Return to This Random World

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

I find myself returning….

This spring I got to attend a wonderful production of TRW at Post Falls High School directed by Payton Edwards. Then last week, digging through some records I found the introductory note I’d written for my dramaturgy packet. The note is below. I rather enjoy that TRW is never far from me to prod me into reflection.

This Random World company studying the script.

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’re not even aware of all the parts we play in other people’s lives–Even some people we never meet. But with a slight shift of our gaze, we might see different things or things as if new—in ways we’ve never looked at them before.

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

The second title or subtitle of the play is: The myth of serendipity. Myth is commonly thought of as a falsehood when it is actually a truth manifested as story. A narration. This Random World looks for the truth of serendipity. It visits the Forest Where Lies are Revealed where we are brought closer to the truth.

When I began my research, I thought the second title referred to serendipity as a myth. But I’ve come to believe Dietz is using it to comment on the main title. This Random World is the truth of serendipity.

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 wrote, one of theatre’s most profound gifts are participation and reflection. And This Random World gives us plenty of opportunities to do that.

Notes on games of chance...

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives is a 2008 popular science book by Leonard Mlodinow. It became a New York Times bestseller and a New York Times notable book. It is a book about humans’ ability to create patterns—even when the patterns are not there. Adapted as a survival skill, our pattern-making is not infallible and at times can lead one to the wrong conclusions.

Some of the main lessons:

  • We wrongly over-attribute successes and failures to people’s actions rather than luck’s role.
  • We should judge people by their character and talents rather than their results.
  • We are not as in control as we think.
  • What IS in our control is the opportunities we take advantage of and how we improve our own skills toward the best odds.

Along with the aforementioned book, Mlodinow has written for the New York Times about randomness and the human need to feel in control:

We should judge people by their character and talents rather than the results of their efforts.

Randomness causes much of success and failure, and much of that is outside our control. What is in our control is the number of opportunities we take advantage of and how we cultivate our own skills to give us the best odds.

Along with the aforementioned book, Mlodinow has written for the New York Times about randomness and the human need to feel in control:

It struck me then that I have Hitler to thank for my existence, for the Germans had killed my father’s wife and two young children, erasing his prior life. And so were it not for the war, my father would never have emigrated to New York, never have met my mother, also a refugee, and never have produced me and my two brothers … The outline of our lives, like the candle’s flame, is continuously coaxed in new directions by a variety of random events that, along with our responses to them, determine our fate.

“What Are the Odds?”


Mlodinow, Leonard. The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Vintage Press, 2008.
Mlodinow, Leonard. “The Limits of Control,” New York Times, June 15, 2009.
Mlodinow, Leonard and the Editors. “What Are the Odds?” New York Times, May 22, 2009.

Moon Boots

Last year I was in getting massage treatment for my back which tends towards bundles of pain that have to be alternately coached and broken open. The therapist and I talked. We’re usually talking about something random to distract me. I needed shoes with arch AND ankle support which I couldn’t find.

Then we branched into shoes we loved as kids. His were classic Docs and Chuck Taylors. Mine were Traxx which I obsessed about keeping clean. (Later I found they were made by Kmart, who knew Kmart made shoes?) We couldn’t wear any of those classic kicks nowadays which brought some melancholy.

But while we were talking, I flashed to a pair of moon boots that I had. It was not unusual for a hot box once open to free up not only pain and thorned, captive tension, but also memories. As if memories were not only kept in grey matter but in fascia as well.

In my mind’s eye, I saw one moon boot in the blinding white snow. I crouched on a knee. Then like that I wasn’t at the medical facility. I was in the snow of southern Idaho bundled in my fur-trimmed, orange snowsuit. My little brother played nearby. Moon boots were the most amazing snow shoe—well, shoe—ever! Astronauts wore them, right? That’s how my 8-year-old-ish brain operated.

Then snow exploded on the side of my head. I looked up. Dad had hit me with a snowball. Mom was smiling. The pair descended the slope, around the side of the addition to our mobile home they had built. My brother and I screamed with delight. They rarely did this sort of thing.

