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, September 29, 2011

The Sounds of "Silence" (Seth Asa)

I have recently returned to the backwoods of Maine after fifteen years of living in cities, eleven of which were spent in near-desert conditions.  There is a profound difference in baseline silence here, free from the sonic weight of jackhammers, sirens, and constant traffic.  As I made my way into New England, at the end of the long drive from the Pacific Northwest, I had only to roll down my window and I could hear life in the trees that lined the highway.  There is no true silence here (or anywhere on Earth) but in the backwoods, microcosmic worlds provide a subdued, yet rich, aural landscape.

Here in Maine, all senses are engaged.  The autumn air smells crisp, the handle of the chopping maul feels cold in the hands, the stars in the sky are a tapestry of light, the harvest tastes ripe, and among the crickets and autumn birds the rustle of browned leaves landing upon their kin signals the turn of seasons.

The audio widget at the top of the page will allow you to hear some of the nature recordings I have been making for "Of Farms and Fables."  These online sounds are best enjoyed with headphones... especially the clip of leaves falling, a gentle sound almost as quiet as the moon.

I will continue to update the playlist as I collect new audio.  Happy listening!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pure Delight (Jennie)

We are now one week into our rehearsal process.  It has been a full and productive week, the highlights of which, for me, include:
  • Introductions on Neftali’s first day of rehearsal, when Emily and I stumbled through stating our name, hometown, and favorite food in Spanish as well as English.
  • The day that everyone participated in warm-ups: three actors, one stage manager, one director, and a sound designer.  We had a pretty functional game of “yes” going . . . (my perennial favorite).
  • Flora Bliss, prompted by her mom, reading the role of Hannah at our first read-thru and sharing the scene with her older sister Emma.  That was some sweetness.
  • Our first stab at staging the cow chase.  Need I say more?
  • Teaching the whole company our gesture sequences for “transplanting” and “harvesting chard”.  
Concurrent with the joy and richness of rehearsals, I am still grappling with a fair amount of the administrative headache required to see this project through to production.  I received a call this morning from Amy Anderson of The Forecaster, a local newspaper that serves the greater Portland area, and it was a well-timed call.  Amy is a good reporter, she asks good questions, and the interview provided me with an almost therapeutic opportunity to re-connect with the central lifeline of this project.  Questions like: “Can you describe what you’ve learned?” and “What has been most rewarding?” whisk me away from the day-to-day particulars and demand that I invest in a little perspective.  Beyond simply remembering the events of the project for myself, it is the requirement that I articulate their meaning to another breathing person that rejoins me with the gratitude and joy of making work I believe in.

What has been most rewarding?  Well, the relationships.  The long and complex process of building relationships is both challenging and creatively fruitful for me.  I can remember the first time that Penny introduced me to Pee Wee and Neftali and that she then sent me out into the fields to harvest cucumbers with them.  I remember how nervous and shy I was, how little Spanish I could muster, and the fact that I had never in my life seen a cucumber plant.  I can remember hesitantly waving to them every time I visited the farm stand and I remember that day when they waved to me first.  I remember all of the instruction I’ve received, all of the conversations with Tali through which I learned his musical tastes, and the day when I didn’t need to be told what to do in a row of beans.  Now, added to my memory bank is the day that Tali first read the role of Omar at our second draft reading, the day of his first rehearsal when we all introduced ourselves in Spanish and English, and the day when I taught him how to harvest chard in the context of a theatrical transition:

Ultimately, I appreciate that this project has taken its time, that it celebrates complexity, and that it doesn’t foster time spent on easy roads.  I appreciate that it challenges me to seek creative and educational partnerships with people I might never otherwise even meet, and that it allows me to make something directly out of information and experiences that are brand new to me.  And it is unspeakably fun.  For heaven’s sake, last week I staged a cow chase.  Of all things, a cow chase!  I found myself instructing actors: “If you run at her this way, she’s probably going to go that way.”  “Never get between the cow and the fence!”  Now that is just pure delight.

And onward we march . . .

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Addition of Voice (Seth Asa)

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of meeting the cast that will perform "Of Farms and Fables," as well as other members of our production team, for our first full read-through of the play.

