JOURNALS FROM THE DEAD: A week inside the process of Heather Christian’s Animal Wisdom as told by musician / actor / filmmaker, Maya Sharpe

Photo by Noel Allain

Editor’s Note: Animal Wisdom opens at The Bushwick Starr on October 11th, runs through November 4th (Tickets $15-25), and is a new music-theater piece by Obie Award-winning composer and performer Heather Christian, in collaboration with acclaimed artist/performer Andrew Schneider, director Mark Rosenblatt, and her genre-defying group, the Arbornauts. The following is an essay by Maya Sharpe, who performs violin, banjo, and vocals.

Monday: Choir Rehearsal

The choir sits in a circle like a pack of vultures surrounding the piano.

A requiem mass composed in an age where it has gone out of fashion and commission. What does that mean? Lifting ones voice in reverence of the dead and embodying the voyage of the dead.

How do we treat the residue of energies that have seemingly left this dimension?

Close your eyes and hear these voices lift the soul from underneath the ground and sling shot them back into the cosmos. The mystery of what that journey will feel like is a beautiful part of it. Perhaps what we cultivate in this dimension will feed your journey in the next.

Tuesday: Feeling Alone

Today was day full of staging. Staging is a push and pull of problem-solving how to navigate through shared space that is continuously morphing into different playing spaces. We (the band) tried to understand and play with the loneliness of Heather in this portion of storytelling.  

I wonder, of all the ghosts Heather has meet, did they help with the feelings of loneliness? Can something be scary and comforting? We ended up blocking as we played a song together, moving while playing our instruments, never looking at Heather but still keeping an open ear, as she is still the band leader within her character. Musically walking into the past with her, to confront the memory, as if to say, I know what you are and what you mean.

Wednesday: Grandmother Speech/Rhythm Coordination

Matching words and symbols with the dings and booms of the drums.  These moments become ever more aligned as the sixth or seventh time around rings through the theater.

It almost feels like a 3/2 clave,” Eric says.

It works, Heather responds with surprise and delight.

The moment is confirmed as everyone let out a little giggle of delight.

Heather looks at Eric, “We are there now.”

When thinking about telling a ghost story, it usually comes from a fairly one dimensional point of view.

Animal metaphors are used to inspire and describe the texture of the words and atmosphere.

Thursday: R.L.

The blues. It feels so good to live in, but where does it reside and what is it about? The question of the day is: how can the blues speak for the dead of what they did in life?

We, the band, are trying to get into the mind of these spirits as they are now, bundles of energy roaming in this dimension, by investigating what they kept with them from the land of the living.

This is not the most evil thing in the room.Heather points to an empty piano stool in the middle of the playing space.

Friday: Stumble Through

Sewing together the strings of the dead. Is there a sequence to what seems like a dark eternity?

It can be sloppy, we are in the Mississippi River, Heather gives a reassurance to the us as we tune our instruments.

What role does this band play in the storytelling? We are not a character, but at times we embody characters that are Heathers characters. We always acknowledge that we are in the space as Heather unfolds people and stories of her past and present.

The piece is sectioned by the essence of the spirit we are trying to paint in the scene. How do you capture the essence of the dead? We continue to fine-tune the place beyond the land of the living, when a spirit occupies that space.

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