Fresh Eyes on MAGELLANICA, 7TH Installment
For the last seven weeks, the cast, crew, director, designers, and playwright have been building this epic journey to Antarctica, step by step and layer by layer. Our Fresh Eyes volunteers, Elizabeth E. Tavares and Matthew Minicucci, have taken this journey with us and shared their weekly observations in this column. We are deeply grateful to both of them for their generous time and enthusiasm, and especially for their richly literary and thoughtful perspectives on the process of bring MAGELLANICA to the stage. On Saturday, January 20, rehearsals entered the last, crucial phase: the audience -- including Matthew and Elizabeth -- arrived for the first preview performance.
ELIZABETH E. TAVARES
Five Dispatches from the Antipodes
Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.
— Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
Before the great age of mapmaking, when we decided which was the right side up of the globe and banished the seas monsters on its edges, there was the antipodes. More an existential geography than a literal one, the antipodes referred to the place that was the opposite of where you stood now. There, the legs grew out of one’s head rather than their torso and, more importantly, they thought and lived exactly counterpoised to you. See for example, the Monty Python-esque woodcut from the Margarita Philosophica, printed in 1517.
At the preview premiere of MAGELLANICA yesterday afternoon, I felt as if I had crossed the other side and found my own antipodes. The immense rehearsal process, begun in early December, had become a part of our weekly routine. I felt as if I had been turned inside out not only because the play was no longer a series of meticulous moments now become a fully realized experience of performance, soundscape, and projection, but also for the kind of performance it has proved to be. Some dispatches from this first voyage:
- No one leaves. In order to effect the sensation and quality of researchers’ interactions on extended work stay, no one really leaves the stage. The entrances and exits are infrequent at best, and so a great deal of performance takes place “under water” (as Matt discussed in an earlier post). This produces the sensation that you are actually “binge-ing” on the narrative as you might serial television. It is made all the more intimate because there are no jump cuts, no new spaces to travel into. You feel, quite literally, on the journey.
- Rations mattered. In order to manage the expedition, there were four intermissions, one which included a dinner break. Again, this productively echoes concerns in the play, wherein the characters have strict schedules—two two-minute showers a week, for example—in order to preserve resources and regulate their bodies to the endless night. Therefore, each act ran twenty-five to forty-five minutes, when in any other production you might go a full ninety before a break. I felt more revived with these short sprints, having been given the breath of ten minutes to process and consider where we’d just been.
- Truly open concept. The space and the props have to serve many purposes and many settings for the sake of the play as well as for the sake of preserving resources within the world of the play. A terminal becomes an airplane becomes an observatory. To create the effect of bedrooms, dining areas, and research labs, we follow the blocking of the actors and the placement of props, but no more. This is a borderless performance in a literal sense: there are no walls within. There are no doors to enter and exit, no private spaces in which to hide or collude. The borders of this world are porous for the characters, just as we the audience move in and out numerous times for coffee and nibbles. When the characters’ own sheet of ice starts to shrink and shift under them, I started contemplating my personal walls that are, perhaps, not as fixed as I assume.
- Authentically intellectual. As a scholar who lives for the manuscript archive and archaeological dig, I was inspired by the moments of intellectual collaboration that playwright E.M. Lewis and director Dámaso Rodríguez let the play explore. So many of the depictions of research in public life either skip straight to the results, revel in jibes about “squints,” or romanticize the process as an unending series of discoveries. The play makes accessible an immediate environmental question, shows us the ways in which science is never divorced from politics, and lends gravitas to the careful charting of data over time. It’s authentic to the quiet process that is research without taking the cheap shot of mocking its doldrums.
- Immersive. You hear a lot about the “immersive” in theatre. In my experience, that typically works as a kind of short-hand for a play designed to have playgoers directly involved in some way. In so doing, it is implied, they will forget about the preoccupations of their world for the sake of the world of the play. It wasn’t until the twentieth century and J.R.R. Tolkien that an idea of art as a medium for escape was fully realized, and then took over the popular consciousness about why we go to movies and listen to music. The immersion MAGELLANICA offers has a healing quality. The awareness of our ecology and our participation in its movements and even destruction allowed me to meditate on what exactly is my relationship to, for examples, CFCs in my hairspray or the particular darkness of a Pacific Northwest winter. When so much contemporary theatre asks me to imaginatively leave my immediate surroundings, MAGELLANICA asks you to stay.
