Erin Leddy Talks About “My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow”
“I moved out from her place and moved to Portland and met Hand2Mouth,” Erin Leddy told me in a phone conversation in July, “and I began developing my skills as an original theater maker. But it was always in the back of my mind. Everyone knew I’d just come from upstate New York and had just done this project, and I kept talking about it. ‘Yeah, at some point I’m going to do something with it, I just don’t know when!'”
The “project” she was referring to was a year-long effort to record her grandmother’s memoirs. At the time, in 2001, Leddy was a 25-year-old artist who’d been bouncing around the country for a couple years after finishing a degree in radio at Emerson College in Boston. Although she’d seen radio as her career path, theater had always been there, but after a brief time in Chicago where she co-founded a company, she was lacking direction. So she went to stay with her grandmother in upstate New York, originally intending to stay for only a couple months. But a full year later, when she finally left for Portland, Oregon, she was lugging a box of tape recordings of their talks, which, nearly a decade later, became My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow, Leddy’s solo performance piece that debuted in 2010 and which is playing at 59E59 Theaters through August 19 (tickets $25/17.50).
Shortly after arriving in Portland, Leddy attended an open rehearsal with the then young company Hand2Mouth. Formed by director Jonathan Walters (who also directed My Mind…) after several years in Poland working with companies like Teatr Biuro Podróży, today Hand2Mouth is one of Portland’s most established and respected experimental devising companies, and for around a decade, Leddy has been a core member.
But for the entire time, the tapes were never far from her mind. “She started to rear her head in all of our other performances!” Leddy told me, laughing. “We would be working on Everyone Who Looks Like You, and I would bring in this recording of my grandmother saying something very poignant and beautiful about family. It would sort of weasel its way into the show, and it happened on a few different projects. At that point it became very clear–I think it was 2008–it became very clear that I needed to make my own show about this woman or she’d be in rehearsal all the time.”
In the spring of 2010, Leddy began working on the show in earnest during a residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, the town her grandmother was living in at the time, which allowed her access to her grandmother for further recordings. My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow debuted as a 20-minute performance at the Northwest New Works Festival at On the Boards in Seattle that spring (full disclosure: I was on the festival selection panel for that year) and debuted as a full length the following January at Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival.
The show isn’t exactly a monologue-based performance. The audio-recordings are integrated as a core component of the piece, with Leddy’s relationship to them changing throughout. Sometimes she performs as her grandmother, other times as herself in dialogue with the recordings, and then performing responses to them, a particular bit leading to a burst of dance or song. It’s a decidedly non-linear sort of narrative that emerges.
“When I started listening to [the tapes], certain images and stories started popping out and becoming very interesting to me. A lot of them were moments of her life or beautiful ideas she had, but I was also really drawn to the fact these are happening in real time,” Leddy explained. “So she’s trying to remember something, and then she can’t quite remember it, and she’s struggling and asking me for help, and then she loses it or then it comes back. Two minutes later she remembers the name of the actor she was trying to think of or that she’s starting to tell this story but another story appears and begins to change and open up into something else. I became very attracted to these parts of the recordings that were really about the real-time discovery that she was going through.”
The development process was arduous, not just because of the many hours of recordings but in terms of how to relate to or perform them, but the support of Hand2Mouth facilitated that sort of undertaking by providing a developmental framework for the solo effort, despite it not being one of the company’s ensemble works.
“I think we are very aware as a company when we are making ensemble work, how improtant it is to have someone on the outside who is looking more objectively at all this material,” she explained. “And I think it becomes even more important when you’re making a solo project. Because it gets real weird in there. You’re having this experience and trying to tell this story by yourself, and theres nobody there on the outside–if you don’t have a director–to watch it unfold and help you make decisions.”
Walters and Leddy worked together to craft the piece, with him pushing her to continue editing and developing the content and sort through the sheer volume of material. The result has been widely praised, with the show earning strong reviews as its toured nationally.
The woman at the center of the entire affair is Leddy’s grandmother Sarah Braveman, who recently turned 94 (I haven’t spoken to Leddy recently but her grandmother was expected to see the show for the first time a week ago in Amherst). Born in 1918 in Boston to Russian immigrant parents, Braveman was drawn to the stage early in life, at a time when the theater was still seen as particularly disreputable. For a couple decades she worked as an actress in New York, which is one of the core parts of Leddy’s performance, and adds a certain extra intensity to bringing it to New York.
“The show is about the performance world and the experience of being an actor, and being onstage,” she said. “That’s a theme that continues to play out in the show. So it’s sort nice to imagine… My grandmother was an actress in New York for 20 years at these places. And so it’s sort of like a homecoming. I mean, she’s long forgotten, it’s a cruel business that way. But it’s nice to imagine that she gets to come back to New York for one more performance.”