Just Visiting

Mariana Valencia in ALBUM. Photo by Alex Escalante.

When you are inside a memoir of your own making
I wonder when it dawned on you:
Catalog(ue) your life
These smells
That person
These pillows
That story
These songs
That heart
These neighbors
That death
Those deaths
Yes, those male deaths

When you woke this morning
Naturally, or not
When you decided to part ways with your sheets
Naturally, or not
When you had to get up to get out the door
Naturally
Did you think of your sister, long dead
When you recall this familiarity
This familial this
This, what you’re doing,
Which is
Fun?

When I enter
In the room
Inside the theater
Is this a theater
Inside the theater, I am aware
Your singing
Your song choice
Your clothing
Your crew neck
Specifically:
Your tea drinking
What flavor and why

When I pull this poetry
From small cubby holes
And other square-shaped storage
Will you listen more
Better
When I travel across the world
Acquire said poems inside quadro-holes
I shouldn’t write it down
Write it all down, that is
Because it will destroy
From the inside out
Even though
That’s what we want (need)
Right
Right
Right
Correct

What memory you can’t tell, you dance
What dance you can’t remember, you sing
What story you can’t like, you record
What road you can’t travel, you erase

You listen to your friends
As courtesy
Maybe

We are circling around
A drain
Of consciousness
Feels clogged
Enough
First generation promises
First generation freedom
First generation slow speeds
First generation privilege
On sidewalks, car windows, sweaty brows
We celebrate
Partake in the celebration
It won’t be here tomorrow
You know this
You should

Preserve your voice
Preserve your body
Preserve your herstory
Same;
Difference.

Mariana Valencia in ALBUM. Photo by Alex Escalante.

Between Walled Rooms is a series of freeform responses to live performance works, initiated by Tara Sheena. This work is a response to Mariana Valencia’s ALBUM, which premiered at Brooklyn Arts Exchange in April 2017. Valencia will also show an excerpt May 25 and 26 as a part of the LaMama Moves! Dance Festival; more information here.

It’s All Matter/It All Matters: In Rehearsal with Beth Graczyk

Beth Graczyk in One of You is Fake. Photo by Effyography.

A rehearsal with Beth Graczyk can be many things: a science lesson, a contemplative discussion, a costume party, an informative lecture, a focused choreography. In the case of One of You is Fake, her newest work premiering this week as a part of the LaMama Moves! Dance Festival, it is often all of those things and more.

I am intrigued by her handling of these different states (modes? approaches? contexts?) when I visit a recent rehearsal. Working with her collaborator, performer Lindsay Head, Graczyk has crafted a somewhat-solo that cycles through three distinct personas (which I won’t reveal here for fear of spoiling the fun). All the while, One of You is Fake creates a line of questioning around the “future”– the concept being a noun, a verb, and a problem to face — as it confronts how mankind has hungered for advancement that has resulted in both the destruction and development of our societies.

A distinct world, in all its imperfect incarnates, is certainly what results from Graczyk’s generosity of form and lucid sense of narrative density. As she cycles through these different personas, there is a disparity between the ideas constituting a past, present and future that seem to complicate linear time while managing to reinforce it. And, it can get messy. Graczyk makes me feel that being human is utterly ridiculous and gorgeously triumphant at the same time — and, isn’t it?

During this rehearsal, Graczyk reveals her fascination in the slippery nature of how scientific and creative impulses converge (apart from her life as a choreographer, she also has a career as a scientist). Science is essentially a set of narratives that emerge as “fact” or “truth” after certain constraints are achieved, she near-casually explains. I realize, in this moment, that science is so full of subjectivity I feel near-dumb for not coming across her explanation sooner. Narratives that are able to become real after a process is enacted. Like live performance. Like everything.

A focused exploration amidst the contours of human interiority, One of You is Fake seeks a solace that the present moment, or near-past, or fast-approaching future for that matter, can never quite provide. As its audience, we are left with a firm belief in a pursuit of honest connection; true human relationships — physical, emotional, electronic or otherwise — may be our one saving grace.

Beth Graczyk in One of You is Fake. Photo by Effyography.

One of You is Fake will premiere as a part of the 2017 LaMama Moves! Dance Festival, May 25 and 26. More information here.

