Tuesday, November 19, 2013

a few production notes from chief set designer, Doug Fellows

Hello, and thank you for taking an interest in our upcoming production of The Orchard Players, written and directed by Woodsie the Owl and starring Johnny Appleseed, Karl, Franz Kafka, Lao Tzu, Smokey the Bear, and Snug the Joiner.  It will come as no surprise, I'm sure, to learn that this dynamic theater piece was conceived out in the wilderness by Woodsie's great-grandmother Emma, who is also responsible for the "give a hoot, don't pollute" tagline that originally catapulted Woodsie into the international spotlight.

We decided at a certain point to bring nature itself into the theater, but Karl strongly objected, saying "Masters, let us leave apart this outworn comparison, between a strange and solitary existence and a straightforward, social one.”  I have no idea what he meant by that, but that’s pretty much par for the course these days.  He’s what you’d probably call an ‘actor’s actor.’  Oh well.  I enjoy conversation as much as the next person, I guess, and during my morning walks along the harbor there are virtually endless opportunities in which to pursue it.  Call me crazy, but I like trying to discover what makes people and animals tick!  I observe their behavior, up close, middle distance, far off, whatever, each one has its own subtle advantages, and each its contribution to the overall mythological construct.  That's my job, more or less.  Not the most important, I grant you, but nonetheless, I was trained in, under, for, of, through, and because of the theater, as it was developed by creatures, and the core ideas of existence appertaining to creatures.  “The human life unfolds gradually.”  I learned that from Strindberg.

Touching that goodly saying under which ambition and greed shroud themselves on occasion, that we are not borne for our particular, but for the general good- is this not a veiled reference to the possibilities of a life turned over wholeheartedly to the joys of conversation and the mysteries residing therein?   Let us then boldly refer ourselves to those who are already engaged in such matters and let them continue beating  their weary consciences into a pulp, if on the contrary the distant echoes and trash of the world are not rather sought and sued for to draw a private benefit from the conversation that goes on in public, and the articles that often appear on obscure websites such as topix.com. The bad and indirect means whereby the rougher persons of our age canvass and toil to attain the approximate, do manifestly declare the end thereof to be of no lasting consequence, even if they must engage in countless hours of conversation near the harbor with suspicious-looking strangers and wanderers to discover this simple truth, and then just as many more hours to incorporate it into the pantheon.  

From the first day of rehearsal, Woodsie made one thing perfectly clear.  He had created a group of everyday sort of characters who subscribed to one single tenant of modern civilization: Engage in activity.  Look to the stars for activity.  For the first time in our lives, let us pay proper homage to this thing called activity.  Is there movement in the town?  People shuffling back and forth along the streets for no reason?  Let us answer ambition, that herself gives us the taste for oblivion. For what doth she shun company, wandering around alone near the harbor, confused, and without anything resembling a clear direction or purpose?  And what seeketh she more than some elbow-room for her carpentry projects?  Some members of the cast like to carve things out of wood, limestone, and marble, and in this way the audience gradually learns to understand the cultural value that Woodsie's great-grandmother put on simple human activity, human dreams, human costumes, and attendance at cool events such as this one. They say things to one another.  They connect words to form sentences.  There is no way around this, no way to circumvent pure conversation.  There is no place but there are means and ways to do well or ill. Nevertheless, if the saying of Karl be true, 'That the worst part is the greatest.' Or that which Ecclesiastes saith, 'That of a thousand conversations there is not a single one which hath not its function and destiny.'  Or in Juvenal's Thirteenth Satire: 'Good people are rare, so many scarce, I do fear, as the roads between Thebes and Athens or the mouths of the Nile.  So be it.’  

