Daniel Sack is an Associate Professor of English holding a joint appointment with the Commonwealth Honors College and is the author of 'After Live: Possibility, Potentiality, and the Future of Performance' (University of Michigan Press, 2015) and 'Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape' (Routledge, 2016). Discussing the evolution of his relationship with theater, Professor Sack addresses how his experiences have influenced his teaching, research, writing, and thinking.
When did you first develop an interest in theater, and what inspired you to teach about it?
I grew up within a mile of two barns that had been turned into theatres: one stood on a community farm with a potter’s wheel and loom upstairs; the other was a professional summer theatre where the likes of Robert Duvall started his career. I began taking acting classes at both when I was about ten or eleven and became fascinated with the theatre, seeing whatever I could see on nearby stages and reading the plays I could find in my public library. In college, I studied theatre and creative writing, and sought out ways that the two paths might intersect or run in parallel. I taught some acting classes during college, but found myself again and again drawn to the philosophical and sociological questions that surrounded this peculiarly antiquarian artform. What did it mean to give body and breath in the present to a script that may be centuries old? What was this strange version of public and private feeling that collided in performance? And why did I find myself most alive in those moments when things went wrong, an entrance missed, a line forgotten? These are the questions that guided my writing and my teaching, questions that continue to inspire me.
Who is your favorite playwright and why?
This is a difficult question since I spend as much time thinking about performance makers and performance artists as I do thinking about playwrights. For example, I’ve followed the Italian director and artist Romeo Castellucci for more than fifteen years now. He stages work around the world that leans heavily on images and sounds, manifesting the impossible and the miraculous, while very rarely employing more than a few words. His work has exerted a huge influence on my thinking. In terms of playwriting, I find myself returning again and again to the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. As it happens, I am teaching a seminar on his work this Spring , so he is once again on my mind. Beckett pursues an art of reduction and exhaustion, narrowing our attention to the finest point: perhaps an isolated figure writing, or speaking, or listening, or simply breathing. His work exposes the vulnerability of the barest life. I think that he arrives at a kind of purity of focus that is wholly his own. It is at times a terrifying and lonesome purity, but it is also deeply affirmative of experience outside normative understandings of what it means to be human. This past summer, for example, I saw a staggering performance of his play Not I that moved me a great deal. Not I is a play about person who cannot identity with her voice (thus the title), and it famously reduces the stage to a single mouth lit in an otherwise pitch dark space, a mouth that cannot stop itself from speaking ceaselessly. It is usually an experience of torturous claustrophobia and one of the most grueling challenges for an actress. In this performance, however, the part was played by a woman with Tourette’s syndrome and her identification with the world described punctured that gloom with surprising moments of defiant and ecstatic affirmation of a life lived outside. It was a revelatory performance.
In your book Samuel Beckett’s 'Krapp’s Last Tape' you analyze Samuel Beckett’s play that addresses universal themes of memory and aging. Why did you decide to dedicate a whole book to this play?
This project was something of a fortuitous gift. The publisher Routledge asked me if I’d like to contribute to a new series of short volumes, each devoted to an individual play. They told me I could write about whatever I wanted to write about and I immediately thought of Krapp’s Last Tape. It is a short play—maybe 30-40 minutes in performance—but it is so full that I struggled keeping my book down to 80 pages. Because the character Krapp is a failed writer, who devotes his life to a work that no one ever reads, I feel he represents a dark warning for my own life. I had just finished my first full-length book when I began to draft my reflections on Krapp, so his predicament felt particularly close to home. Beyond this, I was interested in the ways in which we identify with characters in plays when we watch them, and how writing about a play does something similar for the writer.
This project also allowed me to explore a bit more of a personal engagement with my critical writing, to discover a middle ground between creative and critical writing. That’s something I’ve been interested in developing both in my own work and in my teaching. Another book I published last year asks nearly 100 scholars and artists from the US, UK, and Canada to imagine scenarios for a theatre of the mind--impossible events or events that should be possible. The outcome, Imagined Theatres: Writing for a Theoretical Stage, has a host of one-page scripts, stories, and manifestos describing these hypothetical acts. Many of them are deeply personal and deeply creative, though also engaged in critical and historical analysis through other means. Here at UMass, I’ve offered courses that ask students to explore experimental forms of criticism and to embrace a more personal essayistic approach to their writing. It is something I want to keep developing and the book on Krapp’s Last Tape gave me the license to take a first move in that direction.
