I’m Very Into You
Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark
Adapted and Directed by Sara Lyons
In 1995, the writers Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark met at a conference in Australia and had a brief, passionate affair. Wark lived in Sydney, Acker in San Francisco, so after Acker’s return to the United States they continued their correspondence via the emerging technology of email. This correspondence was recently collected and published in a volume titled I’m Very Into You, and now Sara Lyons, a John Wells Directing Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, has adapted I’m Very Into You for the stage in an original production opening this week.
I sat down with Sara over a cup of tea to discuss her adaptation, the limits of language, queering binaries, and spreading the good fucking word about Kathy fucking Acker.
Philip Gates: How did you come to this material and what got you excited to present it in a theatrical context?
Sara Lyons: I was wandering through a local bookstore not long after the book was published in 2015, and someone on the staff had put it out on a table for display. I have a degree in gender and women’s studies so I had heard of Kathy Acker, so I picked it up and read a couple of pages in the store. I felt like it was a pair of hands that were reaching inside my body and holding onto something that was very important to me. So I bought it immediately and devoured it and gushed to my roommate about it a lot…
PG: Indeed you did. [Note: As it happens, I was the roommate in question.]
SL: I think what drew me to it so powerfully is that these are two incredibly smart, well-read people articulating and asking questions around the problem of what it means to be a queer person as a cis man and a cis woman in a relationship together. The failure of gender identity and sexual orientation becomes so apparent in that situation, and that’s something that I connect to very much personally. And that also feels important in society right now, it’s a question that we’re asking as the trans* movement becomes more and more mainstream and more public. We’re in this moment where we’re starting to welcome confusion of the gender binary, we’re starting to welcome the spectrum a little bit more fully. The trans* movement is starting to make apparent how much the gender binary can fail us.
Acknowledgement of trans* identities also changes our relationship to the body, which is something that Kathy and Ken come up against in this writing. They are both so adept at thinking and talking their way into new territory when it comes to expressions of gender and sexuality. But what they come up against is the fact that they still have these bodies, they can’t escape them. The same actions have different meanings when they come from a cis woman or a cis man, because of social structures and the experiences that have built up over a lifetime. They can’t escape that meaning, and so it becomes this endless circle of thinking and talking their way into utopia and then coming up against their bodies again, over and over. And to me, that experience of constantly coming up against impossible boundaries, impossible questions, and embracing the dissonance, to me that’s what queer identity is.
This can also exist in how the ways that we express ourselves as human beings are gendered socially. The most central moment of this in the text is about two-thirds of the way through their correspondence. Kathy and Ken have broken through to a closer relationship, and as a result of this ease and sense of affirmation that they’re getting from one another, Kathy goes out on a limb and invites Ken to stay with her on an upcoming trip where he will be passing through San Francisco for a couple of days. And he responds positively, but isn’t direct enough to tell her what she really wants to hear. She doesn’t understand if he actually wants to come or if he’s just being polite–which when you’re in the beginning of a relationship with somebody is crazy-making.
PG: That part really struck me too on reading your adaptation, both his tepid response and her decidedly not tepid response to that.
SL: Her response is what we’ve been calling in rehearsal and throughout the process “the het shit monologue.” She says, “I don’t dig heterosexual shit when it comes to me,” and what she means by that is his actions resemble these old school expectations about how men and women in heterosexual relationships are supposed to relate to each other when they’re courting. Nobody is direct about what they want, you have to always keep somebody on a string and not let them know how much you actually like them, because that’s bad somehow. So she’s saying, let’s just be real with each other and say “this is what I want” without pulling at strings or being coy or circling around the thing. He is a cis man and she is a cis woman, and so that hetero dynamic feels dangerous, and she’s saying if we’re going to be together, if we’re going to have any kind of relationship even as colleagues or friends, that’s not gonna fly. The way that we talk about it is intellectual, but it’s actually an immediate visceral experience for her, for both of them. There is no separation in this text between theory and lived experience and emotion and the body. They are all the same thing.
PG: You said that these questions aren’t just intellectual but that they have a physical immediacy. In translating this textual/digital exchange to the stage, what approaches are you taking to embody the text, to find that immediacy with the live performers?
SL: That’s been the number one question of this project since the very beginning: what makes this theatrical, how do these words on the page, on the screen live in the body? I had an idea of the dynamic changes, the arc– not arc– definitely not arc, but shape, the shape of their relationship, and I chose and ordered pieces of the original text with that in mind. And we’ve been asking in rehearsal, what does it actually mean to a person to theorize about something? Are they trying to understand themselves better, are they trying to understand the other person better? Are they trying to impress the other person, are they trying to seduce, are they trying to get to know each other better and break through to something together? Theory exists as a way to understand and situate and contextualize yourself as a living person with a body in relation to other people with bodies. And vice versa, the body can become theory, it can become a source for better understanding. I really do think that new territory is forged by thinking, because it isn’t separate from the body, it changes the body, it changes what we do with our bodies. What we call something becomes what it is.
