Stories from the Stoop

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.

Screen capture from “Pinkie Adair & the Big Burn.”

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.

Sandy Shephard reading at McConnell Mansion.

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.

https://www.latahcountyhistoricalsociety.org/resources

Pancakes & Eggs

Photo by Daniel Haley

A Rumination about Pancakes & Eggs (Greek Gods in a Diner) my first Zoom reading which happened during my first pandemic.

My last project involved co-producing a series of online shows for the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre which the pandemic has forced to go dark. The first production was a reading of Pancakes & Eggs (Greek Gods in a Diner) by Kendra Phillips, a University of Idaho MFA candidate. Below are a few thoughts about the story. The series was done within a month and each show allotted a week from casting to editing the Zoom recording for uploading. Thus, there was never time to explore these ruminations as far as I might have liked.

Pancakes & Eggs is about two gods and a mortal waitress held in a liminal space which resembles a diner. The diner is imagined by the waitress, Jill but she doesn’t appear aware that she created the world they inhabit. The gods are Aphrodite, love made manifest, and Apollo, representing the sun, music, medicine, etc., etc.—Apollo always seemed to have more work to do than the majority of the gods in the Greek pantheon.

Still from Pancakes & Eggs (Greek Gods in a Diner). Top l to r: Luke Holt, Hannah Verdi, Kelsey Chapman. Bottom: David Camden-Britton.

Jill has trapped the gods and is generally disinterested in them. She knows who they are, calling them “sunshine” and “love”—a fun turn on pet names used by strangers to imply a false sense of familiarity. These pet names can be heard in exchanges waitstaff have with customers to put them at ease.

Diners in general are familiar/unfamiliar locations, designed to provide the culinary comforts of home for travelers. In Jill’s diner, breakfast is always available but there is no dessert. Also, another unique feature to this eating establishment: there is no way to leave. The immortals are held captive while they reckon with their appetites, love, and Jill.

At the beginning, Apollo brings a curse down that sounds as if Jill herself is speaking, lashing out at the heartache she’s suffered. When she discovers Apollo standing on the table meting out this curse, she tears his toga off, denying his godlike status and reducing him to mortal attire. During her stay, Aphrodite’s toga also gives, revealing modern dress.

Apollo realizes that his powers are waning. It began after shooting Achilles during the Trojan War.

I should add here that there are a variety of variations on Greek myths even when the stories were originally being told. The Greek poets would also alter the myths for their plays. The story of the three golden apples (also in this play) is considered a "filler" myth. It bridges the gap between legends. Talking with my friend, retired classics professor CAE Luschnig, I learned that Aphrodite and Apollo are rarely romantically linked in myth as seen here. Creating a fun and rarely seen variation in the pantheon. Kendra pulls on that tradition to tell her own myth about Apollo and Aphrodite to serve the larger story of the play.

So, Apollo shot Achilles and has felt drained since. His arrow is reduced to a stick. His power of prophecy has left him.

Aphrodite arrives, and Apollo invites her to join him for breakfast. She is arrogant and shut off, manifestations that she is not feeling herself. Aphrodite finds the breakfast Jill brings unsuitable for gods.

Visitors to diners often encounter foods they are unfamiliar with. In Aphrodite’s case, she gets eggs which she did not ask for. Apollo has never had pancakes but waits for syrup before deciding if he likes it. Both of them discover their food is cold. Jill scolds them for waiting too long.

Both immortals are involved in propagating the future, but Jill doesn’t give them anything viable to work with. Apollo’s leavened pancakes are cold as are Aphrodite eggs.

Despite Jill’s brusque demeanor, Apollo finds himself drawn in. Aphrodite is repelled by her. She is shut off from the creator of the environment they now inhabit. Jill did this in part to protect herself from the heartbreak of her husband leaving. The blocking has caused the embodiment of love to physically wilt. She has been walled off from everything love needs which is love.

Heedless of what Aphrodite is going through, Apollo persuades her to woo Jill on his behalf. Her efforts are ridiculous and leaden in her weakened state which is exacerbated by Jill’s walling off of love.

Alongside the action of the play is an examination of love and its role in our lives. What purpose, if any, does it serve? Is it a reward (dessert) unto itself? And when it, for whatever reason, doesn’t play out love becomes service. This is illustrated with Jill’s wedding gown and the hopes and dreams it engendered now turned to working attire.

JILL: (JILL looks at her waitress uniform) This was my wedding dress.