The first read is always exciting for me as a Sound Designer. This is my introduction to the voice of the piece. When I read a script, all characters have nearly the same voice, i.e, mine... I have many talents but acting really isn't one of them! Thus, when I am graced with the sound of the actors - their timing, the tones of their voices, and the human personality they breathe into the artful spirit of the printed word - I can begin to compose the aural landscape of their lives.

A week ago I was reading this play and hearing vocal tones limited by my own experiences and community. Because of the gift of voice given by our actors on Sunday, I now hear lives of toil; ecosystems of marriage; stresses and rewards of enterprise; frenetic exuberance of youth; and the curious wonder of innocence.

The sonic environment is an important part of one's disposition. For example, many people find the sound of the ocean to be relaxing. For one person, the dull roar and crash of surf may be a reminder of beach vacations of youth. Another person may be calmed by the white noise; the ever-present static that washes out all negative sonic space and engulfs the auditory consciousness. For a third, the sound may subconsciously recall the ebbs and flows heard inside the womb. Whatever the reason, the listener is calmed by the sea... and peace can do wonders for human interactions.

Likewise, moods shift with changing seasons. When the earth is teeming with new life at the start of spring and into summer, the lively sounds of birds (and bees) introduce us to our days, while the crickets and bats chirp us goodnight. Whereas, in the somewhat subdued sonic landscape of winter, the absence of living voice can foster disharmony and melancholy.

How does the sound of a farm affect a person? Do farmers have near-instinctual physiological responses to roosters crowing or cows lowing? Does the well-tuned ear distinguish a particular rustle of leaves as the herald of an impending storm? And how does a lifestyle of interdependence with rural nature affect voice, versus the mechanized stop-and-go of an urban backdrop? If we pay close enough attention, can we hear a person's whole life in the tone of their voice?

Tomorrow I will visit Jordan Farm and Broadturn Farm, where I hope to answer some of these questions... by listening to their worlds! Recordings to come... :)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

First Days: The Arrival of Autumn (Jennie)

Flora Bliss (Hannah) on a break at the first full company read-thru.

On the Broadturn blog this week, John began with a reminder of the fall season’s propensity to induce nostalgia.  The thought has stuck with me through the week as I’ve repeatedly experienced flash memories that arrive with a strong, brisk breeze and a baking sun upon my head.  These remembrances are brief, but they fill every pore of my awareness and block out all knowledge of the present moment.  Suddenly and out of nowhere I am crossing a campus lawn, seeing the entry to my dorm building or, strangely and most often, running the length of a field for hockey practice. 

Friday was my first "truly fall" harvest day.  In the tomato hoop house, there was a beautiful cold wind to accent a shimmering sun on the grasses of the pasture.  Every time I reached up to pick a Sun Gold Tomato from above my head, I would watch the sunlight sift through my fingers and feel the coolness of a world poised on the edge of winter.  I would have thought that I would harvest faster on a day that didn’t have me sweating in a sweltering heat, but I found the opposite.  It seemed that we all moved with the pace of the day, as though we were poised, too.

This first true day of fall, the first morning that my pellet stove was instructed by its thermostat to ignite and warm the den, arrived one day before the start of our rehearsals.  I have been preparing for this chapter of our project for a very long time.  Entering the rehearsal stage constitutes a momentous shift of focus and energy for everyone involved in our project.  Standing in that hoop house on Friday, I felt this pivotal transition of our project underscored by the seasonal change all around me.  With that stunning coexistence of summer and winter in a single moment, the longing for days past merged with an exhilarating awareness of the future, our project has eased into its most productive season aided and abetted by the arrival of Autumn.

My mother documented each fall beginning of my childhood with an annual First Day of School Picture.  For her, I have recorded (at the age of 32) my departure for the First Day of Rehearsal:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

At the Sill (Jennie)

Oh, it is an exciting time.  Last week, for me, was chock-full of meetings:
  • Tuesday afternoon: met with Renee, Claire, and Travis.  Discussed initial concepts for costumes, props, and puppetry.  
  • Tuesday evening: met with Cory via Skype to discuss the ALMOST FINAL draft of the play. 

