We’ve completed our second week of development for Ian’s play, Happy Mess. And PR has begun gently nudging us for material to promote next month’s reading. To that end I’m putting together an interview with Ian; Sarah, our director; and Angel, our stage manager.
I’ve been interviewing peeps for about a decade now, six of those with Palouse Anthropology (PA) so I started dashing off questions I already knew I would ask. I had Ian send me the history of Happy Mess to create questions from it. Then we brainstormed questions which was fun having the narrators pitch in on making questions.
As an aside, I will mention that at PA we don’t call them interviewees. They are narrators. There’s a power dynamic involved in the term for us. When we conduct interviews, the narrator controls where the conversation goes and has the option of final review. “Interviewee” didn’t accurately described their role.
I circled back to the big question: take-aways. What the audience should leave the interview with. They want to see Happy Mess, of course!
So, when I’m working on a successful interview, I want to avoid it being an itemized list of the process because that sounds crazy boring. Interviews can and do touch on process. Often it’s necessary to give a framework and offer the listener something to hang the forthcoming information and stories on.
The interviews we do through PA are about the past and how things have changed overtime but the point is I don’t make the interview a series of lists.
And that’s when it dawned on me.
This was something I hadn’t really paid much attention to. I was already very much aware that you never want to ask yes/no questions because then you had to think of another question. You wanted a question that would lead to a long answer. Certainly something more than a yes/no. And at least long enough to come up with another question if you weren’t prepared and had a couple more queries at the ready.
But the thing I’d never really thought about before was what questions were. They are triggers for tiny stories. And when I thought about that I realized that each tiny story told during a sitting, string together into many and coalesces into the narrative that is the interview. The questions are the path of the narrative.
And I think the tricky bit is that many narrators we don’t meet until we sit down for the interview. They’re not my friends or associates so it’s a gamble whether or not my question will trigger a story. Then I have to use follow up questions to find the right one. But the interviews I think of as successful–and they are all differently successful–always seem to rely on the question.
Happy Mess takes place in the town of Bridge Water which swiftly grew from 15 families to a municipality in a little over three generations. This unique history sets it apart from other communities in its imagined valley. It serves as the ground the characters root in as they face the challenges that life brings.
Robert Wuthnow studied small town communities and people’s interaction within them. He found the connections they made helped them focus on the future.
“[C]ultural heritage connects us to our histories, our collective memories, it anchors our sense of being and can provide a source of insight to help us to face the future.”
One of the themes of Happy Mess is living with values from the past in the present. The heritage of Bridge Water brings some of the aforementioned values the characters cherish into their lives.
In larger cities, people tend to socialize who those who are like them. One of Wuthnow’s interviewees remarked that in the metropolis:
“…birds of a feather … flock together. In a rural community, you can’t do that….You can’t retreat into a world of your own making….You have to deal with everybody.”
Hanging out with people like yourself is not always an option in small towns. Limited venues will cause more interaction with the populace than a person might ordinarily make left to making their own choices. People who don’t know each other by name come to recognize each other.
One of the interviewees in Knox and Mayer’s Social Construction of Space—Small Town Sustainability felt the interactions leveled social classes and made everyone feel and interact like neighbors (Knox). Wuthnow argued that these encounters in shared spaces gave people opportunities to act in the interest of their collective well-being. “This is one meaning of community” (Wuthnow).
In the play, Ms. Harvey, a teacher in Bridge Water, talks to her students about people who made an impact on their town.
Ms Harvey: … Mr. Johnson formed the Gardening Society here in Bridge Water. He helped open the McGregor family grocery store over 40 years ago. And still sells flowers out of their business to this day. The park just across the street was designed and planted by his hands alone. By doing these simple tasks he has brought jobs, money, hope, and joy to many lives….Now those flowers didn’t save 200 hundred people from a train crash or write the Declaration of Independence. But they did change the very fabric of our community. The way we see one another. How we celebrate the good times and even the bad. Those flowers. His life’s work. It truly is a major contribution to our lives.
Ian Paul Messersmith,“Happy Mess”
These small communities shape and influence how their residents see the world. Another example is seen in a video from the Latah County Historical Society. Guest storyteller Jamie Hill talks about her hometown of Weiser, ID and one of its prominent citizens Frank Mortimer.
