Photos by Donn Young and Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time. © All rights reserved
Creative Time's Waiting for Godot:
An Interview with Curatorial Assistant Shane Brennan
by Laura Hunt
In November 2007, Creative Time, Inc., a non-profit organization based in New York, produced five free outdoor performances of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the Lower 9th Ward and Gentilly neighborhoods of New Orleans, LA. Originating with artist Paul Chan’s creative vision, the project, which included the play, a shadow fund, and an experimental film by Cauleen Smith, was co-produced by Curator Nato Thompson and The Classical Theatre of Harlem. Christopher McElroen, co-founder of The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s, directed, and the production featured New Orleans born actors Wendell Pierce and J Kyle Manzay.I recently spoke with Creative Time’s Curatorial Assistant Shane Brennan about his experience working on the project.
Photos by Donn Young and Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time. © All rights reserved
How did you react when you saw first-hand the devastated neighborhoods of New Orleans?
The media coverage of Katrina and its aftermath was saturating. Coming to New Orleans for the first time after the hurricane was, for me, strangely like stepping into the media images—except that the sounds and smells and visuals were so much more striking; once we drove into the Lower Ninth, the land was flat—tall grass, deserted roads, cement foundations, and the occasional FEMA trailer in the distance. It was post-apocalyptic and eerily still. It goes without saying that it’s just terrifying to see how little has happened since 2005. The brand new levee in the distance felt more like a constant reminder of the past rather than a hopeful gesture towards rebuilding.
The landscape felt photographic in another way, in that it felt like time had stood still for the last three years. I think this stillness was an inspiration for Paul when he imagined “Godot” being staged on this readymade set.
Even though the immediate surroundings were desolate, they weren’t devoid of activity. When we got there, Common Ground was hard at work and, disturbingly, “disaster tours”—white busses with tinted windows—would occasionally drive though. In a matter of hours, too, we had trucks delivering the risers and lighting gear that would define the intersection of North Prieur and Reynes as a stage. And the activity just kept building throughout the week until thousands were lining up to see the play, demanding an added show after its two-night run in the Lower Ninth.
What are some bits of memorable conversations you had with local residents?
I remember setting up the makeshift front-of-house for the show, basically a bunch of folding tables and chairs set up on the cement slab where a house used to stand, a few blocks away from the “stage” in the intersection. Here, the playgoers would be served gumbo by the glow of a half-dozen strands of white Christmas lights before a second-line parade would march them to the site of the play. We were moving some portable toilets into place in the grass across the street when a pickup truck slowed to a stop nearby. The family driving told us that the place we were setting up the tables used to be their home, before it was literally washed away.
They had read about the production in the Times-Picayune and had driven from Houston to see it. I remember feeling like an intruder, preparing to heat up vats of gumbo in what used to be their living room. We were a bunch of art producers from New York using their former neighborhood to stage a play—it all seemed absurd at that moment. But they surprised me by thanking us. Thanking us for bringing people back to the Lower Ninth. For turning the lights back on. For making people pay attention again. And for bringing some much-needed celebration and entertainment to a patch of land and a city of people that have seen so much ruin.
It’s strange, but many of the conversations didn’t sink in until I left and had time to reflect. In all the chaos, it was hard to process what was going on—how Beckett’s seemingly meaningless words were charged with the landscape around us. When lines like “This is a forgotten place” were spoken, people were brought to tears.
I would imagine that the following exchange between Estragon and Vladimir was particularly painful to hear:
All the dead voices.
They make a noise like wings.
They all speak at once.
Definitely. One of the most memorable stories I heard was from a family that drove down from Tennessee to see the play staged on their old stomping grounds—certainly the longest pilgrimage we heard about. The father of the family, Randy McClain, a New Orleans native, wrote a letter that was printed in the Picayune that came out as the play opened. For me, no other words better encapsulated the mission and success of the project. So, here it is:
It still gives me chills.
Could you describe the stage props created by Paul Chan. Did he use found debris from the storm to create them?
I know there was an old, moldy refrigerator door involved.