TB Sheets – a response

L-R: Danny Brave & Nehassaiu deGannes in Buran Theatre’s T.B. Sheets. Photo by Kate Schroeder

I’ve never been much of a believer in the supposed transportational (probably not a word, but whatever) power of theatre—this idea that theatre can remove us from the present and take us to a different time and place. In fact, I find that great theatre typically achieves the exact opposite—it forces us to live in the present, where so few of us ever venture, away from regrets of the past and anxieties of the future. It’s why theatre has never worked as escapism for me; it’s too raw and present to allow an escape. Great theatre must be grappled with in the moment, every ounce of energy being dedicated to the world in front of us and never wandering into the trivialities of the past. Or so I thought.

During the several haunting and beautiful musical sequences (courtesy of Broken Chord) in T.B. SHEETS, Buran Theatre’s dizzying and enthralling new piece presented by The Tank’s Flint & Tinder Series, I was struck with a memory that had been lying dormant for nearly a decade. As the members of a mountainside sanitarium sang of their struggles to overcome their physical ailments and reach a higher form of existence, I felt myself slip away into a half-formed fever dream of my own (disclosure: I was, ironically enough, starting to feel quite ill just before curtain). It was Maybe Burke and their breathtaking dancing and wrenching voice that fully solidified the memory, transporting me to the top of a canyon in the mountains of eastern Oregon.

A previous version of myself used to run over 60 miles a week for several years. While most other kids in my high school were enjoying their summer sleep and nursing the mild, adolescent hangovers borne from parties I somehow missed the invitation to, I was waking up before 7am to get in a morning run. I was obsessed to a such a degree that I paid money for what I considered the privilege of running at the notoriously hardcore Steen’s Mountain Running Camp far out in the vast stretches of nowhere that is eastern Oregon. The base of the camp is at an altitude of roughly 7,000 feet and on the second day of camp, just long enough for your body to begin acclimating itself, you embark on an agonizing 24-mile hike/run into the depths of the canyon that runs adjacent to the mountain. Despite all my training, I was categorically not ready for what was called ‘The Big Day.’

At the age of 17, weighing just under 100 pounds and suffering from symptoms of heat-stroke and exhaustion, my bowels gave way and my nose began to bleed. The last mile out of the canyon is uphill, a cruel fact after a day of misery, and upon finally escaping the canyon, I immediately collapsed and vomited what little remained in my stomach. The weakness in my body gave way to a confused spirituality— my mind seemed divorced from the present, on an entirely separate plane, and prone to a mercuriality between moments. In my confusion, I gazed over the canyon just as the sun burst through the clouds over the horizon and I the felt, for the first time in my life, close to something greater than myself. As if I could brush the face of the eternal with the side of my hand. If I had been able to stand, I would have danced. If my throat hadn’t been coated in bile and mountain dust, I might have sang. There was an undeniable gravity in the moment, even as my body was failing. As a firm nonbeliever, I refused to name it God, but I knew in that moment that something within me was changed forever, that I was leaving behind a version of myself and stepping into a new skin.

The sick amongst us, in their weakness and mental fog, prove closer to the numinous and transcendent, more capable of experiencing the awe and wonder of the natural and spiritual worlds. For centuries this has been exploited by the more sinister practitioners of organized religion. You have a sick person with a weak body and an active searching mind, and enter some opportunist vicar or whatever, inject such and such theology, and lo, they’ve been saved and are ready to enter the next realm.

Adam R. Burnett, who also co-directs, cleverly turns this on its head in T.B. SHEETS, as The Ones find their spirituality through a shared understanding of their sickness, not in spite of it. The Sick Ones in T.B. SHEETS don’t rely on the platitudes and false hopes of organized religion. Having spent many years on a mountainside sanitarium, they develop their own communal theology, a spirituality that almost celebrates on their sickness as much as it elevates them beyond it. They take agency over their spiritual journey as they transcend to an order of Living Saints and then board a spaceship designed to bring them closer to The One Who is a Great Mass, escaping the trappings of the physical world through the power of community.

