In telling the story of the creators of Superman, writer-director Kendra Fanconi and her team, which includes a video artist, are conjuring a reality in which live actors enter a drawn, comic-book world. It’s a dangerous place, where anything—career, love, friendship—can be erased.
The central characters in Nothing but Sky are Joe Shuster, the artist who first drew Superman, Jerry Siegel, the guy who wrote him, and Joanne Kovacs, who was the model for Lois Lane.
Chatting with the Straight in the Russian Hall, where the company is rehearsing, Fanconi points out that all three were Jewish and that DC Comics started publishing Superman in 1938. “In our play, Joe Shuster is particularly attached to the idea of Superman as a saviour who fights social injustice,” Fanconi notes. “That came out of the experience of Jews in the New World who were watching what was happening in Europe and feeling really hopeless.”
Envisioning Superman made hope possible, and in the play, creating Lois Lane makes love possible. In Fanconi’s script, both Joe and Jerry fall for Joanne. Asked if this romantic triangle is historically accurate, Fanconi answers: “Our play is based in history, but they didn’t have Twitter accounts, so we don’t have a lot of detail.”
In the play, as in life, smooth-talking Jerry marries Joanne, and Joe, the play’s central character, suffers financial ruin. Because Joe and Jerry sold the Superman character to DC Comics, they received paltry reward for the millions their creation has generated. Near the end of his life, Joe was drawing fetish porn to make a living. He lost his sight and became so palsied he could barely sign his name.
Fanconi says that the physical world of the play, which she has worked on closely with video artist Keith Murray, embodies the creative processes of its characters. “When we go to Joe’s apartment early in his life,” she explains, “it’s a sketch of an apartment with a pencil sketch of a chair projected on a real chair.” The set, which William Hales designed with Murray, features two levels, sliding panels that act as projection screens, three rear projectors, and two front projectors. This combination allows Fanconi to create five-panel comics in some sequences. It also allows Superman himself to enter Joe’s apartment to return his wayward cat.
Most importantly, Fanconi says, “We’re looking for ways in which the drawn world becomes a reflection of the characters’ emotional life.” She goes on: “The scenography of the play parallels the process of making a comic book,” and the visual accumulation and deterioration in the play’s design echoes Joe’s personal rise and descent. “You go from a blank-page blank stage through pencil sketches and inking,” Fanconi notes. “The pencil sketch is erased. And then you get panels and colour and word bubbles, and all of those things that you associate with the comics. It’s cumulative. Then it all falls apart as they lose the rights to Superman and Joe starts to go blind and the relationships go sour. There’s an image in which there’s a kind of avalanche of the comic page, where individual letters tumble off and colours drain out.”
Fanconi says that the play’s concerns with dissolution and disillusion are close to her heart these days. “You know, I’m in my 40s,” she confides, “and there were a lot of things that I’d hoped for: ‘My marriage will be like this and my career will be like that.’ And I feel like I’ve come over that peak and I’ve started to go, ‘This is my life, and these are my parents aging, and here is my marriage, which I struggle with all the time. And is my career going to keep being this hard?’ So, you know, I feel like exploring the slide is kind of inevitable for me.”
But she’s also exploring resilience. By the end of the play, the stage looks like a fresh sketchbook once again, a blank page waiting for new life.