That moment plays and replays. I search for every detail saved there, but how would I know that I needed to remember every aspect of this moment? That 44 or so short years later Mom would be gone. Dad would be in a facility; his own memories vanishing faster than he could make them.

Those two people walking down the slope toward me, nothing could ever happen to them. Nothing could make them not be there. Those smiles. The screams. Dad bent to sculpt another snowball.

Image from pixabay by Mihai Paraschiv

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Notes

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Last night’s rehearsal included the scenes with Friendship and Stuff. Friendship in Everybody is not the ideal looked for in the Middle Ages: one that is a true friendship, enduring and tested by adversity. At the end of the scene, Friendship has nothing of substance to offer Everybody and leaves them with a statue.

I’ve been thinking about the tawdry little trophy most of the night. It was on par with a golden idol. And probably the best summation of their relationship. Which reminded me of Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments only to discover people had gotten bored, melted down the gold for a golden calf, and were throwing a party. Rather than waiting for something of substance, they had gone for gratification.

junk lady from Labyrinth.

The departure of Friendship leads to the arrival of Stuff, a larger scale version of the trophy Friendship had just awarded Everybody.

My mental picture—despite BJJ’s description that Stuff is a trophy—is the junk lady from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. The junk lady rolls into that film intent on distracting the heroine from her mission with all her worldly goods. This is one reason Stuff gives for not accompanying Everybody on their journey.

The image of us being burdened with unnecessary crap seems easier to recognize than that we might have social connections that are just as hollow. There are TV programs dedicated to people who gather too much and messaging would have us believe that we are a nation of hoarders. Comedy routines have been written on the subject as in this example from George Carlin’s 1981 A Place For My Stuff:

That's all your house is- a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you're taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you're saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.... --George Carlin

Our conversation shifted to cutting loose of worldly goods. There was talk of minimalism and how impossible it would be to achieve that for some. I was reminded of Swedish death cleaning, an on-going process of decluttering and organizing but still hanging onto sentimental items. There are quite a few web pages on the topic as it is all the rage nowadays. This was the one I stopped at to refresh my memory.

Carlin, George. A Place for All My Stuff. Last Accessed: Jan 21, 2021.

Keenan, Bretton. “A Beginner’s Guide to Swedish Death Cleaning.” Sept 11, 2019. Last accessed: Jan 21, 2021.

Happy Mess–Happiness

Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith
directed by Sarah Campbell
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Moscow Idaho’s Rotary Park water tower photo by Elaina Pierson)

Mama: Oh, baby girl. I’m happy enough.
Young Bella: What if that isn’t enough happy for me?
Mama: You’ll find it.
Young Bella: What if I don’t?
Mama: Well, you’ve always loved cats.
Young Bella: Mama!--Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith

Ian Paul Messersmith wrote Happy Mess as an exploration of happiness. So, it will come as no surprise that during the workshop, we talked about happiness.

Coming out of the explorations: some people had a surplus of happiness in their lives and others a dearth of it. Happiness was sometimes described as an object, something physical to be held in your hands. A scarce commodity. You took what happiness you could get. And that idea has stayed with me past the workshop. Prior to this project, I hadn’t thought of happiness as something I took.

I never gave much thought to happiness. I knew I wanted it and was glad when it was there and sad when it left but beyond that I had not reflected on the idea of what happiness was and the role it plays in our lives. (As a writer, I tend to write about different permutations of love- rarely do they guarantee never-ending happiness.)

Assembling the dramaturgy packet for Happy Mess, I’d looked over a few theory articles but ended up not including them. They weren’t the right tenor for where we were headed and wading through them wouldn’t have helped the new script.

The philosophical articles were opaquely worded and deeply nuanced–pretty much what I remembered from college. I’d arrived at university with a lower reading level then the texts I was given. Theory was yet another level of difficulty. To this day, researching theory does not make me happy but getting through it and understanding it, as Carolyn Hitt says, is an opportunity to “Impress Myself.”

And as an aside to my developing dramaturgical process, there are always some items that don’t go into the packet but end up proving useful during rehearsals. Or I might end up ruminating on an item and writing about it later.

