Stuff that happens in your personal life you can't keep out of your work," says Stephen Goldberg. The gritty Burlington playwright - who played jazz trumpet in New York City for 25 years before turning to the theater in Vermont - has staged more than 20 original plays. He's known for his difficult, down-and-out characters and his un-sanitized take on the human condition. Gold- berg has never been exactly upbeat, but in the winter of 2005, his outlook was further darkened by personal tragedy: His wife, singer-songwriter Rachel Bissex, died at age 49 of complications from breast cancer.
Everyone deals differently with grief; Goldberg turned his into art. Norwich filmmaker Nora Jacobson is currently working on Gone, based on a screenplay Goldberg wrote in the months immediately following Bissex's death. And next week, Flying on the Bright Wings of Despair, Goldberg's first new play to be staged since she died, runs in Montpelier and Burlington.
Flying is his first two-character play. Jordan Gullikson and Genevra MacPhail play Sid and Stella - "two people at very intense points in their lives," Goldberg says. "It's pretty much people playing out stuff till they can't play it out anymore. The old question of to be or not to be."
The theme may sound like standard Goldberg fare. But structurally the play is "kind of a departure for him," suggests longtime friend Paul Schnabel, who has acted in several Goldberg plays. "It's a comment on theater and theatricality. It's a very stimulating show about the nature of what is real and what isn't real."
Unlike in the past, "I don't have a producer," Goldberg says. "I don't have anyone to do advertising." Although he and Bissex never critiqued one another's work, they did provide significant technical and administrative support. Doing without it has proven difficult, he notes. "I realize how much Rachel would help me doing this stuff."
Although Flying doesn't deal with the death directly, it is about despair. There was a point when I had faith in humanity, the character Sid says at one point, when I thought people were not just out to screw each other, fuck over each other . . . eat each other's emotions like a child's addiction to candy or Christmas mornings or the terrible disappointment on birthdays, not ever getting what you really wanted.
Goldberg describes his characters as "lost, looking for something they can't find." But that doesn't mean the play is entirely bleak. "With most of my stuff, when it gets dark there's a certain humor in it," he suggests. Also evident is his love of language. This play may be his "most obscene," Goldberg suggests, but he also believes it's his "most poetic." To demonstrate, he reads from a monologue of Stella's, his words coming quick and rhythmic, like scat singing or beat poetry.
My ass my body my mind my heart my sex my ambition my mortality my morality my grave my birth. Who is the me that is calling it mine, calling it me? It's a voice that comes through me, out of my mouth into unknown ears. My shoes my car my lover my husband my children my work my mirror my disease my home my sadness my pain my smile my fingernails my nail polish my fingerprint my eyeballs my hope my future my past my dreams, as if it wasn't me. Who is it that is saying my or me?
Writing this play was not cathartic, Goldberg insists. "I didn't need a cathartic experience." Losing Bissex is "not something I'm going to get over or get past. It's like living with an amputation, only worse."
That unfiltered emotion is explored explicitly in the film Gone. Jacobson and producer/director Allan Nicholls "sort of talked me into writing it," Goldberg says.
Jacobson remembers it differently. "Steve and I had been talking for a while about doing a project together with Rachel while Rachel was still alive," she recalls. "When Rachel got sick again, we were hoping that she could be part of it anyway." As it turned out, she was, but in a different way. The film is "about a man grieving over the death of his beloved wife," according to Jacobson. "Other people said, 'It's too soon, you can't make a film about what you're going through, it's too raw.'"
Goldberg wrote a series of disconnected scenes, which Jacobson filmed. The next step will be to decide how to connect them into a whole. "They may be interwoven, some may reoccur," she says. "It won't have a typical narrative with a beginning, middle and end. It will be more like poetry or free-form jazz."
In one scene, shot shortly after Bissex died, Goldberg walks beside the lake near his house. The ice is just beginning to break up, and as he walks along alone, he holds his arm out, as if cradling an invisible companion.
In another, Bissex's friends load a boat with driftwood and send it onto the water. The event was scripted and acted out for the film, "but it was also a ritual, and it was about Rachel," Jacobson says. This blurring has always been part of Goldberg's approach, she suggests. "Life for him and art are one and the same."