A sense of community, especially in small towns is gained from routine encounters and shared experiences. Knox and Mayer found that for this to occur there needed to be plenty of opportunities for community members to meet and talk.
“This requires plenty of opportunities for casual meetings and gossip; friendly settings in which to eat, drink, or linger; street markets; and a sense of historical and cultural continuity.”
Paul Knox and Heike Mayer
Knox, Paul, and Heike Mayer. “Social Construction Of Space—Small Town Sustainability.” Small Town Sustainability: Economic, Social, and Environmental Innovation, Walter de Gruyter. ProQuest Ebook Central. 2009.
Wuthnow, Robert. Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future. Princeton University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central.
I was rather surprised to discover that most of my knowledge of alcoholism and alcoholics comes from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). That a person had to hit “rock bottom” before they would look for help; that alcoholism was a disease. AA was the group putting out the pamphlets that got these ideas into the mainstream consciousness.
Since its beginnings in 1935, AA filled a void in treatment for heavy drinkers. It taught that alcoholism was a disease which the American Medical Association wouldn’t attest to until 1956. At that time, AMA setup detox wards but still there was no treatment. Most recently the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classified it as a spectrum under the new term “alcohol use disorder (AUD)” (Glaser). The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes AUD as
“a chronic relapsing brain disorder characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”
Approximately 15 million people in the United States have it (NIAAA). Some of a person’s vulnerability to AUD is also hereditary (Glaser).
Over the years little in AA’s treatment of AUD has changed even though there are medicines available now and cognitive therapies. It relies on abstinence, group support, and faith in a higher being. Some participants only see partial success and others leave dissatisfied (Glaser).
In AA’s beginnings, there were no studies done for its efficacy or the accuracy of its pamphlets. AA was doing its best with no resources available. It taught alcoholism was a disease with an unavoidable fate. Glaser writing for The Atlantic found research to the contrary that some drinkers were not doomed:
… a federally funded survey called the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions show[ed] that nearly one-fifth of those who have had alcohol dependence go on to drink at low-risk levels with no symptoms of abuse. And a recent survey of nearly 140,000 adults by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nine out of 10 heavy drinkers are not dependent on alcohol and, with the help of a medical professional’s brief intervention, can change unhealthy habits (Glaser).
It is difficult to track AA’s effectiveness since it keeps no records (a key part of the name Alcoholics Anonymous) but various studies have claimed it has anywhere from a 5-33% success rate (Glaser). A 2014 survey that AA conducted on itself found that of the entire membership
27% spent less than a year sober. 24% spent 1-5 years 13% spent 6-10 years 14% spent 11-20 years 22% spent 20 or more years sober Also 62% of its member were men and 89% were white (membership survey)
When it was created in the 1930s, AA was designed for chronic, heavy drinkers. Now it is used by a wider range of people—Some that have been sent there by court order (Glaser). So while being intended for a very discrete part of the population, its abstinence program is now being used at large.
In Happy Mess, Devon joins AA to deal with her drinking problem. Through it she has seen success in bringing her drinking under control.
Studies calculate substance abuse in the gay and transgender populations to be around 20 -30%. This contrasts with about 5-10% percent of the general population (Hunt, Murray). Researchers believe alcohol is selected as a maladaptive coping mechanism to deal with stress from discrimination and control anxiety (Murray, Hunt, Lewis).
Another challenge is that gay and lesbian culture in the U.S. developed a practice of meeting in bars. Often, it was the only safe place to meet. After quitting drinking, older gays and lesbians find it difficult to create safe networks of friends that do not revolve around drink. This, in turn, makes it harder to to control alcohol abuse (Rowan).
An advantage to AA is it helps create networks away from alcohol. AA is open to gays and lesbians and has groups for them if members don’t wish to attend a general meeting. The pamphlet for the “Gay/Lesbian Alcoholic” is no different from the general one except the prologue has a different set of endorsements.
…In most respects we are no different from other A.A. groups. We no longer have to feel unique simply because we are gay. We can now concentrate on the similarities between us and other alcoholics rather than the differences.
prologue, A.A. and the Gay/Lesbian Alcoholic
Alcoholics Anonymous. “A.A. and the Gay/Lesbian Alcoholic.” 1989.
