Alexander Borinsky on Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, Boston, Baltimore, Yiddish, and RUTH

The EST/SloanFirst Light Festival continues this Friday and Saturday with two performances of the Roughcut Workshop production of RUTH,Alexander Borinsky’s new play about a Jewish family – a father, grandfather, and three boys – in Boston in the 1950s. We meet them at a moment when a woman the father is dating is having quite an impact on every member of the family. The science in the play emerges from their interactions, which prompted our questions for the playwright:

It’s not very often that an EST/Sloan-commissioned play doesn’t have a scientist at its center (End Days and Fast Company are among the few). The science in RUTH involves young Danny’s sudden infatuation with cybernetics. Which came first for you in writing this play, the family or the science?

It started in a used bookstore in Georgia. A book called The Human Use of Human Beings caught my eye – something about the title, the design, and the author's name – Norbert Wiener. I bought it for a quarter and it sat on my shelf for two years.

All of which is to say: it started with the science. I initially proposed a play that imagined Wiener directing a school play, but I wasn't getting much traction writing that. I started writing more about the kids in the play, and then more about one kid in particular, and then about his family. 

What’s intriguing about RUTH is that you use the various interests of your characters – baseball, music, girls, dating, and really everything the characters say to each other – to illustrate what Danny is learning about cybernetics, the study of communication and control. Did you have that idea from the beginning or did it emerge as you wrote? 


I may have said something about feedback loops and dramatic structure in my initial proposal. But it took me a while to figure how to pull that off in practice. 

What kind of research on cybernetics did you do in writing RUTH?

There are some great books about Wiener and cybernetics. The Information by James Gleick was wonderful. So was Dark Hero of the Information Age, by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. I read The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn for some stuff on baseball (well, the Dodgers) and the fifties. 

Then I sort of thrashed around in a library and read bits of this and that. Cybernetics without Mathematics by Henryk Greniewski and How We Became Posthuman by N. Katherine Hayles helped in moments when I was feeling stuck. 

You’re from Baltimore and even have a play or monologue in progress you’re working on about Baltimore (I know because I’ve seen two videos of it as Hearth Gods readings). So why set RUTH in Boston? (And is it true that your play about Baltimore is being translated into Arabic?)

My mom lives in Boston, actually, and grew up around there. So I've got some Boston ties. There's a poet I love, Fanny Howe, who grew up in Boston, and her descriptions of Cambridge have stuck in my mind. Wiener grew up in the Boston area, too, and spent most of his career there. It's a city I have a little bit of a feel for, but it's true, I don't know it as well as I know Baltimore. I guess mostly it made sense to put the family somewhere plausibly within Wiener's orbit. 

And yeah, there's a version of my piece about Baltimore out there in Arabic, translated by Fadi Tofeili, who's a wonderful writer himself... I worked on it in Beirut in 2014 through a group called Masrah Ensemble – some good good people! They also translated a play by Yasser Abu Shaqra into English. Yasser was in Beirut with me, and became a friend; the idea was to frame some sort of conversation between his play, mine, and a third play, in Amharic. 

Your stage directions call for all of the grandfather’s lines to be spoken in Yiddish. How is that going to work on stage? Will you be using subtitles?

We'll have them in Yiddish, no translation. I think it's okay to be in an audience and not understand everything. Lots of people spend big chunks of their lives figuring out how to operate in languages they don't quite speak. Sometimes you won't understand, and that's okay. You'll find other ways to make do. You'll find other ways to connect, to communicate. 

Not that we're doing all that with a few lines in Yiddish, but. You know. I think it'll be nice.

You’re a member of EST/Youngblood and had one of your plays in the Bloodworks 2012 showcase. What impact has being part of Youngblood had on your writing?

It's been huge. There's no substitute for having a space to hear your stuff aloud, and to see it on its feet. Youngblood was the first place I really felt at home here, in theater. 

Besides EST/Youngblood you’re also a writer/performer with the American Centaur theater group. How does what you with them differ from what you do with EST? I’m very impressed that they got Jean-Luc Godard and Marguerite Duras to review their production of Death of American Centaur. How did you make that happen? 

It's very different, since we tend to build things together. With the exception of one show (The Kiss), there isn't a single person writing our scripts. The things we make don't sound like any one of us in particular; they sound like the joyful mess of all of us frolicking in a room together. That said, we're starting to work on a project about dads. We're doing a bunch of interviews with our own fathers. And RUTH is as much a play about fatherhood as it is about cybernetics. 

Jean-Luc Godard & Marguerite Duras on DEATH OF AMERICAN CENTAUR

As for Jean-Luc and Marguerite... mutual friends? Is that plausible? 

Which playwrights have had the most influence on you?

There are playwrights I love, who have also been teachers I've loved. Deb Margolin, who is a comedian, and a poet, and a philosopher, and a genius. Annie Baker. Anne Washburn, Erin Courtney, Mac Wellman, too. 

Playwrights tend to be really generous, lovely people. So I've been lucky to learn from other playwrights about writing but also a bit about personhood. Other writers I've got massive crushes on, some of whom don't even write plays: Kristen Kosmas, Amina Cain, Renee Gladman. Robert Walser, Anton Chekhov, Jane Austen. There are also some writers I'd count as friends, who definitely have had an influence on the way I think and write: Clare Barron, Paul Hardy, Brendan Hill, Emma Lunbeck, Jacob Eigen.

What’s next for Alexander Borinsky?

I'm working on a project with Rady&Bloom about oceans, and will mount The Witches, a new piece for five voices, this spring at Spoke the Hub in Brooklyn.

The First Light Festival is a three-month-long series of workshop productions and readings that is part of the play development process of The EST/Sloan Project, a joint venture of the Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theatre. RUTH was scheduled for its first reading as part of the 2014 First Light Festival but sadly had to be cancelled due to the untimely death of beloved EST member Morty Lawner, who was cast as Zalman. Roughcut Workshops of RUTH will take place at EST on January 22 and 23 at 7 PM. Tickets are free, but reservations are required.