From on stage, back stage and the theater seats, the Performing Arts blog illuminates the intersecting worlds of dance, theater, and music.
To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Minneapolis-based experimental playwright and performance-maker Rachel Jendrzejewski shares her perspective on […]
To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Minneapolis-based experimental playwright and performance-maker Rachel Jendrzejewski shares her perspective on The Object Lesson by Geoff Sobelle. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
I arrived at the Walker just minutes before Wednesday night’s performance of The Object Lesson was meant to begin. Normally, running this close to late for a show in the McGuire Theater would mean quietly slipping into a seat toward the back as the lights go down. Rolling into the theater that evening, however, I quickly realized I was in for a different experience.
The theater was empty when I arrived. No people at all. The stage curtain was closed. Large cardboard boxes were scattered everywhere, piled up in the seats. Where to go? What to do? I caught a glimpse of an usher’s elbow in a doorway way down near the edge of the stage, so I crossed over to meet her. She directed me around the corner, onto the stage itself.
By now, you likely have seen remarkable photos, like the one above, floating around online. The stage was no longer recognizably a stage, but a cavernous room designed by Steven Dufala, warmly lit and filled to the brim with stuff—thousands of cardboard boxes, an array of mismatched furniture, and countless miscellaneous objects. Everything seemed to come from another time: toys from the 1980s, old school library card catalogs, lamps and music-playing devices from nearly every decade of the twentieth century.
“We’re encouraging people to move around and explore during the performance,” noted the usher. And indeed, the audience was moving comfortably through the space, reading aloud the handwritten labels on the boxes to each other (“Paris,” “Stuff that used to be important”) and unabashedly snooping through the clutter. I ran into to a friend who had just found a bunch of tax returns. “They seem real,” she said. “He made $16,000 in 2004.” To enter this space alone might have been eerie or overwhelming—I had flashes of the recent NYT feature about people who die alone—but with dozens of people milling around and chatting, many drinking wine from the bar, it actually felt like walking into a rather pleasant house party. People hanging out before dinner. The vibe was warm, convivial, and full of anticipation. What’s in this box? What’s in that one? What is going to happen tonight?
I noticed a Discman with headphones resting atop a stack of boxes. Next to this setup was a CD case which, for some reason I can’t explain, I registered to be a classical piano album. I put on the headphones and hit play. Music played, but it definitely wasn’t classical piano. “Does it work?” a fellow audience member asked. “Yeah,” I replied, “But I don’t think that CD is what I’m hearing.” “Really? Are you sure?” I looked more closely at the case and realized it did, in fact, belong to the album I was hearing: Jethro Tull live at Carnegie Hall. I must have looked confused. “Do you not know Jethro Tull?!” he asked. “No, I mean, I thought…” Suddenly he picked up the box, Discman and all, and shoved it into my arms. “You better take this with you.” Then he produced a Victrola seemingly out of nowhere and started arranging furniture to create a kind of makeshift parlor.
The man wasn’t a fellow audience member at all, of course, but Geoff Sobelle himself—and the performance was beginning.
From here, I’m realizing that I actually don’t want to say anything about what happened in the piece, because constant surprise and the palpable live-ness of people sharing the experience in real time were so fundamental to this work’s DNA. I keep typing out specific images and events, then deleting them; to name them feels diminishing. I’m thinking back on Miranda July’s request that nobody write about New Society for a year, so as not to spoil the newness of the experience for others. I remember appreciating that request—let the surprises be kept secrets for each audience, stay present with the work—and now, I’m craving a similar rule for The Object Lesson, even though Sobelle has made no such request, and despite the fact that many of the show’s magic moments already have been spilled online.
By the way, when I say “magic moments,” I mean actual magic. Sobelle and his director, David Neumann, worked with “Illusion Consultant” Steve Cuiffo to create countless wondrous instances of “How did he do that?!” How did he pull that very large thing from that very small box? How did that audience member he put on the spot know exactly what to say, in a way that worked perfectly with his own clearly scripted text? The tricks are intricate, seamless, and utterly captivating.
