Few writers have made an impression on the modern cultural consciousness like David Foster Wallace. Like many, New Yorker Daniel Fish was moved by the late literary genius’ work, and was inspired to create a tribute to him through theater. The result, A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace, opens Thursday for three nights of performances at the Walker Art Center.
“I wanted to spend more time with it,” Fish says of Wallace’s oeuvre. “I wanted to have a conversation with it. Reading it wasn’t enough. I wanted to find a way to engage with it more.”
While doing research, Fish came across audio of Wallace’s work, including books on tape, television, and radio interviews, and recordings of public readings. “I was really struck by the sound of his voice and the way he read his writing, the precision with which he read it,” Fish says. “There’s a kind of gentleness and slowness to his voice. It changed how I read it.”
Fish made the recordings the basis of the performance, which he describes as “highly crafted.” It is also spontaneous and unpredictable. During the piece, a multitude of tennis balls fly by and at a handful of headphoned actors onstage. Fish mixes audio nightly. He decides which actor gets what audio to listen to, as well as the duration of the clips projected onscreen, which last anywhere from two seconds to 30 minutes. The tempo of the text also changes, which keeps the performers on their toes.
“It’s more about the fact that it can change; the fact that it’s being mixed every night and the actors have to be totally alert,” Fish explains. “It’s that edge of alertness that I’m interested in. It’s something that’s in Wallace’s writing. He’s always asking, ‘How awake can you be? How present can you be?’ That seems to be something that the writing is replete with. I wanted to try to capture that in the performance.”
The tennis element was included as a nod to Wallace’s youthful stint as a semi-professional tennis player, as well as the essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” Wallace’s take on Beyond Center Court, the former world champion’s autobiography. In the review, Wallace eloquently tears apart what he calls her “breathtakingly insipid” tale, and claims Austin turned him off of the genre of sports memoir.
“It’s an extraordinary essay,” Fish says. “On the surface, it’s about Tracy Austin. It’s about tennis and great athletes. But for me, it’s really one of the great essays about acting and performance, and about intuition and impulse.”
The title of Fish’s show comes from Wallace’s infamous essay on a luxury cruise experience he originally published in Harper’s magazine. “There’s a kind of fanatical detail with which he describes this experience that’s funny and dark and maddening at times,” Fish says. “But what’s beautiful is his generosity with which he views the world. Even when he was criticizing something, even when he was making fun of something, there’s a kind of fascination and an openness to what’s before him that I find incredibly heartening.”
As for what else audiences can expect from Fish’s show, which was initially developed at the University of Rochester with students in 2010, he’s tight-lipped, claiming that any further description would be a “spoiler.” So prepare to be surprised, and to fall in love with Wallace’s writing all over again.
IF YOU GO:
A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace
Walker Art Center, McGuire Theater
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
$20 Thursday; $25 Friday and Saturday