Lewis, Robin J., Tyler B. Mason, Barbara A. Winstead, Melissa Gaskins, and Lance B. Irons. “Pathways to Hazardous Drinking Among Racially and Socioeconomically Diverse Lesbian Women: Sexual Minority Stress, Rumination, Social Isolation, and Drinking to Cope.” Psychology of Women Quarterly. 2016, Vol. 40(4). pp 564-581. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5270712/. Last Accessed: August 20, 2020.
I am still finding things about water and water towers that strike my fancy so I’ve added a second page to the Water Tower section.
My research on water towers began when Ian sent me a Tik Tok clip of comedian Drew Harrison.
WordPress doesn’t appear to imbed Tik Tok so here’s the link if anyone’s curious. @drewharrisoncomedy /video/6820028961951583494
Like Mr. Harrison, I didn’t know how water towers worked so it’s been fun when water towers keep appearing in my world. Only yesterday, I noticed that one stands not far from my house.
During the first table reading there were a couple of questions about the symbol of the water tower and the town being named Bridge Water. Ian said there was no intentional use of water as a symbol. I grabbed a couple of my notes on water from This Random World just for fun. 🙂
Water represents spirit and connections. It is transience, dynamic. Water purifies. Water is life. Water represents one and all. It is a drop, a puddle, a stream, a lake. Fluidity. Water is transition.
On an episode of Star Talk, Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about water towers. This was uploaded in 2018 and you can really feel the date. At the conclusion, the co-hosts quips about never washing his hands which sounds weird in these pandemic days we live in.
An important part of the human condition is the need to matter. A team of writers in 2004 writing for the journal Self and Identity defined mattering as:
…the perception that, to some degree and in any of a variety of ways, we are a significant part of the world around us. Surely, it is central to our sense of who we are and where we fit in to be able to say that others think about us (at least occasionally), seek our advice, or would care about what happens to us (Elliot).
In the Happy Mess script, Tommy is initially dismissed by his teacher, Ms. Harvey until she discovers his artistic skill. She begins nurturing that talent and supporting him. When he sees that he is important, that he matters, his self-esteem improves (Elliot).
Studies have found that people demonstrate a lower level of depression, fear, anxiety, and academic stress when they feel valued. They have higher levels of self-esteem and social support. This in turn results in healthier and happier lives (Lemon, Paputsakis).
It may seem to a simplistic concept but it is woven into the heart of Happy Mess which is a meditation on sacrifice. Mattering will power much of the motivations and how the characters connect and support each other through the challenges they face. Not to mention the delight they share in being together.
Elliot, Gregory C., Suzanne Kao, Ann-Marie Grant. “Mattering: Empirical Validation of a Social-Psychological Concept.” Self and Identity, 3: pp 339–354, 2004. Psychology Press.
Lemon, Jan Cummins. “An Investigation of The Relationship Among Wellness, Perceived Stress, Mattering, And At-Risk Status for Dropping Out Of High School,” dissertation, Mississippi State University, Mississippi, 2010.
Paputsakis, Rachel Jo. “Adolescent Gender Differences In Perceived Interpersonal Mattering,” dissertation, University of Dayton, Dayton, OH, 2010.
In the play Happy Mess, Bella is invited to speak at the Young Leader’s Organization about her childhood and becoming a business owner in Bridge Water. The company is an economic anchor for her hometown. Bella doesn’t talk about it, but start-ups are difficult to make a go of and attest to her tenacity and savvy to make her ad agency a viable concern.
Fortune Magazine generates an annual list of the highest revenue generating corporations known as the Fortune 500. Currently on this list there are three openly gay CEOs:
Tim Cook with Apple, James Fitterling of The Dow Chemical Company, and Beth Ford who in 2018 became the first female CEO of Land O’Lakes, and the first openly lesbian CEO to run a Fortune 500 company (Carpenter).
There are currently 37 women running Fortune 500 companies (Connley).
On Ford’s appointment to CEO, Carpenter wrote that there are very few role models for women in business. The corporate world is still dominated by straight, cis-gendered leaders. A Human Rights Campaign survey showed that nearly half of all LGBT+ Americans aren’t out at work (Carpenter).