Here is something I will say. A good majority of the evening involved watching Sobelle interact with objects, and I could watch him do that for a very long time. In many instances, his tightly crafted material world felt like a charming portal into a deeper layer of inquiry, addressing more unwieldy things that, ironically (or appropriately), can’t ever be fully contained in tactile form: wandering, love, masculinity, aging, death. I thought about the winding trajectory of any life: how constantly we experience, how hard we try and love, how much we’ll never know. How, when we look out at the night sky—or get lost watching a stoplight change from red to green to yellow—we’re reminded that our lives are teeny tiny blips in time. Is that recognition comforting or scary? How do we spend our blip, and why? There we were, mostly strangers, spending some of our very limited time together, laughing, with all the things. I wondered about Sobelle’s relationship to uncertainty; he has the wistful eyes and sweet ready smile of a clown whose drive to entertain might be, in fact, a survival mechanism.
And when I say “clown,” I mean Sobelle is an actual (expert) clown. Some of the most compelling moments in the piece were those in which he let clown logic completely take over—innocently repurposing objects, inviting us to see their hilarious and sometimes poignant unexpected potential. As a colleague observed, most of us will walk into that installation and feel some sense of weight from all the clutter. We know that hoarding too much stuff isn’t good for the soul. We know that memories attached to certain objects can become overwhelmingly heavy. Yet Sobelle invited us to shake off those memories, let go of that baggage, drop all our assumptions about stuff, and instead experience each small offering anew.
That was the real object lesson, I reckon. What’s a telephone, anyway? Smell this jar of dirt! What can ice skates do? Over the course of the evening, our relationships to objects were not illuminated so much as transformed, reinvented. In turn, I left the theater and saw the world itself anew.
Playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski shares highlights from her recent conversation with Wunderbaum actor Walter Bart in anticipation of Hospital, a collaboration between LAPD and Wunderbaum which opens for a run during Out There this Thursday. A few seasons before I came to Minneapolis, I lived on East First Street in the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. […]
Playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski shares highlights from her recent conversation with Wunderbaum actor Walter Bart in anticipation of Hospital, a collaboration between LAPD and Wunderbaum which opens for a run during Out There this Thursday.
A few seasons before I came to Minneapolis, I lived on East First Street in the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. My home was a short walk from Skid Row, one of the largest stable populations of people experiencing homelessness in the United States. In college, I interviewed people living there for papers on economic justice; afterwards, I worked full-time with Cornerstone Theater Company, a community-collaborative ensemble based in the same vicinity, through which colleagues introduced me to the work of Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD). Over the course of those years, I followed and was very much influenced by various LAPD projects, such as UTOPIA/dystopia and the Skid Row History Museum. My first short play ever produced was based, in part, on the Skid Row community.
Needless to say, I was excited to learn that LAPD would be coming to the Walker with a new project, Hospital; the news felt like a convergence of homes past and present. But I was intrigued to see they’re collaborating with Wunderbaum, a performance group based in the Netherlands. I knew LAPD had done a variety of national and international collaborations over the years, but I had never known much about that aspect of their work — and I didn’t know anything about Wunderbaum. Who is this group, and how did LAPD wind up working with them? How does LAPD’s work, which I associate so strongly with a specific geography and population, change when it’s created with Dutch artists coming from their own historical, cultural, and artistic context?
I contacted Walter Bart, a founding member of Wunderbaum, via Skype to hear more about Wunderbaum’s work and their process with LAPD.
Rachel Jendrzejewski: I’ve read some information online, but can you tell me a little bit about Wunderbaum, in your own words?
Walter Bart: Definitely. First of all, the company is fully collaborative. In Holland, there was a very popular movement in the 1960s and 1970s toward collective work. Groups of actors started creating work based on improvisation, without writers and directors. Wunderbaum works like that. It was founded in 2001 by five actors (myself included) and a set designer. This collaborative approach is a pretty big way of working in Holland now, especially among younger groups. Of course, it’s challenging; you have to be responsible for everything yourself. We often invite other people to come serve as outside eyes.
Jendrzejewski: From your website, it seems your work tends to have a social focus, not unlike LAPD. Is that accurate?
Bart: Yes. For example, over the next few years, we’re developing a project called The New Forest, which is a fictional alternative society focusing on topics like healthcare and the law. We’re gathering a community of people and making a fictional documentary, as if this alternative society really exists. Through this work, we’re brainstorming new systems and connecting people together. We bring in scientists and other speakers to give seminars on topics like space mining, green energy, wind power, alternative economies like Bitcoin — various bottom-up initiatives. We’re working with fiction because we believe it helps people to think big. When everything is fiction, people don’t feel like they have to come up with “real” answers to the problems we’re exploring; and as a result, they use their imaginations more freely.