Only thoughtful discussions of the true meaning of happiness and prosperity will awaken people to what it is that really fulfills them and will give them the words to describe it. --Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

My ruminations led me to Martin Seligman’s writings on happiness. He broke happiness down into three different types of happy lives: The Pleasant Life, The Good Life, and the Meaningful Life. Combining the three could create a full life (Townsend).

The Pleasant Life were activities that you enjoy doing: going to the movies, eating pizza. Activities that had an emotion you felt at the time and could easily describe, “raw feels.” The happiness they gave only stayed with you for a short time (Seligman).

These Seligman differentiated from activities that you liked doing because they were gratifying: helping at a soup kitchen, rock climbing, playing bridge. “[I]t is the total absorption, the suspension of self-consciousness” that made describing a feeling at the time difficult. He wrote that the presence or absence of a feeling at the time determined if the activity was pleasing or gratifying. The happiness derived from these activities were found to stay much longer and were the Good Life (Seligman).

The Meaningful Life was the

"Good Life, but with one further ingredient: identifying and using your highest strengths in order to belong to and serve something larger than you are (Seligman)." 

Things larger than yourself Seligman called Positive Institutions. And could be communities or civic groups. I imagine a classic example is religion. With Christianity, there is the manifold paradox of God being both internal and external to the believer. There is the promise joy and life beyond death. Christianity also emphasises a focus on the Good Life and doing gratifying activities while here in the world.

The character of Mama, who I would argue underwent the most change in the story, is a devout Christian. A couple of the other characters exhibit spirituality but not to the depth that Mama demonstrates.

There are, without a doubt, other cultural lenses to examine this script through and having recently worked on This Random World, I had a few thoughts about looking at it through Shintoism. But Happy Mess examines happiness through occidental ones and I’ll confine my ruminations to that as well.

The Good Life and the Meaningful Life reminded me of a story I’d heard that to be a good citizen in ancient society you had to contribute to that society. I found this reflected in Townsend’s quote below.

Aristotle thought happiness was the goal of human activity. For him, true happiness was something more than simply "Eat, drink, and be merry," or even the honor of high position. Real satisfaction didn't depend on the pleasures of the senses or what others thought of you. You could find genuine happiness only in a life of virtue and just actions.-- Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Three characters demonstrating Aristotle’s happiness in Happy Mess are Bella’s father, Daddy; her former lover, Ms. Harvey; and the town florist, Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson designed a community park and uses dialogue to reinforce and further interconnections between residents of Bridge Water.

Daddy’s a builder. He “speaks” through making and gifts. He admits that he’s not very good with words. We see his letter to Mama when he couldn’t speak what he wanted to say nor build it.

Daddy constructed the post office and the library and when his own barn burnt, the community helped raise a new one. He also designed a water tower which is no longer in use. His activity and presence was integral to bringing the residents together as a community. He built the family home which still shelters them and a tree house for Bella.

Ms. Harvey saves the community’s history, encouraging her students to discover their own past and their places in their family and their community. Through the course of the play, Bella’s family questions Ms. Harvey’s motivations with her newest project, to save a water tower -Does it have less to do with history and more to do with getting closer to Bella?

Seligman might value the three types of happy life equally but that is not true of the characters in Happy Mess‘ world-nor need it be. It points up the challenges we all face trying to define happiness for ourselves.

Before the play takes place, Mama had a full life with a balance of Seligman’s three lives but her husband’s death threw everything out of true. She has broken with her faith and struggles to find her way. She returns home after several years focused entirely on a Life of Pleasure which she confesses has only brought her misery.

Daddy’s presence is felt throughout the story despite only being seen on stage in few flashbacks. There are three objects connected him that are destroyed through the course of the play: The water tower, a statue, the letter.

The water tower is a relic of the past and waiting to be pulled down when Ms. Harvey mounts her campaign to save it. Daddy gifted Mama religious statues through their relationship and one is broken during an argument. And finally Daddy’s letter.

The letter is one of the few times where Daddy put his feelings into words. Mama decides to destroy the letter at the urging of Bella’s wife to free herself from the past. Bella’s indifference to the shredding of her father’s last words in the face of Mama’s euphoria provides a cacophony of emotions for the audience. It propels the story to the finale in the house that Daddy built.

