The Land is Bleak

A Rumination about The Moors as the world changed under my feet.

HULDEY: I am very. very. unhappy.
AGATHA: Is that so.
HULDEY: Yes it is, it is so now, and it has always been so.
AGATHA: That doesn’t make you special.
HULDEY: …What?
AGATHA: Everybody is very very unhappy, Huldey. It is simply what things are. The land is bleak and the house is large and there is no language for all the things lurking within us, no matter how much we write in our diaries, and we are all quite unhappy. So what.

The Moors by Jen Silverman

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve written a Rumination.

After This Random World went to regionals, I was onto my next projects. I attended a writers retreat under the shadow of the coronavirus which had descended on Seattle three hours away. The undertow of our conversations were always pulled back to the virus. We struggled to stop shaking hands and instead bump elbows or do Namaste hands.

I returned home a week before spring break. That time was spent in a strange tension of being told to run business as usual, but it could change at any moment. No knew how it might change but to be ready for whatever that was.

The department’s production of The Moors opened that Thursday and it closed immediately on Friday when the governor ordered limits on the size of public gatherings.

I saw the Friday performance and have been haunted by it since. Since the students were told not to return. Since the classes were put online. Since the campus was closed to non-essential personnel.

I remember less than 100 of us scattered in the 400-seat theatre that night. The hall held a weird vibe. Not the usual, ebullient energy that crackles before a performance. Mainly the loyal guard occupied the stalls: alumni, students, patrons who have supported the theatre for decades. They murmured to each other. I spoke to one of the grad students about her plans for the future which included study abroad and attending the Edinburgh Fringe (which has since been canceled).

The lights dimmed and she stepped on stage for the land acknowledgement. That the university stands on Nez Perce lands and that we thank them for their stewardship past, present, and future. And another shift of the lights and The Moors began its tale of loneliness and the transient nature of life and how easy people’s intentions can get swallowed up in the surrounding harsh terrain.

As the company performed their second show and also their final show. I was reminded that it’s the final show of the school year. The department had canceled the next show too because no one knew what would happen next or how long this would last. Several of the students on stage suddenly found themselves in the last performance of their academic careers. Everything just stopped.

The Moors is a world of juxtapositions where beauty is terrifying and to be strong is to be cruel. The most human creatures are the animals in the story, a mastiff and moor-hen. The setting is in and around an ancient mansion or rather than a mansion, a single room which is repurposed for every other room. It is the parlor, the second sitting room, the guest bedroom, amongst others. Soon that would happen to the residences of some of us sent to work at home.

University of Idaho students in The Moors. Photo by Sarah Campbell.

The scullery maid’s typhus cough reminded me of the virus moving through our world. It reminded me of plagues of the past shutting down theatres.

The characters struggle to define what is within them as we struggled to come to terms with what was happening around us. To find a narrative to hang it all on. Then the lights were up. And it was us in the audience and us on the stage staring at each other as we were pushed into this new existence unsure of what was next.

Then we surged to our feet to meet the actors already on theirs. They looked startled by the motion. It happened without hesitation. That wave of affection. The last group hug. The last time we were all together. The cast vanished into the wings.

We’ve been living on the moors since.

MARJORY: Everything shall always be different now. And yet nothing changes—

The Moors by Jen Silverman

Once More With Feeling

A Rumination from my dramaturgy of Steven Dietz’s This Random World directed by David Lee-Painter (DLP).

Our production of This Random World The Myth of Serendipity was invited to perform at Region 7 of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival!

Months had passed since any of us had laid eyes on the set or thought about the script. People had moved on to other projects. Students graduated and in a myriad of other ways life has gone on. Last week we completed remounting This Random World to share it 1200 peers at the annual festival. Part of the remount included a benefit performance to celebrate and finance the trip.

Immediate challenges were identifying returning company members, rehearsal space, and scheduling rehearsals. The next two shows in the university season by this time were cast and in production. Those shows included members from This Random World. Seven people were unable to return. The bulk were from the technical side; two were performers.

To fill the gaps, one understudy moved from a worldbuilder to speaking role. A member of the artistic staff became a worldbuilder and another worldbuilder was recruited into the company as were the needed technicians.