  • Wednesday lunch: met with Emily to draft the initial rehearsal schedule.  Miraculously, everything fits (so far) into our allotted rehearsal hours!
  • Wednesday afternoon: met with Chris Price to discuss initial scenic design concepts and USE OF SPACE.
These are early sketches/notes of mine, and are not likely to have much in common with the final design!
  • Wednesday evening: met with the Advisory Board to discuss PR efforts, the Kickstarter campaign, and volunteer recruitment.
  • Thursday afternoon: met with Gregg and Heather at Camp Ketcha to answer venue questions like: how much power do we have?  Chatted with Heather about initial approaches to her lighting design.
Gregg discusses the venue with Camp Ketcha director Tom Doherty.
  • Thursday night: attended the Maine Farmland Trust “Forever Farm” event at Broadturn Farm, where I chatted with the interns and saw Penny for a moment.  Even Eddie and Bec were there!  I got to show them the newly renovated barn facilities . . .
Stella guards the Forever Farm.
  • Friday morning: worked at Broadturn.  Harvested potatoes and beans with Croix.
  • Friday afternoon: met with Scott Nash and Nancy Gibson-Nash of Nashbox Metropolitan.  This powerhouse team of artist/illustrator/designers is creating our publicity materials.  We met to discuss their most recent sketches and next steps!
Last week was marked by a barrage of in-person meetings, but I conducted a lot of phone meetings as well.   I talked with three new cast members, one funder, one farmer’s market, a new fiscal sponsor, and an insurance company, just to name a few.  I get so caught up in the business of moving from one moment to the next, that I sometimes forget just how diverse my day has been.  I forget to pause and notice the remarkable experiences I've had, the thrilling conversations, the new information I've absorbed.  Talking with a farmer about e-coli mastitis one moment, discussing the use of picnic coolers as tables the next, and finishing up with the intricacies of special event coverage.  Amazing!  It is an exciting time full of exchanges, ideas, arrangement . . . all of the many pieces of the project are traveling on their own course to completion, beginning to complement each other, and occasionally colliding with one another.  Three days before the start of rehearsals (!!!!!!!!), I am taking this moment to breathe.  Like watching a flower unfold at the sill, I am taking a moment to notice the daily, the hourly growth of this project we call: Of Farms and Fables.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pruning the Play (Cory)

It's September.

Five months ago, I turned in the first draft of Farms and Fables.

Yesterday, I completed the "final draft" - as final as it gets before design process and rehearsals start.

It's an old writers' adage that you have to "kill your darlings" and what people mean by that is that you have to be willing to cut stuff, even stuff you're desperately in love with, if it isn't a meaningful part of the project as a whole.

You could think of it another way, to the tune of growing: You can't focus just on the individual parts of a plant - you have to understand the plant as a whole. For example, keeping a tomato plant trimmed down to one primary life-giving vine can do a great deal to strengthen the plant as a whole and improve its fruit. The leaflets and the suckers, the secondary and tertiary branches splitting off that vine may look lovely and leafy, and like they'd bear bountiful fruit. But having multiple main stems stresses the plant, leading to smaller tomatoes, more foliage, and greater pest problems.

However you want to think of it, being willing - as an artist and a grower - to say "This should stay, but this should go" is incredibly important to the health of what you produce. For no other project have I killed as many of my darlings as I have during the writing of Farms and Fables and, ultimately, I am so glad that I did. The play is the better for it. I'm a better playwright for having learned to do it. But boy, was it sometimes hard.

Since there are so many passages that have been composted between Draft 1 and Draft 3, I thought I would share a few that were more difficult than others to let go of. These are snippets - some stage directions, some bits of dialogue - that, for a variety of different reasons, were scrapped. The play is healthier without them, but that doesn't mean I don't still regard them with wistful affection.

1. A monologue of Teddy's (the character who became Mitch)
TEDDY: It isn’t the same farm. I tried to love it like it was. This whole year. I tried. Half the house is gone, all Grandma’s quilts in the pantry, the old tools you always made me save. The old wood fence is gone. Where we used to write notes, leave them for Dad in that hole in the fencepost. Our tree burned. That thing was older than the USA I bet. The barn’s gone. It’s always been hard but I used to have these things here to remind me what I’m doing it for. That barn. Days when it seemed too hard and nothing was going to work out I used to be able to walk into the barn and remember: how you and me used to sleep out there sometimes, summer nights, itchy in the hay, and we’d wake up when dawn was on its way and the kittens started chasing swallows. Someone, Mom or Uncle Dan, would be coming in for milking, and I knew that Grandma had done the milking there when they were kids, and I knew the name of all the smells I smelled, and I knew what had to be planted or weeded or harvested that day, and now the barn’s gone, everything’s gone, and I don’t know what it is. The land. That used to be a farm.

