Collected Stories

The mentor-apprentice relationship can be a tricky one to navigate, particularly in the artistic world. This became apparent this weekend after watching MTC’s current production of Donald Margulies’s Collected Stories only one day after seeing John Logan’s Red.

Collected Stories has long been one of my favorite plays, and Margulies one of my favorite modern playwrights. He creates real characters and has a knack for natural dialogue. In Collected Stories, Ruth Steiner is an author and professor mentoring Lisa Morrison, a graduate student and aspiring writer. We watch their relationship grow and change over the course of six years as each woman grows and changes as a result of their relationship.

Stage and screen vets Linda Lavin and Sarah Paulson (Ruth and Lisa, respectively) give very good performances. Lavin is remarkable as a woman who’s seen (and written about) it all but must come to terms with her advanced years. Paulson (who is an Aaron Sorkin, Studio 60 alumna) does a great job of transforming Lisa from a girl to a woman as she finds her voice. I also liked that as their characters role’s reversed, so did the actor’s cadences. When we meet Lisa, she is timid and unsure of herself; she over-enunciates each word, lest she stumble and stammer in front of her idol. At this time, Ruth struts like a peacock and talks like she owns the place. (Technically, she does - the play takes place in her apartment.) By the end of the play, Ruth is over-enunciating and Lisa is full of pluck. And director Lynne Meadow takes care to pace the show so that the poignant moments last just as long as they should and the funny always finds its beat.

The set, supposedly a Greenwich Village apartment (Ruth’s) didn’t look like what I had always envisioned when I read the play; I pictured something much more cramped. I suppose in real life it probably would be but scenic designer Santo Loquasto had to take some artistic license in order to make the apartment “stage-livable.” I was struck by all the books, and several records, lining Ruth’s walls. I started thinking about the technological age in which we live - an age of iPods and Kindles and, inspired by Maureen Dowd, asked, “Are bookshelves necessary?” Then I wondered about what we miss out on when we download a song or album instead of buying it in a store. We miss out on that tactile experience of opening the record and feeling the vinyl. Or struggling with the insane amount of plastic wrap smothering our brand new CD. There’s something really exciting about that. And there is something entirely satisfying about seeing the cracks in the spine of your worn out copy of Catch-22. It’s a badge of honor - you feel a sense of accomplishment being able to see how often you’ve read the book. Now that these things are electronic and more and more people buy fewer and fewer actual books and records, where do we keep our collected stories? On some electronic device that might one day poop out on us? There are no stories behind a book on a Kindle. But there’s history in my copy of Ordinary People, which used to belong to my brother and still has his notes in the margin of the book. The fact that Ruth Steiner’s bookshelves seemed anachronistic made me unexpectedly nostalgic for the good old days - you know, five years ago - before everyone had the newest gadget.

But what I really grabbed onto was the connection between Collected Stories and Red, and what each says about the mentor-apprentice relationship and art.

Both plays explore the relationship between an established artist (maybe past his/her prime) and an eager, young start-up looking for a road map. In Red, the relationship is between two male painters. In Collected Stories, it’s between two female writers. I couldn’t help wondering how each play would be different if the genders were reversed – without changing the dialogue (save for a pronoun or name here or there.) Would the writers come off simply as sensitive if both were men or would they be seen as effeminate? Would the painters appear controlling and passionate about their work if they were women, or would Rothko be called a bitch? And what if the genders were mixed – if the apprentice was a woman and the mentor a man or vice versa? Would we infer some inappropriate sexual something? Maybe an appropriate sexual something? Would it change the point of the plays? I know American Idiot director Michael Mayer is toying with toying with the genders in On a Clear Day…, so maybe an all-male Collected Stories isn’t too far off.

I also found it interesting that each artist took similar approaches in diagramming their process but, at first, I agreed with one and not the other. In Red, Rothko says that art must be thought out – that it’s methodic. In my review, I wrote that I disagree; I’m more from the Pollack, visceral expression camp. In Collected Stories, Ruth even tells Lisa, who begins recounting a story, “Don’t tell me about it, write it...Telling takes away the need to write it. It relieves the pressure.” Ruth is saying that what you write should be written because you have to get it out of you - you have to explore those ideas, a la a Pollack work. Yet, Ruth’s proscribed steps to good writing seem to contradict this. In reviewing Lisa’s short story, Ruth challenges Lisa’s word choice. She tells Lisa that our words are very important and every word we write has meaning. Ruth intimates that the art of writing takes a lot of thought – that it is methodical. I tend to agree with that. Certainly, the amount of thinking about a written piece will vary upon the writer, the subject and the venue. But our words do have power and meaning. There is a difference between saying “yes” and “yeah.” There is a reason someone might prefer the word “challenge” to “obstacle,” since “challenge” has a more positive connotation – at least to this writer. In arguing this point, I’m rethinking my reaction to Rothko’s approach to painting. Visual artists – painters – have the same considerations writers do. As Rothko and Ken argue in Red, red is many things and is felt and experienced in intensely different ways by different people. So why not be methodical and take careful consideration when choosing your color or brushstroke? I’m trying to figure out why, despite arguing convincingly with myself, I still feel a sense of cognitive dissonance - I want to allow one set of rules for one type of art and another for another. I think it comes down to this: words have actual meanings – definitions that can be looked up and verified. No one holds the patent on red. (Well, maybe Crayola does…)

I guess what this comes down to is choice: the artist needs to make a choice about which color or word to use, how to use it and how, if at all, to revise it. That’s the most the artist can do. Once I write this blog post, it’s out there. I may mean one thing, but, as we learned in The Metal Children, a reader may infer another thing from it. Right or wrong, this is what happens, and therein lies the bravery in sharing your art with the world.