Tim Sanford on Fly By Night
States of consciousness, even when successive, permeate one another, and in the simplest of them the whole can be reflected. –Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will
What does it look like when time stops? –Fly by Night
A genial Narrator steps forward to set the story of Fly by Night for us. His manner is reassuring, parabolic, and just a little bit halting. It’s a story of three: two sisters from South Dakota, and a sandwich maker. It’s a story with a funeral and a guitar and a band. t’s a story about everyday life and the vastness of the starry sky. It’s a story about a simpler age. And it’s a story about now.
Midway through the first act, the Narrator throws a scarf over his head and transforms somewhat whimsically into a gypsy fortune-teller. She confronts Miriam, the more credulous and bright-eyed of the musical’s two sisters, and spirits her up to her salon where she offers three portentous “signs:” three numbers, a hint of a melody, and the riddle quoted above. Miriam doesn’t quite know what to make of her fortune. She wants to believe and begins to act as if they are true. Then she gets cold feet and runs away. Later in the second act, two climactic events seem to provide two equally viable, somewhat obvious answers to the riddle. But in truth, the play’s engagement with the experience of human time runs much deeper. Fly By Night’s attitude toward time brings to mind the work of the great French philosopher Henri Bergson, who spent his entire career writing about the nature of time. I actually think the innate Bergsonism of this attitude lies latent in the more modest signs of the numbers and the melody. Humans experience time in two ways. Our brains want to quantify time, like the three numbers the gypsy intones. But the living experience of time is fluid and nonlinear, like music; the present cannot be separated from the past. Bergson calls this aspect of time “Duration.” He actually points to music and dance as apt metaphors for durational time.
So let us return to the riddle, “What does it look like when time stops?” Bergson would say it can’t. Time is continuous. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t seem like time stops sometimes. Things change. Something ends. Something begins. In the play, this notion gets tangled up in questions of love and fate. (It is actually the fifth of six plays this season to ponder what we mean by the term, “soul mate.”) Can we avoid fate? Or do we embody it? What does it mean to “fall” in love? Is it really that passive? Does love choose us or do we choose it? The play movingly embodies these questions without necessarily answering them. But it does articulate a kind of up-to-date Bergsonism, with a cosmological perspective. Nothing really ends. We are made from the cosmic dust of the Big Bang. Time permeates itself, as our experiences with others interpermeate with theirs.
A week ago, I had a meeting with James MacDonald, the director of Caryl Churchill’s brilliant Love and Information currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theater. I was surprised to learn from him that she wrote many of the scenes from the play well over a decade ago and put them away. What struck me was that her decision to pull it back out of her drawer was clearly informed by time, both her maturation as a person and as an artist. Something clearly clicked into place organically and showed her what she had, and what it could become. I have felt something analogous in watching Fly by Night evolve over the years. As the writers discuss in the interview within, the piece began its life at the Yale Cabaret when they were all students there five years ago. It first came to my attention three years ago, before its first production at Theaterworks in Palo Alto. What has impressed me most about their process is how organically the authors have allowed the piece to evolve. Maybe because two of them were not trained in musical theater, they haven’t sought quick fixes to the play’s issues and questions. So as they have matured, both as writers and as human beings, they have come to understand what it is they have made, and Fly By Night’s growth reflects this understanding. Because true artists are not fabricators: they are listeners, intuiters. And I am so proud to help these artists bring such a special, original musical to its rightful fulfillment.