TB Sheets – a response
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.