KARMA KHARMS (OR, YARNS BY KHARMS)
In the summer of 2011, I was invited to be a lead artist in Target Margin Theater’s Last Futurist Lab. Suddenly, it was autumn and time to pick a Russian Futurist whose work I’d respond to theatrically.
Target Margin’s John Del Gaudio and Kate Marvin called a meeting and we leafed through a dramaturgical packet. It was bonkers! I called dibs on Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing. Kharms’s text leaps off the page with anti-theatrical zest. The stories—if you can call them that—are strange, hilarious, dark and confounding. How could I even attempt to rival Kharms’s perfect imperfection? I decided to not add any original text, but this didn’t quell my fear of how to proceed.
I spoke with a bevy of experts, translators and theater makers, but a last minute scheduling snafu landed me as director. “There’s a first and last time for everything!” I joked. I grew more petrified. I called meetings with all the directors I know. “Get a script. Keep the cast small,” they advised. I listened politely but went in the opposite direction. It felt more in the Kharmsian spirit to fail big and spectacularly. Plus, I wanted to create a Russian village that would reflect the motley mix of a NYC subway car.
The cast size fluctuated. I’d tell people about the project and forget who’d signed on. A group of 12 became 20 and then simmered down to 16—the perfect number for a square dance, which Rebecca Marzalek-Kelly choreographed. I have poor visual aesthetics so I enlisted origami master Sok Song to create a live origami set that would unfold throughout the course of the evening. I was keen on the notion of “Kharms conventions”, where fans gather and read his stuff, and was similarly intrigued by origami conventions where people fold. What if a scheduling mishap occurred resulting in dueling conventions? This seemed comprehensible in a Kharms universe.
I was anxious to use the roof of the Bushwick Starr for an outré stomp-filled dance-song finale. I created bare bone tunes set to Kharms’s weirdo poems and Josh Chang whipped them into real music. I loved the end, when the five origami artists and 16 actors angrily exited the theatre and the audience reluctantly followed out to the roof. The show was in many ways as dreadful, delightful and abrupt as the Kharm’s stuff on the page.