Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Grazie tante!

After a final strong performance Sunday afternoon before another terrific audience, we took our bloodied laundry from the line and our trailing colors down from the grid; we gathered our stones and our everyday selves together; and we bid a fond farewell to the imaginary world we had made at the Headwaters.

We're grateful to all of you who came and supported the show so generously - especially with the gift of your attention. You listened with great care, and that was the best we could ask for. We were also able to raise a few hundred dollars apiece for four organizations working in ways more concrete than storytelling to ease human and animal suffering: Partners In Health Rwanda, Doctors Without Borders/MSF, Human Rights Watch, and The Elephant Sanctuary.

Thank you.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Two glowing reviews!

The first is from Natalie Baker, critic for the Willamette Week. She writes, "The play moves with ease between its underlying call for action and the smaller but riveting plot lines among individual characters. Brutally honest in one moment... and hilarious in the next... Icenogle's piece provides an emotional balance that keeps the two-hour performance interesting and fresh. Also notable is Lauren Modica's compelling performance as Rose, the toughened shopkeeper who takes pity on Tutsi refugee Marie-Claire (Shoshana Maxwell)." You can find the full review here.

What's more, Kay Olsen - Portland's most heroic of theatregoers - has generously singled us out among the many strong shows now playing around town, giving us a plug on pdxbackstage: "Trailing Colors needs to be seen by one and all. JR Wickman is hot! and Kate Mura is sexy! How can a piece that is primarily about one woman's experience with genocide be a romance and a horror story all at the same time? Go figure... and try to fit it in."

Thanks to all who are getting the word out! Our houses have so far been small, but they've been wonderfully engaged, completing the circuit that jolts a performance to life. For those of you who haven't yet made the trip up Vancouver to Farragut and around to the freight tracks: take a chance, have yourself a little NoPo adventure! We promise to make it worth your while.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Giving props

As job titles go, "prop master" is double-edged. On one side of the blade, it's about as kick-ass as any moniker in theatre, at the opposite end of the coolness spectrum from "dramaturg." (I can report from personal experience that no one knows what the latter is, and no one wants to know.) There's a latent salaciousness in the phrase that "prop mistress" makes explicit: oh, you naughty props! if you don't behave, I will take you over my knee!

Unfortunately, the title also connotes stolidity, and skills more acquisitive and organizational than interpretive or artistic ("stage manager" does a similar disservice to the faithful keeper of a story's flame). There's a broad tendency to view prop masters and mistresses as merely the gatherers and human repositories of a play's assorted stuff. "I need two pounds of strawberries, stat! Also a box of single-use gloves, non-latex -- the actress is allergic. Bring me receipts." And they are invaluable in this respect, practiced burrowers, borrowers and rooters, expert in the ways of thrift and Goodwill.

But a true master of props understands that the right object in the right hands at the right moment can be a vehicle of spirit, a key for the door that opens between theatrical and everyday reality. Many of these things require an infusion of imagination to perform their liminal tricks; they cannot be bought at any price but must be created by someone with an instinctive grasp of both the story and the mode of its telling.

Kenichi Hillis is the resident prop master at Northwest Classical Theatre, and we were extremely fortunate that Trailing Colors fell into a tiny open space in his packed calendar. I perceived from our first meeting that Kenichi's commitment to the integrity of the show would equal if not outstrip my own; he would not let me get sloppy with the concrete details of the world we were creating together with Taiga Christie, our scenic and lighting designer, and the actors, who were our collaborators in costume design. I was deeply gratified by the pleasure he took in the idea that Taiga and I had to reverse the cultural markers denoting Leah's and Rose's living spaces, with the liberal American journalist indulging a taste for "ethnic" prints, and the upwardly striving Rwandan business woman displaying a "western" gentility.

Our lengthy discussions about beer were also richly satisfying, though not the beer itself: when we finally settled on real Tusker over ersatz Primus bottles for a scene set in Goma, Kenichi could not resist preparing one of the props by emptying it, and so discovered that there's good reason Tusker is rumored to contain formaldehyde. The label is extremely handsome and emblazoned with an elephant, but I'm glad I got to "prepare" David's Negra Modelo instead.

As I said earlier, some props are priceless, and there are two in particular which you may never notice directly (unless this post inspires you to notice) but which crucially help to suspend our playworld on the guywires of imagination. The first is the manuscript of an article that "Leah has written about David" in the playworld, and Kenichi has written about David in our world. Kenichi swears that he's no journalist and purports (I think sincerely) to be embarrassed by the article's poor quality, but to my mind the thing is a kind of masterpiece, because it gives concrete form to everything Kenichi has taken the trouble to learn about Leah (her sensibilities and ambitions), about David (especially the tender devotion to his "pachyderm pals" that mystifies and attracts her), and about the story (how it is Leah's glib admiration that ruffles David and precipitates a confrontation).

The second is a medical file that Dr. Cinzia Ferulli consults in a meeting with Mme Marie-Claire Twagira: perfect in every detail, from the tri-colored T & W & A stickers that label its tab to Cinzia's (unusually neat) signature under the description of Marie-Claire's presenting complaints. All of this in French, mind you.

