Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Final Performance

Just before the final performance of yermedea RAW at La MaMa E.T.C.

The Yermedea RAW cast and crew returned to New York City this passed weekend to not only take part in the Soulographie marathon on Saturday but to also perform Erik Ehn's play for the last time. It has been a momentous time, from beginning to plan the project in 2010, but especially during the months of rehearsals and performances at Brown University but also on our little yet extraordinary tour. Bringing our show to a variety of people and engaging with them afterwards has been a most profound and continuous experience. Thus, all of our team felt both elated at the thought that a such an intense project would come to an end at La MaMa E.T.C. but also sad to say goodbye to a wonderful group of people and a significant experience.
After making our way to New York late Friday afternoon and evening, we were set to perform in the first installment of the marathon after Everyman Jack of You and Diamond Dick and before Maria Kizito on Saturday afternoon. We were very happy to learn that our performance was sold out after the very enthusiastic reception of our performance the weekend before and the excellent review in the New York Times. Indeed, our excellent ensemble performed in front of a full house, composed of an attentive and vocal audience, who eventually applauded strongly, in part in standing ovations.
On Sunday, before making our way back to Providence, we loaded out of the space at La MaMa and bid farewell to the moving box, an integral part of our set design, which we left behind.

Although the performance project of yermedea RAW has been finished, please check back with us often as we will continue to bring you more insights and highlights from the performances. We will also continue to use this blog to bring you news from Latin America and about issues we feel are pertinent to the legacy of yermedea RAW.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

yermedea RAW in New York City

This passed weekend, we have finally reached the culmination of so many months of hard and dedicated work by many people - actors, designers, the production and creative team - in New York City, kicking off the Soulographie festival at La MaMa E.T.C. Our team traveled to New York on Friday night, loaded in and rehearsed on Saturday, and premiered Yermedea RAW during the opening installment of three performance, with Everyman Jack of You and Diamond Dick, on Sunday night. Please find below a text by Brian Cross, who is one of the puppeteers and the voice of The Driver, sharing his experience of the first weekend in New York.

"For perhaps the first time throughout Yermedea's tour, a child of no more than six years sat among the audience on the November 11 performance at La Mama E.T.C. on E. 4th Street. I make her presence known to you because she made her front-row presence known to us: when two baby puppets bopped one another on the head, she giggled loudly as though she were watching Punch and Judy. Note, the complexity of the subject matter was not lost on her. Sure enough she held onto her mom during the scary bits, wading through the shades of the River Styx. Yet she seemed to remind the actors -- or me, at least -- of the levity of the piece, easily lost in the dense language of systematic death. Within the apocalyptic dreamscape of Yermedea hide infinite Easter Eggs at which one has no choice but to smile: singing and stitching, your child in your arms for a moment, a guardian angel that leads you into Hell and back again, the sound of bells, company. And really, for all the tragedy in the plays of Soulographie, it is to protect these moments of small joy that we pass on the tale of genocide. Tiny nuggets get us through our days. 

And so, as Yermedea nears its close, I am thankful for the nuggets that got the team through its first weekend in New York. That our stress manifested itself in group love fests, that our production team worked as a well-oiled machine to keep the cast safe and happy in the city, that Ria (Soulographie Global Stage Manager) and Eric (Soulographie Global Producer) gave us their complete focus and support, that the cast could set the stage in seconds flat, that no one missed their bus to New York, that no one missed their bus back to Providence, that the sold-out crowd engaged with difficult subject matter, and that some parents take their six-year-olds to see experimental theater."
submitted by Brian Cross

We are thrilled to report that the New York Times found our production "energizing and frightening" and full of "most haunting images". We are also thrilled that our very final performance in New York, this coming Saturday, 17 November 2012, is already sold out - although you can try to get tickets at the box office before the show. The entire team is thrilled to return to New York once more and step into the dreamscape of Yermedea RAW one last time.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Yet another talk back with Erik Ehn

As we are less than a week away from the Soulographie: Our Genocides festival at La MaMa E.T.C. in New York City, we are reflecting on our journey once more and what we have learned, including from the very insightful talk back that followed our last show at Boston's Factory Theatre on Sunday, 28 October 2012.
Noe Montez, Professor for Latin American Performance at Tufts University, was joined by playwright Erik Ehn and director Kym Moore to talk about Yermedea RAW within the context of Soulographie. Erik started off by explaining that the idea for Soulographie was born out of the question of how to persevere though overwhelming crisis and damage. Noe noticed that through all regimes and oppression, women have been made into bystanders or the oppressed on a variety of levels as children have been stolen out of their wombs and they themselves have been subjected to often grotesque forms of sexual torture, thus being lost in an atmosphere of chaos and senselessness that also often came through in the play and the performance. Erik responded that the mission of genocide is to attack motherhood and to destroy knowing itself. He said that it was in fact his trip to El Salvador in the 1990s that served as the beginning of Soulographie as evolving around the issue of knowing. He related a story in which the army in El Salvador had killed almost an entire village and had buried the bodies in the center of the town, claiming the mass murder had never happened while making the fact that it had happened the center of the continuing life there. Thus, genocide is concerned with a reorganization of knowing into power structures. Noe added that while the official end of violence in El Salvador is dated in 1991, the violence does continue in regard of the organization of forgetting, bearing similarities to the Argentine Dirty War, as many of the country's Disappeared are only now reunited with their families. Kym emphasized that these instances also tie in to the 500-year-old history of genocide in the entire continent of Latin America, which was the inspiration to not only work through the Western mythological figures of Yerma and Medea but to also include indigenous mythology like the figure of Pachamama in order to establish this greater framework.
Noe then focused on the story and presentation as being visceral experiences with visual and aural moments that were like "a punch to the gut". He felt that the play was structured from image to image to which Erik responded that the play is backing away from you and leaves you in confusion to let you yourself figure things out: "Confusion is my happy place." Kym disagreed and stressed that she is in love with how images communicate, while she also stressed the importance of music and sound as well as the physical choreography to create these moments of the images. Kym then paid respect to Ellen Stewart, founder and director of La MaMa E.T.C., and how she influenced Kym's understanding of theatre as communication, which transcends languages and cultures. Erik's play was in this sense a challenge to Kym since it is all images to begin with, which let her revisit some of her questions about how we communicate and how we can know something, all in all trying to make a happy marriage between confusion and knowing.
Closing, Noe asked about the collaboration between Erik and Kym. Erik expressed that it takes a lot of trust to give the play away but also that this is the nature of the play cycle, which goes beyond something personal although all his writing is very personal experiences and his biography: but he loves to give away something of meaning to himself. As the playwright absents himself, the script is also meant to fall away as the production is the actual shape of the piece. And eventually, the production will have to fall away as well as the audience has to take over the piece and fill it in. Kym stressed that from the beginning the piece has been bigger than everybody involved, gesturing beyond the page and beyond directing.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