Aphrodite continually defines and refines what love is her identity and role in it. And ultimately, the audience comes to discover Jill’s heartache and her self-inflicted punishment is caused by her lover’s departure. She thinks Aphrodite is punishing her and doesn’t realize she has forgotten her husband, her heartache, and created the diner as a shelter. Aphrodite declares her beyond help. This pronouncement dooms Jill to the diner her mind has created.

But Jill’s tribulations fade into the background when the two immortals discover that for this long while they have been in love with each other. They are drawn into each other’s need of love, to give love, and to be loved. Leaving Jill to rediscover her heartache is strangely enough beneficial for all of them. She is able to recover her missing memories—if only briefly. And the immortals finally recognize their passion for each other which is the only way they can escape the liminal space Jill has created.

With order restored, Jill changes her policy and brings dessert to see them off but takes none herself. She doesn’t like sweet things. And as the new lovers depart, she returns to where we found her in the beginning.

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.

Rehearsals

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

Three things at the heart of our production process: Mindfulness, World Building, Shadow Work

Mindfulness

In retrospect, I think I was the only one who said the word “mindfulness” aloud. But it was consciously attended to. Leading up to rehearsals, I had wondered, what would be the best way to discuss mindfulness with the company? And, how to present it in such a manner that it would be useful to their work? Several of the actors used meditation in their personal life so it was not an unfamiliar idea. Did we need to have a discussion on it? There was an instructor on campus who taught meditation. Perhaps she would come in for a session? Or we should integrate mediation into the rehearsal warm-ups?

DLP and I had talked about mindfulness and its place in the play. The first night with the company, he emphasized the need for “…an intimate, interdependent vitality …. Actors jump up and help their cast mates” (First Night Notes). There was an emphasis on the ensemble and an awareness of each other.

Being mindful not only assisted the process but fed the story that Dietz was telling. Beth and her brother Tim illustrated how little they knew about what was happening in each other’s lives. At one point, Beth challenged her brother: “…do you have any actual evidence that you are, in fact, living and breathing and connected in some way to the known world?!” Dietz also set the play in locations that press in on the characters: a funeral parlor, a hospital, a Shinto shrine, even a wilderness in Nepal. These are places that arguably are personalities themselves in the story that the characters cannot be unaware of.

Co-director, Daniel L. Haley led the company through team building exercises that developed not only trust but cognizance and group reliance. It is anticipated that a company develops some form of bond through the course of any project. For the script work that DLP had in mind for this production, a strong sense of collaboration would strengthen the overall process. Also, they needed a foundational cohesiveness from the beginning. The bulk of This Random World is two-person scenes. We would be several weeks into rehearsals before the entire company worked together again.

World Building

The Forge is the university’s black box theater, and for this production, it was configured in the round with four alley entrances. Entering the theater, the audience was greeted to Jared Sorenson’s beautifully understated set, ringed by river rock with a serene cloud floating above.

In This Random World’s script notes, Dietz writes: “A few simple and permanent units should suffice for everything. Transformations between them should be quick and easy.” We latched onto scene changes being “transformations” (another of many transformations within the play) and saw them as opportunities for storytelling. DLP chose to have worldbuilders who would move the audience from one mood and location to the next.

For our production, the entire company was an ensemble. Members without lines were worldbuilders. They also understudied a role with lines. The ensemble with speaking parts understudied a worldbuilder. During tech week an understudy performance was given.

The worldbuilders interacting with and creating the world of the play. Image by David Harlan Photography.

During the transformations, the worldbuilders not only complete a set change but interact with the scenic elements and properties as the people you would find in the spaces the story was shifting into. Coming out of the diner scene, the ensemble wore aprons as waitstaff and set the table and chairs. Moving from Tim’s apartment into a park, they were walkers, lovers, and even the characters Gary & Claire passed through. Into the airport, they were travelers making connections. Gary was there again to help Scottie with her walker off stage.

Production photo. A composite image of the transformation leading into the scene set at the Shimogamo Shrine and a moment during the scene. The worldbuilders ring the stage. Image by David Harlan Photography.

All the transformations were a flurry of choreographed movement. I felt the effect was akin to a wave hitting the stage and when it retreated only the performers for the scene remained. The largest transformation was from preshow into the show when the worldbuilders created Tim’s cluttered apartment in a matter of seconds.

Shadow Work

The most fascinating part of the production for me was the method DLP used in the early part of rehearsal as the actors were getting off book. I’d never seen it before. We referred to it as “shadow work.” The actors always had another person at their elbow with a script.

University of Idaho students rehearsing.

The script holder whispered the lines to the actor. When describing the method, DLP explained that shadow work required authentic listening and connection from the first rehearsal. Actors were not hampered by carrying a script which allowed blocking and more in-depth character work to start sooner (“First Rehearsal”).