I’ve attended a number of longue durée plays, such as ALL OUR TRAGIC, GATZ, and the two-part HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD, where part of the message is the very length of it. The question of time itself is typically a central concern. Part of the draw is the challenge of merely enduring that much drama. While MAGELLANICA is certainly about a group of scientists managing to survive the coldest, darkness place on earth, I did not feel I had merely survived it or nearly managed an escape. I was engaged with the questions of the characters and their interlocking journeys even as the sun began to set outside. Despite being turned on my head regarding what I anticipate in a theatre performance, how I watch and why, I left Artist Rep early Saturday evening not quite ready to leave this antipodes. Perhaps that is what T.S. Eliot meant by
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Tempest in a Ladle
There’s a moment in MAGELLANICA when, sitting on the cold metal stairs of the observatory, Joshua J. Weinstein’s Dr. William Huffington recalls a famous line, probably oft-memorized in his character’s privileged history, from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men:”
“This is the way the world ends”
Funny that the whole time I found myself thinking just the opposite. Though Huffington’s research on glaciers suggest the shifting forces of global warming, a sort of “Revelation,” I was left more with “Genesis,” and that ubiquitous light that seems to come from nowhere at all.
This was an incredible experience for me, both as an artist and a playgoer, to have a chance to see EM Lewis’ work go from playtext to stage. As I said in my first post here (which seems to be so long ago), the real shock to my poetry-trained system is seeing the collaborative nature of a play event. Every actor and designer brings themselves to a project about something entirely other, and it’s left to director Dámaso Rodríguez to figure out how to put all those disparate pieces together in a way that will find both audience and address in such timely content. And it is timely. Despite being set in 1986, every discussion of the complications of politics, the irrefutability of evidence, and the unknowability the future’s fourth dimension (even for the most skilled of map-makers), all felt exigent to every playgoer at tonight’s opening preview.
The “Fresh Eyes” experience was one of fragmentation, in a way, related to the creative process. Both Elizabeth and myself were only able to find time to attend once a week for a few hours, and in those moments I saw the scalpel applied to every page of Lewis’ work. Questions of where one’s hands might be during a conversation moved to who would carry a coffee cup to what location, and eventually to what mark might be best to stand at when beginning an aside on the end of the world. It’s perhaps the opposite of the “storm in a teacup” (or, if we are to believe Cicero, the “tempest in a ladle”): each moment, as it turns out, meticulously calculated and impossibly important in creating an overall tone and feel to the play.
In this way, it reminded me of the discoveries (and troubles) of assembling a poetry manuscript. When working on my first book, I was struck by the problem of exponentials. Not, perhaps, in the most mathematical sense, but in how each piece both responded to and commented on every other piece. Thus, on an open page, two poems, written weeks, months, years apart, might form a bond, a conception new and never before seen until placed side by side. But, what happens when the page is turned and a third poem appears? A fourth? Suddenly, the shadows brought forth by one piece’s repoussoir, that foregrounded object in a painting that pushes our focus further into the composition,find themselves reconsidered, re-bracketed, and exponentially more complicated. Watching MAGELLANICA last night, every character and line, score and secant spotlight served as a single nail in the entirety of the construction of this play. And to know, in the end, that the seams of all that work fit, well, that was endlessly satisfying; like a piece of wood measured many times, but cut (perfectly) once
Joshua J. Weinstein’s Huffington doesn’t give us the entirety of Eliot’s poem, but he does remind us of the shadows between everything in the spotlights. As Eliot writes himself: “Between the conception/ and the creation/ Between the emotion/ and the response/ Falls the Shadow.” This was a play where so much of what happens falls between the margins of where we were, where we are, and just where we might be. Eliot calls it “Shadow.” William Huffington reminds us that “This is the way the world ends.” Might I suggest, after seeing all the texture shadow can provide, that this just might also be how the world begins.