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Innovation at the Margins
I first encountered Susan Tenneriello’s captivating and mysterious work when I read her Tick Tock in anticipation of a reading at Paper Beats Rock, a series that I was co-producing. The words her twisted and comical characters speak fly out of their mouths with the velocity of a whirling top. At once lyrical and satiric, Tick Tock tells the story of neighbors bewildered by an unseen man who just moved into the neighborhood upsetting their sense of balance and decorum. Tenneriello shows suburbia to be the eerie landscape of displacement that it is, where people’s submerged tensions turn them into little ticking time bombs. The plot explodes more than it resolves, and after reading it I knew that I glimpsed the reality that realism just can’t get- that invisible emotional stream pulsing beneath the surface.
“I’ve always been interested in how to access the vocal rhythms of character and dialogue in a heightened form, and how stories don’t really end. They intersect, disappear and reappear, connect and modulate. For me rhythm is compositional, musical, poetic, complicated like us,” explains Tenneriello of her inventive style where characters don’t simply speak, they erupt in discursive symphonics. The playwright’s dense, poetic dialogue challenges her audience to think about the complex relationship between emotion, thought and word. Self admittedly drawn to “breakage, peripheral states, [and] outcasts,” Tenneriello mines the fringes to examine the “mythologies we believe in or invent” that are breaking down, in decay, or are spurring our demise.
Tenneriello’s first encounter with theatrical experimentation came from her mother who used to perform impersonations after family dinners. “We would bang our silverware on the table calling for ‘imitations’ at the end of the meal. She would disappear and return dressed like one of us in a bathrobe or jacket, and parody us. It was hysterical.” Tenneriello retains some of this loving mockery in her own characterizations. In Rubber Room, her play about two teachers stuck in a room prohibited from teaching due to wackadoo Board of Ed. bureaucracy, the two women are drawn by their creator with much compassion. They are crazy in a crazy world. They are familiar types — the burn out and the zealot — and we know their fall from idealism all too well. Tenneriello, a Professor of Theatre at Baruch College, depicts her characters’ dilemma with comedy, shading their bizarre situation with humor, shedding light on the farce that mostly is modern life.
In 2009, she spent nine months working with director Jerry Ruiz on Mirage at the Soho Rep writer/director lab, a developmental program that supports writers searching for new theatrical expressions. Recently, Tenneriello has been working in collaboration with a group of writers and dramaturg Lynn Thomson on Exodus Code, a piece produced by America-In-Play, a company dedicated to mining America’s theatrical legacy for the inspiration of new work. Exodus Code is a collaboratively written piece based on the “Bintel Brief,” an advice column that appeared in the early 20th century Yiddish newspaper, Forverts where readers sent the newspaper letters of complaint, personal expression, or questions. On the collective writing process Tenneriello says,”the script came together not as separate pieces but as a collective fabric of voices and styles.” Exodus Code was shown at the Tenement Museum in Lower Manhattan, as part of the museum’s mission to explore the history of immigrant life in New York.
For Tenneriello, who goes to the fringes to find the unseen illogic of an irrational world, the past serves as a way “to gain insight into the now.” I look forward to seeing what she discovers.