University of Idaho students rehearing.

After a rehearsal period was concluded, the ensemble members traded places and the script holder became the actor. Initially, the performers expressed uneasiness with this new process and wondered if their beloved co-director had lost his mind but rapidly they became comfortable with it and found the technique lent itself to swifter line memorization.

With two actors sharing a role, they worked independently, together, and with the company telling the character’s story and the story of This Random World. This process increased the learning opportunities and the potential teachers in the rehearsal hall at any given moment. Peers exchanged knowledge, becoming both “lead” and “understudy.” It also offered a different way to experience both sides of the acting coin in one process and be fully engaged. It created a synergic dance that the stage management team was challenged to track and record as it changed from night to night.

During rehearsals, I was reading an article by Cope & Augustijnen which spoke of “’bardo’– the Buddhist idea of an in-between moment of heightened consciousness, a moment of choice and of transition between the past and the future, between confusion and wisdom.” This idea of confusion and wisdom resonated with me as the actors took on shadow work and brought it into their more familiar routines of preparation. It also layered into This Random World’s themes. The characters all seemed to be somewhere in that liminal space themselves.

It was exciting for me to be involved in this process and see how it echoed into the play itself with its themes on transformation, transition, and awareness.

Cope & Augustijnen, “Going ‘Au-delà’: A Journey into the Unknown,” from New Dramaturgy: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice, p. 168.
Dietz, Steven. This Random World.
Lee-Painter, David. “First Rehearsal Remarks.”
Lee-Painter, David. “Opening Night Remarks.”

Connections

Photo by Daniel Haley

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

While the company was hard at work, I had to leave for two weeks. And waiting in the Phoenix airport to return home some connections occured to me…

The University of Idaho is fortunate to have a unique and long-lived relationship with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Through the Rex Rabold Fellowship, a UI theatre graduate is selected to work with the talented and dedicated people at the Festival.

Shortly after I graduated, the Fellowship was established (I initially thought I was still an undergrad but I just hadn’t left town yet). This feat was accomplished largely in part to the efforts of acting faculty member Forrest Sears.

Mr. Sears has graciously agreed to come out of retirement and join the company of This Random World–that group I had left behind to go on vacation–only I don’t know how to go on vacation so I was driving around researching a play, conducting interviews for my oral history project, and going to museums. Which led to me sitting in an airport nine days later, thinking about my time as a theatre undergrad, Mr. Sears, This Random World, and connections.

I scribbled down my thoughts and with DLP’s permission–he is often indulgent with my whims–I read it to the company before our final run-thru.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Sears had a promising student named Rex Rabold.

Rex went on to do many things but most notably he became a beloved actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Not long after Rex’s death, I walked into the U-Hut—which was my Shoup Hall—to discover it was buzzing.

An important person was there.

People were fussing over my classmate, actor Mike Behrens.

Something important was happening.

If you’ve tried to get two big things together to do something—even if it is a beneficial thing—you will know it is hard.

Theatre was trying to get the University and Oregon Shake to work together.

It was hard. But it happened.

Mr. Sears was instrumental in making it happen.

And the result was that Mike Behrens was to be the first Rex Rabold Fellow.

Daniel Haley was the 15th.

Whitney Holland will be the 27th.

Last week I was in the desert with Bruce Brockman, a former theatre chair and he reminded me that Mr. Sears had done this.

Mr. Sears taught Rex, taught me, mentored DLP, and created the Rex Rabold Fellowship.

DLP taught Haley and all of you. Haley went to the Shake and is back, sharing what he has learned.

Another UI theatre classmate told me that several years ago when she was directing in Wyoming, a faculty member approached her and said, “You talk about theatre the way I talk about theatre. Where are you from?”

And when she told him, he asked: “Do you know DLP?”

I wanted to mention these connections to you because before now I never felt grounded in UI theatre’s past and that I think it’s important to have a heritage, to be connected.

Control & Risk

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 control and risk….


I have a tendency to read multiple books at a time. The coffee table is always loaded down with homework, play research, archival information, the latest papers and plays in progress, and whatever fun-stuff I’m engaged in.

Beyond being a squirrel brain and hopping around to different subjects and stories, I find it prompts cross-pollination of ideas. So! I have been reading Sheryl Paul’s The Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts Are Gifts to Help You Heal.

The current chapter is on intrusive thoughts and how they function to bring metaphorical messages from the subconscious. The Mayo Clinic website helpfully defines intrusive thought as “an unwelcome involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate.”