Townsend’s article focused on the pursuit of happiness in relation the founding of the United States. Her argument was that happiness lay in personal agency.

People were happy when they controlled their destiny, when their voice was heard, when they participated in public events, when the government did not do things to them, or even for them, but with them.--Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Which returns me once more to Seligman and Happy Mess. The interconnected members of Bella’s family (and I’m including Ms. Harvey in this) are brought under Daddy’s roof after the systematic destruction of the past: the discarding of the water tower, the statue, the letter.

The players are the prodigal mother, Bella, her wife, and Bella’s jilted lover; Bella’s daughter and her lovers. The final scene encompasses Seligman’s full life as well as the script’s title Happy Mess. All the players in each one’s Pleasant, Good, and Mindful Life are together and engaged. They have reached a point where they can talk about what happiness means and have agency for themselves. And perhaps find the happiness each wants.

Townsend, Kathleen Kennedy. “The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant—And Didn’t” The Atlantic. June 20, 2011.

Seligman, Martin E. P., “Can Happiness Be Taught?” Daedalus, Spring, 2004, Vol. 133, No. 2, On Happiness (Spring, 2004), pp. 80-87. Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Stable URL:

Happy Mess–Performance Space

Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith
directed by Sarah Campbell
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Moscow Idaho’s Rotary Park water tower photo by Elaina Pierson)

In October, Happy Mess had a staged reading, giving an opportunity to share the company’s work on the script and receive feedback from several audiences before it moves into a next phase: preparation for an anticipated spring production.

Due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the workshop process was moved to a Zoom format. A byproduct of this was that the company was able to include members from outside of Moscow, living in Boise, Virginia, and Tennessee. The playwright, Ian, is a distance learning student residing in Utah.

Each actor had their own performance space and were their own tech support. We helped each other online as best we could but David Harlan, who is adept as a technician and a performer, remarked on the unique stress of having to be both during the Zoom work.

Much of the tech involved troubleshooting wi-fi and network problems. We ultimately relocated three actors to spaces in the theatre department to remedy the problems. We also worked with room acoustics and lighting to get a balanced look and sound between actors. Once a baseline was established, performers would contribute to further the telling of Happy Mess.

Costumes were pulled from actors’ personal wardrobes as well as the few props they would need for the reading.

When I started thinking about how different this was from the performances we were accustomed to at Hartung or Forge, I asked Jeanna for photos of her performance area. Her character, Mama, had the most props in our reading. One thing that was rather startling when I saw her photos was how isolated the actors were. When I see them, they’re always “together.”

During the rehearsals, they talked about the characters and the relationships which is part and partial of working on a show and developing connections with each other as actors. It’s something theatre makers fret about when doing Zoom shows. How to bridge those little boxes. To have character emotionally tethered.

And to see the pictures Jeanna sent me, I suddenly see the actors reaching out through that little dot on the top of their laptops.

It’s all they have connect through. They have all these tools sitting around them to help them with the performance, and its precious few compared to what they had on a physical stage. Only so much will fit in that dot. And the only feedback they get from the others they are working with is through that black square on the screen somewhere in the vicinity of their script.

Storytelling in Liminal Space

A Rumination about the University of Idaho’s upcoming and first virtual production, Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists.

Last week, was the design presentation for The Revolutionists. Since we are living in a pandemic, it was done via Zoom.

Happy Mess, the show I have been dramaturging the last month and a half, was a workshop piece for the First Bite series. It had a staged reading and is expected to have a production in the spring but The Revolutionists is the first production of the fall season AND the first production since the University of Idaho’s Theatre Arts Department was forced to shut down performances two days after The Moors had opened last March.

Before Covid-19, the department was streaming lectures and running a distance learning program. They produced their own spring commencement when the official plenary ceremony was cancel due to the pandemic. Over the summer, two staged readings were performed.

So the department wasn’t new to streaming. And as the fall semester approached, the faculty was already poking at the problem and looking for ways to continue to provide practical experience for its students.

