Where You Are Planted

Over the next two weeks I will explore Robert Gard’s 1955’s  classic book, Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America. In it he writes eloquently about the role of place and community in the theatre and in our lives–themes that continue to resonate. Reading his book 58 years after it was first published, I can’t help but wonder, what are ways Gard is offering us a blueprint for making art now?

Calling all artistic wanderers: Robert Gard wants you! He wants you to make art about the place where you live. He asks that you travel, preferably by foot, around your state. Drink in the landscape. Listen to the stories and the way people tell them. But, Gard warns, don’t wander so far that you can’t find your way back again. The point is to always return and put what you’ve learned into your art. Find ways of empowering others, too, to share their plays or poetry or paintings. If all goes according to Gard’s plan, before you know it, you will live in a place where the arts co-exist with everything else. Where they are as much a part of country life as taking stock of this year’s wheat crop.

Sound far-fetched? It is–and it isn’t. Robert Gard was a playwright, teacher and administrator back in the 1930s-1970s who took his own advice. With help from the Rockefeller Foundation and teaching positions at several universities, he did precisely this kind of community work in the arts. He describes his journey in Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America. Part memoir, part meditation on fostering the arts within communities, Gard describes at length his work in Upstate New York, Alberta, and, especially, in Wisconsin between the 1930s and 1950s.

Gard’s search for an alternative way of life though the arts was set in motion after experiencing of the twin catastrophes of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as a college student in Kansas. He writes:

If the power, the drive, the call that had sent my father forth from Cumberland County, Illinois, to Kansas was now somehow responsible for young and old wandering futilely through the depression, then, indeed, I thought, we must seek a new, inward expansiveness that would enrich us, not so much in silver and gold but in our whole soul and feeling (12).

For Gard, this new, inward expansiveness would find its expression in a new way of doing theatre. It would be a theatre rooted in place, drawing on the location’s history and tradition. The area residents would make up the company of playwrights, actors, directors, crew, and audience. It would be a theatre for the people, by the people and about the people. A notion tied closely with his own democratic ideals and, as Gard alluded to by recalling his father’s experience, it would be a theatre that drew on the same restlessness and idealism that propelled immigrants to leave the old ways of living behind them and strike out for new horizons in America. It would be a grassroots theatre filled with the frontier spirit and the same desire to build a home of one’s own.

In her introduction to Grassroots Theater, Maryo Gard Ewell, calls her father’s book a “spiritual autobiography” (xvii). Though surprising, I don’t think her label is far off. Gard reports on a couple mountaintop epiphanies–one coming during his early career in New York, one much later in Wisconsin. Both concern his vision for what theatre can and should be and may serve as a model today.

After attending a cliché-riddled “rural life” play at a county fair written by a urban playwright, Gard felt both disgusted at what he had seen and overwhelmed by the authentic, overlooked stories that swirled around him as he sat in the fair’s theatre tent. As he looked out over Butternut Valley in Morris, New York later that day, he recalled that:

…suddenly my spirit was filled and lifted with a clear knowledge…. There must be plays that grow from all the countrysides of America, fabricated by the people themselves, born of their happiness and sorrow, born of toiling hands and free minds, born of music and love and reason. There must be great voices singing out the lore and legend of America from a thousand hilltops, and there must be students to listen and to learn, and writers encouraged to use the materials (33).

For Gard, it is all about finding ways of amplifying the voices singing of America. While working on his PhD in Ithaca, New York, Gard came into contact with Cornell professor, A.M. Drummond. A champion of regionalism and the Little Theatre movement himself, Drummond assigned Gard to go out into the countryside, meet its people, record their stories and discover how a landscape can shape the culture. Drummond believed that community theatre could be a way people made sense of their community (19).

This last idea is one that I believe holds tremendous power. Since moving to Richmond, Indiana in 2005, I have been involved in a handful of plays at our gem of a community theatre, Richmond Civic Theatre (RCT). In doing so, I have met people from all walks of life–many of them born and raised in Richmond. People, I think it’s safe to say, I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Without community theatre, my life here would feel drained of color and texture and fun–and I doubt that I would understand Richmond half as well as I do.

At RCT, I have gotten to play a mysterious murderer, a New York dilettante, a blind woman from an Irish village, an Oakie matriarch, and a misguided Shakespearean king. I have been able to inhabit the stories and lives of others in ways that thrilled me down to my toes. While the experience of acting in these disparate plays–three of which were written on the other side of the Atlantic–has not directly helped me understand what life is like in an east-central Indiana town, indirectly they have. There is the knowledge that can only come from experiencing a tech rehearsal together, not to mention the joys of a standing ovation, late night breakfasts at the only restaurant still open after a show, or stuffing sweat-soaked costumes into trash bags for a trip to the dry cleaners. These are the moment I learn about where I live and the people I share a hometown with.

