Happy Mess–Dramaturgy Packet–Coming Out After 30

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.

TOPICS

One of the important moments in Happy Mess is when Bella comes out to her mother when her mother moves back to the family home after being away for several years. Bella is out in other aspects of her life but is almost forty years old when she tells Mama.

No two coming out stories are the same—a comment often made in the articles about people who came out later in life. Pew Research’s study in 2013 of LGBT+ Americans found that younger adults disclosed their orientation earlier in life that older adults. It anticipated that this was due both to changing social norms and the population itself:

The survey finds that the attitudes and experiences of younger adults into the LGBT population differ in a variety of ways from those of older adults, perhaps a reflection of the more accepting social milieu in which younger adults have come of age.

Pew Research

Tanya Byrne writes about her coming out when she was in her late 30s. She knew she was different but there was no what she called an “A-ha moment.” She attributed this in part to a lack of role models. She also mentioned that coming out is not a one and done event:

I don’t know why people say you ‘come out’ like you do it once then it’s done. I come out pretty much every day. To colleagues, neighbors, friends I haven’t seen for years, to the random bloke at the bus stop who wants my number. Every time I meet someone new, I have to ask myself the same thing: ‘Can I trust you? Are you going to hurt me?’ and that [sic] hope they don’t.

Tanya Byrne

The Pew Research study found that telling parents about their orientation was an important milestone. 56% of respondents had told their mother. 10% in the study the question was not applicable. 39% had not told their father.

Byrne, Tanya. “5 Things I learned about Coming Out at 40. Oct 11, 2017.” https://medium.com/s/5-things-i-learned/five-things-ive-learned-about-coming-out-at-40-by-tanya-byrne-dc0c85dc6236. Last Accessed: August 16, 2020.

Pew Research Center. A Survey of LGBT Americans Attitudes, Experiences and Values in Changing Times. 2013. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/06/13/a-survey-of-lgbt-americans/. Last Accessed: August 16, 2020.

Before moving on, I would note that Miller, writing for the New York Times had to update her article because of the vagueness of being “openly gay.”

This article had been revised to address the uncertain nature of “openly.” Some readers consider openly to include people who are out in their personal lives but not in the workplace; other readers, and the Human Rights Campaign, count only those who publicly identify themselves as gay.

Miller, Claire Cain. “Where Are the Gay Chief Executives?” New York Times. May 16, 2014. https://nyti.ms/1gJLwum. Last Accessed: August 16, 2020.

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.

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