yermedea RAW in Boston

This past weekend, the production of yermedea RAW embarked on the second part of its tour to perform two sold-out shows in Boston's Factory Theatre with the help of the phenomenal Sleeping Weazel artists' collective.
For both nights, we shared the stage with Vacant Lot Theatre Company's production of Equiprobablism, another play by Erik Ehn of his series entitled A Child's Drawing Of A Monster, directed by Kathleen Amshoff. As we realized that the venue of the Factory Theatre is even smaller than at 95 Empire Black Box, cast and crew once more set out to make it work and adapt our production to the new space. Just as at 95 Empire, the confines eventually proved to be a blessing as they enabled us to discover the work anew and intensify some moments even more, which all in all resulted in two very powerful performances.

The premiere was followed by a talk back with the directors, Kym Moore and Kathleen Amshoff, and artist Robbie McCauley. Robbie started off the conversation by praising the strong images of the production that brought her to reconsider the question of whether genocide is a natural and normal activity for humanity and how it could have been going on for centuries. She emphasized that it was theatre work like this that lets us stop in our tracks to consider these issues in the first place, all coming down to the fundamental question: Who are we? Kathleen stressed that Erik's writing is always interested in asking questions that cannot be easily answered. His writing may seem very oblique as it in fact is always coming from the side. A member of the audience related that although the images were stark and overwhelming, she did feel hopeful towards the end. Kym agreed that in spite of all the carnage, there is also life and survival and hope. It is above all in working with young companies that she is reminded of this hopefulness and the fact that humanity can do better than engaging in genocide. This becomes also very palpable with the figure of Pachamama in the show, which was early on incorporated by Kym and Alejandra Prieto. Not only is Pachamama the revitalizing force but she also stands in for the survival of women, who are not just victims but survivors, who are constantly coming back. Robbie connected this to Obatala, the dying and rising god of the Yoruba religion, that embodies faith in renewal and spiritual hope that is part of the feminine in everyone, which she also saw as the basis for the figure of the Driver, which Kym confirmed. The feminine, which resides in both men and women, is in this way an undervalued energy that is not supported by society, especially when this nurturing quality becomes apparent in men, who are too easily perceived as the sole perpetrators. Kym expressed that rather than an inherent duality, the opposition between the masculine and the feminine is a concept that is put onto us.

As another member of the audience asked about the scrolls that were used in the production, Kym remarked that although her family originally comes from Central America, she had little knowledge of the continent's history and especially the history of genocide there before starting this project. The scrolls and the Mayan script they display call into presence the vast number of stories that have been repressed or are not readily available in the West's version of history. Sleeping Weazel's Charlotte Meehan made a case for theatre that brings the stories of people to light, who are not seen - for to tell a story and thus to keep a people is also a joyful activity, even if the images may at first appear brutal and overwhelming.
Another audience member remarked that she often felt foreign to the experience of the performance and that she observed a historical dislocation. While at times she felt sympathy, at other points she felt extremely other and foreign. Kym mentioned that we may sometimes get over-concerned with identifying everything, which can get into way of actually seeing what is going on. Kathleen added that it is also Erik's poetic language that keeps you falling into and out of the story, which in fact asks a lot from the audience in terms of different forms of attention. Robbie then stressed that she often feels that audiences are underestimated and that theatre and art in general should put more trust in its audience to come to the work in their own time, whether it is during the performance, after the performance, a week later, or in their dreams.

Check back later this week for a report on the talk back with Kym and Erik in Boston!!!

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Power of Art

Yermedea Raw finished its successful and powerful residency at 95 Empire yesterday after 5 extraordinary performances, which were in part followed by a talk back focusing on different issues. After Saturday's matinee, director Kym Moore was joined by Dorothy Abram (JWU), Omar Bah (a refugee from The Gambia), and Cristina Cabrera (English for Action) for a bilingual talk back session in English and Spanish (with Cristina translating) on refugee experience and the potential of art.
First, Dorothy and Kym tracked the different entry points for connecting with the production, whether it is through mythology or other stories, memories or experience. An audience member commented that the music used in the production was blending mythologies and realities for her and thus worked like a bridge into this world, no matter where you were coming from.
Another audience member then asked whether it was not immoral "to create art on the ashes of the victims, prettifying it to profit from it"? Omar stated that money is always made, whether it is in the theater or during the atrocities of genocide. For him, theater and art are first and foremost part of the healing process for the victims. Since the experiences of war and genocide will stay with you no matter what, the true profit lies in sharing these stories. Dorothy emphasized that each situation needs to be evaluated individually but that is of utmost importance to tell these stories as stories of survival. Kym added that we do not know what genocide is in the first place and the coming to terms with that fact is part of an educational process for everyone involved. To communicate this struggle within a community in a public space like the theater is "just the beginning of consciousness", especially considering that North American audiences are very well educated regarding historical events like the Holocaust but are largely unaware of the ongoing and current genocides carried out throughout the world.
At this point, the conversation centered around the function of art in the so-called First World and in other parts of the world. Kym stated that art in the US is understood as means either for profit or for leisure, whereas elsewhere art is understood to be a conscious way of living within a community, to understand what it means to be a human being. Kym emphasized that we need to change our perspective on what art can and must do, as art is able to change our image of the world and to transform absolutely anything. Since everybody is able to engage in art, art is the most powerful medium to create new images and tell stories, that will survive and help us to track humanity. Omar added that art helps us to find and understand intrinsic truths about our lives that we have yet no idea about. He continued to tell about his traumatic experiences in Africa, being persecuted, imprisoned, and tortured - but that art enabled him to connect again with his life and with others.
Closing the inspiring conversation this afternoon, an audience member stated that she appreciated the opportunity to witness and experience the emotional fallout of these extreme situations through participating in someone else's point of view, even if it's just for the limited time of this performance, which pulled her in as a witness and participant.