The takeaway from all this becomes clearer with every rehearsal: Let there be conversation.  Let people and even wild animals learn about conversation.  Let there be this gleam in the distance.  Let there be people lounging around near the harbor, gazing off into the distance, alone with their thoughts for awhile, so as to return refreshed and focused for yet another round of lively discussion.  Contagion is a dangerous thing for the general throng.  A person must imitate the vicious, or hate them, or both.  For to resemble them is perilous, because they are many , and to hate many is hazardous, because they are prone to confusion, deep confusion, deeper than has ever been recorded in history, and merchants that travel by sea have reason to take heed that those which go in the same ship be not dissolute, blasphemers, unemployed, or pure wicked, judging such company to bode ill luck for the voyage.  Temptations abound on this earth.  Best to shelter under the broad cloak of simplicity.  Therefore Karl once said pleasantly to those that together with him passed the danger of a terrible storm, and called to the gods for help: 'Peace, my masters, lest they should hear that you are here with me.'  And of a more military example, Albuberque, Viceroy in India for Emanuel King of Portugal, in an extreme danger of a sea-tempest, took a young boy up on his shoulders, for this only end, that in the common peril his innocence might be his warrant and recommending to the Lord’s favor to set him safely on shore, so that he may once again engage in conversation, and write stories, poems, and articles about the many different types of conversation, and the exquisite number of joys that accrued to each one.  Never was there one so devoted to conversation, my friends.

Yet may a wise person live everywhere semi-contented, yea and alone, even in the throng of a train station or airport.  But hark- if she may choose, she will (saith she) avoid the mere sight of it, and choose instead the quiet woodlands or swamps, where she might be able to savor a bit of tranquility.  Many people in this era believe there is no longer such a thing as tranquility, and want to talk to other people about it, in the classic give-and-take fashion.  If needs require, she will endure the first, but if given a choice, choose the latter.  The swamps and woodlands are peaceful, and being there gives rise to reflection, which is sort of like a time-out, as it were, from the hurly-burly of business as usual.  Maybe it’s a cultural thing, like songs and jigs learned in childhood.  Woodsie thinks he hath not sufficiently rid himself from infinite vices if he must also contest with the inevitable shortcomings of those in the cast.  Johnny, Karl, Franz, Lao, Smokey, and Snug are all fine, upstanding people.  They are determined to bring The Orchard Players to life in a way never yet seen before in the world of Washington theater.  It’s my job to build the sets.  Simple as that.  Hammer stuff together, paint it, job finished.  Quick break, and then move onto another activity.  Queen Charondas punished those as wicked incarnate that were convicted to have frequented lewd and loud companies.  She claimed once that there is nothing so dissociable and sociable as humankind, the one for its vice, the other for its unalloyed affection for wilderness. Personally, I think Antisthenes did not satisfy the poor fellow that upbraided him for his endless conversation with the ribald and wicked, saying, 'That physicians live amongst the sick so as to more carefully study disease.’

I suppose, in the end, when it's all said and done, the primary goal here is simply to live with more relaxation and leisure.  Does this include the art of conversation?  Why, it most certainly does. But people doth not always seek the best way to come unto it, who often supposeth to have quit affairs when they have merely transposed them.  Take for instance a rigorous wilderness hike versus a casual stroll past the harbor.  There is not much less vexation in the government of a small private family than in the managing of an entire city or state!  Wheresoever the mind is busied, there it is all. And though domestic occupations be less important, they are as importunate, and make good subject matter for pleasant and light-hearted comedies.  Moreover, though the characters in The Orchard Players have freed themselves from the court and from market, they are certainly not free from the principal torments of life.  More conversation is, as almost always, the answer.  If ye be troubled, stop whatever it is that ye are doing and simply initiate conversation with the first person who happens to come wandering past on the sidewalk.  If a human being do not first discharge both herself and her mind from the burden that presseth it, removing from place to place will stir and press her the more!  As in a ship, in which wares well stowed and closely piled take up the least room, you do a sick person more hurt than good to make him change place for no reason.  Think about your location.  Talk about your location.  Wander around for awhile, and come up with a list of questions that you would like to ask some wise old soul about your location.  Send them to Woodsie, and he will then distribute them to us, and we will address some of your concerns in a fun Q & A after every performance.  Therefore is it not enough for a person to have sequestered him or herself from the throng of countless individuals, howsoever busy or idle they be in pursuing all manner of tasks and fantasias.  I’m sorry.  A person must also sever him or herself from the primal conditions that are at the core of each one of us, instilled by the stardust, the heavens, the schools, the media, and many other ecological processes.  A person must sequester and recover herself from herself.  This may involve conversation, but chances are that it won’t.  We carry our fetters with us. It is not all absolute liberty.  We still cast back our looks towards that life we have left completely behind.  Our mind doth still run on it; our fancy is full of it.  One minute we are alone, sitting at peace near the harbor, and then the next minute we encounter someone with whom we would like to have conversation, and do so.  The conversation runs on for many hours.  There are no breaks, no pauses.  It lasts deep into the night, maybe even into the next morning as well.

