Tabula Rasa

By Rick Curtiss, Dramaturg

To sell a show like Travesties, you have have some big names, but what is a name anyway?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet—

is a popular phrase muttered by one of Shakespeare’s star crossed lover’s. It is oft quoted but perhaps not perfected until The Simpsons added,

Lisa: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Bart: Not if you called ’em Stenchblossoms.
Homer: Or Crapweeds.
Marge: I’d sure hate to get a dozen Crapweeds for Valentine’s Day. I’d rather have candy.
Homer: Not if they were called Scumdrops.

Names are arbitrary—Names are essential.

Names aren’t my strong point.

Mindy Khalin rejects the idea of someone being bad at names in her memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? She posits that being bad at names is just an excuse for laziness. While I don’t doubt that personal laziness is a factor in my inability to successfully recall names; I wonder if might there be some poorly understood, underlying, biological, and/or social factors that at least play some role in name recognition?

Take Cats for instance.

The T.S. Elliot penned Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has a song called “The Naming of Cats.” This song illustrates that cats have three names, one everyday name, one special unique name and one name that only the cat herself knows. All the cats in Cats use their second name—the one that is wholly unique to them; and I must say, that in this one aspect of social progress; I think cats have us beat. I can always associate one unique name with the one unique cat and no other. Ask me the name of my roommates, and I have about a fifty-fifty shot of naming all three within ten seconds. Ask me the name of the railway cat and I will answer Skimbleshanks, instantly, every time.

There is a power in uniqueness, and power in creating a unique name. It is both a clean slate and an endless opportunity. When I tell people, my name is Rick, I am instantly compared, consciously or not, to all the other Ricks that person has known. If you name your child Adolf, it automatically comes with (hopefully unwarranted) baggage, but an original name is only defined by the originator.

Which is part of the reason I think Madonna was so successful. Sure, she wasn’t the original, but it was original enough to set her distinctly apart.

See also, Lenin


Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, isn’t well known. The name seems exotic and unique, but in its original late nineteenth century Russian context, I’m sure it felt as arbitrary as John Smith. Vladimir had some crazy ideas as he got older, spent some time in exile, and eventually adopted the name Lenin—which has much wider circulation. Derived from a river he was living near during exile, Ulyanov used Lenin as a pen name to protect himself, but it became something more. Lenin became the voice of a revolution; a name that didn’t have to fight thousands of other arbitrary associations. Lenin became the blank canvas on which the Bolsheviks could build the Communist Party. Lenin became powerful in a way that Ulyanov never could. Lenin unintentionally guaranteed the number one spot in a google search.

Similar things could be said about Stalin. Stalin; the name, is derived from steel. Stalin as a given name became popular after the Stalin became popular. Almost one-hundred years later Stalin is still permanently embedded in the minds of many as the one singular sensation Joseph Stalin.

Played by Chris Hults

Lenin and Stalin—they were the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer of communism.
It’s no wonder that Lenin was included as a character in Travesties. What one name had as much power in 1917? Continue reading

Spoiler Alert

By Rick Curtiss, DramaturgUlysses

“he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and dream him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I say yes I will Yes.”

James Joyce, Zurich 1915

That is the last—I hesitate to call it line—phrase from James Joyce’s Ulysses. It finishes a thirty page, punctuation free, stream of consciousness section which consists of the thoughts of Molly Bloom as she lays next to her husband. The last thing she remembers before the novel ends is the moment her husband proposed to her.

Which is, I guess, what one could call a spoiler—

But a benign one I assure you. Not that all spoilers are benign. Most novels are better when experienced without any pre(conceived)peratory information about the end, but I could go through the entire plot of Ulysses in a couple of paragraphs, every major detail displayed, and I wouldn’t consider it an offense, or even an enhancement. It is just the facts.

Joyce didn’t seem concerned with the “is,” the course of action that led from one event to the next, a rubegoldbergian set up of potential disaster triumphantly avoided or tragically brought to pass. Rather, the novels richness is found in the profound internal experiences of the everyday. The experience of reading is the reward, not knowing what happens.

Played by Sierra Docken (not a joke)

In “Travesties”, James Joyce is played by Sierra Docken (not a joke)

You could be told everything about going to Glacier National Park, but that doesn’t diminish going there. Tasting food isn’t spoiled by being told what it tastes like. It’s almost impossible to spoil Joyce’s novel by only describing its contents.

But Ulysses is often spoiled. It’s been called among others things: difficult, confusing, nigh-impenetrable, not for high-schoolers, not for undergrads, hard to follow, obscene. I have little evidence to confront any of those qualifiers, but instead of being spoiled by giving away too much information, Ulysses is spoiled by not giving enough. When initially described, it becomes an esoteric icon to be read about but not to read. What is left unsaid is that Ulysses benefits from context, and preparation. Every moment in the novel doesn’t need to be understood to be enjoyed, and pausing to think, re-reading, and skipping around are not signs of incompetence in the writer or the reader. It’s difficult, yes, but a challenging read can be immensely rewarding.

Ulysses is not unique in this regard. Continue reading

In Vino Veritas

By Rick Curtiss, Dramaturg

trav·es·ty  /ˈtravəstē/

  1. a false, absurd, or distorted representation of something.

As the dramaturg for Travesties, I get the ever less rare opportunity of discovering the undiscovered, or more bluntly, accessing the inaccessible. Travesties is the kind of show where having a healthy grasp of Romanian geography, early twentieth century British fashion, and Leopold Bloom will serve the audience well, but who has the time?

Rather lets put aside the notion of that learning precedes understanding with some good old fashioned-

In Vino Veritas

It’s a Latin phrase. It means “in wine, truth.” Which is to say, “The truth is in the wine,” or “after drinking wine the truth flows free,” or maybe it’s “the complex nature of the metabolic processes which occur after drinking alcohol (wine included) results in an altered chemical brain state which in turn lets the imbiber process ideas in a different way, allowing previously unseen truth to be recognized.”

The idea that alcohol can influence truth and understanding goes as far back as the fifth century BC Greek “father of history” Herodotus. He asserted that if a Persian decided something while drunk, they should consider it while sober. Since then, authors have added that if the Persians made a decision while sober, they should reconsider it while drunk.

All it takes is some sugar, water, a microscopic fungus, and you too can have your own second opinion.

I admit, as a dramaturg and supporter of unconsidered viewpoints the vino possibilities are curiously compelling–that there might be another dramaturg hidden in my head, just a couple of compromises away. Yet I am faced with a quandary both moral and institutional. I am a student at BYU which is constantly reaffirmed by Facebook posts, comments in class, and the annual Princeton Review as the No. 1 Stone-Cold sober school in United States. We are so sober that it can only be understood in terms of the WWE wrestler Steve Austin. At BYU sobriety is never without the stone-cold modifier. Every morning in the mirror I repeat the affirmation—I’m sober, but am I stone-cold sober? I imagine we all do. Inevitably, I can only wander down this dramaturgical path to drinking so far. I never crest the hill of understanding where I say to Herodotus, “Right on man, I totally get that.” By choice, I am forever separated from my inaccessible drunken self.

And yet-

The following is a recording from an Interview that dramaturgs Jessa Cunningham and I conducted with Roger Sorenson and Megan Sanborn Jones, the directors of The Importance of Being Earnest and Travesties respectively. Continue reading