Although we are now taking a short break from the tour, check back in often as the blog will continue to keep you up to date on ongoing dramaturgical efforts and of course on the progress of the tour. Tickets for our performances in Boston and New York City are now on sale: we hope to see you there soon!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Another Talk Back with Erik Ehn

During our run at 95 Empire, we are also hosting a variety of talk back events. After yesterday's performance, playwright Erik Ehn was joined by director Kym Moore and director of the Soulographie play Maria Kizito Emily Mendelsohn to discuss the cycle of Soulographie plays and how Yermedea RAW is situated within it.
Erik started the conversation of by explaining his inspiration to write Soulographie as to negotiate the issue of genocide as a global problem, as a policy, and a way of running the world within 17 plays to possibly encompass what cannot be encompassed. Erik sees his plays as to provoke a state of readiness while committing to "productive waiting", a leaning towards meaning. One of his objectives in writing was to figure out how to rescue a sense of joyfulness in the face of crime and violence. Thus, Erik said, Soulographie does not attempt to explain genocide away but to put it into the context of joy, which for him is inherently the space of theatre. 
An audience member commented on the palpable mythological dimensions of the piece and wondered how the specificity of historical moments, for example in El Salvador, were dealt with. Director Kym Moore then talked about the research process for the play and how the history of El Salvador actually revealed the history of the entire continent, which the production company then actually compelled to widen the scope of the imagery without losing specific pointers to the culture of El Salvador. In this sense, the production sought to establish a balance between historical specificity and greater trends towards a mythological understanding of these events. Erik added that the plays are freed from the burden of supplying information, which is negotiated as part of the production's education and outreach efforts.
Various audience members commented on the power of the production of Yermedea RAW, specifically the use of the puppets and the variety of beautiful and haunting images such as the cornstalks and the shoes. Kym then talked about the true collaborative effort that went both into the design process and the rehearsal process with the actors to generate these moments.
Another comment by audience members centered around the fact that the production is very aware of the audience members being outsiders to the experience of genocide, that even witnessing is negotiated as a complex issue, whereas the shoes served as the vessels through which the souls of the departed traveled, taking hold of the actors who then relate their stories, which was described as very affecting.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Architecture of Sound

During our run at Leeds Theatre, we hosted six talk backs to gather information from our audience on how they perceived, experienced, and understood the production. One of the most common notes we received was the concordant praise of our soundscape, composed by Michael Costagliola. Just as the text, the actors, the images they create, the lights and the evolving set, the sound and the musical pieces create a specific atmosphere that stands in immediate dialogue with all other elements within the production, so much so that we understand our work as creating visual music, or - as one of our audience members has described it - a melodic poem.
In this TED talk, Julian Treasure, the chair of the Sound Agency, a firm that advises worldwide businesses on how to use sound, asks us to pay attention to the sounds that surround us. How do they make us feel: productive, stressed, energized, acquisitive? He thus calls designers architects to action to pay attention to the “invisible architecture” of sound.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Not just stories

As the production took one week off before getting ready for the first leg of our tour at 95 Empire in Providence, we have been keeping busy in various ways, most notably in our outreach efforts. Below, please find a contribution from performer Alejandra Rivera Flaviá about these inspiring ventures.

“People think these are stories. They’re not. They’re real,” she said slowly. Although I could see it had taken her time to find the words, the message had been sharp in her eyes, in the universal language of human intention, since before she began to speak: I need you to understand.

She was from Rwanda, where her family continued to reside and suffer the realities of genocide, and she had approached me and my fellow cast member, Becky Bass, in the cafeteria of William D’Abate Elementary School on what, up until then, had seemed to be a not-so-special Tuesday. We were picking up after the Yermedea workshop we had just helped facilitate, in which we had explored the history of El Salvador through theatre with men and women of the English for Action program. Throughout the process, I was surprised to realize that she was not the only one who was moved to share her story. In fact, I was surprised (and surprised to be surprised) to see how much people were moved to begin with.

On the first exercise, the class was divided into groups of three, and each group was given a prompt that delineated an occurrence within the history of El Salvador; they were asked to create a tableau that represented the event. My group, composed of a young man in his mid-20s and a man and a woman who could have been in their late 50s, was given the prompt of “scorched earth,” which was a strategy that the Salvadorian government employed in 1981, which consisted of destroying anything that could be useful to left-wing guerrillas. And what was the most useful asset to these revolutionaries? The support of the people. So by “destroying anything,” I mean "destroying the people."

