Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Planting peppers and soaking up stories (Cory)

Wednesday afternoon: Penny comes bursting out of Jordan's produce stand into the back area where Claire and I are washing, draining, and bagging spinach. "You have to put this in your play: Running a farm is like a startup business every season." Overflowing with the morning's tense energy of having to juggle customers, meetings, instructions to The Guys, and the millions of ideas bouncing around in her head, she tells us about the difficulty of working with a mostly new cohort of employees every season. "In a restaurant" (she uses this analogy because she knows both Claire and I have food industry experience) "or a business like that, that's all year round, there's this flow. You don't have that on a farm. For instance, Joy, who is great, is in this transition period, because she has to learn I can't always be there at the register. For the last month I've been there, because I've been training her, but now I can't always, and she's thinking, 'Why can't you be there?' So she has to get used to that."

Today at our workshop lunch: John's dad answers Jennie's startup question for our first story circle at Broadturn, "What would you want the world to know about this farm, or about farming in general?" with the introduction, "This would be a great topic for your play." He talks about Scarborough as a car-heavy community and the detriment he sees in that reliance on automobiles. He feels what the country needs is to move towards less sprawl, more geographically contained communities, and "Scarborough is a perfect example of something that is -- not that."

Everyone's read a quote from one of those writer-types about how all you have to do is let go and then one of your characters will just appear, like a vision, and start talking ("There I was, 37 sleepless nights into slaving over my first draft and making about as much painful progress as an ant on hot asphalt, when I looked up from my typewriter with bleeding eyes and there she was: Madame Bovary, in the flesh! And she dictated the entire thing for me start to finish. I can't take any credit"). But here's the thing: Our characters actually are talking to me. They're all talking to me. And the trick is not how to hear them, but how to actually listen. How to be true to all of the voices and ideas that are coming out, all of the images and impressions they give us -- as well as the ones that Jennie and Claire and Keith and I absorb; and how to sort all of that into something coherent. This job is part medium, part sculptor, part orienteer, part sponge. It's all a very exciting and scary place to start from; but just like an actor has to learn to use stage fright, a playwright has to learn to use the research free-fall. So here's to the coming three months of being a sponge.

These sponge months started off in earnest for me on May 18th, when we had our first OFAF team meeting. I was still in Chicago, and I got to meet the rest of the artists for the first time on Skype (pictured left). We shared some of our excitement, nerves, expectations, and hopes for the summer and the project as a whole, and just generally opened communication lines.

I've been in Maine since May 30th and the transition's going as smoothly as could possibly be expected. Our Tuesday tour of the three farms was whirlwind and eye-opening. They are really diverse choices that are going to bring us into contact with a pretty broad range of perspectives and experiences -- we're going to have a veritable cacophony of voices to sponge up.

This week and next are Jordan's for me. Primarily I have been planting and harvesting with The Guys, Penny's rockstar team of dudes: Pee-Wee (the boss), Neftali (or Tali, the outgoing ham of the group), Orlando, and Miguel. We planted rows and rows of peppers with evocative names like Lipstick, Red Knight, Mild Banana, and Vivaldi; we harvested spinach and other greens, which you do by pulling the leafy part up in a bunch and slicing across the stems with a sharp knife, a motion that reminded me a bit uncomfortably of slitting somebody's throat. The Guys talk and joke in Spanish, and sometimes switch to English for me, though Miguel and Orlando are either very shy about their English or don't speak much. Over our snack break yesterday around 10am, I asked them to teach me some Spanish (I know absolutely none):

Spanish words I learned yesterday
  • la piedra (stone)
  • el guineo (banana)
  • el café (coffee)
  • espinacas (spinach)
Piedra became an important one when we started clearing big rocks from a field that was soon to be seeded. The Guys were not pleased with this job. Otherwise they don't complain much, other than to tease Penny.

"All right, Pee-Wee, you guys ready to plant some cabbage?"


"Too bad."

Their dynamic seems to work; Penny is high on stress because she has so much on her plate, but she has a ton of trust in The Guys and they maintain a laid-back attitude (while still working hard as hell) that seems to help keep Penny calm.

Yesterday we'd planted rows of cabbage up to the top of a field; I'd emptied my tray of seedlings and headed back to the truck to get another. The Guys started waving to me from across the field to put the tray back into the truck bed -- so I did; but then they were gesturing for me to do something else. It took me a while to figure out they wanted me to drive the truck up to them along the side of the field, which I proceeded to do. Completing that task probably made me inordinately proud of myself, but I felt pretty cool anyway, and a little bit like one of the guys...Then I found out that Miguel thought I was 17, Tali thought I was 19, and Pee-Wee had guessed 21. "I'm 24, guys." Tengo venti quattro años. Some things never change.

Favorite new farm term
Bolting. Keith and Claire already knew this one, but it was new to me. It happens to spinach and lettuce and presumably other plants, and it has to do with the plant transitioning from the growing stage to the reproductive phase of its life. It begins to put up a stalk and produce flowers, and it happens when things start to heat up outside. The spinach at Jordan's was starting to bolt this week, which made for some smaller, curlier leaves and thicker stems. I like this term because it makes me think of the plant as a startled person or animal. Shocked by the heat, it reacts by going a little nuts. Penny often talks about her plants as if they're people. "I don't want to plant the peppers down there just yet, because it's pretty soggy down there and they're not going to like that."