The play is a turns farcical and deadly serious, with each pivot contributing to the disorienting mood of the evening. The ensemble keeps the show glued together—a true sense of community can be felt even during T.B. SHEETS most chaotic moments. It’s not insignificant, or purely political, that T.B. SHEETS is written and performed without gendered pronouns. The Ones are always in transition, moving from one version of themselves to the next, not out of fear, but human necessity. Identity is fluid: we each contain multitudes and must be willing to move out of one phase and into another, even if the timing is doesn’t align with our plans, and especially if it means accepting that we are limited in the physical world, eternally flawed and inevitably sick.

World Builders: a love story

I first met Gus Schulenburg as an intern in his department at Theatre Communications Group. I remember being impressed by his ability to make time for everyone, in spite of the mountain of work at his desk, as well as his multidimensional attention span. (I have still never seen anything like the constant, scrolling news alert system he had set up on his computer.)

Working with Gus, I learned about his theater company, Flux Theatre Ensemble, and soon became a regular patron of their work (tallying 8 events attended over the past 4.5 years). Although this article is about their latest production, World Builders, which ran April 29-May 13 at West End Theatre, a colorful gem perched atop the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, I would like to take a moment to express my endless gratitude for Gus’ mentorship.

Gus always takes the time to have a real conversation, no matter when or where I see him, and is always sure to ask about my writing. Now that I’ve more or less assumed the mantle of writer in my post-college life, this fact might seem unremarkable, but it was Gus who published my very first musings about theater on the TCG Circle blog. Those first years of finding my footing in New York, it was simply astounding to me that a successful, established adult remembered or noticed or cared to ask how my writing was going, much less took the time to truly listen to my response and offer sincere encouragement.

But back to World Builders, by the ever-talented Johnna Adams, directed and featuring stellar sound design by Kelly O’Donnell, starring Gus & Alisha Spielmann. World Builders neatly captures the Flux aesthetic: a company with a social conscience, comprised of people who remind you why you felt so comfortable with the theater kids in high school — passionate, genuine creators with big imaginations and even bigger hearts.

Flux invites their audiences in with the brilliant equity of the Living Ticket, and charms them to stay with their stirring narratives. Flux plays often have a supernatural or sci-fi element, which are genres that I generally avoid, but these stories keep one foot on the ground and poke enough fun at themselves for even die-hard realist audience members like myself to be swept up in the story.

Adams’ writing is smart and funny, quickly drawing us into the world of Max and Whitney, who have been convinced to participate in a clinical drug trial to treat (and potentially cure) their schizoid tendencies. We meet the characters before the play officially starts, watching them silently interact with their interior worlds as we settle into our seats. I could watch Spielmann in her invisible world all day, wrapped up in her infectious energy and expressive range of emotion.

The play offers an empathetic look at people with schizoid personality disorders, and the classic mental health struggle of losing parts of one’s identity — including Max and Whitney’s highly detailed interior worlds — when medicated to behave more “normally.” Listening to Max and Whitney describe their worlds, you can’t help but rue how little most adults use their imaginations, and feel the tender loss of all that creativity.

World Builders ran a little long, and I will admit that part of my brain, the part that has no patience for Holden Caulfield, would sometimes tell these two to just simmer down and take their damn pills already. But overall, it provides a delightful dip into the specificity of other people’s lives, trapped in a fishbowl clinic where we have the perfect opportunity to observe their every move.

I learned after seeing the show that the spark of this play was the reveal of Max’s objectively terrible interior schizoid world, where he watches women trapped in a bunker as they await their death, and Whitney’s compassionate response. This easy acceptance of people at face value works on a meta level, asking the audience to extend the same generous empathy to the characters that they show each other.

Gus’s performance captured Max’s severe awkwardness, intense emotion, and sweet lovability as only he could. His monologue about the woman who stayed the longest in the bunker was so raw it took my breath away. The act of listening, being audience to the transformation in each of these characters, began to feel like a bold choice in itself.

As Max and Whitney’s worlds slipped away, they began to discover “normal” emotions within themselves, including the ability to love. To fill the void left by their diminishing inner worlds, they started gravitating towards each other, as they had already become the keepers of each others’ secrets through divulging the details of their worlds.