The small paper that my group was given described the atrocities associated with this tremendously cruel military policy, such as the burning of houses, the raping of women, and the murdering of an immense number of people. As soon as we finished reading it, I looked up to find the three students frozen. Feeling quite uncomfortable myself with the idea of embodying such a violent event, I initially chose to suppress my uneasiness for what I believed to be the sake of the exercise. “So, what ideas do you guys have concerning the prompt?” I asked. Silence. Faces stared at me blankly. Maybe they didn't understand. I needed to change my tactic. “Do you know what the word ‘genocide’ means in Spanish?” I continued. This time, there was no silence. The word “yes” emerged from their mouths, loud and sharp, almost before I could finish my question. I remember realizing how arrogant I must have seemed when asking that condescending question... See, I had arrived there with the understanding that I would need to help them cross a bridge from Spanish to English. As I have personally experienced from years of helping many adults to learn English, this bridge can often feel clunky and difficult to traverse, especially as we grow older, which is why the idea of a “language barrier” that prevents us from doing so has become such a popular image (as well as, unfortunately, an excuse to not try to understand). Despite of this barrier’s presence in my group when it came to language such as “right wing,” “felony,” and “indictment,” the second that I inquired if they needed help with the word “genocide,” such a collective reaction was a quick mutual agreement between the four of us that we all knew exactly what that meant. Thus, when it came to human pain, there was no such thing as a language barrier.

One of the men raised his finger in a gesture that signaled that he would be right back and proceeded to go over to Francesca, the workshop’s main facilitator, to explain the fact that these brutal events were close to his heart, making it difficult for him to perform the exercise. That was when I realized how counterintuitive it was of me to repress my own visceral reaction to the prompt. By doing so, I was inhibiting communication rather than fostering it, because—ultimately—that feeling of discomfort, that reluctance to mentally place ourselves within such a unbearable scene, that alliance with our weakness that allowed us the strength of accepting that we simply could not take it—that was the language we all shared. That was the language that would ensure that we would all indeed cross the bridge. And together.

I took a deep breath and said, “You know, I feel pretty uncomfortable doing this one. It’s very painful, so I don’t think we should do it directly.” What a release that was for them, I could have never imagined. As soon as I acknowledged this, it felt as though the picture unfroze. They began breathing again, which made me realize that they had been holding their breath to a certain extent since they had read the paper. Now they nodded warmly, with sighs of relief, spoke to me as a fellow human being and not a distant intruder, and I felt as though I was finally part of the group.

We decided that, instead of making a tableau of the actual event, we would make one of the counteracting force to such atrocities: compassion. Without much help from me, they joyfully began playing with ideas until they quickly made a beautiful picture. The older man was on the floor, while the woman reached her hand out to him, offering her help. The younger man put his head and his hands on her shoulder. I was very compelled. I felt very human. My mother had once said to me, “You are, first and foremost, a creature of the earth, so if you ever feel lost or disconnected, take your shoes off, and walk in the grass.” This time, working with the group, I didn’t have to remove my boots. Looking at the image they created made me feel my feet on the ground. It reminded me of why we are doing Yermedea in the first place, of why someone like me—a young college girl whose closest experience with physical abuse was the occasional slap from the kindergarden bully—has the capacity and the right to represent the pain of those who have suffered crimes against humanity. It reminded me of the simple and majestic fact of human connection, and how it is ultimately the only “cure,” if one may call it that, to genocide.

As a closing action, we all signed (with our fingerprints) a contract that validated our commitment to acknowledging, to remembering the fact that genocides have occurred and continue to occur throughout the world. As simple as this may have been, it made an impact. On something. Perhaps inside of us, perhaps not, but somewhere and somehow. You see, it’s easy to feel small. It’s easy to step out of rehearsal and emerge yourself in the bubble of what you consider to be your own world. It’s easy to believe that there is nothing you can do for those whose plight you cannot see or understand, but the truth is that when it comes to the desire of making a difference (any difference), “your own world” is merely an illusion. The world belongs to us all, and because “le monde est petit,” each thought looks pretty large in proportion to it. In fact, each thought is large to begin with. Kym Moore, our director, once told us as a cast, “I don't think you as actors are aware of how much exists in this world because of a tiny impulse you had that suddenly grew into a full blown moment that currently exists here in three dimensions.” I don’t think we as people on this planet are aware of that either. 

So come see Yermedea even if you can’t fly to El Salvador to rescue the women whose stories we want to tell you, vote in the national election even if you only think of yourself as one in 300,000,000 people, and keep making things happen by the sole act of existing. Because you are indeed making things happen. And if you ever feel lost or disconnected, take your shoes off and put your feet on the grass, or help facilitate a workshop, or recognize the impulses that inhabit your body in this very moment. Or simply remember that it’s not true that you are disconnected at all, that your ability to think about what is happening to people throughout the world is in fact your connection to these people. Your thoughts are, just like the stories the people in our workshop needed to share... real. 

submitted by Alejandra Rivera Flaviá

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Yanomami

The BBC has recently picked up a news item from Survival International, an organization who works for tribal peoples' rights worldwide. They already reported in late August that there had been a massacre of a group of the Yanomami Amazon tribe in Venezuela by illegal gold miners. While Survival International has since then stated that they were unable to confirm this massacre (read about it here), they also stated that the story of the incident has with all likelihood spread from similar attacks earlier this year. Since the Yanomami are a rather isolated tribe of about 32,000 people, living in the rainforests and mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela, it is sometimes hard to verify reports in a timely fashion. Nevertheless, the history of abuse of the land and attacks on the tribe by illegal gold miners in the area has been documented for years now. Both Brazilian and Venezuelan authorities have failed to remove the illegal miners and to limit the expanding cattle ranches into indigenous territories, which not only pollute and destroy the land but also endanger the lives of the Yanomami by bringing disease and violence to their territory. In fact, there are several mining bills in the works that would allow for an intensified exploitation of Yanomami land. In response, the Yanomami organization Horonami has issued a statement last week that urges the Venezuelan government to tackle the ‘presence and impacts’ of illegal gold mining, rather than deny the problem exists. Furthermore, they ask for a proper investigation of said massacre, admonishing the Venezuelan authorities and military for pretending that everything is well in the region.

