A reader walks into a book

April 29th, 2015

I get asked a lot why I started creating performance adaptations. Here’s an answer.

 

I feel like I’m still in Wonderland.

Puppet Alice

A writer’s job, and calling, is to create characters and landscapes in which the reader can lose herself, himself, themselves, and emerge energized, blinking, pleasured, disturbed. The one-on-one meeting of reader and page, one mind recreating the story another has assembled. . . It’s a shared and singular intimacy.

Films—video, movies—are of necessity much more passive: you engage by sitting and watching. Conventional theatre is sit-and-watch, too. To remake the narrative in the 3D, tactile, sensual world, is a more immediate, and very personal, way of opening the book.

Take the text. Take Lewis Carroll’s: now the tiny chairs are piled upside down, it reeks like burned sugar cookie, it’s dark in here. It’s dark on the altar, too, where Christopher Marlowe’s devil who never lies throws down for Faustus’ soul, while in the pews, deadly Sins snatch at your ankles from below. Three bedizened floors beckon at my own Under the Poppy, with perfume and whiskey in the air. And at Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Cathy’s thoughts are scrawled across the floor, and heaven’s made of cloudy sheets and twinkling lights.

I thought, if those Sins touch me I’m going to scream.

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All the words are the writers’ own. I adapt those texts, and, with the rotating ensemble of impassioned actors and artists who make up my performance group nerve, make those words a landscape as near to the heart of the books as we possibly can: offering the audience a way to experience the stories in a fierce and playful, physical, transformative way.

And it is transformative. Because the audience ceases to be an “audience” when the Tea Party goes wild, when a floozy flirts with you, when Mephistopheles catches your eye, when you write with painted hands on the walls of the Heights. Your eagerness or hesitation or laughter or silence helps to create the story for you; and for us, all of us who are there, that night, any night. No night is the same at a nerve performance, ever.

Sometimes people get offended and leave. Sometimes they won’t leave, even when the performance is over. Sometimes they try to protect one character from another! And sometimes, afterwards, they volunteer, they sign on to help us make the next world.

I’m still reeling from THE HEIGHTS.

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Again and again, patrons say “I’m going to go back and read that book!” or “Where can I get that book?” For THE HEIGHTS we even heard from people who don’t like the Brontë novel, who trusted us to show them a new way into the story. Because nothing we do replaces the actual reading of the book: it’s never meant to, but to enhance, to foster that spark of connection between mind and mind.

It was everything I was hoping it would be, and so much more.

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A story begins with an impression, an inspiration, a feeling. A writer writes. And a curious, adventurous reader finds, considers, and walks into a book.

 

[All quotes from nerve patrons, from performances of ALI<E, FAUSTUS,  THE HEIGHTS, and UNDER THE POPPY. ALI<E photo: Rena Hopkins. All others: Rick Lieder.]

 

 

On the moors at Gallery 17

April 23rd, 2015

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Heights at G17:door

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John Sippel and Gallery 17, in Detroit’s Russell Industrial Center, opened its doors to nerve to create the urban moors. And we did.

The panelled bed at the Heights

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Apparition[1]

I worked with several of our creative volunteers – the Nervous System – to design and fabricate  the constructed actors, the book-trees, the lockets dangling high above. And Steve Xander Carson, Marisa Dluge, and Rachael Harbert took the text of Cathy Earnshaw’s words to the floor, and the wall. They made a creature of memories, a book of loss.

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Cathy's creature

And another book lay quietly in the ground, buried all winter, till its spring rebirth: the text, our text, on which our performance is founded.

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One of our central tenets is “We take space and use it.” And we do.

Deep in the words

April 20th, 2015

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In the Examiner’s four-star review of THE HEIGHTS, Patty Nolan notes that “Those who love Wuthering Heights will appreciate how the script is true to Brontë’s own words.”

It is. Her words make the world we’ve recreated.

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The panelled bed at the Heights

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Floor painting HEIGHTS 2

At the end of the evening at THE HEIGHTS, a willow basket heaped with copies of Wuthering Heights is set out, and patrons are free to take one if they wish. And they do wish – the basket’s already had to be replenished, two shows in.

Because the words make the world.

 

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Who makes it real?

April 15th, 2015

The artist, writer, mover, painter, performer, feels the spark, itch, grind, flutter: and with skill, glee, frustration, and effort, makes the piece, whatever the art may be.

Then s/he offers it, sells it, gives it, presents it to the world, hoping and strategizing and working to help it find its way into the hands and eyes and minds of those to whom it will speak.

It’s always been this way for the makers, it always will be. The trick is to stay alive, fed, housed, while you do it.

Which is where, for some artists, the institutional process comes in: the granting process: the foundation, the application, the anguished wait. “Oh, god, I hope I get that grant from the [insert your own favorite org here]! Because otherwise I can’t [write the book/create the dance/shoot the film].”

There are always thinkpieces and books aplenty – recently, Michael Kaiser’s CURTAINS? and Scott Timberg’s CULTURE CRASH (no, no links) – seeming to posit that art cannot survive without that institutional grant of support. Because otherwise the market will take over, and only the very commercial and the very high end (read: deep-pocketed donor supported) will exist.

Well.

In lieu of a saucy rebuttal (are some granting organizations more concerned with keeping their own lights on than advancing the cause of art? are all commerical funders taboo?), I suggest a reading (or rereading) of Lewis Hyde’s THE GIFT.

And I remind all artists of every discipline to remember who actually sharpens your pencil, primes your muscles, opens your eyes: because that’s where art begins and is born and comes to life. Wherever you get your funding to keep the ball rolling is fair game: just remember, every second, every step, that money doesn’t make the art. You do. Get busy.

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[Photo of me reminding you: Rick Lieder.]

 

Bronte is punk

April 10th, 2015

I wish I could hold you till we were both dead!

 

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Don’t torture me till I’m as mad as yourself!

 

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Do you believe such people are happy?

 

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[All quotes: Emily Brontë. Illustration: Fritz Eichenberg. Photos of Rachael Harbert and Steve Xander Carson: Rick Lieder.]

 

BAD BRAINS and all the beauty

April 9th, 2015

Book cover illustration

He was conscious of the long glitter of the silver thing, slipping from its canny post on the rainy windowpane  . . .

The short sharp heartbreak of a broken life, a broken head, the break that makes a fissure – does it? – for something new to filter in. Whether or not it’s real, whether or not it’s bad, so bad, killing bad, it’s still so beautiful.

BAD BRAINS ebook from Roadswell Editions, with a striking new cover by Rick Lieder: Welcome back, Austen Bandy.