It's begun! After first encountering the book "Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison" in 2013, and knowing that a theatre piece needed to be made, we are now in 2018 and at the stage where it's all coming together. The cast is cast, the show is written, there have been workshops and failures, and residencies, and blood from cutting myself making puppets, and tears of laughter. It's the largest production I have ever taken on and it's daunting but I'm up for the challenge. I couldn't have done it without Lindsay Doleshal and En Route Productions, the amazing producer and super human who encouraged me to bring it to Texas and go for it. And there are tons of others to thank at a later date but I just wanted to say how happy I am for this opportunity.
Here we go, first rehearsal is in one week!
When I first moved to New York in 2013 the first show I saw was at Dixon Place and it was Puppet BloK and now I'm curating it. What a crazy wonderful world. This year the fearless leader at Dixon Place, Ellie Covan and her incredible team in partnership with the Henson Foundation have turned Puppet BloK into a month long festival that takes place over 9 nights in October with 35 artists. The work-in-progress performances from emerging and mid-career artists range from contemporary puppetry to object theatre and everything in between.
And Dixon Place even made special packages if you want to see more than one night of puppets.
3 Tickets for $33!
I will not be showing any new work but that doesn't mean I won't be wearing something puppet-y.
Come support all the incredible puppetry artists, see bold new work, and don't forget to say hi at the lounge before or after the show.
See you all there!
I'm excited to announce that How To Kill An Elephant has been renamed *some humans were harmed in the making of this show. The name change was brought about after struggling with how best to explain the piece in grant applications and marketing materials. While I was attending the NYFA "Artist As Entrepreneur" Boot Camp, I decided to take this struggle to the other participants. Karen Faris, a poet from Rochester, explained to me that the element that wasn't working for her in the original title was the lack of humor. The show description and photos had a twisted sense of humor and I needed a title that matched. So I threw out a few other ideas to my mini advisory committee during the last day breakout session and this one elicited chuckles. I then tested it on other people I had met during the course of the four days and got the same reaction. It's a bit of a mouth full but it better sums up the style of this show and I hope it is humorously provocative.
The second bit of great news is that a full workshop production is taking place in Austin, Texas with En Route Productions in June 2018. Exact dates and times to be announced soon. Sign up for my mailing list for updates.
This past weekend was my first day to have all my collaborators in the space helping me make this complex story happen outside of my head. I was nervous, bumbling, confident, and faking confidence. Then after I explained the show and heard a read thru of the script, the choreographer took the cast into a room and played with cardboard and I worked with an actor and a daunting monologue.
Time flew. I laughed a lot. I had to find words to express instinctual feelings about content and style. I was grateful to have brilliant collaborators. I realized rehearsal is really all about everyone in the room sharing inspiration as we discover what the thing is that we are making.
I left the Sunday rehearsal with excitement and hope with a dash of terrified and worry. Excited and hopeful because for the first time in my life as a theatre maker I have the feeling that what is happening could be something wonderfully larger than I initially imagined. I have a piece that larger than myself. I have a piece that has elements that are autobiographical but it's only a small engine for me as the writer. "How To Kill An Elephant" is about the decaying of the American dream and capitol punishment. I'm excited to say something politically for the first time with my work and I never in a million years thought I would find joy in that. I'm terrified and worried because now I have to take the next step. In order to take this to another level I have to figure out how to raise money. I cannot self fund this production. It is too large, has too much potential, and I can't bankrupt myself in order to make it happen.
It took four years to get to this point but it's the right time for this singing dancing drag self help testimonial play based on an elephant from 1903. Now I just have to make a show and raise money to make it all come together.
The day Donald Trump was inaugurated and became the United States of America's 45th president, I was trying to write a scene for "How To Kill An Elephant" in the rehearsal studio at Dixon Place. It was difficult. I wish I had been using a typewriter because having the world in other windows made it difficult. I kept switching over and watching the coverage on various news outlets. I grew panicked and unfocused. After two hours of feeling uncomfortable and not knowing what to do I left early. I need to take a walk and look not at the pomp and circumstance of the changing of our president but what was actually happening around me.
I went home feeling depressed and completely unmotivated to continue working. I started thinking about scrapping the entire project. Isn't my duty as an artist to make work that reflects the times back to the audience? I should be making a piece about Trump and his administration and his policies. What the hell am I doing making a show about an electrocuted elephant with silly characters and dance numbers? How is this helping anything?