2. Sidney's visit to Plentiful Valley Farm
SIDNEY in front of a sign: “Plentiful Valley Farm.” She wanders past fields choked with weeds. A few plants reach their tendrils out towards her from within the weed-prison, gasping for air and for water. She passes through a tractor graveyard strewn with sad metal corpses, mourned by one half-dead John Deere crying oily tears. A bored and bony farm animal wanders past her, more skeleton than beast. She comes to a house, knocks on the door.

3. Lily realizes the barn is burning
TEDDY: The air was dry like a dead grasshopper. All day I was sweaty as a devil, but the wind was strong and dried the sweat right away. I knew it was a bad day.
WEEDER 1: We had spent the morning trying to save the lettuce, but because it was so hot it had all bolted and was not good for wholesale. And after lunch we weeded and weeded but the weeds seemed never to get any less. We were driving home in the truck when our cell phones began to ring.
LILY: Are you in your truck? Get back here.
WEEDER 2: Lily knows when our day is over, it is over.
LILY: Get back here. Get back here.
WEEDER 2: Unless it is something seriously wrong.
LILY: Get back here.
WEEDER 2: She couldn’t explain anything. Just saying “Get back here” again and again.
LILY: There’s a fire on the farm.
WEEDER 1: Where? I don’t see any fire.
WEEDER 2: We didn’t understand. We’d seen nothing, no smoke, nothing.
LILY: There’s a fire on the farm. A fire.
WEEDER 1: A fire on the farm, a fire on the farm.
WEEDER 2: She just kept saying it. Finally we realized. She meant her brother’s farm. Her old farm. Family farm.
LILY: We have to go.
WEEDER 2: But she was shaking too hard. So my cousin drove us.

4. The fantasy sale of the Martin (now, Dayfield) farm
A cow is led in, wearing a huge ear tag that reads “Martin’s”. The cow’s body is marked, divided into different cuts of meat. A group of soberly dressed BUSINESSPEOPLE approach the cow and lay claim to different parts of its body. They then beat it to death. The cow is dragged off. SIDNEY, dressed as she was when she was a waitress, enters with plates of hamburgers. She calls off the names of the companies that have bought Martin land. “Wal-Mart! Webber & Webber Development! L.L. Bean! A rich guy from Boston! The Republican Party! Terrorists!” One of the BUSINESSPEOPLE always answers – “That’s me!” or “Over here!” or the like – and SIDNEY brings him/her a hamburger. The BUSINESSPEOPLE find the hamburgers delicious.

5. The foil of "agricultural tourism"
TEDDY: Have you been to Baker Farm? That place is no farm. They sell tote bags! They sell blueberry pies they bought from the deep freeze at Hannaford! Bill Baker!
LILY: The Bakers have the most organic U-Pick berry acreage in Southern Maine.
TEDDY: And you’ll pay eight bucks a quart plus your unborn child and both pinky toes for it! And they still couldn’t pay high school kids to weed the stuff without they’re getting subsidized!
LILY: I know how you feel about it.
TEDDY: And for what? Hayrides and cornstalk mazes in October. It’s not a farm, it’s an agricultural amusement park. Bill Baker!

6. Multiple variations on the fable of "The Little Red Hen" - this being my favorite
CHILD: The Little Red Hen woke up one morning at the crack of dawn and saw it was the time of year for planting wheat.
She went out blinking into the early morning sun and began to plant.
Along came the Dog, out for a morning stroll.
“That looks like hard work!” said the Dog. “I’ll help you if you’ll teach me how!”
“Oh, I don’t need help!” said the Little Red Hen. “It’s much easier if I just do it.”
“Suit yourself,” said the Dog, and kept walking.

The sun rose higher in the sky and the Little Red Hen kept on planting. It was tiring work, and she was starting to sweat and feel just a little dizzy.
Along came the Cat, chasing a butterfly.
“Hey, Little Red Hen!” said the Cat. “Looks like you still have a lot left to do. You need a hand? I’m happy to help if you show me what to do.”
“No thank you,” panted the Little Red Hen. “I’m doing just fine!”
“If you say so,” purred the Cat, and went back to chasing the butterfly.