Of course the centerpiece of the play is the sad runt of a tree that stands center stage. His design was very minimal, but very evocative. As the artistic director, I don’t think Paul wanted the props—like the ramshackle grocery cart covered with clusters of plastic bags—to draw too much attention. The real set was the grass, cement, trees, and debris—and really the moist air, the impenetrable darkness, the sounds of insects, the smell of bug spray, and the energy of 600 people in rapt attention—that was all around us.
There has been much response to Waiting for Godot in New Orleans from the press, the art world, and New Orleans residents. Have you heard anything from the government, public officials, or political figures?
I heard that the mayor expressed interest in creating a Waiting for Godot Day, to commemorate the November production. He was supposed to attend one of the Gentilly shows, and wanted to deliver a speech before the play started. When he was told that we weren’t allowing any speeches, this must have been a turn-off because he never showed. What’s great is that the press coverage and local word-of-mouth was so strong that there’s no way that any official could have avoided hearing about it.
Beckett's play famously deals with the existential crisis of humanity, and producing it in post-Katrina New Orleans frames this tragedy in a real and current setting. Beckett is absurdist; blame is irrelevant in his world. But when examining the reaction to Katrina, it’s natural, inevitable even, to resort to blame directed at the U.S. government. Could you reflect on this? Where can one draw the line between unavoidable human tragedy and a tragedy that has at its root some element of fault?
There are a lot of questions like this that remain in suspension, unanswered (nor attempted to be directly answered) by Paul’s project. As much as the play felt startlingly—almost terrifyingly—at home in the Lower Ninth, I hesitate to give too much weight to the parallels between the play and post-Katrina situation. One can clearly see the connection between the play’s absurdity and, say, the absurd and terrible response of the government—how FEMA decided its own trailers, which were designed for temporary use and still had people living in them three years out, were too dangerous for FEMA workers to enter due to poisonous formaldehyde levels. Or, in a different way, the absurdity of seeing hundreds of white people, a good amount of them affluent out-of-towners, coming to see a play in the Lower Ninth, only after it was leveled by a hurricane.
For me, the point isn’t to read the post-Katrina political situation through the lens of Beckett’s tragicomedy; but rather, to see how his words—most of which are empty, absurd, or full of nothingness—seep into their surroundings, shedding light on everything that’s happening, or should be happening, or should have never been allowed to happen. Maybe their ambiguity allows this to happen more readily. The inaction in the play, all of the “idle discourse” and nonsensical banter, turns up the contrast on everything around it until you see the New Orleans you’re immersed in in stark relief.
The attempt to determine fault, or uncover the reason behind the situation, starts to feel just as absurd as Beckett’s characters irrational patience as they await Godot, who, of course, never arrives. As much as the play is a story of waiting, a story in which “nothing” happens, it sheds light on the people in New Orleans who have refused to keep waiting for help that may never come, and who have taken action, rebuilt, and survived.
The real magic of the play was the energy it created and the mass of people it brought together. The content had a poetic connection to the state of the city (and Godot has a history of being performed in radical contexts, like prisons), but the exact words almost didn’t matter. Gathering together more than 600 people—all with different backgrounds and different stories to tell—in one place to see a theatric production (a production that was itself a collaboration of hundreds of people from New York and New Orleans) was extraordinary. Once everyone was seated in the risers and the stadium lights went down on the intersection, even before the play started, I knew we had helped create something that would last.
For more information on Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, please visit http://creativetime.org/projects/waiting-for-godot-in-new-orleans/.
Friday morning at 7 a.m., my 14 year-old son, wife, and mother will start the roughly 560-mile drive from Nashville, Tenn., to the corer of North Prieur and Reynes streets to see a corner lot staging of Waiting for Godot.
The only Katrina refugee among us is my 80-year-old mother, wiped out in St. Bernard Parish in 2005. She lives in Middle Tennessee with my family now. The rest of us moved from Louisiana in 2003—before Katrina. But our drive to see Godot has more to do with my son, Markus, a young actor and a freshman at the Nashville School of the Arts here.
I want him to see how a neutral stage can become a place of social and political comment and a play can be a call to action. I want my son to see theater that touches lives and does more than just entertain. So, we’re driving for nine hours, lawn chairs in the trunk, to see art.
Laura Hunt is an artist and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.