In an article for The Atlantic, Levenson found that Corporate America has become more accepting of LGBT+ workers in recent years, adding stronger non-discrimination policies and same-sex marriage benefits but at the same time it has not led to increased activism at the top. The rationale for this is fear of a consumer boycott if they learned the company is headed by a gay CEO (Levenson). This is echoed by Miller who wrote that discrimination can be hidden as a business strategy “— We’re tolerant, but our customers might not be.”
There is the possibility of change with Ford already being out when she was appointed. Carpenter interviewed Matt Kidd, executive director of Reaching Out MBA, a nonprofit organization for the LGBTQ MBA and graduate community:
“Where we can kind of measure success is with mid and lower-level employees, seeing an increase in LGBTQ representation there,” he says. “They’re going to be out their entire careers, and the presumption is they’ll rise up as others have, and what we want to look closely at is if someone is starting their career as out, is that in any way hindering them as they advance?”
Levenson, Eric. “Corporate America Doesn’t Have Any Openly Gay CEOs. Or Does It?” The Atlantic. May 16, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/05/corporate-america-still-doesnt-have-any-openly-gay-ceos/371049/. Last accessed July 28, 2020.
Miller, Claire Cain. “Where Are the Gay Chief Executives?” New York Times. May 16, 2014. https://nyti.ms/1gJLwum. Last Accessed: August 16, 2020.
One of the important moments in Happy Mess is when Bella comes out to her mother when her mother moves back to the family home after being away for several years. Bella is out in other aspects of her life but is almost forty years old when she tells Mama.
No two coming out stories are the same—a comment often made in the articles about people who came out later in life. Pew Research’s study in 2013 of LGBT+ Americans found that younger adults disclosed their orientation earlier in life that older adults. It anticipated that this was due both to changing social norms and the population itself:
The survey finds that the attitudes and experiences of younger adults into the LGBT population differ in a variety of ways from those of older adults, perhaps a reflection of the more accepting social milieu in which younger adults have come of age.
Tanya Byrne writes about her coming out when she was in her late 30s. She knew she was different but there was no what she called an “A-ha moment.” She attributed this in part to a lack of role models. She also mentioned that coming out is not a one and done event:
I don’t know why people say you ‘come out’ like you do it once then it’s done. I come out pretty much every day. To colleagues, neighbors, friends I haven’t seen for years, to the random bloke at the bus stop who wants my number. Every time I meet someone new, I have to ask myself the same thing: ‘Can I trust you? Are you going to hurt me?’ and that [sic] hope they don’t.
The Pew Research study found that telling parents about their orientation was an important milestone. 56% of respondents had told their mother. 10% in the study the question was not applicable. 39% had not told their father.
Before moving on, I would note that Miller, writing for the New York Times had to update her article because of the vagueness of being “openly gay.”
This article had been revised to address the uncertain nature of “openly.” Some readers consider openly to include people who are out in their personal lives but not in the workplace; other readers, and the Human Rights Campaign, count only those who publicly identify themselves as gay.
Miller, Claire Cain. “Where Are the Gay Chief Executives?” New York Times. May 16, 2014. https://nyti.ms/1gJLwum. Last Accessed: August 16, 2020.
Water storage in one form or another has been around since antiquity. The type of water tower seen in Happy Mess is a product of the industrial era. After World War II through 1980, vagabond crews and families traveled the Midwest constructing water towers for communities to store their water. The Chicago Bridge & Iron Company & The Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company did the bulk of the work in this region. They built around 8,000-11,000 towers during that time period and employed about 1000 workers.
“In small-town America, pent-up wartime demand was joined by rising expectations for a standard of living that included indoor plumbing, guaranteed water quality, and water-consumptive appliances. All these factors accelerated the shift from individual wells to municipal water systems (Spreng).”
The need for the specialty worker also enabled the creation of a new class of union laborer. This class was one whose work overlapped that of boilermakers and pipefitters and most importantly was willing to lead a roving life.
“In addition to coping with changing conditions and the dangerous nature of the work, crews and their families found themselves moving to new communities, setting up housekeeping, and perhaps registering children in schools more than once a month (Spreng).”
