How the Sausage Gets Made, or my adventures bringing Retail Therapy to the stage
I’ve debated if I should write this.
If I am going to chronicle the process of bringing my new play Retail Therapy to the stage, I need to be honest, or what's the point? Publicity? (Please, only 12 people read my blog!)
No, I need to share the ups as well as the downs. That's the point.
Those "downs," though. Yeah, I don't know . . . The producer in me squirms at sharing those. I mean, we always tell actors and crew not to post anything negative about a show we’re rehearsing. “We don’t need any bad publicity.” Keep it positive. Keep it upbeat. Keep the “backstage drama” backstage where the audience can’t see it.
But this time, this show, Retail Therapy: 700 of years of mental health “care," is one of the most challenging projects I’ve undertaken; I need to record the process. Consider that Retail Therapy: 700 years of mental health care
Covers 700 years of history -- in 75-minutes!
Is immersive. Never done it before. Not to this level.
Utilizes recorded histories. (Where will they be stored? How will they be accessed?)
Includes a short video. (How will we get it shot? Will it run seamlessly during the play?)
Actors Hannah Diers & Meghan Perry wear latex chimp masks. For over an hour
Actor Walter Criswell plays 8 doctors & 5 eugenicists
Actor Ashley Fredricksen plays Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, Helen Keller, oh, yeah, and Joan of Arc.
Oy. I am up at 4 a.m. every morning wondering, "How the hell are we going to pull this off?" So, yeah, it's challenging me more than any project I've done in recent years.
The exception to this is when I produced The World Peace Pageant in 2018 which involved 250 volunteers, 80 paper mâché puppets, a 12-foot tall Mother Earth puppet, a drumline, a drag queen, thirty young children, several actors, a 12-page “cantastoria,” and a bagpiper. No partridges in a pear tree – Thank God. (Birds can be so difficult to direct.)
Yeah, come to think of it, Retail Therapy is a breeze!
Okay, so, maybe not a breeze, exactly. More like a very strong wind. Might lose a few roof tiles. So, I thought: Maybe I should create a written record of it. Sometimes producing a show is like giving birth. If you get that show on its feet, it's an artistic success and you break even, you forget about the labor pains. This time, though, there are so many moving parts; I need to keep track of them, and this might be a way to do that. And later -- to remind myself, or anyone of you thinking about doing something challenging:
It always seems impossible until it’s done. – Nelson Mandela
Okay, first, an acknowledgment of all theatre makers --
Any show, – is a Herculean task from pre-production to strike. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it here, the art of theatre is archaic. In an age when anyone with a cellphone can make up a story and shoot it on their phone, then watch it over and over by simply pressing "play," well, theatre seems so, I don't know . . . impractical.
Consider this: We gather X number of people, give them a script that a writer may have spent a gazillion hours writing and revising, it's anywhere from 30-120 or so pages, and they're required to memorize it, then recite it in front of a bunch of strangers and some kind friends and family members. Then we fold in the efforts of a creative crew: Costumers, make-up artists, prop masters, light and sound designers, not to mention a stage manager who keeps the trains running. And that set you see when the curtain opens? Someone designed it, lugged in lumber, measured, cut, hammered, and screwed. Then a scenic painter came in and made it all look amazing. Someone meticulously dressed the set. Oh, and at the end of the run? We tear it all down in a matter of hours. The stage is swept and not a trace is left to indicate an entire world was created mere hours before. Yes, theatre is effort-full. It's also magical. And how often do we get to make magic happen? Now, where was I?
Oh, yes, this blog is intended to share how the sausage for Retail Therapy is getting made, not what happens once it’s in the cellophane in the meat aisle. (This is a really bad metaphor, isn’t it? My apologies.) And if no one reads it, when I am rocking in my chair in the nursing home -- here's hoping they have cabarets and cabernets-- I can look back and remember how it all came together.
In the beginning . . .
"20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness. In comparison, only 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill" (National Institute of Mental Health, 2009).
A seed was planted. I was researching my play about the chronically homeless, In Search of Persephone.
DISCLAIMER: Based only on the people I interviewed – who in no way represent all the unsheltered EVERYWHERE – I found that the majority of people I SPOKE TO suffered from mental illness. Their lives were further complicated because many – again not ALL – medicated with drugs and/or alcohol to deal with their illness and had become addicted.
I could not help question how we, as a society, treat these people who are – aside from children – the most vulnerable people among us – addicted and dealing with mental illness. What do we do?
Nothing, mostly. We look away. We cross the street. We avoid those blocks at all costs where we might encounter "them." We do not want a confrontation because that will require us to make a choice: Ignore or engage.
Ignore: We feel crappy. (“What would Jesus do?” True, I am no longer a practicing Catholic, but that question hangs over my head more than you might imagine.) I will think about my dismissal of that fellow human for the rest of the day – at least.
Engage: Who the hell knows where that might lead? Five bucks? ("I'm trying to get home to Texas.") A lengthy conversation about witness protection and child abduction? Or, as once happened to me in a theater’s lobby – a burning cigarette to my face.
"It is estimated that more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (57.8 million in 2021)". NIMH
So, mental illness became my new obsession. How we treat the unsheltered, mentally ill on the street became how have the mentally ill been treated historically? Like Alice, I fell down the rabbit hole into madness. Soon I was thigh deep into research about asylums and ghastly treatments like gyrating chairs and near drowning of patients. I was watching documentaries about lobotomies and acting out to anyone who'd watch how simple a transorbital lobotomy could be. (Yes, people do cross the street when they see me coming, too.)
A year later and an American Recovery Grant for Artists from the North Dakota Council on the Arts, through the National Endowment for the Arts (many, many thanks), a retreat at the Inn at Itasca State Park to finally dump all that research into script format and -- that’s how this little piggy came to market.
As for the sausage – well, I’ll tell you more about that next week.
26 days till show time. (yikes!!!)
Writing prompt: Where does inspiration come from? Think of a creative project you've completed. What was that germ of an idea that sparked it?