Still, I wonder: are we cheating ourselves out of something more by not engaging with our peculiar heritage or addressing head-on the local issues that cause us to lose sleep at night? Are we denying theatre its exquisite power of urgent relevancy by choosing to perform familiar plays in familiar ways? What if, like Gard urges, we were to approach community theatre as the way to make sense of where we lived? To celebrate it, sure. Poke fun at it, lament it, to assert: this is where we have our being, where we love and lose and laugh.

What would theatre look like at a place like that?

Stay tuned for more thoughts on Gard next week. In the meantime, please give the following writing prompt a whirl.

Writing Prompt: Over the next 7 days, keep a look for out for random acts of creativity. Attend a poetry reading, listen to a busker playing guitar, or watch for a gaggle of kids putting on an impromptu play. Maybe the creative act you notice isn’t even performed by a human, but by a bird or a towering sycamore tree or the moon. Record the details of what you notice. How does it impact the environment around you?

Jennie at RCT-TempestPhoto: a Tempest break at RCT, June 2013. By Andy Darr.

Wanna pick up a copy of Gard’s book for yourself? Here’s the information you’ll need:

Gard, Robert E. Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. Print.

About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted midweek. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.

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Prompt: Checking Walt Whitman’s Watch

I have been thinking of Walt Whitman all day and how much I miss that dear, bearded, crazy mess of a man. Who, I like to imagine, hugged everyone he met with the same tearful exuberance I feel seeing a sandhill crane open and close its wings. Through his poetry, he enfolds us in his embrace, his words, his song and then releases us into the air.

But of course Walt left the party before I ever had the chance to meet him. And what did he leave behind anyway? Leaves of grass, songs hummed to himself, a wristwatch to count the hours we might look for God as we sit on the boardwalk, sipping iced tea?

Why just today, I found a letter he sent lying in the street. My address smudged. It was sent in care of Walt, signed “Love, God.”

Who did he think he was fooling? It is so clearly his handwriting even if (he says) he was taking dictation.

Here is what it said:

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God in each hour of the twenty-four, and each

moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in

the glass;

I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is

signed by God’s name,

And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will

punctually come forever and ever.”

–Walt Whitman, from “Song of Myself”

An SASE is included. He is waiting for a reply.

I love Whitman’s idea of seeing “something of God in each hour of the twenty-four.” A couple weeks ago the prompt “Overheard Inspiration” was to be someone on whom nothing is lost. This week let’s take it a step further.

Prompt: For one day, pause each hour you are awake and watch for wherever there is a stirring for you. You may call that stirring something divine or not, but it should be an action or an image or a scent that holds your attention that points to More. Put words to it. Only a line or two and then post it here.

I am excited to hear what will happen on your watch.

IMAGE: Walt Whitman, ca.1860-1865 by Matthew Brady. Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, compiled 1921 – 1940, documenting the period 1860 – 1865
Currently housed at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted on Tuesday. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.

DIY

As writers, we are experts at do-it-yourself. We can make mother-and-son heartbreaks, clumps of yellow daffodils, and a chiffon cake left out in the rain–all before breakfast. The only limits are those we place upon ourselves. No subject matter is too grand or hum drum. Think of Emily Dickinson and her instructions to us on how to make a prairie.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

Essayist and poet Wendell Berry took his own advice in “How To Be a Poet.” “The song is instruction in how to sing,” another poet, Dean Young, tells us in his excellent book, The Art of Recklessness. Chances are you write because at some tender age you encountered a story or a play or a poem that didn’t just talk to you, but opened the way for you to talk back. What we end up writing is the song and the instructions both.

Which brings me to this week’s prompt.

Write your own instructions on how to be a poet or a pilgrim. How to hail a cab or ice a cake. How to make a star wink or that same star howl back at the one who wishes upon it.

Not sure how to start? Take Berry’s advice:

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
    — from “How To Be a Poet”
Happy Writing!

About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted on Tuesday. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.