In such a virtual and technology-based world, why do you think live performance, specifically theater, is important? How can it stay relevant in today’s society?
This is a great question and one that I’ve been carrying with me for a long time. I firmly believe that we need places and times to come together and experience an event in common—not in “real time” from a distance, but in the company of others—laughing, crying, or just watching together. In the theatre we come together to form a temporary community. Perhaps we disagree or do not understand each other, but we are in each other’s company. That feels more pressing now than it did ten or twenty years ago. I’m sure it will grow more urgent in the time to come. But the theatre is also changing to address these differences. We’re seeing more and more performance that involves its audience in the action, that might even cast an individual as a part to play in an immersive experience. These kinds of endeavors satisfy a desire for lived and embodied experience that might be increasingly removed in contemporary culture. We’re also seeing more theatre that leaves the theatre building and takes to the streets, to the gallery, or to other public sites to foster collective action and feeling.
You have expressed interest in the area of the lecture as performance. When you are in front of a class, do you treat it as a kind of performance? If so, how do you prepare? What runs through your mind? If not, why not? How is your teaching different from your interest in the lecturer as a performer?
I think we are always performing to some extent, whether for an external audience or just for ourselves. Even these words here are a kind of performance! But—yes—the lecture is a peculiar version of performance and I’m fascinated by the way that it involves its own scripts and expectations, how it presumes to transmit knowledge from one body to another body, in ways that borrow much from the theatre. I used to lead large lecture courses, which felt very similar to the performances I used to do as an actor. There is a back and forth between audience and lecturer that is not so removed from what happens for an actor onstage. I would draft a rough outline of a script, establish a backdrop and setting, dress up in a costume and lay out my props, then prepare an appropriate pre-show mood. Lecturing in this format is thrilling, but also exhausting--like doing a show as an actor. The kind of teaching I do here at UMass is now centered around smaller seminar-style encounters: much less scripted and much more improvisatory. This too feels a bit of a performance, but it is something we are doing together. There is a feeling in the room when we are all thinking together, discovering something new as a group. Even if I'm teaching a text I've read fifty times, that I've taught numerous times, inspiration arrives when we are all inventing something in the moment. I suppose that is where I see a deep connection between the theatrical experience and the classroom—in both cases, the thing is only truly alive when it is a shared feeling passing between bodies and minds in a common time and space.
This past August, you led the course for the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre Festival. What separates this program from other study abroad opportunities? What do you think is the biggest take-away students learn from this experience?
'Alternative Theatres: Navigating the Edinburgh Fringe' is a course that I’ve been teaching or co-teaching here at UMass for the last few years. I’m joined by my colleagues Jenny Spencer (English emeritus) and Harley Erdman (Theater), as well as a range of other performance scholars. The program takes a small group of students to Edinburgh, Scotland, for the largest theatre and books festival in the world. For the month of August every year, the city is overflowing with more than 3000 performances a day, ranging from standup comedy to site-specific performance, from circus to tragedy, and everything in between. We lead students through a curated program of 15-20 performances and then send them off to see work on their own. The festival can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate since much of the performance on show has not been performed elsewhere and is therefore mostly a mystery. Since we’ve each seen several hundred performances there, our teaching team is able to guide students through the labyrinth of possibilities and expose them to the widest range of performance from around the world. Students see 30-50 performances in two weeks--a year’s worth of performance from a range of perspectives and forms that would be impossible to see anywhere outside of New York City. For students at UMass I think it is an especially important opportunity for exposure to different ways of seeing and living from around the world. It really is an education in itself, and has been a profoundly meaningful experience for students in English, theatre, and other disciplines. This is the kind of program that I would have loved to have undertaken as a student and it means a great deal to be able to provide the opportunity for the next generation of artists, writers, and viewers.