There are also limitations to that, and again it all comes back to this idea of queerness, of breaking through to new territory, and coming up against boundaries and being in that endless loop and being committed to that endless loop. Really being committed to that failure. That’s also their experience of language: the boundary they come up against is the failure of language to be tangible physical skin-on-skin contact. They can write page after page after page to each other in these emails, when in person maybe all they would have done is reach over and stroke the other person’s hand. And that’s a lot of how we’ve been talking about it too, is like, this email is a kiss. This email is a hand hold. This email is a throw-you-down-and-smack-your-ass, you know?
This piece is also so juicy for us right now because all of our relationships are digital, all of a sudden. The technology happened so fast, it’s ubiquitous now. This piece offers a window into this moment when these people were doing that for the first time and figuring out, how is this helping us and how is this hurting us? Their emails are both an obstacle and a way to connect. Especially over the thousands of miles between Sydney and San Francisco… without email, they maybe would never have spoken again. They maybe would have gotten a letter once every couple of weeks in the mail, or maybe made a very expensive phone call. It also fucks up our relationship to time, because in Australia it’s eighteen hours ahead, it’s the next day. We have dates and times on each of these emails, but we don’t really know what the exact order is, and in fact trying to put them in some sort of linear form is impossible. They didn’t exist in a linear form, it’s hard to even visualize how these emails existed as far as time goes. So that’s also a failure and a question that we’re leaning into.
PG: This question of linear form– Kathy Acker once said in an interview, “I’m looking for what might be called a body language. One thing I do is stick a vibrator up my cunt and start writing—writing from the point of orgasm and losing control of the language and seeing what that’s like.”
SL: <noise of delight/approval>
PG: Yeah. Which reminded me of things you’ve said about the form of the piece, about the shape. You were very specific just now about using the word shape instead of arc, and you’re talking about the emails failing to conform to a linear structure, so I’m wondering if you can speak to your goals for this adaptation as it relates to the idea of the traditional arc or climax versus what that quote is getting at.
SL: Part of what Acker is talking about in that quote is, what are the limits of language? This is a central question present in the show, what are the limits of language to reach another person, what are the limits of language for expression, for constituting new realities, for sex? The dramaturg, Stephanie Kane, and I talked very early in the process about ways of approaching this text with a queer formal ideology and a feminist ideology, and how we could approach it in a way that honored and was inspired by Acker’s ideas about language. We talked about the traditional Aristotelian dramatic arc (inciting incident, rising action, developing conflict, climax, falling action, denouement, resolution), the classic shape of that one big arc, and one way to think about it is that it is modeled after a heterosexist, cock-centered, misogynist male sexual experience. Not to say that is the only way that men have sex or experience their sexuality, but we understand that, on a social level, that is what’s happening.
So then we asked ourselves, what is a performance structure based on a woman’s sexual experience? What is a clit-centered structure? And we thought okay, it doesn’t have one climax, it’s not singular in its vision of how it progresses and how its meaning is understood and imparted. There are things that happen that are not just arriving at or working towards or coming away from a climax, there are other parts in the mix. Early on in the process we sat down with all the designers and dramaturg and we looked at the text I would be using for the adaptation and we drew a picture of the show. And it has many peaks and valleys, it’s got deep dips, it doesn’t start where it ends… it’s a complex shape with many ways to access it. And that shape has held up throughout the process.
PG: So how do you physicalize these concepts you’re talking about? What spatial container do you put them in?
SL: When we started the design process, one of the first things we talked about was how do we create a space where we can emphasize and stage, and then question and queer, binary. On the theoretical level that has to do with their discussions about gender and sexuality, and on a relational level it has to do with the binary of Sydney and San Francisco, and it has to do with the binary of McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker as two separate people. So that was an initial nugget for the design. Another nugget came from Kathy’s reference to this feeling of “email time” that they have when they’re emailing each other, they feel like there is no time elapsed between their emails. My experience of reading them for the first time was getting so swept up in the exchange and in the physical feeling, the sexiness of it, the desire, the passion, the energy… you lose the sense that these are separate emails, that they’re being broken up by everyday minutiae. So we wanted to find a way to capture that sense of email time in the design. Thinking about that and the questions about binaries, we’ve created a space with two very defined poles. It’s not satisfying to be at either pole, but in our design it’s not totally satisfying to be in the center either. There is no perfect center, that is what they discover when it comes to the fact of distance and their relationship. What they actually have to do is find a way to relax into the binaries that they can’t escape, like distance and their own bodies, and find a sense of pleasure and play in the fluidity and exchange that they can have within those binaries, knowing that you can’t just exit. You can’t exit your body.
PG: Are there other artists whose work has been an influence on your process?
