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