Jendrzejewski: How did you meet LAPD and decide to work with them?
Bart: We met John Malpede [LAPD’s founding artistic director] through a project that we did about the LA–based visual artist Paul McCarthy, who made a controversial statue of Santa Claus for Rotterdam. In our performance, a fictional character travels to LA to take revenge on McCarthy. We brought the piece to REDCAT in LA, and John wound up acting in it. We all liked each other a lot so we decided to collaborate. Also, our companies have certain things in common. For example, Wunderbaum works with many actors who aren’t trained as actors — people from neighborhoods where we’re doing work. So we began an exchange. LAPD came to Holland for four weeks, and we went back to California for four weeks.
Jendrzejewski: Do you have anything equivalent to Skid Row in the Netherlands?
Bart: No, we have nothing like that. It’s really crazy. But when we came to Los Angeles, the LAPD actors took us around to meet their friends and contacts — and we found out it’s actually a pretty warm neighborhood, in some ways. There’s good stuff happening. For instance, they took us to a church that does karaoke every Wednesday! Of course, I don’t think we ever would have found places like that without their help.
Jendrzejewski: So the two groups started doing this exchange. How did you land on the healthcare system as the subject for the piece?
Bart: It’s interesting. Things are changing in Holland; we’re moving to a more privatized, free-market system, where you have to find your own insurer – similar to what happened in the US. Meanwhile, the US has been moving toward this new, more social system. So we were interested in that juxtaposition. At some point, we decided to tell John Malpede’s story – from his birth to the present, his whole biography – because he’s dealt with a lot of weird stuff when it comes to healthcare! The piece ends with kind of a future perspective, what could be. In Holland, we have this alternative model emerging, Buurtzorg. which basically means “neighborhood care.” Community-based groups are trying to organize care in more personal, less centralized ways. The result is better quality of care, yet it’s also cheaper.
Jendrzejewski: It sounds like a big moment of change in the Netherlands – and as I’m sure you know, things seem to be changing by the minute in the US, too. You already performed a version of this piece at least once already, at RADAR L.A., right? Has the piece changed since then, to reflect current events?
Bart: Yes, it’s still developing, changing as the system changes. We performed in both LA and Rotterdam, and we learned a lot from those experiences. As we continue and as the systems in both countries change, we evolve aspects of the piece.
Jendrzejewski: Can you talk a bit about process? How does your company normally create work, and then how do you then create work with this group from a completely different culture?
Bart: Yes. Making this piece was a little bit different from our normal way of working. As I mentioned, Wunderbaum has been together more than 10 years, so we know each other really well. We make everything through improvisation and we have a strong vocabulary. With LAPD, we spent a lot of time trying to understand each other. It wasn’t always easy bringing our styles together; we come from really different backgrounds. But basically we just kept sharing ideas and building a new vocabulary. We still used improvisation a lot: we would create these short acts, vignettes, present them to each other, then layer them together and see what happened. We also drew on hospital dramas like ER. In fact, the birth scene at the beginning of the piece is copied exactly from ER. Interestingly, ER isn’t too bad in terms of accuracy. We asked some doctors to watch it, to tell us what was realistic and what was not, and most of them were pretty impressed by the quality!
Jendrzejewski: Can you think of a specific moment when the process, with the two groups trying to understand each other, was especially challenging?
Bart: Irony has been a big discussion throughout this process. In Wunderbaum, our humor can be very ironic. But that’s not always LAPD’s style. John says in the performance, “In Skid Row, there’s no place for irony; everything is real.” It’s been really interesting to think about that concept in this process—what’s funny and what’s not for people in different contexts. While generating the work, we would bring things to the table like Reagan, communist jokes, all those mental institutions that closed in the 1930s, which is how a lot of people ended up on Skid Row… and the question has been, how can we tell these stories in ways that are meaningful for everyone involved? Can you use irony and humor? It’s hard.
