Gertrude Stein, Guardian Angel: An Interview With Michelle Sutherland

You probably haven’t heard of Michelle Sutherland (yet). At the end of last year, she directed Gertrude Stein SAINTS! — one of the weirdest, craziest, coolest stage performances of the year. The work combines two texts by Stein — Four Saints in Three Acts and Saints and Singing — into a sort of opera-musical showcasing a multitude of American music styles, from doo-wop to Shaker music to rap. It was the only show to win more than one award at this year’s New York Fringe Festival, and it’s returning to New York soon for a three-week run at the Abrons Art Center. For a good idea of just how strange and glorious this project is, watch the video for their Kickstarter campaign, which reached its funding goal and then some.

About a month ago, I talked to Michelle, who’s currently getting her master’s in directing at Carnegie Mellon, over Skype.

We met in college at Stanford, but you were a “nontraditional student” and you had done some really cool stuff before that.

Before that, I was in a band, an eight-piece gypsy jazz ensemble. We did all original music, we toured all over the West Coast. For most of that time, it was all men and I was the only woman. So it was a really fun, very intense ride, and I learned a lot about collaboration — living with people, being with people in an artistic situation like that.

How would you describe Gertrude Stein SAINTS! — an opera? A musical?

It’s really so hard to describe, because already Gertrude Stein is presenting something completely different for theater. She’s proposing a theatrical piece that has no characters and no story arc. She says that our lives are not beginning, middle, and end. That’s not how the shape of life is — there is no story arc, we’re not characters. We’re so much more spectacular and infinite than that. So to put something on the stage that has beginning, middle, and end is to put something that’s already dead on the stage. That’s not a living structure. Isn’t that beautiful? In a way, she’s saying her text is a living thing. It’s alive. So then the job of the artist is to come and basically meet her work and get to know it over time.

I guess I see the piece as an “event.” One of the reviews described it as a “happening,” and I like that, because it has such a great historical meaning in theater.

How did this project get started?

Well, I started working on Gertrude Stein actually at Stanford. I did a little piece called Mexico, and it was with puppets. I did little rock puppets. It was just a stupid little piece, but I started to get really engaged and interested in this kind of language. These little poems or plays, they feel almost like spells that are unto themselves and can’t be defined by anything outside of them. You just have to take it for what it is.

And the thing about Four Saints in Three Acts — it’s not called Pieces of Paper in Three Acts, or Cows in Three Acts. It’s called Saints. And the reason why she writes about saints is because she says that the saint’s relationship to God is the same as the artist’s relationship to the work of Art, capital-A. So the saint worships and prays and paints and makes beer and dances and sings, and so does the artist. Something that’s happening on this stage is, you see the artist working, and that is a celebration in itself. The artist works for the culture. It’s a gift to us, what they do.

Now everyone involved is also Carnegie Mellon students, right?


So how did you get them on board? How did you pitch it to them?

Well, Gertrude Stein is from Pittsburgh, so that was one of my selling points: “Hey, Gertrude Stein is from Pittsburgh, it’s never been done at Carnegie Mellon, so don’t you want to do something crazy?” And they were like, “I mean, I guess so…”

Casting at Carnegie Mellon is really complicated because they have only BFA actors, and they’re trying to put them into slots that work for them. So usually they select the season based on that, not on the season. They’re just trying to figure out where these actors are going to go. So I was like, “I can take anyone. I can take men, I can take women, I can take five people, I can take ten. It doesn’t matter because we’re going to make it together.”

So at the end of all the casting, they just had a lot of men in that class, and they were like, “If we gave you Four Saints in Three Acts [one of the two texts used in SAINTS!], would you accept seven men?” And I was like, “Gertrude Stein is a lesbian… and I don’t think that makes any sense… and thus… I say yes. Fuck it, let’s do it!”

Gertrude Stein really hung out with the biggest macho dickheads of the art world in her time, so it was very appropriate! And it was really lovely to see, because when men are on the stage, they’re almost always represented as in conflict — in battle, in conflict with each other, there’s some competition going on. In this, it was lovely to see these seven men collaborating and just doing this beautiful thing together. All the men wrote their music together. They wrote it all in five days, five four-hour rehearsals.

Gertrude Stein really hung out with the biggest macho dickheads of the art world in her time, so it was very appropriate!

And how involved were you in that music-writing?

Not at all. Basically, I took Four Saints, I sectioned it off into ten sections, and I was like, “Pick your section, pick your genre.” And then I told them I’d see them in three hours. I just walked out of the room and came back in three hours, and I was blown away on the first day. I was like, “It worked! It fucking worked!” It was so so good.

Now in the final version, there are women also. How did that come about?

Seeing the men in Four Saints, I just wanted to see what women would do together. What does their collaboration sound like? What does their collaboration look like?

Gertrude Stein wrote another “saints” text, so I took Saints and Singing, cast women — and by this time, everyone at the school was like, “Yes, I want to be in this show so bad!” So I just cast the women, I cut the text up into ten parts, I did the same exact thing.

What I thought was interesting is when the men work, their work is more like everyone has an individual voice. There’s always a main singer, there’s very few times when they all sing together. Sometimes there’s a main singer and then all the guys are playing instruments with their voice — bass and drums and all this. The women sang together so much more. It was very interesting how that worked.

So to give us an idea of your role in the process, could you describe…I’m sure there wasn’t an “average day,” but something approximating an average day?

It’s weird, because in Four Saints, it was all men in the room, and me.

Like the band!

Yes. It was like the band. I had this conversation a few weeks ago about working co-creatively or working in an ensemble. Currently, right now, a lot of women are leading ensemble or actor-driven work. A lot of the young theater companies have women who are leading this work. Why is that?

