Playwright/star Moe Angelos revives “Sontag: Reborn”


The New York Theatre Workshop is ushering Moe Angelos’s Sontag: Reborn back onto the stage this month. Directed by Marianne Weems, Sontag: Reborn is a one-woman show based on the first volume of Susan Sontag’s journals, which written between the years of 1947 and 1964 when the writer was in the turbulent teenage dream years of her late teens and early 20s. From the show’s playbill, the show portrays “a young Sontag [who] wrestles with her emerging confidence and innate insecurity[;] her diary is a refuge integral to her development as a writer and journey to womanhood…. [U]sing the Builders’ signature synthesis of poetic video and sound, this tightly-crafted story of self-discovery and sexual identity is both exuberant and intimate, exploring the private life, loves and idiosyncrasies of the iconic intellectual.”

The show consists of Sontag’s younger self, played by Angelos, sitting at her desk, surrounded by her books, writing feverishly into her journal while the older Sontag—existing on screen behind the desk—watches over her younger self.

Angelos’s show is an inspired effort to keep Sontag, and all her brilliance, alive within our cultural imaginary. Of last year’s performance, the New York Times noted that “Ms. Angelos’s text captures the inquisitive, sometimes self-lacerating tone of Sontag’s writing, as well as the daily patterns of her life, through mundane details like the lists of books she intends to read.”

While the writer died nearly a decade ago in 2004, her literary and cultural criticism, especially her “Notes on Camp,” is still revered by the academic and general publics. I was able to e-chat with Angelos about her performance, including her method and ideas behind translation, both of the journals and of the woman, onto the stage. How did you find your way to Sontag as a writer?

Moe Angelos:
I came to Susan Sontag as a writer the way I imagine many people came to her in the pre-internet era: via a book. In my early 20s, I picked a copy of On Photography up off of someone’s coffee table when I was traveling and started leafing through it and then began reading.

AE: The fiercely private public intellectual would seem a difficult subject to crack in performance—was there something particular about the first volume of her journal that grabbed you, that compelled you to create this show?

The first volume of SS’ journals, Reborn, was for me very compelling reading. Her fiery intelligence was clearly displayed from a very young age. That, combined with her will and ambition to construct herself as a serious person in dialogue with great thinkers is amazing to me. Plus she was a great writer, even at 15 and the stories she tells of her early life are vivid and rich.

AE: I remember when I first read book one of her journals I was both fascinated and, well, bored—I think I was bored by the refusal to psychoanalyze all the mundanities of the text, something I feel her son wanted to nudge the reader into doing….

[These books] are journals, not polished prose so perhaps your boredom had to do with the form, her journal or diary or notebook, which were written for her own use. I don’t know about you but in my notebooks, it’s all about my personal dramas, pretty unfiltered. I am sure you would be bored, much much more bored actually, by my notebooks. Goodness knows I am, when I am foolish enough to look back at them.

AE: How did you interpret the sexual traces of the book? How do you incorporate those traces in your show?

She wrote pretty frankly about sex, especially for the era. She had her first sexual encounter in the late 1940s, remember. As far as I understand, sex at that time was not something that was spoken about as openly as it is today. So, the context was quite different. That she wrote at all about her sexual feelings and activity is amazing, especially for someone at that time who was 15 or 16. Sex was one of her driving forces, as it is for all us humans, and that is quite clear in the journals. Sex is also hard to deal with in performance, especially in a one-person show. Though she did write about one-person sex, too, and this does not go unmentioned in the performance.

AE: And a larger question that ties into the above: how did you translate a journal—a written text for private eyes—into a public performance piece? How did you negotiate the formal changes?

This is a very good question and this was the greatest challenge in adapting the journals. And here is where my collaborators, Marianne Weems (director) and The Builders Association come in. I tried to think of the adaptation as a translation, from literary form to live animation and my terribly creative collaborators are making what were written words on a page into a living thing through their masterful design. So, a gorgeous, lush soundscape from Dan Dobson saturates amazing visuals by video designer Austin Switser and lighting designer Laura Mroczkowski and scenic designer Josh Higgason. Marianne has elegantly placed me in the middle of this dense, beautiful media, speaking the words Sontag wrote in her notebooks, animating it. The piece tries in a small way, to stage Sontag’s consciousness, her mind at work. As with all of the work of Marianne and The Builders, the visual and sonic work tightly with the text to make a whole. As a performance, the text cannot stand on its own, someone just reading SS’ journals onstage. That would not have been a good choice.

AE: Your show first premiered last year to much critical acclaim. With the publication of the second volume of Sontag’s journals, did you weave in any of that text into this version of the show?

The piece has been expanded since the second volume of Sontag’s journals were published last year and the show now goes one further year forward, through 1964. I could have gone on and on in time, as her life continued to gain momentum and get even more interesting but 1964 was an important year for her and a lot happened to bring her into the public eye. Her essays in relatively limited-circulation journals started to get attention in more mainstream publications and the ideas she was writing about critically, notably “Notes on Camp,” launched her as a public intellectual, an identity with which she had an ambivalent relationship.

AE: Would you say “Sontag: Reborn” has a politics? I ask because it seems that there is a cultural imperative to locate a “politics”—or a “greater, civic reason”—to art’s existence. How would you explain the significance of your show to potential audiences?

I suppose everything has a politics, even the attempt to make something “non-political” is a political choice and is an impossibility since we live in a political world where everything can be viewed in terms of its political relationship to other things.

Art has many functions. It can illuminate relationship or a “politics” if you like. It can provoke. It can provide comfort. It can anger us. It can deliver sheer beauty, perhaps even joy. It can remind us of our lived, live human experience and also the inverse of that, death. All of these things are valid, and they are humbling tasks for any work of art or artist.

Sontag wanted to be a creative writer, an artist and the essay form which made her famous constantly distracted her from her true passion, which was the novel, as she states in the journals and many interviews. The show shows (literally!) her fierce construction of herself, her passionate mind busy with the task of making herself into a woman who is not afraid to think big thoughts, put them out there boldly, seriously, and to face the consequences. She was very successful in those aims, driven by keen intelligence. In our Kardashian world, it is hard to imagine such a creature walking among us today. And no hate on the Kardashians there; I’m just trying to contextualize fame.

AE: On a similar note, is there a significance to the performance held on Pride Night in NYC?

Pride! I guess I don’t have to point out that Sontag was born in a pre-Stonewall reality, which was not Pride-based at all. In NYC where I live, it is perhaps difficult to remember a time when queer people were not a state-recognized minority group with our own community services center on W 13th street (love you, Center!). Today even, it is sadly not difficult to know what that non-Pride is like if you happen to live in a small town where there is not a significant queer population or culture or even a good old-fashioned queer bar.

I am delighted to get my Pride on with anyone who wants to, the last Sunday in June. Rainbows flags and pink triangles and labryses and Tegan and Sara and RuPaul for all! And just a little bit of shame, to keep us all honest.

The four week run of Sontag: Reborn will commence on May 28 and will feature an inaugural Pride Night performance of the show and a reception on May 31 with wine, snacks, and the playwright/performer Moe Angelos in attendance. Tickets, with the special code SRPRIDE, are offered at a discounted price of $35 (from the regular $65); call 212.279.4200 for more information.

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