Paul writes:

Intrusive thoughts cover over many core needs and feelings, but at the root is the need for certainty. As our culture fails to guide us to develop an acceptance of the changeable reality that defines our existence, we have a very hard time accepting uncertainty, which is another way of saying that we have a hard time accepting death in all forms. We resist grieving the emotional deaths that occur when we transition to new places in life….We’re not mentored on how to live life fully, which means feeling all our feelings. And when we don’t live life fully, we actually fear it, which then creates a fear of death.

The question of how to live life fully is one of the dominant themes for me in This Random World. So many of the characters are wrangling with different sections of this idea. Beth meticulously plans ahead even making arrangements for her death and funeral services—which people are encouraged to do—but she goes so far as to investigate when she probably WILL, die statistically speaking, and plans alternative arrangements based on season and availability of resources. She writes her own obituary and admonishes her brother: “Take control of your death, Tim Ward. Or somebody else will.”

Controlling your death is a neat flip on Dietz’s part. Beth looks to control her death by controlling her life. Which is another theme I find in TRW, issues of control. The characters work to control life, conversations, identity—how the world perceives them. And in the end, there is very little we can control which returns me to Paul:

Living with uncertainty. We simply don’t like it. We want definitive answers. We want definable goals. We are intrinsically wired to gravitate toward a need for control and a subsequent attempt to create the illusion of control, ….[and not to] connect to the transitory flow of life.

Scottie’s conversations reflect these ideas. She finds herself reflecting on her need for control, certainty, and the tedium all of that can bring about. She longs to have indulged more in the risk-taking of not knowing. Her doctor, one culturally assumed to be an expert on life and death, is unsure of how long Scottie has to live. She likes that unsurety in him and his willingness to admit it. She wishes she had been that way more often. It considers the idea that while confidence is a desirable strength perhaps we take it too far or misapply it. Rather then using it for risk avoidance we should use it to help meet vulnerability and welcome it.

The fear-based self is terrified of risk, terrified of anything that touches into vulnerability, it creates elaborate and convincing reasons why you need to walk away…. This creates an illusion of control…. In other words, the question to ask yourself is, “Is it more important for me to remain attached to the illusion of control or to learn about what it means to be loving?” If you want to learn about what it means to be loving to yourself and others, you have to be willing to let go of control.

Claire and Gary are at a point in their relationship where they choose to part. Each seeks protection temporally, Gary plans ahead. He’d planned a trip to Nepal for years and intended to marry Claire after one last big, solo adventure. Knowing and controlling the future is his way of minimizing risk to himself. He chides Claire for living in the past with her painful nostalgias.

Her teenage romance didn’t end happily but she knows what it was and how it turned out. She also controls the memories of those days and can focus on its idyllic nature and the hopes and dreams they had tendered. There are only fleeting moments where any of the characters are fully in the present, living and exposed to the moment as it happens. Those moments in TRW are more frequently only planned for or reflected on. Few are played out before us. Rather they are refracted through a character’s lens of seeing. The character decided how to interpret and control what the events mean and show that to the audience.

And in the end, Scottie discovers that she has missed the sunrise—and every sunrise is different—she wonders what else she has missed.

It’s a terrifying choice, no doubt. It’s a choice that flies in the face of every illusion of safety that you’ve spent a lifetime constructing…. The truth is that there is so little we can control. We make plans because we want to know what will happen in the next hour, but the unknowable and mysterious force of LIFE [sic] could subvert your plans in an instant. The only freedom is to make friends with not knowing.

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.

What’s In a Name?

Photo by Daniel Haley

This week rehearsals began for This Random World (TRW) by Steven Dietz. FINALLY! It’s my first time in rehearsals as a dramaturg. For my previous project I only assembled a research packet for the director, David Lee-Painter (DLP).

DLP is also directing TRW. The packet’s done. I wrote it up last summer for the design team to have. DLP asked me to make a few remarks at the first rehearsal. Below are some excerpts.


One of the things that immediately struck me about Dietz’s script is how much we miss when we’re narrowly focused on our own lives. We can be oblivious to the roles we play in others’ lives. It only takes a slight shift of focus to bring different things to light or see old things as if new.

The idea of randomness also resonated with me. We, as creatures on this planet, are trying to control our world and that belief of control is very important. It can humbling to discover how much is really just randomness or dumb luck at work.