Watch a video with Shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, who speaks about what the proposed mining bill in Brazil would mean for his people.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Talk Back with Erik Ehn and Forrest Gander

Last night saw the emergence of Yermedea in Leeds Theatre at Brown University in front of a focused and intent audience who kept holding their breath as the performance continued. There was deep moment of silence before the applause commenced, and many were visibly moved and thus stayed in the theatre for the talk back with playwright Erik Ehn and poet Forrest Gander.
Erik first thanked the company and the entire creative team for an "impeccable production" before situating the play within the Soulographie context. He explained that Yermedea is embedded between the plays Diamond Dick and Maria Kitizo, which are much more straight forward in terms of narrative and presenting a timeline. Yermedea in a way steps out of time entirely and is concerned with notion of waiting - the play itself is waiting.
Forrest Gander remarked that the play is very much concerned with not situating itself culturally and thus focuses in on the inward modes of experience, while he also felt that a sense of salvation in the play is most strongly produced in the emergence of community, especially though the female characters in the play.
Erik then told about his experiences in El Salvador, the place that served as immediate inspiration for Yermedea, and how his practice of theatre there was shaped by the (personal) history of the actors, who were dramatically "always Yerma or Medea, all the time", in that the hunger for life and life at the brink informed every theatrical endeavor. According to Forrest Gander, this merging of identities, including the ones of perpetrators and victims, as was especially shown by the male actors of the production, also speak of a specific ethics of seeing oneself in others.
Telling about his experiences in Africa, Erik spoke the "cataclysm of misery in close quarters without defense" that brought him to the question of how to hold on to language when all there is is misery: "How are you able to pray when language itself is traumatized?" As Forrest then remarked, the characters of the play seem to only exist in this language, which is why the use of puppets was such a wonderful idea. Erik concurred, saying that puppets carry their souls on the outside always, giving way to this language. Regarding his development of the language, Erik stressed that to write "dialogue seems pornographic in addressing this kind of problem". The play as that remains inscrutable because the themes of war and genocide are inexpressible, an issue that he could not simply fix by trying to be realistic. Forrest Gander found that in this the play also keeps us from being fluent, it keeps us being foreign and thus demands a particular attention from the audience.
Erik then concluded by saying that one his late friends had always described Erik's plays as being "like translations from a language no one has ever spoken." In that sense, he understands his writing as such to be of little relevance: eventually, the play, the production, and the audience are instances to reach through to get to something true beyond text. Thus, it is about a striving to create a space for those who usually have no space in our thoughts.

Read a review from the Brown Daily Herald here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Opening Night

Tonight, Yermedea will open in Leeds Theatre at Brown University after three and a half weeks of intense rehearsals. The entire company and creative team are extremely eager to finally present their work to an audience. Secure your tickets here.
Tonight's opening performance will also be followed by a talkback with playwright Erik Ehn and poet and Putlitzer Prize Nominee Forrest Gander on language, literature, and theatre and how they can engage with issues like war and genocide, entering the conversation of Soulographie, an article on which is currently featured on the Brown University homepage: read it here!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Driver

Brian Cross, one of the puppeteers of The Driver and his voice, was kind enough to share his thoughts on how he has come to understand this intricate role and the Yermedea experience so far:

''Our souls are never perfectly our own." -- Kenneth Gross, Puppet 
"The main through-line through which I've interpreted the Driver is the idea of "The Witness." There is something of an angel in the Bus Driver, the Virgil to the Nurse's Dante: he is the ear to the progression of her story, her guide into and out of the darkness, and through his waiting, watchful eyes we see much of the play unfold. For some reason, he provokes a sense of trust in the Nurse that she may open up to him. As the witness, then, the character of the Driver makes an ideal puppet -- puppets are patient, for they have literally all the time in the world to listen and wait for your attention. Their lives exist solely on the stage. On the other hand, there is something very trapping in a puppet. A puppet is in no rush, and if s/he has the next cue on stage, s/he can hold the audience hostage. 

In a way, therefore, the Driver is something neither living nor dead. This fact comes directly from the text of the play: before the Nurse utters a word, the Driver seems to know the dream she just dreamed and the tales she could tell. Perhaps everyday the Driver has idled with his bus and watched the Nurse pause at the drain before boarding and going about her day. The play is filled with rituals, and you get the sense in the text that the act of driving down his route sometime before sunrise has been the Driver's ritual since forever ago and will be for forever from now, that we're just catching him in the middle of one loop on an endless cycle. For this reason, too, does the Driver work nicely as a puppet -- the puppet finds his home somewhere in the liminal space between earth and beyond, between life and death. The puppet is alive yet threatens the audience with death -- it is animate, but the audience knows that at the end of the show it gets packed in a box. The silence of the puppet gives us the sense that it somehow knows more than us but doesn't like to say -- or rather, that it knows that to tell you would be to rob you of the journey of finding out. 

The Nurse and Driver may begin the play on their typical routes, waking up at the typical time and commuting on their typical bus. Yet the stasis of Yermedea, as in every play, is soon broken, and over the course of the 10 pages the Nurse, with the Driver's guidance, finally faces in the daylight the demons which haunt her only in the crooked light of night."
 submitted by Brian Cross

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Visit To The Puppet Workshop

All through the summer, our puppet designers Alejandra Prieto and Andrew Murdock have been working on a variety of puppets for our production, including cloth puppets, shadow puppets, and bunkaru puppets such as the Driver, pictured here. Their love for detail and their commitment to the potential life of the puppets have been inspiring to us all. The puppets themselves have developed their own personality in the rehearsal space and continue to surprise us with their presence.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Kenneth Gross: Puppet

One week into rehearsals, our actors have begun to explore the space in Leeds Theatre and the amazing set by Oona Curley to create the scenes of the densely poetic play by Erik Ehn. From the very beginning, the work with the puppets has been paramount to this creative process as the puppets themselves often demand a specific way of realizing a scene. In this sense, the puppets have become co-creators in this theatre endeavour.