Join the artists in the Balcony Bar on Thursday, January 9 for a post-show artists’ toast. Stay after the performance on Friday, January 10 for a Q & A discussion with the artists, moderated by Dr. Angie Erdrich. After the show on Saturday, January 11, all audience members are invited to join a SpeakEasy conversation about the work, facilitated by Walker Tour Guide Susan Spray and local artists Evy Muench and Renee Copeland.
Inside Out There: Saturday, January 11, 11 am–1 pm. Actors from LAPD and Wunderbaum invite you to join them to improvise a new alternative healthcare system.
To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, playwright/performer Rachel Jendrzejewski shares her perspective on Thursday night’s performance by […]
To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, playwright/performer Rachel Jendrzejewski shares her perspective on Thursday night’s performance by Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Following my experience of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episode 1 at the Walker, I feel unable to respond in pretty much any other way besides doing what I’m doing, which is, um, remembering the experience into Garage Band and then transcribing it exactly, word for word, into this overnight response. I realize this idea is already full of so much failure because, um, it’s a really different thing to just read this on the page than—you don’t have my—you don’t have anyone singing, or dancing, or otherwise creating any kind of contrast to these words. And also because knowing—ah, that this piece is the reason I’m doing this—I mean remembering in this way. There might be a kind of self-consciousness that is annoying. But I’m really going to try to avoid thinking about all of those things, you know, I’m going to try to put it all aside and be like, I’m just telling you about this performance I saw, as if we’re talking on the phone.
I feel like I must, ah, I mean, to set up the experience of seeing this show, I first, um, leading in with the state of being that I was experiencing as I walked into the theater. I had stayed up almost all night, the night before, finishing reading something like 40 grant applications, because I then spent the whole day today in a grant panel. When I came to the Walker, I had not eaten dinner yet, although I knew this was bad, and I needed to use the bathroom but there wasn’t time, we were running late so we just went straight into the theater. TG was with me, and when we found our row, it was already past time for the show to start, but other people were still getting settled, too, and we were seated next to this row of. Oh my god, what did I—I just did this—oh okay. I just leaned on my computer or something and messed everything up but now it’s okay. I don’t know what just happened. Anyway I saw the performance with TG, and when we arrived, our seats were next to a big row of students, maybe ten students, and one of them was sitting in one of our chairs. And—at least, I think they were students, I don’t really know. But it was a big group of young people who seemed to have been forced to come to this performance at someone else’s command. And one of them was in our seats, one of our seats, and we had to ask them to scoot down, so the whole row stood up and moved over one seat. Oh and then as soon as I sat down, I realized I had forgotten my notebook, which was not ideal at all since I wanted to take notes for this overnight response. But so we just sat down and we had made it. Hungry and having to pee, in my case, but also very excited.
So then the piece started. And, um, I was really excited by the outfits first, which reminded me of scouts, like girl scouts and boy scouts. And by the instrumentation, piano and ukelele and xylophone, or glockenspiel, I’m not sure which one it was, I am pretty sure it was a xylophone, it was bigger than a glock. And percussion occasionally, tambourine, for some reason that girl cracked me up so much when she played the tambourine. But that’s later. So um. I really liked the gray dresses with the red accents, the ascots and headbands and whatever. I guess that’s not all at the beginning, but—I mean because it started really with just one performer, who was—that first performer, I loved her so much! She—very shortly into the piece—she was just making us laugh so hard. I haven’t laughed that hard since, I can’t remember when. And TG sitting next to me was like, pushing his leg into my leg, in this very specific way that he does sometimes when he’s laughing really hard and really earnestly. It’s hard to explain. But that happened, and I kept thinking, I could watch her dance these silly bouncing dances, her facial expressions which were so subtle yet so hysterical, all day. In fact I wrote that down on the back of a piece of paper that I found in my bag, since I didn’t have a notebook, “I could watch her dance all day” and then a few minutes later I wrote “PURE JOY!!!” in all caps and also, “I am so happy.”
So—I’m just stopping for a minute here, because I actually don’t know how I want to proceed, um, because I don’t really want to try tell you everything that happened in the piece. It is still really fresh in my memory so, you know, I wouldn’t remember everything but I might remember a lot. That would be re—well, it would just be silly and super long. And um, really the thing is, you should go see it if you haven’t seen it. And if you have seen it, I’m pretty sure you don’t need a recap. Um. But I—I don’t know, it seems like the whole point of responding in this way would be to remember everything I can remember, because in some ways, you know, it’s all about memory, and how we put language to—well, maybe in lieu of that right now, I’ll just try to remember a few things instead of everything, I’ll cheat a little bit. I think that’s okay. But how about this, I won’t censor what I share, I’ll just share the first things that come out. Okay?