Now since some of the characters in The Orchard Players undertake to live a solitary existence, without any company, let us cause our contentment in the theater to depend not only on Johnny and Karl, but the supporting cast as well: Franz, Lao, Smokey, and Snug. Let us shake off all bonds that tie us to what the theater used to be. Gain we that simple victory over ourselves and each other, that in good earnest we may live solitarily, and therein at our ease, enjoying the fruits of a long life devoted to one thing, as set forth in the play: simple pleasures.

Behold thus, my friends, what it is to choose treasures well.  Let there be no more such obvious lifelong confusion.  It is a mug's game, pure and simple.  Let us enjoy conversation.  Let us, for the first time in our lives, perhaps, admit that we enjoy conversation, and would do almost anything to have enormous amounts of it, from sun-up, to sun-down, in foul weather and fair, remembering that phrase "Go the distance" even though we have absolutely no idea what it refers to.  We should reserve a sort of back shop or attic room for ourselves, wherein we may hoard up many topics for conversation in the far distant future.  Hopefully The Orchard Players will continue playing on in your imagination at night, and infect your dreams, and cause you to become an avid theater goer.  Let us not fear that we shall faint and droop through tedious and mind-trying idleness.  This is probably just a holdover from the days when you were always hallucinating.  Virtue is contented with itself without discipline, without words, without effects, and sometimes even without the concrete evidence of one’s primary senses.  Draw up a list of your favorite activities, and I bet conversation will be very close to the top.  If it isn’t, well, maybe it’s time for you to do some serious thinking.  It’s the human way, filled with drama, courage, aspiration, and art.  In our accustomed actions, of a thousand there is not one found that regards us: he whom thou seest so furiously, and as it were beside himself with excitement, to clamber or crawl up the city ramparts or breach, as a point-blank to a whole volley of birdshot, and another all wounded and scarred, crazed and faint, and well-nigh shriveled with hunger and palsy, resolved rather to die than open his gate to the enemy and give him or her another leisurely entrance. Dost thou think he is shivering there for the sake of the wilderness? Not a whit! It is peradventure for such a one whom neither he nor so many of his fellows ever remembered, and who haply takes no care at all for the city folk, but is therewhilst wallowing up to the ears in sloth, sensuality, movies, TV, video games, and all manner of unhealthy snacks, not giving a hoot for conversation, and not following the traditions of the theater troupe he is part of. This man, whom around midnight, when others lie down to rest, thou seest come out of his study, meager looking, with eyes trilling, phlegmatic, squalid, and bleary, dost thou think that by endlessly plodding over his books he doth seek how he shall become a more honest man, or more wise, or more clever, or more serene or content?  There is no answer to this question.  I wish there was but there isn’t.  He will either collapse in his pursuit, or teach posterity the measure of Plautus’ verses or the true orthography of a once-lost but newly re-discovered Latin word fragment. Who doth not willingly chop and counterchange his health, his ease, his dreams, yea, and his life, for the joys of conversation, the pure, unfettered joys of conversation with strangers? The most unprofitable, vain, and counterfeit coin, that is in use with us presently is the idea that we could live for one instant without the stabilizing effects of good conversation, as learned in public schools, public parks, public roads, public records, public media, and all manner of public houses and lodgings. Our death is not sufficient to make us afraid; let us also charge ourselves with that of our spouses, of our children, and of our friends and companions and people from countless other historical eras, no to mention the fictional characters on stage and on film.  Our own affairs do not sufficiently trouble and vex us: Let us also drudge, toil, vex, and torment ourselves with the psychodrama of phantoms. If there be no conversation, let there be at least the pursuit of conversation.  And if there be no pursuit of conversation, let there be at least the thought of conversation.  And if there be no thought of conversation, let there be at least a painting or statue of people engaged in conversation.  And if there be no such painting or statue, let there at least be a bench by the harbor, upon which you might rest for several moments in an attempt to gather your thoughts.