In the scorching afternoon sun the Little Red Hen planted on, ever more slowly, dragging herself forward along the plowed rows. Her feathers felt like they were wilting in the heat.
Along came the Rat, nibbling on a hunk of bread.
“Wow, you look worn out,” said the Rat. “I don’t know much about wheat, but I can help you plant if you want. Or at least bring you a glass of water.”
The Little Red Hen could barely make a sound through her dry, swollen throat, but she managed to croak out, “No thanks.”
The Rat shrugged and went about more Rat-business.

At the end of the day the Dog, the Cat, and the Rat went to see how the Little Red Hen was doing. They found the field fully planted, and the Little Red Hen lying at the end of the field with her empty sack of wheat. The heat and dehydration had been too much for her and now she was dying. With her final breath she gasped out, “Dear Dog and Cat and Rat, I have planted the wheat but I won’t be here to harvest the wheat or grind the wheat into flour or bake the flour into bread or eat the bread. You will have to do it all yourselves.” And then she died.
The Dog, the Cat, and the Rat stood looking at her in silence. Finally the Dog spoke up: “But who will teach us how to do all those things?”
The three animals looked at each other and shrugged.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Curtain Up! It's Coming Together (Jennie)

On Wednesday of last week I pulled into the Jordan’s Farm parking lot at 12:15 in the afternoon. I was there to speak with Neftali, a seasonal worker and a nephew of the infamous Pee Wee. Tali has been at Jordan’s for at least five seasons. I have known him for over three years, having first picked beans and cucumbers with him during my earliest visits to the farm in the summer of 2008. Tali has been an active supporter of our project, keeping newspaper clippings that documented our progress, donating his copies of “Que Pasa!” (a magazine about Puerto Rico, his birthplace), and attending every event we’ve invited him to. In early August, he auditioned for our play, and on Wednesday of last week I wanted to offer him the role of Omar. Since he and Pee Wee always take their lunch from 12 to 1, I knew that it would be a good time to catch him.

During my drive to Jordan’s that afternoon, I had been in the middle of solving a somewhat unrelated problem. We had agreed to be part of Curtain Up!, a “kickoff to the Portland theater season” presented by Acorn Productions as part of the First Friday art walk. Fourteen theater companies would be presenting brief performances and I had no idea what our contribution would be. “I wonder if Penny would do it . . .?” I mused. Penny had recently accepted the role of Karen in our final production and it would be easy to read one of her scenes as part of the event. It was very late notice, however, Penny had had not one single rehearsal . . . it seemed like an unfair request. I dropped the thought and returned to the business of casting a play.

I joined Pee Wee and Tali at the shaded picnic table and asked how they had weathered the storm. Pee Wee had lost power for about two days and had some tree damage on his property. Tali, who lives in South Portland near me, had nothing to report. We discussed their work for the day – they are picking beans, still summer squash, still cucumbers. Pee Wee informed me that he would choose the job of harvesting green beans over cucumbers any day. And then I asked Tali if he would be in the play. After inquiring about the rehearsal schedule, he agreed to play the role of Omar.

I headed back to my car, but found myself changing direction to enter the farm stand instead. I found myself standing in front of Penny. I found myself asking her if she would be willing to read at the event on Friday. To my surprise, Penny said that if the timing of our performance slot worked into her day, she would do it. Multiple e-mails later, we had arranged for Penny’s participation in Curtain Up. “Boy I must like you a lot,” she said in one message. “I have stage fright already!”

On Friday, we assembled a portion of our cast in public for the first time. Penny drove over from the farm stand, read her role, and headed back to the stand just in time to close. Emma Cooper, daughter of Stacy Brenner at Broadturn, read her role of Sidney. Also joining us were Jesse James as Harry and Jeff Wax as Mitch.

We read three brief scenes, and when we finished, Penny said: “It’s really coming together! It’s been a long time since our first meeting at Flatbread.” Whew. No kidding. Three and a half years, to be exact. Three and a half years ago Penny helped me plan this project. A year ago she taught me how to pick peas. Last week, she stepped onto an outdoor stage in a public square in front of a respectable audience, and to those people, she read our play. And next month . . .