Um. Um. Okay. So. Ah—there was a point at the beginning where I remember thinking about SJ and SuperGroup. And how much I love this movement, how much that—the movement is so perfect and cracking me up. These very small little simple things, precise though, intentional, and different every time they do it—those prompt cards—reminds me of some of our conversations—well anyway, I really—I really could have watched them dance forever. By the time “Traxson” came up, I had tears in my eyes from laughing. And somewhere around that time, I just remember thinking about the, uh, one of— the other two performers that had come in, the two women, and that smaller one, I remember just, around the “Traxson” part, really trying to understand how old she was, or is. I mean, because she’s so small and fierce and hilarious. Her face when she sings. Um. Yellow plastic circles are something I remember, but will not try to explain. The abrupt shifts in color, the backgrounds, these little small but mighty changes. The students sitting next to us were rowdy in the first part of the piece, talking out loud to each other, like not even pretending to whisper. Switching seats with each other sometimes. TG had to ask one guy to please turn off his phone because the screen was distracting. Um. The Izod. Red bouncy balls. Just the sheer bouncing in place forever.
I mean, I don’t know, I’m just, I’m thinking of all these little random images, and it’s just—sorry, I’m not very much into this, but I’m already just conscious of how boring it will be for you to read this, me remembering out loud, I’m just reminded why I tend to like to write instead of talk because thoughts don’t come out very eloquently or quickly for me—when I try to say them, aloud. I mean, the whole point of, um, I guess, reflection and processing, then editing, shaping—ah but. Anyway I guess the goal is not—I mean obviously the goal is not—The whole point of the performance, them having done it in this way, it’s about looking at this—I mean of course, me just saying that reminds me of these golden moments throughout, where she says, “God this must be so boring for you!” which you know, brings it all home. Actually Isherwood started his New York Times review with that quote. But also he loved it. And of course in this context of you reading this blog post, if you don’t know what I’m talking about right now, I’m giving you no framework for what this is, or anything you might take out—away—or well—I mean, never mind. Anyway.
Um. Blue hankies. Homework Dessadee. That girl who played the flute and sometimes danced, who reminded me so much of HM because she’s so skinny. I think she is the person they originally interviewed. All the descriptions of bodies, faces, hair, I mean, I became really interested in the idea of the preoccupations that we have at different stages of our lives, and why. Even now. How they do and don’t change and why some things stick. And the entrances of all those—all the men, the male performers, like halfway through this particular version of the performance. I’m just, like, they were there the whole time, somewhere back stage, and here they are finally, it’s like they’re so happy to be on stage now, in the game. And they’re just, they’re—the whole cast, together—I—I don’t know, I don’t really know what I’m trying to say, that maybe—oof I’m yawning—sorry. Um. At the part where the performer tells the story of wetting her pants in class, I actually get weirdly weepy, um, I guess embarrassed for her. And like, why—why am I able to connect with this ridiculous moment in this kind of profound way, I’m laughing and crying and really having an emotional response. Is it just because she’s telling this very human story about being embarrassed as a child? But I think it’s something more about the way—the combination of that story and how it’s being articulated and what my eyes are seeing, how the bodies are contrasting with it in these amazing awkward formations. And the expansive space, really, but—the space that it all creates.
After intermission—well, first I should say—intermission comes, maybe two hours in, and I’m really feeling like not much time has passed. Like, it makes a lot of sense for it to keep going, to keep going and going and going. Um. Of course there are those people who are like, “Okay we get it,” and TG tells me about some guy who we speculate is in Performance Studies, or at least a PhD student of some kind, because he uses words like “historiocity” as he tells his friends he’s over it and leaving. But aside from people like that, we and most other people in the lobby seem to be glowing and happy to be on this ride. And I love what—that—the way the Nature Theater directors put it in the program. About resistance. Oh it’s in that article that’s also on the Walker blog. Here, let me find it and read it. Or well, it’s a whole paragraph, so you should just read it yourself. But it’s that part toward the end, about the audiences having a complicated relationship to the performance, and like, paying money to do a workout, not watch one. And I would add, see it all the way through. I always want to stop doing pushups after like, two, you know? I’m like, I get it. I don’t like it. But it’s really worth, at least this is what I think—it’s worth persevering through a full set.