Being a fellow in the Target Margin Theatre Institute provided me an opportunity to ask other artists how they were dealing with this or if they were dealing with the role of the artist after Trump. Someone said that the audience will be viewing the work from that lens of Trump as president so in effect my piece is a piece about our current times. That was astounding to me. I've been conditioned as a maker to work on crafting the audiences experience, as much as can be crafted and manipulated, but never thought about manipulating the lenses they are already bringing into the theatre. Of course the audience brings in their day, their jobs, their commute, the fight they had with their teenager over using Snapchat too much, and with Trump being a huge daily disturbance, they will bring him in and watch my piece possibly with the same fear, worry, dread, and anger I am feeling about the future. I have always tried to get the audience to drop their outside daily lenses but maybe this time I shouldn't? Maybe this time I should find a way to remind them by using a quote or image that brings Trump into focus for a second and then disappears.
This blog is not a place of articulate perfection. It's a place for me to try and figure out ideas and pose issues and questions while I struggle with making work. It's also becoming, today anyway, a place to talk myself into being bold. As Richard Foreman told me, "Courage. You have to have courage to make what you want to see." So today I embrace the current political nature of my piece. I will dive into that murky water even though I am scared and I'm going to have my main character wear a white pant suit at the end.
Some political links I am currently looking at for inspiration:
Florida Gov. Removes State Attorney From Death Penalty Case
Timothy McVeigh Executed
The Chair: An Update
The Shocking Truth About The Electric Chair
For the past few months I have been allowing this story to twist and turn and lead me to places I didn't think I'd ever go. My teacher Dan Hurlin said once that when making work it is important to identify the autobiographical element in a piece. When I stumbled upon the story of Topsy in the book, "Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant" by Michael Daly, I had no idea how it was autobiographical to my life. After four years of thinking about it, starting and stopping, and then having the opportunity here at Dixon Place as an artist-in-residence to fully dive in and commit to figuring it out I still didn't know how it resonated with me. I kept trying new ways to approach the story, new ideas for what I could do on stage, even going so far as thinking about making it a cooking show. I wrote it all down, sketched out scenes and how they would look and then after a few weeks I wouldn't like where I was headed. I didn't know where I was going but I knew it wasn't quite right. I have kept following my hunches like, "I think Tony Robbins belongs in this play," and following the paths and trying not to judge the journey. And then it finally hit me! I know how this piece is autobiographical..at least for now. Who knows what will happen tomorrow but for now, I'm sailing ahead with dance numbers, cardboard wigs, a dash of Tony Robbins, and at least one elephant costume.
Making cardboard wigs is harder than I thought it would be. Dough Donuts and coffee helps.
I looked at the application for the Target Margin Theatre Institute Fellowship program for weeks. I went back and forth about applying and then I got one of those amazing nudge emails from a former professor, Robert Lyons. He said, "Apply!" So I stopped everything I was doing and applied. Then I forgot about it cause I didn't think I had a chance. Weeks later I get an invitation to come and meet with David, Moe, and Sarah. I didn't know what to do because I wasn't in town, I was in Texas for the holidays and it would mean making a trip to NYC. But I watched this video: https://vimeo.com/90036690 and fell in love so I booked my ticket and was on my way.
Then I get into their office and see this hanging in the window.
I walk in and meet with David, Moe, and Sarah. I'm a nervous wreck. I feel completely unprepared and blown away by their humor, intelligence, kindness, and open ideas. I leave with sweaty armpits and my gut telling me I did really poorly. But I left feeling happy to meet such incredible people. They inspired me.
So when I was back in Texas driving out to the ranch with my son to visit his grandparents and got the call from David inviting me to join the Fellowship I almost crashed the car. It's going to be a fantastic year. Feeling incredibly grateful and excited to explore, fail, and get messy with these folks. The other fellows are damn talented and I cannot wait to meet them tonight for the first time. I have the blind date nerves but in a good way.
I'll post more about the process soon.
To be continued...
“Could anything top the promise and potential of a blank page? What could be more satisfying? Never mind that it would soon be crammed with awkward penmanship, that my handwriting inevitably sloped downhill to the right-hand corner, that I blotted my ink, that my drawings never came out the way I saw them in my head. Never mind all that. What counted was possibility. You could live on possibility, at least for a while.”
― Jacqueline Kelly, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate
Started working on putting to paper all the research and images and hanging onto the possibility. Trying not to let the fear of producing a product get in the way before I even have anything.
I'm busy working on a new project, "How To Kill An Elephant", as an artist-in-residence at Dixon Place in New York City from January until April. I've been thinking about how to tackle this topic, this creature, this incredibly sad story for four years and now it's time. Photos and videos and all the mess that is about to happen trying to make something - coming soon!
And sign up for my mailing list for updates on the work-in-progress showing happening sometime in late April or early May of 2017.