If the audience does not perceive these details directly, I take it on faith that they do perceive them, not least through the self-assurance of the actors who find their leap into fiction so well supported by Kenichi's careful work.

All hail the prop master!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Calendar of benefit performances

Ticket proceeds from eight of our performances will be donated to four organizations working on the ground to mitigate the suffering that the play addresses. Here are the relevant dates, with links to the websites of each charity:

Thursday May 5   Doctors Without Borders

Saturday May 7   Partners In Health

Thursday May 12   Human Rights Watch

Saturday May 14   The Elephant Sanctuary

Thursday May 19   Partners In Health

Saturday May 21   Doctors Without Borders

Thursday May 26   The Elephant Sanctuary

Saturday May 28   Human Rights Watch 

A small victory...

...but a real one. Two leaders of the Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Ignace Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni, go on trial today in Germany. They've been living there for years, enjoying safe haven in Europe while orchestrating from afar an ongoing campaign of terror in the Democratic Republic of the Congo along its border with Rwanda. They are accused specifically of ordering the slaughter and mass rape of Tutsi and other Congolese civilians between 2008 and 2009; they will be the first men tried under Germany's new Code of Crimes Against International Law.

You can read more here.

Friday, April 29, 2011

It won't be long now!

After a gestation period of positively pachyderm proportions, Trailing Colors is about to wobble up onto its feet. I'm remembering every five minutes or so why I chose to name our fledgling company The Other Shoe Productions (as in, "waiting for the other shoe to drop"). Though our "to do" list remains madly long, things are coming along a little too swimmingly for comfort, with the production elements beginning to assume coherent shape, and the actors more than ready to wrest this story from the writer/director's hands and pass it along to you.

I need to say for the record -- after a brief pause to knock wood yet again -- that every member of our cast and crew has been an unqualified joy to work with. Their talent will speak very well for itself in the coming weeks, but if any producer or director types happen to wander through here and want to know how it might be to collaborate with Emily, Taiga, Scott, Kenichi, Jenny, Keyon, Shoshana, Lauren, Kate or JR, I can tell you with perfect conviction (and unfathomable gratitude): wonderful. If you get the chance, jump at it.

We preview next Thursday and open Friday! Magari ci vediamo al teatro! Hope to see you at the theater!


Sunday, April 17, 2011

At play in the land of wrongness

There's a terrific book recently out by Kathryn Schulz, titled Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. Schulz doesn’t argue in favor of error, exactly, but she makes a persuasive case that we urgently need to acknowledge and make peace with our bottomless capacity to be wrong. She describes the myriad ways that our perfectly natural fear of mistakes (and the psychological upheaval that mistakes sometimes entail) can stunt our growth and stifle our noblest impulses. Our terror of error has an especially corrosive effect on our ability to feel compassion: it compels us to reject, sometimes violently, any perspective that challenges our own. Only a humble appreciation for our limitations (of apprehension, of intellect, of moral standing) can restore a healthy suppleness to our lives and interactions.

Schulz also notes that, while the gap between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it can sometimes gape terrifyingly wide, without it we would lose a vital element in human experience: Art lives there, and only there. As she charmingly puts it, “Art is an invitation to enjoy ourselves in the land of wrongness.”

The theatre seems an especially inviting place for the exercise of humility and compassion. Sitting more or less safely in the audience, we can vicariously rehearse a thousand ways of being horribly, catastrophically wrong. In their very structure, plays insist on a multiplicity of perspective, and the best of them never come to rest in any definitive point of view. Moment to moment, they encourage us to embrace one truth, then another, to inhabit competing theories about our place and purpose in the world and to live out their repercussions for an intensely distilled hour or three. Some see this as a means to teach the avoidance of error: here’s what not to do. I see it as a means of insisting: we err, we have erred, we will err again.

I am drawn as a writer to the murky territory where good intentions collide with reality, where common passions steamroller “common” sense. I favor smart characters who do stupid things for excellent reasons. Problems of scale fascinate me especially: in a world that technology has virtually collapsed, we live at once too close and too far from each other. The temptation to abstract other people’s suffering seems dangerously high, so that compassion itself sometimes becomes a blunt instrument, and the law of unintended consequences prevails.

Errors of scale and distance lie at the heart of Trailing Colors. The play is set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and its characters face the challenge of responding compassionately and responsibly to unfathomable horror. Victims and would-be saviors, they struggle to reinvent their sense of humanity in terms that are not fatally cynical; paradoxically and sometimes disastrously, they depend on each other for whatever they can salvage of their own strength.

Many of our dominant modes of knowing – scientific, religious, political – subsume the specific in the general and the personal in the universal. Narrative may gesture in the same direction, but it harnesses its power from a stubborn devotion to the indelible particulars of individual lives. I think the dramatic form, with its fractious multivocality and its reliance on the unruly imaginations of strangers gathered briefly together for a performance that can never be repeated, insists most forcefully on the importance of intimacy, immediacy, and interdependence in our shared search for meaning.