One book has helped the entire creative team and the ensemble to understand the intricate and complex nature of the puppet off and on the stage and to negotiate their presence:  Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life by Kenneth Gross explores the various kinds of puppets, from Bunkaru to shadow play, and how they stand in communication with our world. For as Gross makes clear, the puppet is foreign and familiar at the same time. He explains wonderfully that the puppet is an object in waiting, not being dead but somehow un-dead, thereby able to connect the worlds of the living and the dead. As life is locked in, so is the memory of that life - but also of death, a memory yet to come for the living. By its mere existence, it demands of the human being, whether it is the puppeteer or the audience, to reflect on their own status within a world of objects. What follows are some passages from the book, compiled by the creative team, that were most illuminating, inspiring, and challenging.

"There is something in the puppet that ties its dramatic life more to the shapes of dreams and fantasy, the poetry of the unconscious, than to any realistic drama of human life. That is part of its uncanniness, that its motions and shadows have the looks of things we often turn away from or put off or bury." (2)

"The puppets' link to death is not simply due to their having no one to move them, to make play with them, though that is part of it. [...], in many of their earlier manifestations, and still in certain Asian traditions, in Japan or Java, puppets were brought to life precisely to provide homes for the souls of the dead; they served as a means to repair a loss of life or to keep ancestral spirits alive, to give them a way to speak to the living." (22)

"The puppet serves as an ambassador or pilgrim to human beings from the world of things. [...] It may remind us by contrast of our human tendency to turn ourselves , our thoughts, our memories, and our words into fixed, frozen, inanimate, or mechanical things - though we also lend to things imaginary and unliving an illusion of animation such as makes them powerful, and potentially destructive. We bring objects to life in a world where human beings make themselves into their own effigies. The life is provisional, always emerging, or recovered from life that has been lost." (33)

"If they echo our sense that our bodies are liable to become dead, intractable objects, such puppets also play out a fantasy of surviving so many outrageous forms of death, so much violence, dismemberment, and devouring: they remind us how inanimate objects themselves may supply what is lost or dead in us." (35)

"As in the puppet theater, a small part can suddenly become a new and more mysterious whole. We see things at once smaller and larger than themselves, in continuous oscillation of perspective, with no clear sense of what is microcosm and what macrocosm. The small and the large give birth to each other." (46f.)
"The power of a particular puppet-actor, even as it mirrors a human face or gesture, will lie in the fact that the object given life inevitably retains something of its specific gravity, its thing-ness, as an object. In its form, and in its motion, it will keep its resemblance to the artifact, tool, machine, or musical instrument. In such a case, any human expressiveness makes that thing-ness all the stranger, the more penetrating, among other things by its power to show us something of the mechanical side of human life itself, and how it conditions the movements of its manipulator. Each depends on the other." (65)

"The life of puppets does not just survive destruction; it feeds on it. [...] the domain of puppets is itself, at its most animated, a world of destroyed things. The puppet always exists in the shadow of its own destruction. being a thing made to be destroyed. [...] The puppet belongs to a family of things partial, fragmented, and broken, a family of relics, remnants, and skeletons, a world of small pieces gathered to make up an image of a larger world, parts enacting a whole, transforming our sense of the whole. The poetry of the puppet is a poetry of inadequacy, which feeds more fragile, vexed gestures of substitution, revision, replacement, [...]. The life of this theater takes form from ruin, though ruin with its own form of generosity, like a form of nature." (95)

"Here the figure of the blackened puppet, or the blackness of the puppet, suggest that the puppet's life, its pathos and power, has something to do with survival, with an earliness that is wrapped up with a sense of violence suffered, a sense of things destroyed yet strangely preserved, alive in the present." (112)

"Such a control is the instrument of the puppeteer's mastery but also that through which he registers the impulses of movement that ride up to the human hand from the puppet suspended below, the place where the manipulator must feel and put to use the weight and momentum of the puppet, translate its direction or indirection; it is where the puppet masters him." (122)

"They are made alive, animated, by the living pool of light created by the flame of the palm oil lamp, the damar, that hands suspended behind the screen, so that the shadows move even when the puppets themselves are still, fixed in a tableau." (126)

"At the same time, the shadows on the screen are the shadows of the dead, images of ancestors who remain very much alive, always an influence on the lives of the living, always bringing help or menace, objects of prayer, chant, and charm." (128)

"The demands of the puppets, the work of giving them life, exacted from the performer a more unsettled language of physical gesture, hard to read but capable of lodging long in memory." (155)

"They are like things excavated from the ground, with dirt and dust still clinging to them, thick with time, but light, light. It is a space where shadow becomes substance, where accidents become forms of intention." (159)


Please watch the video of the Balinese shadow puppet, which Kenneth Gross talks about in Puppet: the kayon, which translates to "the Tree of Life". It is the most ornately decorated and opens the floor before each shadow show. 

Check back tomorrow for a visit to our Puppet workshop!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Child Soldiers

Erik Ehn explains his experience working with child soldiers on multiple trips to Rwanda and Uganda in this new interview.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Seven in Bed

2001, by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010). Also by her, The Reticent Child (2003):

Federico García Lorca: Yerma

Set in rural Spain, Yerma, written by Federico García Lorca in 1934, tells the story of a young wife, who yearns to have children but cannot have them. She sings to her unborn son and implores her husband Juan to give her a child but the years pass and Yerma grows more and more desperate in her desire. From the very beginning, Yerma is a figure that embodies life itself: she comes from a big family and is in tune with nature, often going out to feel the earth. On the other hand, Yerma becomes frustrated with the rules of a society that manages knowledge to the disadvantage of the individual:

All doors are closed to girls like me, who grow up in the country. Everything is half said, hushed up, because they say we're not supposed to know about such things. And you, too - you, too, keep silent and walk off with the air of a doctor - knowing everything, but denying it to someone who is dying of thirst.

