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James Rutherford on Kafka’s Letter to My Father

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James Rutherford on Kafka’s <I>Letter to My Father</i>

by Paul Hansen 21 February, 2021

Theater organizations are continuing to creatively circumvent the social distancing requirements engendered by the pandemic.  The New York-based theater company M-34 is presenting a live stream stage adaptation of a work by an author central to the literary output of the 20th century – Franz Kafka.

Directed by M-34’s Artistic Director James Rutherford and performed by Michael Guagno, Kafka’s Letter to My Father is based on a lengthy letter which Kafka wrote to his father detailing their troubled relationship.  The letter apparently was never actually delivered to its intended recipient.

The press release for the production states “the tensions of this unresolved relationship between father and son come alive in a startling multi-camera live broadcast that allows viewers to choose their own perspective — part YouTube confessional, part hidden-camera show, part séance.”

Letter to My Father is currently in previews and officially opens on February 26 with live performances through March 28.   Tickets are pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $15. For more information and to reserve tickets, log onto https://www.m-34.org.

I posed some questions to James Rutherford who has stated that “to be successful, theater requires a commitment of energy from its audience. For this piece, we ask for your active engagement, uninterrupted time, and audio/visual isolation. It’s not a stream to have playing in the background as you scroll through the news. We are attempting to reclaim some of the immediacy of live theater: the feeling of sitting in a dark room experiencing something personal and unique. Kafka sat at the cusp of a terrifying future and wrote about his mounting horror at the world around him. We believe that engaging with his struggle can be a source of strength and resilience in the chaos of these times.”

Q. Why did you decide to present and direct a staging of Franz Kafka's Letter to My Father? 

James Rutherford: Like so many other theater professionals, I found myself in the spring of 2020 with all of my projects canceled and nothing on the horizon. Going stir-crazy in quarantine, I figured that adapting a one-person show from my graduate school days into an online performance ought to be simple enough. I was very wrong about that, but I did discover that Franz Kafka, looking out into a new and terrifying century, has a lot to teach us about the isolation, paranoia, and despair of our current time. 

Q.  The term "Kafkaesque" is bantered about a lot. How would you define the term "Kafkaesque"?

Rutherford: All in-person social or familial relationships replaced with talking into computer screens. 600,000 people dead because of institutional failure and vast public selfishness. The belief that the last great hope for our country is an anonymous government bureaucrat identified only by a single letter. 

Q. Are there any special challenges and benefits to presenting a drama through internet streaming?

Rutherford: Coming from a background in live theater, you learn that all a performance really needs is an actor, a stage, and an audience. Working online we obviously need a great deal more than that. So much equipment and software need to be working perfectly just for us to start rehearsal. At the same time, all the technology has shaken up our ideas of how an audience is supposed to engage with performance and provides for a kind of interactivity that would have been impossible in a traditional theater setting.

Q. Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about this production of Letter to My Father 

Rutherford: This is a piece for those of us who deeply miss the energy, commitment, and sustained attention that theater requires. So carve out some time for this show so that you can be free from distraction. Wear your best headphones. This production is purpose-built to reward depth of engagement and focus-- the more you bring to it the stronger an experience you’ll have.

Q. Would you like to share with us what your next projects are?

Rutherford: I am a great fan of French Symbolist plays from the 1890s that nobody likes. I translated and directed Oscar Wilde’s Salomé in 2018. Up next is Pelleas & Melisande by Maurice Maeterlinck.

[Photo credit: Eileen Meny Photography]