Obviously, women are fucking oppressed. We know that — the idea that women don’t raise their hand in the classroom, we don’t speak up. There’s all this research that tells us that women don’t feel like they have a voice. And that’s definitely how I am. I’m a shy person — nobody would know that, but I’m shy — and definitely in a classroom, I feel intimidated, because I don’t know how to speak. I don’t know how to speak in that space. It’s really hard, because it is a male-constructed space, so if you fucking want to bring your tarot cards and your crystal ball in there, it’s real hard! You feel kind of crazy!

But this kind of oppression actually builds a person — perhaps, this is a theory I have. This is a good person to have as an ensemble leader, because somebody who’s an ensemble leader shouldn’t be raising their hand all the time. They shouldn’t be like, “Hey, I have a fucking idea, I have all the solutions.” That’s not a good ensemble leader.

That reminds me how Jack White did this solo album a couple years ago, and for his session musicians, he had an all-male band and an all-female band. I don’t know which takes he did with which band, but on the album, all but two of the tracks are with the female band. And it’s like, yeah, obviously they’re better at being session musicians, they’re better at collaborating, taking orders.

Better at letting other people shine, and also letting other people fail and figure it out. Because men often want to fix shit, like, “I have a solution, I will make everything better.” Because unfortunately, they’re living in a fucked-up gender paradigm, too. They’re supposed to be heroes, we demand that of them.

So what were the biggest surprises that came up during this project?

Definitely the audience reaction. I mean, I knew that I was very excited by the work, but I was surprised by how really moved people are. I mean, people were crying, every night’s a standing ovation, people were hugging me, shaking my hand. When we went to New York, outside of [experimental theater] La MaMa, there was a crowd of people, and everyone was just really turned on by what they saw.

I feel like this is the kind of work that I want to do, too, because theater needs to be relevant and not just to people who go see theater. I feel like a lot of the theater community is just floating on the rest of the theater community, like we’re all just watching each other’s work. So how do you reach out and touch other people with how powerful this medium can be?

And, you know, I think Gertrude Stein has the answer. You would think she’s not approachable, but she is approachable. When you see this turned into a song, when we see it in this pop, this American pop, what’s great is that we all know this music. We hear it and we’re like, “Got it.” And then you can immediately accept Gertrude Stein. Obviously she was way ahead of her time because when you hear her being rapped, it’s like, “Got it.”

It worked so well with rap! It was like a revelation!

Totally. Because rap is repetition and using samples, and that’s basically what Gertrude Stein’s doing on the page: a lot of sampling, a lot of repetition, so it’s perfect. And so down-to-earth and ordinary, which I also really like, because any other time I’ve seen any Gertrude Stein being done, it’s always been elevated to this high-art place, where it’s like, “Don’t touch it, it is pink and fragile.” But Gertrude Stein’s a fucking down-to-earth woman! So I really thought it was important to find the ordinariness of her language and how that’s just her… rappin’. [laughs] Gertrude Stein: rap star.

So how did you combine the two texts?

Okay, so the women enter, and they bring that text [Saints and Singing]. So all the women are doing that text, and all the men are doing the other text [Four Saints], and then the very last song is when they all get together. So it’s basically just back and forth. It worked a lot with call and response as a concept. One of the major concepts of this piece is like: “Hello.” “Hello.” Like a meeting.

That was also one of the really hard things about doing this, working with the actors. Because there’s no character. They’re like, “Am I acting? Where’s my conflict? Where’s my motivation?” I’m like, “Your motivation is that you look fucking cool, man! And you sound awesome! Doesn’t that feel good? People are looking at you, and you’re giving the gift of your talent to all these people! That’s fucking motivating enough, isn’t it?”

They got it. Once the audience came, they were like, “Oh yeah. Right.”

Who did the choreography?

They all did the choreography. They were like, “Ahh, do we have to do everything?” I’m like, “Yes. You have to do everything.”

So then it was songs and dances, and everything was in parts and pieces. My job came in at the very end, which was to stage it. Put everything together so that everyone else, the audience, could see what I saw. I think that’s what a director’s trying to do. The director is trying to get everyone else to be able to see what she sees.

What do you think Gertrude Stein’s reaction would be if she could see it?

Gertrude Stein has been an amazing guardian angel. Seriously, I swear. She’s watching over this piece, and she loves it. She would fucking love it. I just know she would. Because she likes a party! And she loves artists, and she’s even writing about artists in Saints.

She just has so much respect for the craft, that people who are artists are just giving their lives to something that nobody fucking appreciates. At least people can appreciate a preacher! People can appreciate a religious zealot: that’s a real relationship that they’re having. I don’t think people really can understand — they could if our culture acknowledged it — that the artist is also in that same relationship with the work of art. It’s as committed and as real.

She would love it. Tennessee Williams would love it. Everyone would love it!

I loved it!

You know, theater is badass, but also it can be so silly. We’re kind of trying to combat that but also totally accept it, because Gertrude Stein is completely playful and silly. There’s so much playing in the work.

Is playfulness a feminine thing? I mean, Gertrude Stein’s writing was dismissed as being childish, so maybe playfulness is regarded as being not serious/not masculine/not good. Maybe in some ways this piece is also challenging that idea. For theater to work on an intellectually deep level, it doesn’t have to be “serious” or about something. It can also be playful and fun, and that still can be intellectually rigorous. Joy and playfulness and hot pink can still be intellectually fucking brilliant.

Previously: What I’ve Learned From Three Years Without Shampoo

Lauren O’Neal is the Rumpus’s assistant editor. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, the New Inquiry, and Corium Magazine. She’s currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing in San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter here.