The awkwardness of not having any practice in how to express romantic feelings as an adult provided tremendous comic relief in an otherwise dramatically serious situation. It also allowed the audience to root for Whitney and Max’s relationship, despite how complicated it would become outside of the highly monitored treatment center, where they plan to live alone together and let Whitney stop taking her pills. But for now, it’s springtime, and of course love should prevail.

Skiing Without Skis: Watching Piehole’s Ski End

Photo by Matthew Dunivan

There are few things more likely to turn me off to a realist play than fake food and drink. Piehole’s Ski End, presented at the New Ohio Theatre through May 19, is hardly in proximity to kitchen-sink-drama territory, but even if it were my worries would be unfounded: maybe halfway through the show, Hannah (played by Emilie Soffe) takes a sip of her “hot chocolate” and, as much to her own surprise as to ours, spits it out because it’s just the powder.

It was one of the more convincingly spontaneous moments of devised theater I can remember having seen; it rendered me absolutely tickled. I liked it so much, and was pleasantly reminded that theater is capable of effecting such a moment. I didn’t quite follow the specifics of why the ragtag ensemble found themselves here, with chocolate powder and then vodka to inadequately replace what they’d lost. By this point in the show I had more questions than answers, and as the show continued I would mostly have more questions. But, this moment felt to me the exemplar of where Ski End lived: the textures and weirdness—Why would someone take a sip of what they knew wouldn’t satisfy?—rubbed up against one another in densely tangled skeins, and although they never quite wove together into something I might wear or identify, they left me with a pleasing and frustrating knot.

***

“What was ski?” This short line spoken halfway through, with a tinny old TV playing footage of planets slightly upstage in the background, seemed to get at the play’s central preoccupation most succinctly.

In a literal way: the ensemble adeptly shows the strangeness of skiing’s motions—scoot and swoosh, twist, pivot, hang, dangle—and lexicon—snow bunnies, slope babies, green circle, black diamond, blue square—especially when abstracted. They speak the words and stretch them to all sorts of far-flung situations, and they scootch and scrape using old-fashioned skis and a stage, no incline or snow. The more they lived in this place of oddity, the more they showed us how even the seemingly most mundane spaces—like a ski rental shop, for example—holds a complex, full history of traces that most people rarely deem worth remembering, even as the dust of them sticks stubbornly to the walls of the places themselves and the skulls that pass through them.

In a resonant, symbolic way: what will happen to the concept of ski when the polar ice caps melt? the alarmist in me couldn’t stop thinking. What will happen to all these forgettable, mundane aspects of “culture” that hardly seem to merit the label, once all of them are stripped away one by one?

In a middling, pragmatic way: what happens when people are displaced, in any context; when every physical object and thing that a person knows is eradicated, what is left of her identity? Can a person really be said to exist without his stuff, without a sense of his own space?

The character who pensively asks about the ontology of ski is Carla Sagan, a realtor trying to sell this abandoned, severely flood-damaged ski shop. She is also prone to philosophizing: “What can I say? Catastrophes and miracles that seem improbable in a hundred years… are inevitable in 100 million years… But irrelevant in a hundred million more. [Beat.] Plus the location—!” Just one example of her charm: astute and slightly baffling.

Carla Sagan (played by Alexandra Panzer) feels to me like an Our Town Stage Manager analog, guiding the audience as potential buyers through a strange space but also through a strange, multileveled world, a world where we don’t even know quite where she exists. As she describes, the ski shop goes way back—“way, way back”—in space and in time. She seems to misstep by suggesting the latter is literally true, and perhaps this explains the existential confusion everyone who steps inside this shop seems to fall under.

***

The core ensemble—Nate, Hannah, Vic, Paul, and Laurie, according the program—seem to arrive at the ski shop by accident. Soon, however, they seem overtaken by something—in the air? in the electric wiring?—and begin a convoluted and mercurial role-play. They casually switch names, again and again, but they’re bad at it, in what feels like an intentional “bad improv” aesthetic. “Hey, how’s the weather out there today, Chase and CJ?” Paul (as Keith) asks. And it takes a second for Nate and Hannah to respond, like they’re mannequins being woken up to new identities each time it happens. Maybe fifteen minutes later they’re now “Cooper” and “DJ.” And so on and so forth.