There’s a moment after, sometime after intermission, when the, I guess, what would you call her, the character, the—the voice of the piece, is referring, I think to her neighborhood, or—and she says it’s all, something like, “it’s all very white-ish.” Oh! I think not her neighborhood, but she’s talking about her upbringing in general, her experience? I can’t remember exactly, but I do remember that it made me think about, um, Kenna’s overnight response after Momentum in July that brings up this notion of “white art” and parsing out what that means. And this piece, all the performers are white, or have the appearance of being white, and they’re talking about one white person’s, you know, very uneventful upbringing. Why, but also this piece seems to be in some ways aware of that, I don’t know, maybe—maybe not—but you know, always coming back to, “Do you really want to be listening to this?” But also, we are, I mean we’re here, listening for many hours. And I’m glad this work is happening. But um. I guess it’s, I don’t know. It’s a lot to think about and makes me want to have more conversation. And maybe try to write about it sometime when I’m not responding verbally in the middle of the night on very little sleep.
Another thing I wrote down on my piece of paper was “Cindy spending the night,” but I don’t remember why, just something, about that section, talking about her friend Cindy spending the night and going home because she was homesick. I remember looking over at the high school students, and by this point most of them were dropping like flies. They just can’t believe that the piece is still going. Uh… one of them is kind of keeled over in her seat, like, I think she’s sleeping. And at first I think, you know, about this article I read awhile back, about how high school students are all sleep-deprived and what that does to their learning processes. Actually I don’t know if these are high school students, they might be older than that, like college, in fact I bet they are. But either way, they’re kind of acting like high school students, so it’s hard to say. But. Um. I think about them all being so sleep-deprived, even if they’re college students, that’s probably still true for them, and then I think about the fact that she’s going to wake up from this little nap, if she’s really taking a nap, and the piece is still going to be re—it’s just still going to be happening. It just keeps going. It’s still going to be happening when she wakes up, and how surreal that would feel, like if you drifted off into a deep sleep and don’t know how much time passed, and then—then you wake up and it’s all still there. It’s like we started, dipping into this strange time warp, this other reality or dimension of being where—I mean it’s really exciting, dropping into that mode. And I remember thinking, of course there should be nine other episodes of this work.
When the piece ends, um. TG and I are walking out to the parking garage, and we talk about the fact we feel like we just, you know, like got off a moving sidewalk, uh, and feel like we’re still—should be moving, or we have to, like, we’re having to jolt back into reality in this way that, like we can still feel what came before, viscerally. And we just want to like sing everything that we’re saying and articulate our laughter as “Ha Ha’s,” Like. Um. Really, like a moving sidewalk. I feel like there was one other thing, another image or whatever that we used to describe the feeling, that was also very accurate. But I don’t remember what it was now.
To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write about our performances. This ongoing series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski shares her thoughts in anticipation of Fondly, Collette Richland by Sibyl Kempson, […]
To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write about our performances. This ongoing series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski shares her thoughts in anticipation of Fondly, Collette Richland by Sibyl Kempson, a new collaboration with Elevator Repair Service that opens for a preview run at the Walker this Thursday.
“It’s a snowball, accumulating, but then at some point the image solidifies, like the snowball gets dipped into a batter and deep fried… yeah, it gets dipped into the Big Daddy fryer…”
Sibyl Kempson and John Collins are finishing each other’s sentences as they search for an apt metaphor to explain how Fondly, Collette Richland, a new play written by Kempson in collaboration with Elevator Repair Service, has been evolving.
It is Sunday morning, less than a week before the show opens for a preview run at the Walker. We’ve been drinking large cups of coffee and pondering the mysteries of life and performance for almost two hours. As John and Sybil elaborate on the fried snowball (“The audience is grease!”), I feel like we’re approaching the benediction of our own funny little church service.
