This production reflection describes the aesthetic and conceptual logics that informed a staging of Heavier than Air at Southern Illinois University. I take up the metaphor of “open hands” with which artists share and shape each others' stage work in order to reflect upon and rationalize the scripting and staging choices we made.
Gathering, holding, and enfolding the lifestories of others into composite monologues requires hands of great skill and boundless compassion. Openhandedly sharing your script with colleagues—your script that comes bearing the lives of others—is an act of artistic courage and professional trust. Receiving colleagues' stage work into your own hands—work that comes weighted with the lives of others—is a promise to proceed with mindful respect and disciplined intention. The creative process of folding, fingering, framing, and refitting this work-of-many-others onto the performative bodies and spaces ready to hand requires calculated aesthetic risk.
I hope that my fingerprints on this iteration of Heavier than Air embodied all these qualities: skill, compassion, courage, trust, respectful intention, and calculated risk. Because I committed to fully folding my hands around this extraordinary script and the lives it illuminated for me. As a straight, cis-gendered, white woman adapter of literature, I knew that I needed to roll these stories around in my palms, let them run through my fingers, feel their weight, feel their lightness. This is the labor required when placing your hands at the service of others' disciplined intentions and calculated risk. So, my artist-self molded carefully, mindfully, respectfully around the particular bodies of my performers, the parameters of my stage space, and the sensibility of my aesthetic. I am so grateful to Anne Harris and Stacy Holman Jones for the opportunity to work in this way, and to my collaborators, A. B., Charlie Hope Dorsey, and Alex Davenport, who helped me to find and to fold new forms from this piece. May the unfolding that follows bear out the commitments we made to handle this script with care.
IN THEIR HANDS; IN MY HANDS
In their hands, the script on the page is interruptive: dramatic scenes are punctuated by projected title slides; the narratives are separated by interactive activities and “paperwork”; performers alternate monologues, stepping out into scene and receding in a visual rhythm of foreground–background. In my hands, the interruptive structure was replaced with a continuous, seamless flow, 35 minutes start to finish. The projected titles were removed; interactive activities were displaced, largely, to preshow, and monologues were internally scripted to cast each performer as a character in her partner's narrative. If the script placed in my hands had been governed by the sharply defined edges of folded paper—say that of a paper airplane—then the script we unfolded in production might be likened to that of the paper “chatterbox,” whose purpose is to form and reform itself through finger manipulation.
In their hands, the staging aesthetic was insistently audience inclusive and audience implicating. Dissolving the comforting distance of the 4th wall, Anne and Stacy's hands wove guided activities throughout the script as points of disruption, interruption, elaboration, or symbolization. The making of paper dolls, paper airplanes, and chatterboxes, for example, worked as literal and metonymic exemplars of schooling, of disciplining bodies as cultural curricula. These interactive ruptures in performative flow is precisely the point of Anne and Stacy's aesthetic as performance activists. I have witnessed no better practitioners of invitational participatory theatre than they, and I tip my directorial hat to their skill and commitment with disruptive, interrogatory, and dialogic methods. And therein lies the rub. Participatory performance is not my skill set; my hands do not shape to it well, despite repeated attempts over my years of practice. Still, at the outset I tried, with the best of intentions, to honor this dynamic in my handling of the script and my staging of the performers' relationship to the audience. But I recognized soon that my efforts were awkward, self-conscious, my choices disjointed, and so I returned to the ethic of openhandedness, and my belief in the uniqueness of directorial fingerprints. Anne and Stacy know the work of my hands, I said to myself. They knew when they asked that my hands are skilled in choreography, in the visual fluidity of fold and flow, in weaving bodies around a single chair in singular ways, in making props charismatic so they shapeshift across scenes with accumulative meanings. My hope and my skill as an adapter–director is making images and soundscapes that break your heart and sear themselves into memory. This is the honest work of my hands. Accepting this fact, I redirected our labors.
OUR CREATIVE HANDIWORK
The stage space we chose—and the staging-in-the-round that emerged from it—came as a serendipitous accident. Ousted from our intended location, we embraced, instead, a community space in our university library. We set up stage in an atrium rotunda with cathedral ceilings and a two-story wall of windows abutting a coffee bar and student lounge. Partial walls created the feeling of an open enclosure and the performance could be seen, heard, or entered from the larger public space. The playing space was carpeted with a large replica of the university seal in the center and audience chairs were arranged in a circle. The audience were, themselves, enclosed by an outer circle of activity stations featuring paper dolls, whiteboards and magnetic poetry offered as preshow engagement. To accentuate a “schoolroom” atmosphere, we had created a queer alphabet of historical events and profiles of gender justice activists. Poster-sized placards were printed with each large letter in primary colors and a brief narrative exposition of the event or person associated with that letter. These placards were attached to the backs of the chairs in the outermost audience row and recitations of this alphabet served to open and close the performance.
Our staging was deceptively simple, but intricately choreographed. Three chairs were placed at compass points of the circle and, for each narrative, a chair might be moved into or out of the center and placed at a new location on the “compass.” The effect was of a continuous reformation of “set” and “site,” much like the shifting shape of a chatterbox. Working in a rhythm of continuous flow, the performers moved in and out of the circle, on and off a particular chair, and here and there across sites in the audience, as one narrative or context dissolved smoothly into another. I will admit that this choreographed reconfiguration of place and space required both methodical tracking of “what goes where” and creative innovation in the use of chairs and locations. Fluidity and transformation formed the conceptual heart of our production, and the shifting circular staging embodied it handily.
A second serendipitous gift came in the person of the actors. At the time, Charlie Hope Dorsey was in an intimate relationship with A. B., and we thought to explore the interpretive and staging possibilities of their Black and white bodies intermingling with the intimacy afforded by their personal relationship. The poem “Folding” that sits at the center of the script became our touchstone. We choreographed the poem as an erotic encounter, using the tenderness of touch and the politics of interracial intimacy to highlight the intersectionality of their queer, loving bodies. In this way, the relational nature of all the “monologues” was highlighted, even when one served as the other's antagonist or provocateur, depending on the scene or situation being dramatized. The overarching concept of fluidity and flow thus extended to the identities and interactive possibilities between the performers and their various personae.
Let me conclude by reiterating that taking into one's hands the artistic work of others is a gift. Handling that work with care and compassion is an act of political and aesthetic solidarity. Shaping that work to new spaces and bodies is the challenge of the creative process. I hope that our collective hands at Southern Illinois University offered back to you a gift of equal value: an iteration of Heavier than Air that both illuminates and extends the labor of all who have touched this project along the way. We offer it back, with open hands.