We hope this production will be a catalyst to varied individual explorations and to dialogue among members of the larger community. We will also be using it as a springboard to raise funds for four organizations working on the ground to mitigate the suffering that the play addresses: Partners in Health Rwanda, MSF/Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and the Elephant Sanctuary. The ticket proceeds from every Thursday and Saturday night performance will go to one of these groups. From this great distance, we cannot presume to teach anyone anything definitive about Rwanda's bitter history or its present complications, but I hope we can give some tenacious moral questions their embodied, human (and animal) weight.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

As our story begins

Herewith a character breakdown and spoiler-free synopsis...

The characters (in order of appearance):

David  a white American zookeeper
Will   a black American neurosurgeon
Cinzia   a white Italian-Swiss internist
Leah   a white American journalist
Rose   a black Rwandan storekeeper
Marie-Claire   a black Rwandan farmer

The play takes place in Oakland, California; Goma, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo); and Kigali, Rwanda. It begins in late August of 1994, less than two months after the conclusion of the Rwandan genocide. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country, while others have returned after decades in exile. Overcrowding in refugee camps across the Zairean border has led to deadly outbreaks of cholera, and belated pangs of conscience have inspired Western governments and NGOs to help the refugees as they failed to help the victims of the genocide.

Will has temporarily abandoned his residency in neurosurgery to join the efforts of Doctors Without Borders (aka Médecins Sans Frontières, aka MSF). He hopes to help "his people," but what he sees in Goma threatens to shatter his idealism and harden his heart. He finds a prickly kind of solace in the company of his seasoned colleague Cinzia, who despises the "fecking French" but makes her peace moment to moment with the horrifying ironies of her work.

In Kigali, Marie-Claire has lost almost everything and everyone she cherished. Turned out of her home, she survives on the sufferance of reluctant strangers: Rose and Joseph, native Rwandans who have spent most of their lives as refugees in Uganda. Marie-Claire cannot yet decide whether she is alive or a ghost, but the baby now growing inside her makes the question an urgent one.

Meanwhile, Will's girlfriend, Leah, hasn't heard from him since he left Oakland. As the weeks drag on, she finds it more and more difficult to keep faith. When her work introduces her to a scruffily charismatic elephant keeper, David, she succumbs to her old sense of vertigo and falls hard.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New year, new life

If you follow the links here to info and news regarding African elephants, you won't find much cause for optimism, I'm sad to say. Their future in the wild remains precarious, and there are very few places where they can be said to thrive in captivity. Enormous and enormously inquisitive, elephants obviously need more than a bounded acre with a few plaster trees to keep them happily occupied. Many zoos have wisely decided to close their exhibits and send their remaining elephants to sanctuaries where they have literal and figurative room to roam.

I've come to expect only bad news, so it was wonderful last week to return with my husband to my "home" zoo in San Diego and hear an inspiring story of success. I first wondered whether San Diego had given up on housing African elephants: we found only one, Tembo, still in residence there, sharing fancy new digs with many of her cousins from Asia. But we learned that the herd at the Wild Animal Park, twenty miles north, is expanding almost by the day. Seven elephants arrived there in 2003 from Swaziland (where they were rescued from a cull): one bull and six females. Now the herd is seventeen strong, with four births in the last year alone, one last week. It has lost only one baby (in 2008, to a staph infection), thanks to the nurturance of well-trained mommas and aunties. You can see the herd in action here on a live elephant cam.

The boisterous good health of San Diego's herd seems irrefutable evidence in support of the idea that, beyond space and stimulation, elephants need family, in the broadest (or weightiest) sense. Captive breeding programs (such as the one in Oakland that inspired David's thread of this story) have gone in many cases tragically awry for the lack of interfamilial continuity and cultural coherence that elephants depend on for their communal and individual health. Anyone who doubts that animals have culture-- that is to say that they sustain and enrich their lives by sharing knowledge vertically down generations and laterally within them-- should compare the failures of Oakland's breeding program with the recent successes of San Diego's.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The cast

An actress I knew in grad school once half-jokingly told me, "You're an exhibitionist by proxy!" (Not even half a joke, really, given that she was performing in a play of mine that included full-frontal nudity.) That's playwriting in a nutshell, and that's why I feel so much respect and gratitude for actors. We just concluded auditions, after seeing nearly sixty actors read for six roles, and I'm thrilled that we found such a strong cast but heartsore that we finally had to turn so many terrific people away. Here is our cast, in order of appearance:

David - JR Wickman
Will - Keyon Gaskin
Cinzia - Kate Mura
Leah - Jenny Finke
Rose - Lauren Modica
Marie-Claire - Shoshana Maxwell

A thousand thanks again to everyone who came out. You made auditions a pleasure and casting a bitch.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Venue and rough dates set

I'll be meeting Tuesday with Mizu Desierto, who runs the alluring new performance space up on NE Farragut, The Headwaters. She's already placed a provisional hold on the theatre for four weeks in May 2011. Tentatively, then: TC will open May 5th and close May 29th. Save a date!!