The conversation had started with me saying, “I won’t ask you what this piece is about,” and then John saying, “It’s about two hours.” We laughed, and yet as we kept talking, I became pretty convinced that his response was a legitimate synopsis. Fondly, Collette Richland is asking overlapping questions about theater and about being – existential questions that have everything to do with the bizarre mysteries and truths of time. To some extent, it is very much “about” the complex layers of living juxtaposed with the steady march of time. Where do we find ourselves? What’s beyond these walls? What’s in our own minds? What will happen? What won’t?
Numerous recent articles have offered insight into the collaboration between Sibyl and ERS, how they’ve been working (see here and here for some particularly nice ones from the Walker). While ERS is not your standard theater company and Sibyl is not your standard playwright, I’ve been surprised to discover they’re working in a somewhat standard configuration for new play development. The writer churns out pages; she gives them to the director and actors; the company plays with the material; the writer makes revisions; so the loop continues—“only it’s more dynamic,” Sibyl and John agree. While it’s their first time collaborating in this way, they have known each other for many years and share a deeply engrained vocabulary, sense of humor, and innate trust. They’re not afraid to fail in front of each other. This part is particularly crucial, according to John: “I don’t really start getting ideas until things start going wrong.”
Speaking of failure, I bring up a 2011 BOMB interview in which Sibyl described her tendency, as both child and adult, to be drawn to details rather than the larger picture or point – sitting in math class, for example, fixating on the teacher’s mannerisms instead of the lesson. This way of perceiving the world resonates strongly with me, though I’ve long felt like it’s some kind of failure on my part—focusing on the wrong things and missing out on what I’m supposed to be learning. “Oh and they want you to feel the guilt,” nods Sibyl. “But focusing on the ‘wrong things’ can lead to another way of knowing.” That’s been a guiding principle in the making of Fondly, Collette Richland. Sibyl didn’t start with a single clear concept or subject or framework; rather, she set into motion a sea of details (“a kind of organism”), and the collective work has been about getting those details talking to each other. Some details meet quickly, others more slowly—and some never find each other at all. John’s role as director is recognizing how and when details approach each other, a process that requires immense patience, intuition, and trust (“I have to be an active observer”). Over time, larger concrete elements emerge—concrete and yet highly nuanced, complicated, layered. I think of painting, pushing around color and texture until the composition reveals itself.
A few days ago, The Star Tribune published a preview piece about this show. “It’s the first thing that comes up when you Google ‘throws narrative out the window’!” John reports, amused. He’s referring to the headline: “Elevator Repair Service Throws Narrative Out the Window at Minneapolis Theater.” The subhead reads, “New York theater collective Elevator Repair Service gives us a first look at its amorphous new creation.” It’s a great piece; and yet the more we talk, the more it seems clear to me that Sibyl and ERS are not throwing narrative out the window, nor are they making something amorphous. Rather they’re approaching narrative from an unusual angle, exploring new and unexpected shapes it might take. “We’re attempting to look at things in a different way,” Sibyl explains. “It’s not just a fun mess,” John adds. “We’re getting at truth.”
The catch, of course, is that truth is complex. It can be ambiguous. It is maybe always ambiguous (“Nothing’s more truthful than ambiguity,” declares John). Yet even in its ambiguity, truth is specific and real. That’s the nature of our world, of course—the tangible and ineffable all tangled up together. But our culture doesn’t like this kind of contradiction. We want things to be one or the other, order or chaos, not both simultaneously. I ask Sibyl and John about this resistance, why it’s there, and we agree that of course it all comes back around to fear of the unknown. Truth is larger than us, larger than our capacity to articulate it, and facing that reality can be terrifying. John suggests that many people go to the theater to escape the ambiguity of everyday life; yet as a director, he’s interested in illuminating this ambiguity, not evading it. The three of us ponder what is revealed about our fears when we’re unhappy with ambiguity. Sibyl proposes that creative or spiritual practices (some might consider them one and the same) are vital precisely because they teach us to open up to that ambiguity, to come to peace with uncertainty. John shares that one of the most meaningful works of theatre he’s encountered, The Wooster Group’s Frank Dell’s the Temptation of St. Antony, was “confusing and intimidating” to him at first. But he saw it again and again (and eventually worked on it, running sound). Once he realized it didn’t have a singular meaning—that different interpretations and experiences were not only possible, but preferable—he found himself utterly exhilarated.