Then the question of rehearsal space: the Forge Theatre, an 80-seat black box configured in the round, where the show was originally staged was unavailable. Also, the hall at KCACTF is a 350-seat theatre with a thrust stage. Ideally, we preferred to work in a similar hall. The best choice was the Hartung Theatre, the 400-seat university mainstage, but it also had a show in rehearsal.

In the end, we cobbled together five rehearsals in three different locations. Two days were spent running concurrent rehearsals in the 30-seat studio and a classroom space—much the way the original rehearsals were run—and three days at Hartung. The set diagrams on the floors for the alternate spaces were at ¾ scale and ½ scale respectively. Hartung would have the actual set pushed downstage at a slight angle. It would also be the location for the benefit.

Logistics sorted, we went to work. Due to the rehearsal process which included an understudy performance, the understudy arrived already off-book and familiar with her blocking. She was one of two actors who traveled over 7 hours to rejoin the company.

Remounting a show, there is a desire to present the original production but prevent it from ossifying. Blocking would change as we adjusted to a thrust stage. And new company members would alter the energy.

I was curious how the venue hopping would effect the work. Some of the spaces were so small it seemed a waste of time to even meet there. Co-director David Lee-Painter disagreed and wanted any opportunity to get the company back moving through the show and feeling it again.

Expanding and contracting the performance area was a benefit. We were unable to keep tightly to our staging and were forced to tell the story with the conditions presented. In the end, it strengthened the storytelling. Instead of just fudging the blocking to fill the stage space, the movement changes were motivationally driven.

For example, in a scene where Tim is trying to prove to Rhonda that he is not dead, They’d kept together in a tight stand-off to accentuate the tension. During the remounting, Rhonda moved away from Tim. He caught her arm and brought her around, reversing their places. The action of the scene demonstrated the emotions Rhonda was feeling at finally meeting a deceased person. It also fed Tim’s desperation to correct the mess he’d made by faking in his own death and suddenly having to prove–somehow–that he was alive. It also transformed the encounter from stand-off to tug of war.

In the above images, is the opening scene set in Tim’s apartment. The left hand photo was as it was seen in the Forge. Center, the actors working in the studio on the 3/4 scale stage, and on the right on the mainstage.

The remounting process provided us with an unusual opportunity to leave a production and return several months later with some of the same but a few different company members. It gave another layer of the experience of shifting connections that are so vital to Dietz’s show. We’re looking forward to sharing it with our peers as the festival.

Story Problems

Last week I went to see the doc with my 84-year-old mom. The doc decided to run some memory tests on her. It was the usual thing you see on TV on in a movie. A few questions in, the doc told her that he’s going to ask a story problem and I PANICKED.

I can’t do a story problem on paper much less in my head. How was she supposed to do one?!

When I’m forced to do a story problem, I forget the first half before I’m through the paragraph. I never know what’s important to solve the question. They are ALWAYS a nightmare.

In that moment, I was not sure if I was more terrified for my mom or for me and I didn’t have to solve the problem!

Before the doc was halfway through the story problem which he would repeat several times, I felt THE WALL go up behind my eyes. It’s something I’ve had since I was little when faced with math. Once THE WALL is up there’s no getting through it, past it, over it.

Well, that’s not entirely not true. My dad could somehow push through THE WALL and help me figure it out. And he never finished junior high! Needless to say, once I got into algebra, he couldn’t help me any more and my math grades were in the toilet after that.

When I drove home after Mom’s appointment, I was still twitchy over the math problem. At work I write all information down, figure out what I need and what is static. Then I do the math. Then I double check everything. Something is usually wrong. And usually I’ll find it. Then it occured to me that I remember the ENTIRE story problem.

You go to the store with $100. You buy a dozen apples at $3. A tricycle at $20. How much money do you have left?

Whoa. It was like fear had branded it onto my skull or something.

The only time I ever enjoyed math was when I took statistics in grad school which is–I KNOW–totally weird. It made me wonder if whatever triggered THE WALL had been avoided would I have excelled at math?

image from Pixabay

A Not-Great Diner

Photo by Daniel Haley

A Rumination from my dramaturgy of Steven Dietz’s This Random World directed by David Lee-Painter.

