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Lisa Dwan: The 'privilege' and 'trauma' of performing works by Samuel Beckett

Lisa Dwan performs
Lisa Dwan performs "Rockaby" by Samuel Beckett.
Lisa Dwan performs
Lisa Dwan performs "Footfalls" by Samuel Beckett.

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The Irish actress Lisa Dwan is a descendant, of sorts, of Samuel Beckett’s preferred collaborators: Billie Whitelaw, Beckett’s favorite actress and muse, mentored Dwan; and she’s worked with the longtime Beckett director, Walter Asmus, on her current production. Now, Dwan is bringing that production — three of Beckett’s late plays — to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

All three of the short plays explore different aspects of trauma: “Footfalls” is about a daughter pacing outside the door of her ailing mother; “Rockaby” is about an old woman rocking herself to sleep and, ultimately, to her death.

But it’s the opening play, “Not I,” that proves the biggest challenge for both the audience and Dwan. Staged as Dwan's disembodied lips reciting a brutal, breakneck-pace monologue, the piece has provoked panic attacks in audience members and breakdowns in its regular performers.

But Dwan insists that Beckett, though difficult to access for some, was "not a fetishist." Rather, his aim was to give a performance of consciousness itself — to "put the mind on stage." And despite his stringent stage directions, he certainly wanted his actors to imbue their performances with emotion — "all of it."

When The Frame’s John Horn met with Lisa Dwan, he began by asking about how the three plays fit together — and with Beckett's larger body of work.


I guess [these plays are] all part of the same trajectory that Beckett was working towards. Beckett distilled his poetry, almost taking a kind of homeopathic version to language, where you pare it back to its finer essence. What you're left with is something incredibly potent. And a lot of Beckett's late plays work quite well together. 

Did he write these three pieces imagining they would be performed together?

No. In fact, they've never been performed together by one actress. But they fit beautifully together, and that was a gorgeous surprise for us. And I really didn't think it was possible to do anything other than "Not I" in a night.

Because "Not I" was so physically demanding?

It's so demanding. 

We should explain the physical staging conceit. You're strapped into a framing device. Imagine a piece of wood with a hole in it. Your face protrudes from it. So all we see is your mouth.

It's like a waterboarding device.

You're blindfolded, you have earplugs. You're strapped into this board. 

Yeah. Beckett wasn't a kind of fetishist. What he did want was the mouth to remain in light. It's a very tiny light, so it's very precise. You've never sat in a theater as black as the space that we create. Through the blackness emerges a disembodied pair of lips. In order for me to stay in light, it's necessary for my head to be tied into a kind of head harness. I've got black makeup from just below my cheekbones to under my chin. Then I place a blindfold over my eyes and a pair of tights over my head. Then my arms are placed in these brackets.

What happens in the sensory deprivation, even though you know the lips aren't moving, is they start to oscillate across the stage. And out of these lips is bursting the most kind of violent stream of consciousness, spoken at the speed of thought. And Beckett wanted it to bypass your intellect and play on the nerves of the audience, which is why he wanted it at such speed.

Beckett was famous for the precision of his stage directions. He said about performance, Don't act. No color. What does that mean to you in terms of the freedom to interpret a role when there are certain limits he puts on a performance?

I'm very glad you asked me this question. I think people get really preoccupied with it for all the wrong reasons. Billie Whitelaw told me that one time she was in rehearsals for "Not I" and Beckett said, "Billie — four lines down, three lines in. Can you make those three dots two dots?"

An ellipsis.

Yes. He removed a dot. And that's kind of vital. Most of Beckett is a profound musicality. 

You first performed ["Not I"] in 2005, before you met Billie Whitelaw. Do you look back at what you did kind of pre- and post-Billie Whitelaw?

Yeah. I'm extremely lucky that I never met her first, so I found my own access point. Billie Whitelaw helped me in unpacking that often misused direction from Beckett, which is that he didn't want any color. I remember when I first performed "Not I," I was trying to adhere to that. When I met Billie a year later, she noticed that I was putting this bland monotone on it. She said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I heard Beckett didn't want actors acting." She said, "That's rubbish. He wanted all of it. He wanted all the emotion."

You've been doing "Not I" for 11 years now, and you're leaving it behind. What led you to decide you needed to leave it at this point?

Were it not so challenging, I'd love to keep going with it. But it takes its toll. I've damaged my neck. I'm putting my body and my mind into a state of trauma on a nightly basis. I think it's time to move on.

And it's been the most extraordinary, expansive experience. As a young, blonde, blue-eyed woman, it's a gorgeous privilege to have your body removed. What I feel about this piece — I don't hear it as a smooth stream-of-consciousness. It's a cacophony. It's an explosion of thoughts happening all at once. I feel that it's a soundscape of consciousness.

Beckett put the mind on stage. And all of us have an access point to that.

Lisa Dwan will perform The Beckett Trilogy from April 7-10 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

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