This disorientation is further expressed by the continual stream of cliché phrases, gestures, and topics of conversation that make up much of the script. Like an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode gone wrong, where they riff on each other endlessly to an absurd conclusion, except their goal is not to reach new comical heights (as characters, that is), but rather, I think—emphasis on the uncertainty—their goal to try and figure out why these bits of reliable communication, so useful in so many situations and so trustworthy to mean exactly what they appear to, are really failing to serve them now. And while it may just be because they’re doing an elaborate role-play with or without meaning to, it seems to want to express a shadow reality—that we are always on the brink of language-failure-despair. It’s just that, usually, convention conspires to blind us to it.

And convention conspires with all it’s got. Boring stories are anxiously recounted, with deadly high stakes placed on everyone’s ability to remember it the same way (and then visible panic when they don’t). Hannah gives a “weather report” that seems to be a fruitless attempt to warn the others of something she can’t feel the contours of but which she knows to be sinister. Paul as Keith (played by Ben Vigus) responds with a dismaying “Hey, I’m gonna pop into town to pick up some gas for the generators, someone wanna take over here while I, uh…” Everything is somehow off, and nobody is actually talking about it.

One by one the four others create an excuse why they can’t help Paul out; Vic as “Molly” (played by Toni Ann DeNoble) responds with the absurdly familiar, “Sorry Keith, I need some ‘me’ time.” Though the reality behind these words isn’t clear, it is abundantly clear that such an excuse at this time is myopic to the point of self-sabotage.

This line resonated so strongly for me with today’s landscape: Jordan Kisner writes about the rise of “#selfcare” on social media in the wake of the election (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-politics-of-selfcare), and Vic’s declaration reminds all of us of this paradox. “Looking out for number one” feels especially important as the world around you shifts, cracks, threatens to disappear… but maybe this attitude is precisely what needs to be put aside if we are to face the issue head-on, form coalitions to address that which is stressing us all out so much. Everyone needs a break, but does “stress” not pale in comparison to chaos and disintegration?

I can’t be sure this is what Piehole intended, but their exquisite togetherness as an ensemble—which popped the most when they sang small hymns together like “I am a boat without an oar,” “I am a blasted tree, the bolt has entered my soul” in multi-part harmony—did relay that whatever was going on was a matter of life and (at least psychic) death.

***

In the final third or quarter of the piece, the ensemble is finally and forcibly pulled from the odd role-play they’ve wrapped around themselves. Three teenagers, one boy and two girls enter to hang out in “their space.” The worlds collide and everyone feels weird about it, compacted by the reappearance of the realtor, discussing the potential sale of the ski shop, to the dismay of the teens. I start to get another hint of resonance: gentrification, there are no safe spaces, &c….

Because the thing about this jump-cut is that the teens are all people of color. And the way in which it seems they are meant to signify “the future,” “change,” those who are informed educating the less-woke mostly-white group of adults, felt slightly unconsidered, tone-deaf. As the role-play of the ski shop dissolves, so does the ski shop entirely as we are somehow catapulted into outer space, with a black light, characters in paint-splattered ponchos, slowly twirling and bouncing what seems like glowing white beach balls. To the side of all this, Vigus sheds both “Keith” and “Paul” to speak as himself, as does Kijani-Ali Gaulman, no longer “Ken” (one fo the teens). They have an improvised discussion about their upbringing, and attempt to find common ground, and Kijani shares his mixed feelings about the Bronx, where he grew up. When Vigus expresses that he too has an ambivalent relationship to his hometown, it is almost laughable that it is Seattle, which is at least colloquially known as one of the whitest big cities in the U.S. It is unclear whether or not the ensemble is in on the joke, and that’s what worries me.

Although the show fell off the rails for me at that point, I enjoyed the meditative “outer space” time to meditate on why. Was I being too hard on the piece? Was I missing something? In a piece that seemed so preoccupied with misfires—while at the same time being performed by a group so satisfyingly on the same page—it felt appropriate that the end took a risky swerve like this, which for me, didn’t pay off. Instead, I would have loved to have seen a little more of the summary on the website made explicit in the script, but maybe that says more about me than it does about the show.

Still, I was profoundly moved by moments and details within this intricately created world, and in this way the show successfully created a stage that became so much huger than the small New Ohio Theater, and it really did feel like it went way back (way, way back).