I find myself thinking about landscape memories….

One of the settings in
This Random World is A Not-Great Diner. It is where Claire and Gary break up:

CLAIRE. We always joked that people should break up at shitty places they were never gonna want to visit again. Because of the memories… The way that goodbyes… The way that endings just… stick to a place…

The role landscape plays in memory has been examined from a number of perspectives (Harrison 2004, Hoelscher and Alderman 2004, Jedlowski 2001, Schäuble 2011, Schramm 2001). Landscapes are more than memory containers: they shape, and are shaped by, what happens upon them (Schramm 2001:6). The Elizabethan stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is built on an old Chautauqua site. It attests to generations of community, education, and entertainment. Whenever I’m there I’m reminded of when I worked for the Festival, the people who preceded me, and those who are yet to be there.

I imagine it’s a given that we always have a relationship with landscape but there seems to be some places that resonate more deeply with memory. Janet Donohoe’s Remembering Places discusses how place can be more than simply the spot where something happened. It can be an active participant in that caught moment. Where you stood, what it looked, smelled, tasted like when it happened. In some instances, you can stand in the place and feel the memory that is held there. “Places serve… as vibrant, living aspects of memory, tradition, history, and meaning. ….[They] write themselves upon memory just as memory writes itself upon place.”

But not every memory stays with a place. Ed Casey in the same text: “a given place will invite certain memories while discouraging others. The fact is that we can’t attach just any memories to a particular place . . . . only certain kinds of memory, will be pertinent.”

Donohoe again: “Other places are significant for a singular event. These places are less familiar, but still imbued with memory, such as the place where we got married, where one was mugged, or where a parent died. Stepping into any of these places after years of absence, whether a habituated place or a place of a significant event, creates a rush of memories to which the place itself is connected. They are memories that only return due to the sense of the place, the smell, the feel of the air, and the very place itself.”

CLAIRE. It’s kind of terrible. This place. It is really one of the worst places to eat on earth that I know of.
TIM. Why did you want to come here?
CLAIRE. I wanted to change it. Change my memories of it. I thought maybe we could do that.

Some landscapes’ memory will fade or they will be purified. I’ve friends who sage new residences to free the past that may still cling to it. And sadly, there are landscapes that can never be cleansed. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the school was razed and a new one built on the site.

Donohoe, Janet. Remembering Places: A Phenomenological Study of the Relationship between Memory and Place.
Harrison, Simon. ” Forgetful and Memorious.” Social Anthropology 12: 135–151.
Hoelscher, Steven and Derek H. Alderman. “Memory and Place: Geographies of a Critical Relationship.” Social & Cultural Geography 5(3).
Jedlowski, Paolo. “Memory and Sociology Themes and Issues.” TIME & SOCIETY SAGE 10(1): 29-44 .
Schäuble, Michaela. “How History Takes Place: Sacralized Landscapes in the Croatian-Bosnian Border Region.” History & Memory 23(1):23-61.
Katharina Schramm. Introduction: Landscapes of Violence: Memory and Sacred Space History & Memory, 23(1):5-22.

The Runaways’ Story

“Queens of Noise the REAL story of the Runaways,” that title is ample warning to the reader for what lies ahead. A sensationalized story about a band of teen rockers. The book is enjoyable in the main and my complaints settle around how McDonnell chose to tell the story of this barrier-shattering group.

Queens of Noise is a follow-up to McDonnell’s thesis on Runaways drummer, Sandy West. For this book McDonnell takes us back again to the Sunset Strip in the 1970s with its proto-punk scene. It was fertile soil for the all-female rock band that Sandy played in. It’s a story that interests me. I grew up with Joan Jett’s music and had heard hints of the fabled band that she started, which included heavy metal guitarist, Lita Ford. I was onboard.

I wanted it to be exhaustive, but the book fell short. Some of the band members declined to be interviewed, forcing McDonnell to rely heavily on previous magazine and newspaper articles, and Vicki Blue’s (another Runaway) documentary, “Edgeplay.” The first-hand accounts come primarily from the Runaways bassists and Kim Fowley, the band’s notorious manager, and the people around the group during the three or so hectic years of its existence.