“Is that the dream you were talking about?” asks Sibyl. “Yes!” exclaims John, and suddenly they’re both very excited. A few nights ago—Friday night, after their first full week of rehearsals in Minneapolis—John had a dream that Liz LeCompte had decided to remount St. Antony, this time in some kind of old house. In the dream, John was having “a very strong emotional reaction” to the piece, “laughing and crying at the same time,” a kind of bizarre joy. Not surprisingly, John’s been thinking of that show a lot throughout this current project, because his work with Sibyl is so close to the heart of theatre that he loves, a “core pursuit” of truth that can’t be found in any other form. The strange emotional reaction in the dream reminds him of a founding goal of ERS: “We wanted people to find themselves laughing and not know why”—encountering truth that transcends intellectual articulation.
We all shake our heads, smiling, as the feeling of the dream dwells for a moment. “I don’t know,” says John, “but I think it bodes well.”
To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, playwright/performer Rachel Jendrzejewski shares her perspective on Thursday night’s performance by […]
To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, playwright/performer Rachel Jendrzejewski shares her perspective on Thursday night’s performance by Cynthia Hopkins. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Somewhere in the middle of This Clement World, we meet a German physicist that Cynthia Hopkins encountered while on an expedition to the Arctic. Or rather, I should say, we meet Hopkins’ impression of the man, as she’s reenacting a lecture that she didn’t manage to capture on film. Every year, this physicist heads to the Arctic before the ice forms, allows his boat to be frozen into place, and stays there until the ice thaws. This endeavor is known as “overwintering,” the same term used to describe things like migration and hibernation, and probably, living in Minnesota, things related to waiting out the harsh conditions of winter. Hopkins-as-physicist tells stories about living in the Arctic, navigating nature, and coming to terms with mortality, declaring choice insights along the way like, “There’s no such thing as human rights in the Arctic!” We are tiny specks in the cosmos, after all, mortal animals just fighting to survive. The audience gazes at breathtaking footage of vast seas, white ice masses, documentation collected from Hopkins’ travels, landscapes that make us feel even more insignificant in the grand scheme of things. “This is not bad, it’s not even sad,” she insists. “In fact, it’s beautiful. It’s life.”
It is beautiful; and yet this character probably will be one of the first to remind us that, despite our small, finite position within the vastness of nature, we humans are rapidly taking nature down—except, no, that’s not quite right—we’re rapidly taking ourselves down. Nature will always be around in some form, but its prolonged hospitality for human life is another story. Later in her piece, Hopkins (now playing an alien from outer space disguised as a man with a moustache) observes that human beings have come to the end of innocence; like toddlers learning about cause and effect, we can see the dire consequences of our actions. There’s no going back to blissful ignorance. Not that we have ever been terribly blissful in ignorance; another character played by Hopkins, the ghost of a murdered Native American woman, points to certain haunting notions of “progress” (“Now we can kill each other so many ways”).
Hopkins presents our current global climate situation, including the role of consumer-driven “progress,” in plain didactic terms: Here is what’s happening. We have choices to make. Now is the time to make them. Sacrifice will be required. Yet amidst the firm clarity of her mission, she inhabits a world of paradox that, at least for me, packs the real punch. Documentary film and autobiographical accounts are layered into a concert structure of utterly transcendent music (including a stellar live band), along with a multimedia environment and array of eclectic fictional and real characters. Observations of crisis exist in meditative suspension, urgency amidst timelessness. Sometimes there’s a palpable tension between these worlds; engulfing sections of music accompanied by those equally captivating Arctic images seem to swell up in visceral response to all the scientific research telling us things most of us have heard but feel helpless to control. Apart from the video, Hopkins herself is the main focus on stage, often in the form of and/or accompanied by life-sized projected videos of herself. Her image seems to be everywhere and vulnerable, but also nowhere, mediated by technology or hidden behind personae (surely the fact that she’s appearing on the heels of Cindy Sherman is no coincidence). Witness versus participation; inevitability versus choice. It accumulates very quickly into something much larger than one human.
“She’s trying to tell a story she do not know how to tell,” remarks Hopkins-as-alien toward the end. And maybe this accumulation of paradox, the impossibility of fathoming the world on our own, becomes the point. Perhaps the real story of climate change begins as we find each other in shared space to look, and listen, and respond, together.