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, August 18, 2011

Torn Apart by a Bear: Cycles of Innovation (Jennie)

Yesterday a late birthday present from my husband arrived in the mail. It is a 365 page art book with 300 full-color illustrations and it is entitled: “Making the Scene: A History of Stage Design and Technology in Europe and the United States”. It is big. It is beautiful. It is my end-of-the-day, relax-on-the-couch CANDY.

As with many histories of western theater, this one begins with the Greeks and we talk at length about the Theatre of Dionysus, but but but . . . it’s all (all of it!) written from a scene design and audience-relationship-to-performer perspective. I have always been a sucker for captivating scenic designs, and I love to talk about audiences, but I really expected to treasure this book for its pictures. I didn’t actually anticipate reading it. I was wholly unprepared for the entertainment value of the writing, for full submersion in literary/visual heaven.

There are a number of things about the book that I love. The predominant message I’ve walked away with so far (I’ve only made it to the Renaissance), is that nothing ever changes. Really. So often we think we’re being innovative. From funders, from audiences, from the media – there is a pressure and an expectation to innovate in all that we do. This narrative has been one big fat reminder that we are recycling material and ideas ALL THE TIME. If the Greeks could fly an actor in 400 BCE and medieval priests could hire tradesmen to create “dummy bodies that could be hacked open to expose entrails and blood”, I think it’s all been done before, at least when it comes to scenic effects.

Intentionally or no, the book makes plain the cycle of innovation in the theatre (and we could probably extend this to include any branch of human endeavor) from a broad cultural perspective. First we see the germ of an idea, an organic movement, a collection of happenings just firm enough in their cultural presence to exist in some record 2500 years later. Then the idea grows, we see it crop up in more places, it changes a bit and it becomes more permanent. Where a temporary shack used to be fine, a standing theater gets built. Where a day or two and a collection of hand-made carts used to suffice, we find accounts of forty-day passion plays preceded by processions of people on foot and on horses. Eventually, the story is removed entirely and all that remains is the parade, the spectacle. Produced at great expense in celebration of some great king or government or body of power, suddenly we have the capacity to raise and lower animal cages, people, and scenic machinery from twenty feet below the Colosseum:

“In one recorded instance, a criminal impersonating Orpheus appeared from below the arena level, as if he were coming from Hades. He then played music that enchanted rocks and trees, which moved to greet him, and animals crouched at his feet. At the end of this display, he was torn apart by a bear.” (Brockett, Mitchell, Harderger, 23)

I’m pretty sure that last part is meant quite literally.

And then there is this:

“And there are accounts of actors falling off a machine and sustaining injuries or dying. It is not known how frequently mishaps occurred, but the emperor Claudius decreed that if any ‘automatic device or pegma’ had malfunctioned, the machinatores (engineers), builders, or assistants would be punished through gladiatorial combat.” (Brockett, Mitchell, Hardberger, 23)

Well, I guess that would have been one way to deal with the whole Spider-Man debacle.

I find the ongoing interest in scenic effect fascinating. I love the age-old question across centuries of dramatic pursuit: “how are we going to make that happen on stage?” For the OFAF team it will be: “how are we going to make weeds continuously grow throughout the play?” And: “how the heck are we going to burn down a barn?” (Thanks, Cory.) Even more delightful to me, however, are the reminders that the very core of our intentions, the basic need to make theater at all, is as old as humanity.

It is clear to me that I do not live or create in a vacuum. I am constantly in awe of the artists, leaders, practitioners, and organizers who have blazed trails with their courageous and truthful work. Most directly and in particular, I am thankful for the artists of Cornerstone Theater Company – but also for the vast web of community-engaged artists across America who generate the ideas, muddle through approaches, and prove that anything is possible.

Still, it is nice to be reminded of the community-engaged work from centuries ago, to acknowledge that ours is not the only moment that has inspired innovation and collaboration of this kind. In medieval Europe, it was Corpus Christi, the famed church festival conducted in nearly every town and hamlet. Corpus Christi encouraged and facilitated the participation of an entire community in the presentation of elaborate plays, generally dramatizing biblical events (Brockett, Mitchell, Hardberger, 33). I can imagine the impetus for a community event of this kind being similar to our incentives today. And clearly, many of the approaches are alike as well. I giggled audibly over this timeline for The Mystery of Three Masters at Romans, France in 1508:

July 1508

  • Representatives of St. Bernard's Monastery and the town council meet to discuss the ideas of the performance
  • Money is pledged from various sources and churches.
  • A body of commissioners is appointed to oversee the production.
  • Authors and secretaries are engaged.
December 1508

  • Monsieur Sanche of Dijon is appointed as producer.
  • Monsieur Francois Trevenot is hired as the designer.
January 1508

  • Building begins on the stage and auditorium at St. Bernard's.
  • Carpenters, a blacksmith, and a clocksmith are engaged.
February 1509

  • Canon Pra of Grenoble has a reading for the commission, and three notaries are engaged to make copies.
March 1509

  • Pra finishes the script and rehearsals begin. Notaries have trouble finishing scripts. There is one rehearsal per week in the town hall, and refreshments are provided.
May 7, 1509

  • A costume parade is held throughout the town to publicize the play and ensure the costumes are finished. Part of the text is rewritten.
Late May, 1509

  • The play has one dress rehearsal, and opens, but runs much longer than anticipated. It is a popular success, but loses money (Brockett, Mitchell, Hardberger 38-39 cite Harris, 122-24)

It is all just a little bit too familiar. For comparison, here is an early timeline (The Roadmap) made by Farmer Penny Jordan for Of Farms and Fables:


Nov 2008 – May 2009


Jun 2009 – May 2010


Jun 2010 – Aug 2010


Sept 2010 – Apr 2011


May 2011 – Aug 2011

§ Advisory Board Formation

§ Fiscal Agent Identified

§ Funding Options Identified/Pursued

§ Demonstration Materials Compiled

§ Advisory Board Meetings

§ Core Artists Contracted

§ Fundraising

§ Community Gatherings at Farm

§ Advisory Board Meetings

§ Core Artists Work at Farm

§ Weekly Performance Workshops

§ Advocate Project at Farm

§ Advisory Board Meetings

§ Draft I Script Completed

§ Fundraising

§ Public Reading

§ Advocacy for Project

§ Designers/Stage Manager Contracted

§ Production Meetings

§ Advisory Board Meetings

§ Script Completed

§ Casting Completed

§ Rehearsals Conducted

§ Design/Technical Elements Completed

§ Performances Promoted

§ Performances Held

Five centuries later and the play still has to be publicized, the costumes still have to be finished.

Oh yeah . . . Spread the word! Of Farms and Fables! Of Farms and Fables!