Community, theater, and magic: three performances near Samhain

October 29th: Hurricane Sandy is swiping her long arms of rain and wind over the eastern seaboard of the U.S., feeling around for houses to smash. Ann Fisher-Wirth has to cancel and I can’t reach my co-organizer Mattie, so I study the weather forecasts and follow my gut: the Writers at Studio Eleven reading, featuring a mikeless open mic, is ON. I’m hungry for literary camaraderie.

October 25th: A talented student with whom I’ve been working closely is playing the Elvis role in Bye Bye Birdie. I’m not a fan of musicals unless Joss Wheedon is involved, and a problematic colleague is in the show, and I’ve been disorganized for weeks since a plumbing disaster forced us to move out of the house; all these factors mean that I’m slow buying tickets and they sell out. But lo! A friend, another non-musical-fan, has a spare and wants my company!

October 30th: Many of our brilliant English majors at Washington & Lee end up running their own classrooms, but only a few earn PhDs in English and score those rare university jobs. John Melillo is one; now teaching a graduate seminar on “Critical Theories of Voice” at the University of Arizona, with a few chapters from my book Voicing American Poetry on the syllabus, he asks me to Skype in. I’ve Skyped a little on my daughter’s laptop but that’s it, so I set up my own account, install a webcam, and get nervous. Why do I say keep saying “yes” to scary projects?

Only one of these performances is drama in the usual sense, but they all turn speaking into doing, conjuring an experience of community out of skeptical individuals. I’m no expert on Gaelic harvest festivals, but I vaguely know that this is a magical time of year, when the door to the otherworld hangs ajar. It’s the beginning of winter: move those cows to winter pasture, conduct ceremonies around the bonfire, and don your disguises, for spirits are abroad. It doesn’t matter if you believe—the turnip lantern must be lit.

This is how the rituals proceeded and these are the demons invoked:

On the 30th: I’m a decent orchestrator of the theater of seminar discussion, but converting those skills to the medium of Skype was hard. In conversation you make eye contact and lean your body towards your interlocutor; you glance around the room to check on the level of engagement; you can sense little cues like people shifting, sighing, clearing their throats. I kept making eye contact with the face on my screen—not the camera eye—and trying to peer around the edges of the frame, which surely made me look like a crazy person. We talked about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s innovative poetry radio broadcasts in ’33 and I felt a sudden deep sympathy for Vincent at that long-ago mike: how distracted she must have been by the technology, how much she would have missed the feedback loop of a present, responsive audience. And yet, she fundamentally got it: the medium required not staginess but intimacy, the quieter voice of someone reading to her family in the living room. She did better than I. I really liked John’s students and was glad to try the whole Skype thing but it’s not as well-suited to a conversation in multiple directions, I think, as it is to the serial intimacies of just two people talking across a spatial chasm. John reflected afterward that “in a weird way you and I became a kind of united / split teacher assemblage, as you were the voice, speaking (amazing!) thoughts and I became the eyes, scanning the classroom.” Spooky.

On the 25th: I’ve had many exceptionally gifted Theater/ English students over the years and it’s a thrill to see them up there, transfigured, possessed—Jeanne, for example, who trembled when she had to give a class presentation but ruled the stage with complete authority. Bye Bye Birdie was a good production, I thought from the darkened audience, analyzing its strengths with my usual critical eye:  vocal talent, great choreography. I was also swept up in self-forgetful delight by several performances, including Drew’s rock and roll apotheosis, and that doesn’t always happen during student theater. Then a feeling of disturbance crept in. It’s a dated play very much concerned with sex and power, all about channeling and constraining women’s out-of-control desire. These are tricky themes for a school where there’s been a lot of assault and sex-based discrimination. I did glimpse an interpretive angle on the material at moments, for example when the rock star sexually menaces a fifteen-year-old girl and then positions flip as a flock of young fans descends to attack the rock star. Yes, I imagined the director whispering, there’s a lot of assault in this play, but ultimately the girls, acting together, are on top. Drew’s intelligence about these issues was there in his performance. In another famous scene, though—the Shriner’s Ballet—ugliness came to the fore in an astonishingly misjudged bit of choreography. The excellent student actor playing Rosie dances through an all-male gathering in her sexy red dress, seeking to seduce someone or obtain general male approbation; it’s a repellant number, especially here, where some version of this plays out frequently in a fraternity-dominated party scene. Then Rosie does a handstand, revealing her polkadot underpants, and a much older actor catches her legs and stares into her crotch for an extended interval. That bug-eyed Shriner? My problem colleague, someone who has had sexual harassment claims leveled against him repeatedly. Who thought that was good theater?

On the 29th: A VMI cadet named Denver began the literary ritual and one of my students, Max, ended it with a sort of cento—lyric poem as collage, many voices subsumed into his own very funny bravura English Nerd performance. Libations were poured. The open mic moved fast, charged with anxious excitement about the storm and the upcoming election. I read my very meanest poem and had the pleasure of seeing a few mouths fall open. Then Chris read a spectacularly dark bit of flash fiction and I couldn’t stop giggling: we’re the most messed-up couple ever. Fewer people attended than usual and we missed the Dabney S. Lancaster Community College crowd but hell, thirty is still a huge audience for listening to art on a Monday night in rural Virginia. We were present to each other, round the bonfire, and it burned hot and bright in the darkness.

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