A guest blog series by Christina Gutierrez, a Ph.D. student in Performance as Public Practice at UT Austin
You wouldn’t think flopping around on the floor wrapped from head to toe in rope could look beautiful. You wouldn’t think that a tiny curly haired actress could play a massive rancher named Brutus Baghand. You also probably wouldn’t think that the best way to stage inmates in a jail would be to put them in front of projected bars. As I learned during Thursday’s I’ve Never Been So Happy workshop, however, thwarting expectations like these makes for some pretty compelling storytelling.
The first half of the day was a continuation of Wednesday’s rope work, but this time with an eye toward nailing down sequences of steps. Or, in this case, sequences of spastic hops and waddles. Seven of us entirely wound ourselves in rope and tried our damndest to execute choreography. One of the moves involved falling to the floor, rolling onto our stomachs, and then attempting to get up and continue. All went as planned until the fall. After realizing just how differently the rope forced us to move, most of us found ourselves completely incapable of actually getting back onto our feet. As we wiggled, writhed, and generally struggled, Lana, UT dancer Lisa Kobdish and our stage management team laughed hysterically. Eventually, we all made it off stage, hopping triumphantly and trailing rope coils behind us. Rather than take the move out when we realized just how ridiculous it was, however, we made it the center of the dance, continuing to choreograph based on the assumption that only a few of us would actually make it back to our feet to finish the sequence.
As the workshop’s dramaturg, the last place I expected to find myself on Thursday afternoon was stuck on the floor of a UT dance studio trying to find a way to get my feet under me without using my hands or bending at the waist. And I really didn’t expect to (finally) stand up, hop off stage, and say, along with everyone around me, “That was awesome. Let’s do it again!” And yet, we did do it again. And again. And somehow, we knew it was worth chasing down. If Scene 1 is the “virtuosic DIY” world of Erin’s incredibly intricate and rickety projections, then Scene 3 is it’s stylistic and structural opposite. Here, beauty and meaning come from the gritty physicality of struggling bodies learning to work differently than they ever have before. I hope the audience will root for the performers tied up on the ground with the same enthusiasm I expect they’ll have for Scene 1’s enormous knot projected on the cyc.
After a break, which most of us spent removing rope splinters and downing cold water, we began work on Scenes 5 and 6. In these scenes, Jeremy’s mother Julie, desperately missing son, comes to the Sheriff’s office to file a missing person’s report. Simultaneously, Jeremy, newly severed from his lion, meets Brutus, father of Annabellee, who attempts to arrange a marriage between Jeremy and his daughter. (The Brutus/Annabellee story is the thread the Rude Mechs followed in their previous workshop last December. The Scene 5/6 moment is the first time the two story threads begin to weave themselves together.) The focus in this section is sound. The goal is to create an aural “bed” for the action of the scenes, comprised of amazingly high sustained operatic notes, twangy Hee-Haw beat-boxing, and the intermittent jangle of coins in an enormous money bag Brutus carries, to name but a few. Unexpected notes, like UT MFA actor Marlane Barnes voicing the surly and generally unpleasant Brutus, abound. Erin joined us with a few improvised projection images, like the jail inmates the audience will see from both the inside and the outside of their cell. The result was yet another method of storytelling, relying on an auditory landscape that was as much a playground as we found the rope work to be. It’s musical theatre with all of the strings showing.
We’ve now touched every scene we’ll be showing next Saturday. Now, the task becomes refining them—defining sharp and distinct moments, cleaning up images and sounds, and integrating everything we’ve discovered over the past few days. Inevitably, new discoveries will bring new questions, and new ways to stage our efforts to answer them.