SL: Acker’s own performance work has been very influential, and because of my background I automatically come with an influence of 90s-to-early-2000s queer and feminist performance art. That’s part of my DNA. But a lot of the design and adaptation decisions were inspired by 90s feminist visual art. Artists like Chantal Akerman, Laura Mulvey’s theories around the female gaze in film, Lynda Benglis, Barbara Kruger… some iconic 90s feminist artists who were playing with images that are confrontational and provocative, but also sort of distanced in how spectacular they are. That’s something that we thought about a lot, they’re so naked for each other in these emails but at the same time totally distant. There’s a famous photograph of Lynda Benglis posing naked holding a giant dildo at her crotch and looking at the camera directly very provocatively, but she’s wearing opaque sunglasses. That image jumped out at me for this right from the very beginning, because it’s so vulnerable and she is literally naked and so sexy, but you can’t see her eyes. She has removed herself and made this monstrous augmented image of herself at the same time.
PG: I’m curious about your feelings as to the ethics of the text and the production, the decision to stage somebody’s private correspondence. You have the permission of one of the parties involved, but the other is no longer living… What are you hoping to do by inviting us in, by making very public something that initiated as such a private experience? Why does the audience need to be here?
SL: The audience is the stand-in for the social for the characters, which is important because these are two people who have very clear transgressive relationships to mainstream society. That is so much of the foundation of their thinking, and so much of the foundation of their connection to one another. So what we get to see in this piece is how that outward social relationship, which society at large would be getting in their published work, in their public appearances, in their teaching work, etcetera, we get to see how that leads us to the most private and personal things. And I think that’s very powerful and so theatrical to be able to see that happen. So that’s been our thinking about who the audience is in the space.
In terms of the problem of putting this out in the world after Acker’s death, it’s tricky. I have very gracious permission to do this from McKenzie Wark and Matias Viegener, who is the executor of Acker’s estate and was a very close friend of hers. He edited the published version of I’m Very Into You and wrote the introduction for it, and he’s the person who took care of her in her last days when she was dying of cancer. Both he and Ken have said on record, surely Kathy would not have wanted this published because it’s so personal. But it’s also true that Kathy Acker was a genius, and her work is nowhere near as widespread and well-known as it should be. That’s in part because it’s so transgressive and it can actually be hard to get through a whole novel. Also because she died so suddenly, she was only 50 when she passed away in 1997. In talking to Matias it’s my understanding that it was really only in the last week or two of her life that she began to deal with the issues of, like, what do I do with my work, what do I do with my estate, what do I want to be my legacy, etcetera. I think those things together have led to her falling off the map a little bit, even though she was well known when she was alive. So, Matias and Ken published this correspondence because they want people to read her books. And at least in my case it’s working, because I had heard of her but had never really read her work, and now this book has totally changed my life. And there are 20-30 people working on this production and now all of them have a deep knowledge of Kathy Acker and her work, and are talking to other people about it. So that’s really the reason to do it.
The other thing that Matias talks about in the introduction to the published text, for Kathy everything in her life was text. She appropriated transcriptions of actual phone conversations that she had into the middle of a fictional narrative. She understood, and this comes back to the body being text, she understood everything in her life as text and as something to be used. I think in the spirit of understanding life as text, after her death this piece is very powerful. But yeah, that’s the question, do you spread the good fucking word about Kathy fucking Acker, or do you hold tight to it because you think she wouldn’t have liked it getting out, you think she would have been embarrassed? It is a risk. But I feel confident in having done it.
Sara Lyons is a queer feminist director, performance-maker, and teaching artist creating new work across performance disciplines. Based in NYC and Pittsburgh, she seeks to explode convention in form and politic, creating work that is critically embodied around issues of gender, sexuality, race, and contemporary technology. As a director, performer, and writer her work has been presented at Ensemble Studio Theatre, HERE Arts Center, Fordham University, Culture Project, LaMaMa ETC, Dixon Place, and many more. She has taught performance and created new work with students of all ages across New York City as well as Mexico and South Africa. Sara holds a B.A. in Theatre and Gender Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; is an alum of DirectorsLabChicago and the EMERGENYC program for political performance-makers at NYU’s Hemispheric Institute; and is currently studying for her MFA as a John Wells Directing Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University.
Philip Gates is a theatre artist creating and developing original work. His work has been presented in NYC at HERE Arts Center, Ars Nova, La MaMa, Dixon Place, The Brick, Cloud City, The Tank, and other venues, as well as with companies in Minneapolis and Maine. He is a performer with the dance-theater company Witness Relocation and a member of Brooklyn’s AntiMatter Collective, with whom he co-created and directed the Donner Party fantasia The Tower. For several years Philip assisted writer David Adjmi on productions including Marie Antoinette (ART, Soho Rep) and the notorious 3C (Rattlestick). He holds a BA from Bowdoin College, is an alum of the La MaMa Directors Symposium, and is pursuing his MFA as a John Wells Directing Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University.