A very long time ago when I was an undergrad, practical experience was one of the program’s major selling points. At the big schools, it was difficult to have your designs realized but at Idaho you graduated with that. You had the chance to perform on stage.

A difficulty with Zoom is well, it’s not a theatre. Nor is it film or TV. And that has been written and talked about at length. But it is there and it’s what many groups have chosen to work with. I’m more appreciative of what’s been done with it and used its strengths than the crying about it. (Yes, I’ve done my share of crying).

The Revolutionists’ design team hit this show hard. Director Carly McMinn mentioned being unsure if the team would go for the idea when she pitched it but they loved it. Part of it involved tracing the different historical waves of U.S. feminism.

But the overarching plan that I really liked was that they designed for the Forge Theater, the university black box space. They did it knowing full well the show would be Zoomed.

I loved this. The first part of the presentation was from concept to idealized production or dream show. They created a brilliant world for that known stage space. There was the set design with central pieces especially the role of the guillotine. The lighting design and moving from candles to a rock n roll feel. Sound had different moods of music to underscore moments of the story and color transitions. Another reason, many of the Zoom productions I’ve watched, the designers are left on the sidelines.

And the best part was how fucking excited they were. And it got me excited. Which I didn’t think was possible as I was already stoked to see the show. They didn’t need to get me amped. Already there.

Top left: Jesse Dreikosen, Head of Design and Technology in Theatre, moderates “The Revolutionists” Design Presentations.

Second part, the reality. The Zoom production. There they discussed how they were going to move from the dream show into a streamed production. Translating the dream show, what were the important elements? How to convey them into the minimalistic environment of Zoom? And so on.

From a design perspective, this approach seemed like a positive way to work. Instead of stopping at actor, laptop, backdrop but to go past that to a full in a theatre production. What would you do? Then return and figure out how to pull those elements into the streaming.

Once again, a program giving its student practical experience in resolving challenges.

Happy Mess–Interview Questions

Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith
directed by Sarah Campbell
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns
packet prepared Summer 2020

(Moscow Idaho’s Rotary Park water tower photo by Elaina Pierson)

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!

Image from Christine Sponchia, Pixabay

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–Dramaturgy Packet–Small Town

Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith
directed by Sarah Campbell
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns
packet prepared Summer 2020

(Moscow Idaho’s Rotary Park water tower photo by Elaina Pierson)

Happy Mess is in development at the University of Idaho Theatre Arts Department through the Fall 2020 semester.


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.

University of Idaho Special Collections Ott Photo Collection 90-02-029. Moscow, ID 1975.

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.”

Robert Wuthnow

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.

Happy Mess–Dramaturgy Packet–LBGT+ & AA

Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith
directed by Sarah Campbell
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns
packet prepared Summer 2020

(Moscow Idaho’s Rotary Park water tower photo by Elaina Pierson)

Happy Mess is in development at the University of Idaho Theatre Arts Department through the Fall 2020 semester.


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.

Alcoholics Anonymous. “2014 Membership Survey.” Last Accessed: August 20, 2020.

Glaser, Gabrielle. “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous. “The Atlantic.” April, 2015. Last Accessed: August 20, 2020.

Hunt, Jerome. “Why the Gay and Transgender Population Experiences Higher Rates of Substance Use Many Use to Cope with Discrimination and Prejudice” Center for American Progress. March 9, 2012

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. Last Accessed: August 20, 2020.

Murray, Krystina. “The LGBTQ community is more impacted by alcoholism than most. Luckily, awareness is growing, as is the number of LGBTQ-specific treatment programs.” April 28, 2020

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Last Accessed: August 21, 2020.

Rowan, Noell L. “Older Lesbian Adults and Alcoholism: A Case Study for Practitioners.” Journal of Aging Life Care. Spring 2012 Last accessed Aug 13, 2020.

Happy Mess–Dramaturgy Packet–Water Tower-Part 2

Happy Mess by Ian Paul Messersmith
directed by Sarah Campbell
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns
packet prepared Summer 2020

(Moscow Idaho’s Rotary Park water tower photo by Elaina Pierson)

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.