The idea of random chance brings me to the title of Dietz’s play: This Random World The Myth of Serendipity. When I first started researching TRW, I thought the second title referred to serendipity as a myth. My friend, Rob Snyder reminded me that myth is actually a truth manifested as a story. I’ve come to believe Dietz is using the phrase to comment on the main title. This Random World is the truthful story of happy chance. Later in the play a pair of the characters go the Forest Where Lies Are Revealed. When lies are revealed, one gets to the truth.

Dietz has crafted a compelling story and at the same time has dismantled it by denying scenes where we expect certain characters to meet. This puts us in & out of the story at the same time—like Schrödinger’s cat. It permits us to study the world he has created and juxtapose it with our own.

As Dietz once wrote that theatre’s most profound gifts are participation and reflection. This Random World gives us plenty of opportunities to do that.

Image by Dan Lurie, Schrodinger’s lolcat. Credit to Justin Wick for the idea, and Kevin Steele for the photo.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/dantekgeek/522563155

The Clean House: Purity & Danger

Photo by Daniel Haley

Riffing off Sarah Ruhl, my posts on dramaturgy are not necessarily faithful descriptions of my process but rather views of certain aspects of it from just to the left of the experience. 

After The Three Keys of Captain Hellfire opened my director, David Lee-Painter (DLP) asked if I would dramaturg his next project, This Random World by Steven Dietz in the fall. The idea of researching someone else’s play was vaguely terrifying. I knew nothing about how to do it. In the past, I would’ve fled. This time I said, “Yes.”

So it was that I began learning dramaturgy and researching The Clean House.

One of the fun parts of researching Ruhl’s The Clean House is that I got to bust out a couple of my anthropology books that I haven’t touched since grad school. On this post I wanted to share some of Mary Douglas’ text Purity & Danger which uses beliefs on purity to compare different religions.

For her purposes, Douglas defines dirt:

If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. ….It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involved rejecting inappropriate elements….[For example, s]hoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining table.

Douglas continues:

“There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder….Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.”

These ideas are reflected in The Clean House where Lane expects order. Activities within her home must follow a routine or a system. Virginia, Lane’s sister, see cleaning (organizing the environment) as progress.

Beliefs about pollution are used within societies to influence behavior through social pressure. These implied perils are intended to keep would-be offenders within accepted norms of behavior (Douglas). To step outside of these boundaries causes the transgressor to enter a transitional state.

“Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefinable. ….The theme of death and rebirth [transitional states], of course, has other symbolic functions: the initiates die to their old life and are reborn anew (Douglas).”

Transitional phases for Matilde are seen when she is mourning and the scene of her birth. For her mother when she dies. For Ana, her surgery—a liminal state where you are neither living nor dead—and then when Ana dies. Lane’s old life dies and a new one is born.

Cleaning is also a method of control.

It’s not uncommon for people in transition to be quarantined, shunned or marginalized (Douglas). Marginalized people are also outcasts who sometimes live near those who have banished them. Matilde is an immigrant, a lower-class worker, and speaks a language none but Ana understands. Ana is also in transition and marginalized at first for breaking up Lane’s marriage and later during her struggle with cancer until the other women readmit her into society.

In the second act, cleaning becomes cleansing. More juxtaposition abounds here. The cleansing needed for Lane’s ordered and sterile world requires that all become dirty. The ripples of her husband’s affair into her life rain down as apple cores. Her sister physically makes a mess in the living room during an argument. And when Ana’s cancer returns, her polluted body is brought into Lane’s home. It is there Ana prepares to end her transitional state and, in the process, cleanses the other women. In a neat reverse, after Ana clutters their lives with the messiness of being alive, they clean her body which is now out of its transitional state (Al-Shamma, Heller, Schmidt).

From clean to messy to cleanse, the women learn “to accept the chance collisions of life, the pull of desire, and the inevitability of death (Heller).”

Lines from an early poem of Ruhl’s called “Advice from a Father to His Daughters”:

But have a good tantrum once in a while –
throw a bowl of olives against the wall.
Then conjure grace and drink plenty of tea”

Both the play and the poem recognize that a mess is a part of the process of confronting our deep-seated fears of disorder. Something deeper is at work here as well, as the play’s conclusion reveals: a cleansing mess is a step on the path to letting go of the world more completely (Heller).

Al-Shamma, James Zuheir, “Grief and Whimsy in the Plays of Sarah Ruhl,” dissertation, UC-Santa Barbara, 2008.
Heller, Jennifer, “To Follow Pleasure’s Sway: Atomism in Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House,” Modern Drama, Volume 60, Number 4, Winter 2017.
Schmidt, Heidi, “Sarah Ruhl’s Women: Gender, Representation And Subversion In The Clean House, Eurydice And In The Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play,” dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2010.