Yerma is subtitled "a tragic poem", and indeed Lorca's language is dense with images, metaphors, and symbols woven together in a specific rhythm and working together in a poetic system of different perspectives to construe a complex, at times difficult, and open whole. A challenging example is Yerma's song, in which she invokes natural forces to which she feels she belongs but which also seem to work against her. Where at times Yerma is very specific about her wishes for a child, her language is also embedded in poetic meanderings including nature imagery which add physical force to her expression but also emphasize her co-existence with nature:

(as if in a dream)
Oh, what a pasture of pain!
Oh, the gate barred against beauty!
I crave to carry a child, but the breeze
Offers dahlias made of the dreaming moon.
Deep in my flesh I have two warm springs,
Throbbing fountainheads of milk -
Two pulsing hoofbeats of a horse,
Which agitate the branches of my anguish.
O blind breasts under my clothing!
O doves without eyes, doves without whiteness!
The stinging pain of imprisoned blood
Nails hornets to the nape of my neck!
But surely you'll come, my love, my son!
As the sea gives salt, and the earth bears grain,
Our womb will swell with a tender child,
Like a cloud which brings the sweet, fresh rain.

Lorca's use of music intensifies the poetic quality of his work, most notably in the scene with washerwomen who appear like a Greek chorus, discussing Yerma's life and her fate and becoming more and more lyrical until they enter into song, not only anchoring Yerma in Western theatre tradition but also establishing the heroine as a symbolic figure. In the last scenes of the play, Yerma's desire for a child has become a metaphysical quest, a longing for balance through something new, a child, for which the patriarchy (Juan) has no desire. Yerma's struggle is also a struggle against the status quo, which she changes by killing her husband, even if that means killing off her future children:

Barren. Barren, but sure. Now I know it for certain. And alone.
I will sleep without suddenly waking up to see if my blood is proclaiming new blood. With my body dry forever. What do you want to know? Don't come near me, for I have killed my son! I myself have killed my son!

Being barren, once a fate put on to Yerma by her husband, now is the fate she chooses and enables herself, thereby reaching an agency that had been denied to her before, despite all her attempts to change her situation.

Some things don't change! There are things locked up behind walls that can never change, because nobody hears them!

Yerma, eventually, makes herself heard.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Euripides: Medea

The Medea by Euripides, written 431 BC, is possibly the first version of the myth that envisions Medea as the actual agent, the murderess of her two sons, as Richard Rutherford explains. Euripides was apparently very interested in Medea's psychology and her coming to her extreme decision. From very early on, Medea is shown as an utmost emotional woman but also as shrewd thinker, who is able to understand her position not only as a betrayed lover and wife but also as a female foreigner in a patriarchal society, as shows her speech to the chorus of Corinthian women:

"Of all creatures that have life and reason we women are the most miserable of specimens! In the first place, at great expense we must buy a husband, taking a master to play the tyrant with our bodies (this is an injustice that crowns the other one). [...] When a man becomes dissatisfied with married life, he goes outdoors and finds relief for his frustrations. But we are bound to love one partner and look no further. They say we live sheltered lives in the home, free from danger, while they wield their spears in battle - what fools they are! I would rather face the enemy three times over than bear a child once."

Medea pleads her case so well that the women are actually supporting her by promising her silence (here, a female virtue and duty is turned into a weapon) and are looking forward to Medea's revenge, which they see as a re-alignment of power in nature:

"Uphill flow the waters of sacred rivers; nature and all things are overturned. Men make deceitful plans and the pledges they swear in the name of the gods no longer stand firm. As for the manner of our lives, the stories will change it from a foul to a fair name; recompense is coming for the female sex. No more shall we women endure the burden of ill-repute. [...] The rolling ages have much to tell of our side, much, as well, of men's."

The women are eventually taken aback when Medea reveals to them the extent of her revenge plan but they remain truthful to their promise and do not tell on Medea's scheme. Rather, as is the case with the Greek chorus, they witness the events until the end. In the meantime, Medea plots murders and her escape, changing her tone according to her interlocutors, which makes an acutely dynamic, strong, and complex character.

"It makes me groan to think what deed I must do next. For I shall kill my own children; no one shall take them from me. I will wreak havoc on all Jason's house and then quit this land, to escape the charge of murdering my beloved children, after daring to do a deed that is abominable indeed. [...] Let no one think me a weak and feeble woman, or one to let things pass, but rather one of the other sort, a generous friend but an enemy to be feared."

Although Medea is often seen as a woman driven by revenge, it is not the sole motivation for her actions, as the following monologue shows. Medea is aware of the fate her children will likely meet as sons of the murderess of Jason's wife. She decides to kill her children not only to cause Jason pain but to maintain her right as a mother and eventually gain an alternative quality of agency since Creon and Jason wanted to submit her to their will. Nevertheless, Medea dreads her actions as much as she needs to carry them out:

"I will kill the children and then quit this land. I will not delay and so deliver them to other hands to spill their blood more eagerly. They must be killed; there is no other way. And since they must, I will take their life, I who gave them life. Come, my heart, put on your armour! We must not hesitate to do this deed, this terrible yet necessary deed! Come, wretched hand of mine, grip the sword, grip it! On to the starting line! A painful race awaits you now! No time now for cowardice or thinking of your children, how much you love them, how you brought them into this world. No, for one day, one fleeting day, forget your children; there will be the rest of your life for weeping. For though you will put them to the sword, you loved them well. Oh, I am a woman born to sorrow!"