Spreng, Ronald E., “They Didn’t Just Grow There: Building Water Towers in the Postwar Era.” Minnesota History, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 130-141. Minnesota Historical Society Press. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20187787. Accessed: 19-06-2020.
UI Water Resources video The University of Idaho has assembled an informative video describing how water is processed and used on campus including our three water towers .
University of Idaho water towers
These last images are undated. The cylinder towers are recent additions to the university campus.
A Rumination about Stories from the Stoop, creating narratives from oral history interviews.
Latah County Historical Society (LCHS) had a socially-distanced gathering of storytellers at the McConnell Mansion a few weeks ago. It’s the closest I’ve been to a live theatrical performance since The Moors last March. Sandy Shephard read two pieces for me. One was new and the other was a story I’d prepared from a couple of years ago when I’d first participated in the event.
My favorite collection at LCHS is the Oral History Collection. A series of interviews conducted during the 1970s, they are a treasure of life in Latah County during the turn of the 20th century. The audio recordings reveal personal thoughts on big events like wars, epidemics, prohibition and small like having pet squirrels.
For these storytelling events, I pulled from the collection. One well documented person is Ione “Pinkie” Adair. She was interviewed multiple times and some of her journals are on file as well. Her family lived at McConnell Mansion and she worked in a variety of professions in her life including county assessor, teacher, and timber homesteader. One of her more renowned stories was her time as a cook for firefighters during the Great Fire of 1910 when 3 million acres burned in Idaho, Montana, and southern Canada. It was thought to be one of the largest forest fires in American history.
Reading from her journals and then taking the transcripts from her interviews, I created a monologue of her life homesteading and the Great Fire.
The stories told at this event are not expected to be factual. But a personal writing challenge for myself was to not fabricate anything while creating the monologue. In this case, I wanted to keep Pinkie’s authentic voice and word choices and her story.
(Left: Stories from the Stoop at McConnell Mansion.)
I did edit to sculpt the narrative, making it more of a subtractive than additive process.
As an aside–With regards to my readers, I don’t recall if the original reader listened to Pinkie’s interviews, but Sandy did to appreciate Pinkie’s mannerisms. Even so, Sandy wouldn’t mimic Pinkie’s speech for the entire reading. This storytelling is performative and Sandy would give words different emphasis vocally than Pinkie did conversing with an interviewer. Then it becomes a delicate balance between story and verisimilitude for us.
The original performance was done by my friend, Troy Sprenke. We talked about the campfire reading and how the text should be performed. Troy’s great with engaging the audience and pulling them in. She’ll ask questions of the attendees and get them thinking about what was happening to Pinkie.
The piece was brought back this year as part of an online revue for the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre and Sandy stepped into the role. This time it was a prerecorded Zoom performance which made it possible to insert a photograph of Pinkie alongside of Sandy. There were two rehearsals. We used this opportunity to tighten, cut some lines that were confusing the narrative, and make the overall story tauter and more suspenseful. Just generally improving the telling of it.
After the Kenworthy revue, it returned to the storytellers event and Sandy graciously agreed to read there. We didn’t rehearse as the piece was still fresh in her mind but she reviewed the script on her own.
I also compiled a new piece for LCHS by pulling up several interviews about the Bulgin religious revivals in the 1920s. These stories I wove together into a single narrative. This took more involvement/ interference on my part since I was drawing from a variety of narrators instead of a single person. It was a fun challenge to create the character they all embodied who would speak of what these revivals were like.
“I would think around 1920, give or take a year or so that Dr. Bulgin brought his revival to town. Lots of times people were carried away by the emotionalism of the crowd and everybody walking down, you know, to confess their sins. Some of them didn’t have any sins to confess! They were pretty good old people, you know! And they didn’t need to get so carried away.”
Elizabeth, “Walking the Sawdust Trail”
Sandy got the script and a couple days later we met on Zoom. We talked through the character of Elizabeth—Sandy named her. Between the two of us, we finished streamlining the story, editing bumpy text, etc. After the Zoom meeting, she worked on it some more and presented it with Pinkie’s story at the Mansion.
I love sharing stories from the oral histories if only to give the audiences a taste of what else is available for them to listen to online as told by the people who experienced it. And one really should go to the LCHS website and give the oral histories a listen.