“Emily Dickinson OUTER SPACE!” at The Bushwick Starr
Photo by Jordan Harrison. Performers (L to R): Luica Roderique, Caitlin Goldie, Seon Gomez, Ryan Pater (in projection), Scears Lee (on floor)
30 Hours in OUTER SPACE! by Emily Cordes
Time is a terrestrial construct—without the movement of the sun, the turning of the seasons, the circadian rhythms of clock and routine to shape it, our perception of time can stretch, blur, and shift in any number of directions, from mundane to sublime to insane. Spend 24 hours in a casino and you’ll see what I mean. Spend 30 in a darkened theatre, hearing Emily Dickinson’s poetry sung by spandex-clad cosmonauts, and the point really hits home.
Emily Dickinson OUTER SPACE! is the second in a trilogy created by Director Michelle Sutherland and Theatre Plastique which explodes the work of American poets into a pop-culture drenched musical jamboree. The first of the series was Gertrude Stein SAINTS!, which premiered at Abrons Arts Center last Spring. When Emily Dickinson OUTER SPACE!, a three-day performance party, hit The Bushwick Starr, I decided to immerse myself in its world for at least twenty-four hours.
As the theatrical marathon unfolded, it was as if the tiny rooms of Dickinson’s poems cracked open their doors to reveal the infinite worlds– and glittery space discos–housed inside. Here are my hour-by-hour highlights:
Friday, September 5th, 5:38pm: I step out of the day’s heat into the Starr’s air-conditioned darkness. The show has already been underway since Thursday night. Things are quiet—most of the performers congregate in the dressing room, applying black-light makeup and preparing for the evening’s attendees. The music shifts from Madonna to disco, cuing a group of actors to scramble atop the show’s focal set piece, a life-sized pale purple wedding cake. They wave their arms over the cake’s top tier like witches around a cauldron and invoke Dickinson with a chant of “Emily Emily Emily…” Just as quickly, they disperse and the recorded music resumes.
6:45pm: Heidi, one of the actresses, demonstrates some arm undulations, which turns into an impromptu belly dance lesson among the cast and a small but attentive audience. I join in and we snake, shimmy, and hip-bump our way around the cake.
7:21pm: The speakers downstairs blast “Smells Like Teen Spirit”– and the dressing room already smells like sweaty dancers. There’s a palpable excitement as we watch the sunset from the Annex windows and more participants arrive. Before the show’s “prime time” begins, I hang out with performers Jill, Camila, and Eloise in the space’s lounge area, a mylar-covered igloo full of marshmallow pillows. Lying on our backs, we stare up at the shuffling Instagram-feed photos projected on the igloo’s roof, joke about the communal bed setup, and reminisce about the slumber-party games of our youth.
8:42pm: The party’s heating up as people arrive with plus-ones ranging from first dates to children to service dogs. Emma McFarland, the company dramaturg, passes out printed poems and letters from which the show draws inspiration. A chanteuse in a low-cut silver jumpsuit belts out a slow, haunting acapella version of Dickinson’s “Wild Nights.” Just as the song ends, pumping techno music takes its place and another group of dancers do robotic, pelvic-heavy moves while shouting number sequences and lines about electricity, oxygen, lightning. Two male performers twerk on the cake platforms as a five-piece beatbox team does a rap rendition of “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” then leads the audience in chanting “Shake the cake! Bake the cake!” Toto, we are not in Amherst1 anymore.
9:24pm: The performers read Dickinson’s letters before a camera hidden behind the mirrors while images of their faces are projected via live-feed on white fringe curtains hung around the theatre. The audience sits on the cake platforms and pillow-topped risers to listen.
10:43pm: The line between actors and spectators blurs as the night progresses; it’s hard to tell if the sparkly kimonos and hair ornaments came from Plastique costume designer Diego Montoya or from attendees decking themselves with swaths of mylar ripped from the igloo. A young couple asks me whether most people here are tripping or just crazy theatre folk. People bang their heads to the music and gyrate to poetry snippets expertly mixed with “Baby Got Back.” This is a true West-Coast style “happening,” Michelle’s love letter to the stage, the page, and Dickinson herself.