Medea, having killed her children and confronting Jason one last time, is not remorseful but having reached god-like agency she is removed from the world of Corinth and exists now in an alternative reality.

The last two images are from a German production of the play, directed by Barbara Frey for the Deutsches Theater Berlin in 2006, starring the extraordinary Nina Hoss. This raw interpretation of the play envisions Medea as a prisoner of her circumstances, a claustrophobic housewife's cube, from which she'll eventually escape.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Los Desaparecidos

Yesterday, international news reported on Pablo Javier Gaona Miranda (34), who has been returned to his biological family after 34 years. He is one of  los desaparecidos, the disappeared, one of the up to 30,000 people who were "disappeared" during Argentina's Dirty War from 1976 to 1983. It is estimated that about 500 of these victims were still babies, who were stolen from their detained mothers right after birth. Miranda is only the 106th baby who was recovered as part of the initiative led by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to locate children kidnapped during the repression.  Just last month, two former military leaders of Argentina, Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, were found guilty of overseeing the systematic theft of babies from political prisoners. You can read and see Miranda's story here. An interview with another "stolen baby", Victoria Montenegro, can be watched here.

Below, watch the moving interview with Marianela Galli, an activist from the human rights organization H.I.J.O.S., an organizations of the children of people who were "disappeared" in Argentina and in Guatemala. On 12 June 1977, Marianela and her family were abducted by the military in Buenos Aires. Marianela was kidnapped along with her father, the marine officer Mario Guillermo Galli, her mother Patricia Teresa Flynn, and her grandmother Felisa Wagner. Marianela was the sole family member to survive the experience.

In a report from 2009, CNN introduces the work of the EAAF, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense), a non-governmental, non-profit, scientific organization that applies forensic sciences - mainly forensic anthropology and archaeology - to the investigation of human rights violations in Argentina and worldwide. It was established in 1984 to investigate the cases of the disappeared people in Argentina and is now operating in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe on five integrated programs.

August 30 is the International Day of the Disappeared.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Reclaiming Historical Memory

Brown's own Maia Chao, a senior concentrator in Cultural Anthropology, is currently in Guatemala through funding of the Brown International Scholars Program, where she is performing ethnographic research on community radio for her thesis:
"My project examines the impact of community radio as a means of revitalizing Mayan spirituality, language, and culture, while simultaneously promoting development, education, and equality. Through participant observation and interviews, I will examine how listeners and programmers integrate discourses of indigenous rights activism and cultural revitalization into current notions of Mayan identity."
Maia posts regularly about her activities and most recently about a community radio workshop, during which participants discussed the knowledge and stories about the recent history of Guatemala in relation to indigenous identity and the armed conflict, specifically the potential of community radio to help revitalize cultural pride, as one participant expressed: 
"Our customs, dress, and languages are disappearing. Community radio is a fundamental tool in fighting the causes of the armed conflict." 
Find Maia's great reports here.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

One breath at a time

First, a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design = a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading) talk by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company, the geniuses behind the amazing puppets of War Horse. They talk about the importance of breath for their puppets in performance as it is the essence of life on the stage, or as Adrian Kohler phrases it:

An actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet has to struggle to live. And in a way that’s a metaphor for life.

They describe their work as "emotional engineering" as they try to provoke an emotional response in the audience by the use of dead objects, and show the great evolution of Joey, the War Horse, who then walks and breathes on stage. It is then truly amazing how the pragmatic production point of view coexists with the theatrical reality of a living horse that needs to be catered to like any other living creature. 

Second, another TED talk by actor Thandie Newton an embracing otherness by coming to terms with one's self and the otherness within in regard to our constructed identities. Thandie then asks whether the aspired authenticity and veracity of the self is attainable at all in a world of projections and whether it would not be more desirable to suspend the self and connect to an essence, i.e. to others and their emotions, for which - again - breath is the key ingredient.

submitted by Kym

Friday, August 3, 2012

Take Heart.... a message from Erik Ehn

Dear Team: 

Three months out. Take heart. We're gathering like a thunderhead; there will be lightning and amazement. 

Some sogginess too I'm sure, but - flowers overall... 

News will come breaking in waves; we're very close to a schedule; the dates of course are committed. 

I haven't heard anyone say it will be impossible for them to make it; some projects are needing to make cunning adjustments - but these tactics are bearing fruit. We hold to the notion that the work must be perfect... To this end: 

If life moves for you like it does for me, then likely you find yourself already projecting into the future... At a conference this summer, a speaker pointed to a language where the geography of past and future are reversed (from English). Rather than saying "the future lies ahead" or "the past is behind us," the figures run "the past is always before me" and "leave the future behind you" - in the sense that we always build, make, operate on a field immediately before us that's composed of our history - our experience, our expertise, our wounds, our treasure... Every time I open my eyes on the world I'm holding the view in place by means of the past - that's a tree, that's sunlight, that's a responsibility, that's a distraction... on the basis of learning. I reach to what I may do through the field of the past. 

With that in mind, as we plow into the fall and grow into the low-grade blindness and anxiety that passes for functional accountability in daily life, let's hang on to the past we've built so carefully, as a collective, over these years. I'm asking you to keep Soulographie right in front of you. Other things will call for your attention - many things - countless... Our performances will equal who we are, in the evolution of our craft, in the company of trusted collaborators, in a live moment of expression. We're the right people; fully present to each other, we're perfect. 

Keep me, Meredith and Soulproducers up on where you're at and what you need. Given the resources of time and space, how can we show forth your identity as a maker. Where are you at? 

Gather energy. We go deep into the view. After so long a road, we're about to find shelter. I can't wait to be with you in the new ways, so nearly available. 

Much peace, 


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