There was one person I didn’t expect to be included in the Runaways’ story and that was McDonnell. Working primarily in an opinionated style reminiscent of ‘70s New Journalism, she comments on every player in the story even describing a music critic of the day as a “sh*tty writer” without offering anything to back up her opinion. Her subject would have been better served by not inserting herself into the narrative. The block quotes she included from interviews are enthralling and would have been much more effective with only minor editorial comment.

Her description of ‘70s LA evokes a curious version of the sinner/saint idolizing of women that flourished then. It was a dichotomy where few female rock groups could find success. Placing the Runaways in its milieu of the hedonistic Sunset Strip gives clarity. These straightforward passages, untainted by opinion, were where I found some of the best writing.

Before long, McDonnell focused on the Runaways through her own lens of understanding. It is a viewpoint that is not insightful and at times reads like a fan thwarted access to her idols.

She does address the myth that they were a confectionary out of Fowley’s fevered mind. While affirming that the young women created the band with Fowley’s help, McDonnell continually lists everything Kim Fowley did for them.

The band was never allowed to be the subject of its own story but always the object. McDonnell even uses them as objects in her book. She dwells over imagery about Lita Ford’s tight clothes. According to McDonnell, Ford’s shorts were snug enough that part of her reproductive anatomy was in public view. She repeatedly mentions how pretty they were, imagines the reactions of the primarily male audiences, and describes guitarist, Joan Jett’s “sweaty grinding” on a bandmate. These short anecdotes are included for no other reason than prurient interest. One despairs that the Runaways will never be able to run away. Instead they find themselves trapped in another gilded cage to be adored, admired, and defined by others.

Errors or editing gaffs in the book are glaring. For instance, claiming that the Runaways opened for Metallica before Metallica had a formed left me wondering which band she meant. Listing Jett’s role in The Rocky Horror Show as “Columbine” instead of “Columbia.” Strange nouns or verbs muddled what McDonnell wanted to say. Perhaps she too struggled to grasp their meaning? For example, the word “gobbing” or stating Lita playing a “wank” on her guitar. While I can hazard out the meaning, it drug me out of the story. I’m still trying to figure out what a “totem manager” is and if she didn’t mean “token manager.” There were also repetitions of blocks of text in different chapters. A few but not all of Jett’s solo hits that were mentioned did not list the songwriter. The reader is left with the impression that Jett wrote “I Love Rock n’ Roll” and “Crimson & Clover” which is not the case.

The Runaways’ story would have been better served by letting the people who lived it simply tell their stories. As is, Queens of Noise is an impediment with uncited interpretations that cloud a fascinating tale of teens who took the world by storm. Despite the morass, the Runaways and their story managed to get through, much as they did in the ‘70s, demonstrating the wit, the panache, and the perseverance required to bring their sound to the world.

Tempus Fugit

by Dona Black, Ariana Burns, & Tim Waterman

I think Tempus Fugit was the closest I’ve come to writing a 10-minute play thus far. It was the opener for a Theatre Outside the Belljar show. I wrote it with two wonderful friends and still like it. It was a part of the “I got this place in my head that ain’t right without you” series that I was writing back then. Below is a snippet.

EMCEE
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a performance piece. If you derive any pleasure from this piece, it is strictly coincidental. This is art, and as such, should be view by the audience with the same appropriate gravity as any beleaguered granting agency. This piece, in triplicate, has been sent to our advisory board for review. A moment please, I can’t work without a cigarette hangin’ out of my mouth. . .Art is.

TWO
Art is a sedative for the obsessive compulsive.

EMCEE
It consumes.

ONE
It penetrates.

TWO
Hurry!

 EMCEE
Admit One.

 TWO
Are you an Enemy of the Future?

EMCEE
Art rips your heart out.            

ONE
But you think you did it to yourself.

EVERYTHING CHANGES

Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
But what has happened has happened. And the water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again.

What has happened has happened. The water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again, but
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
–Bertolt Brecht

Translated by John Willett
Bertolt Brecht POETRY AND PROSE
Edited by Reinhold Grimm with the Collaboration of Caroline Molina y Vedia
2006