11:38pm: As midnight approaches, we enter the witching-hour. The cast lines up in front of mirrors, intoning Dickinson’s words with the melodic reverence of a gospel choir: “My basket holds just firmament…perhaps I ask too large, I take no less than skies.” At the stroke of midnight, they pause to sing alternating rounds of the line “Midnight Moon.” Cast members grab guitars and ukuleles and lead the audience in a singalong of “in the name of the bee– and of the butterfly– and the breeze.” Amen, amen.
1:34am: The party’s winding down for the night, so I join the actor/audience crowd in the igloo and find a comfy spot among the pillows. Fits and starts of techno music and the ubiquitous “Emily Emily Emily” chant lull me to sleep.
Saturday, September 6th, 7:39am: I wake and crawl out of the igloo, gingerly climbing over piles of sleeping bodies. Performers are curled up like puppies throughout the theatre; the quiet and stillness is a little disarming in contrast to how the space throbbed with bodies and music not six hours ago. I slip upstairs to shower in the annex before the inevitable bathroom rush.
9:40am: The Bushwick Starr’s bar is lined with breakfast foodstuffs; Jordan Harrison, the show’s producer, made an early grocery run for the stragglers. Weary performers, many still costumed, trickle in for brunch and banter. Apparently, someone slept on top of the igloo the night before and nearly fell in; not sure how I slept through that. I make my way out to the roof deck to eat. Oh, hi, natural light, nice to make your retina-frying acquaintance. The neon space suits look even more jarring in the sunshine.
11:53am: The wild nights have turned into hot, sleepy mornings. The actors and I lounge atop the pillows as they improvise melodies and we pass around a microphone to read Dickinson’s poems out loud.
2:47pm: Our open mic has turned into an impassioned discussion of Dickinson’s life and worldview, with Michelle leading the charge. She insists that, had Dickinson been male, she would have been honored as a great mind, not dismissed as mentally ill. “History dismembered her,” Michelle continues, “but we are re-membering her, putting her back together.” That’s when I start to get it: this show is, in its purest sense, a conjuring, creating a container for Dickinson’s essence, giving her the party 1800s Massachusetts never threw in her honor.
4:30pm: Before the night crowd arrives, Michelle, the cast, and some stray attendees gather in the igloo for one last lively singalong. Even though I haven’t been with the project since its inception, I feel very much a part of it. We’ve formed our own little world here, flowing from solemn and cerebral to communal and silly to raucous and exuberant. Having ridden these currents for the past day, I’m wistful to see things end.
5:33pm: As Saturday night’s prime time begins and the 24 hours come to a close, I decide to go native. I deck myself out in a swath of neon pink fabric from the annex, dot my face with neon body paint, and join the performers on the cake as they launch into the final leg of the show. By this point, many of the long-term or repeat visitors have the same idea, becoming the show’s unofficial cheering section.
6:00pm-1:00am: Emily Dickinson’s last hours fly by. The crowds seem thicker, the music and dancing more passionate, the performance amplified with DJ JoJoSoul’s mixes and shadow-puppet projections on fabric bird wings. The night closes as an actor flaps and struts like a chicken to the cake top, clucking Dickinson’s name, and the ensemble sings a haunting final chorus of “I take no less than skies.” As I venture home in my tired, sweaty, happy haze, I imagine that somewhere beyond those skies, a certain quietly-wild poetess is smiling at our love offering, strapping on silver-glitter platforms and downing a birthday cake shot in solidarity.
1 Emily Dickinson lived in Amherst, MA.
Emily Dickinson OUTER SPACE! ran September 4-6 at The Bushwick Starr. Show credits: Directed by Michelle Sutherland. Produced with The Bushwick Starr by Jordan Harrison, Michelle Sutherland, and Theater Plastique. Adapted from text by Emily Dickinson. Original music composed by the ensemble. Scenic and costume design by Diego Montoya. Projections by Kevan Loney. Sound Design by Amanda DeCastro. Lighting design by Justin Keenan Miller. Stage Management by Isabel Cervantes. Dramaturgy by Elisabeth Barnick and Emma McFarland. Assistant directed by Rebecca Cunningham, Lauren Hlubny, Lio Sigerson, and Blayze Teicher. Additional sound by Niko Bakulich and Asa Horvitz.