America’s Riot Group have returned to Britain with their new play Switch Triptych, a bleak expressionist take on the replacement of women telephonists by machines. Two years ago they performed the anti-war play Pugilist Specialist to packed houses across Britain. The group’s writer and director Adriano Shaplin talked to Keith McKenna about their work.
‘Pugilist Specialist was popular’, explained Adriano, ‘because it resonated with the anti-war protest, and as a play it doesn’t present the kind of uncomplicated stereotype about the war machine which disables our ability to protest. I tried to show the marines as a place where all sorts of ideas are clashing up against each other, and I tried to show that marines are working people with divergent opinions about what they do. The war in Iraq was the culmination of everything I’d observed and hated about American and British political culture. The peak of my understanding and rage.’
A distinctive feature of a Riot Group performance is a mood of terrifying menace. This is partly achieved by a tightly written dialogue. It is a witty, highly stylised version of everyday speech:
‘I didn’t want to make it all about the insanity, brutality and pathology of the marines. I wanted to make it a polite dialogue and tense discussion, a debate. I wanted a mood of stillness to convey the terrifying tension of war and the rhetoric of war. Our demonstrative style and minimalist sets came from a lack of money. Facing front was a way of distracting the audience from the fact that we were playing in a basement or a cafe where there was very little atmosphere. The style was created in this theatre of limitations.’
Women are at the centre of Adriano’s plays. They are always strong, articulate and believable:
‘Part of the idea behind the Riot Group has always been the lead role of a woman. Too many dramatists are just writing about boys and men. There are few good parts for women. If you find any roles where the women are interesting multi-dimensional characters you have to hold on to them.
‘Pugilist questionmarks the entire category of the feminine, and how it is utilised in politics and by the war machine as the depository of everything bad. Anything we don’t like about ideas, men, women, homosexuals, gets put into this constructed category of the feminine. Stein (the female marine) is a type of feminist who believes that the way to escape sexism is through success and through commitment to the plan. She thinks that the rules are neutral but she finds that they are not, that they bear the stamp of people’s twisted desires.’
Stephanie Viola, who gave a passionate but controlled performance as Lt Stein, is playing Lucille, the central character in Switch Triptych. She met Adriano while studying at New York’s prestigious Sarah Lawrence School. Adriano talked about the way that experience shaped the early Riot Group:
‘One of the reasons that myself, Drew (another cast member) and Steph were friends was because we were scholarship kids on academic probation for four years at Sarah Lawrence School. Lots of students there have parents who are millionaires. Wreck the Airline Barrier (an earlier play) was all about being transplanted from working class backgrounds into this moneyed, privileged world, and being exposed to its racism, classism and sexism. It was like us sending the characters to hell. At the same time it was about us – we were wondering, fearing we would be absorbed by this world.’
Switch Triptych focuses on how women telephone operators in New York in 1919 respond to the announcement that new machines are to replace their jobs. A central debate takes place between the established worker Lucille, a passionate Catholic who has survived by playing the system, and the colder union organiser June who wants them to take collective action.
‘It is tragic the way women are absented by history. Even the women we worship are hollowed-out shells. Switch Triptych is a funny play about the eradication of an all-female workforce in New York City. It was supposed to be progress but if it is not in the interests of humanity then it’s not progress.’
Switch Triptych opens at the Soho Theatre on 5 September
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