Coward’s Hay Fever and Private Lives; August Strindberg’s Miss Julie; and Charles Mee’s Orestes. She is the author of five books: A Director Prepares; The Viewpoints Book; And Then, You Act; Conversations with Anne; and What’s the Story.