Prompt: Overheard Inspiration

You could say that writers are always on the lookout for material. As Henry James famously urged in his Art of Fiction: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Joan Didion also extols the virtues of recording the inspiring, the mysterious, and the inexplicable in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” (You can find it in her book, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.) At one point, she re-reads an old notebook and comes upon this overheard line of dialogue: “So what’s new in the whiskey business?” Immediately she remembers “a blonde in a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel”–and then she recalls seeing the same blonde years later in New York in very different circumstances which leads her to remember her own very different circumstances then and now. It is the beginning of a story if Didion wants it to be, and it is being stored for her in that one line overheard at the hotel pool.

Didion’s essay in a good reminder that some of the best stuff comes from the least likely places–an overheard comment in line at McDonalds, say, or from sharing an elevator at the hospital with a couple strangers. And then there’s the unexpected sight I witnessed a couple weeks ago: a man dragging a lawnmower with one hand and steering his motor scooter with the other as he drove rapidly down the streets of Richmond. Some days I feel like everywhere I turn a story is lurking, and the overheard comment or unexpected glance is the key to opening the door and stepping inside.

For this week’s prompt: Set aside time each day to become someone on whom nothing is lost. Keep your eyes and ears open and jot down what you observe. Note the details that might otherwise get lost. Capture the tone of voice or the way someone folds his hands. Notice how people greet one another. (An airport is great for this–so is the school playground.) See that couple sitting at the back of the restaurant? What are they saying without speaking a word? After a few days of this, read back over your notes. Which trail do you want to follow? Choose a line or an image that intrigues you and use it to write the opening paragraph of a story.  Post it here along with your original inspiration. We would love to see it–even if we recognize ourselves in your story.

About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted on Tuesday. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.

Image by Steve Slater

Prompt: Worth a thousand words

sea wall-diebenkorn

This week we’re going to turn to the visual arts for inspiration and see if we can’t come up with a thousand words worthy of a picture. If you can, take a field trip to a nearby art museum or gallery. Otherwise, go on a virtual art tour like one at the Frick in New York or explore the vastness of Google’s Art Project which contains work from 285 museums around the world including MoMA, Indianapolis Museum of Art, and many outstanding collections from Europe and Asia.

Once you find a work of art that catches your eye, really look at it. Write what you see. No detail is too small. Now describe the work using only your four other senses of touch, hearing, taste and smell.  Compare the two descriptions. What are the strengths of each?

Try one of these writing prompts:
•    If it is a portrait, write one or more pieces from the subject’s perspective. Try experimenting with first, second or third person narration.
•    Write about what is happening just out of view or “beyond the frame.”
•    Imagine that you are a character in the artwork and have just received some news that will dramatically change your life. What is the news–and how does this change your view of the world around you?

If you choose to share your writing, be sure to tell us the name of the artwork and a link if the work is available online.

Happy Writing!

About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted on Tuesday. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.

Image: Richard Diebenkorn’s Seawall (1957) Oil on canvas. 20 x 26 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Phyllis G. Diebenkorn. © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Prompt: What prompts you to write?

This week Natalie Houston posed the question “What Would a Famous Writer Do?” in the ProfHacker section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. As she explains, many of us–writers and readers alike–are fascinated with the writing process. What really goes on when our favorite authors sit down and write? Are there are any moves we can steal and add to our own process? Do they struggle to sit still for twenty minutes some mornings just like me?

If nothing else, maturing as a writer means being honest about what we need to write and what can stand in our way. Once we articulate the mundane details of how we do what we do, it can be easier to notice patterns that lead to completing that next chapter or getting stuck, losing momentum, or just being the resident crankypants in your household.

nature notebookSo, for this week’s Keeping the Appointment challenge, let’s pause and think about how we keep the appointment to write and why. Read Natalie Houston’s article and then take up her suggestion to answer the interviewer’s questions as though you’re the Famous Writer:

  • Where do you write?
  • When do you write?
  • What advice would you give yourself about writing?

Who knows? The rest of us might just steal a couple of your strategies. You are welcome to steal right back.

Happy Writing!

About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted on Tuesday. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.

Keeping the Appointment

Devotion.

It is a word that calls up past acts of piety or love common in a time not our own.

Devotion lives across the street from Duty and in between the houses of Delight and Dour. It is a place, I am finding, that I must visit daily. Even when I don’t particularly have anything to say and would much rather skip it on the way to the store. After all, there is so much to do.

But when I pass by the house of Devotion, when I do not step into the reception room of the heart, suddenly my creative urge starts to fail me.

Because in addition to reflecting religious fervor, devotion is also a mark of being “ardently dedicated and loyal” according to ole Merriam-Webster.

When it comes to committing the creative act, we need to be both pious and ardently dedicated.

It helps to be in love, too.

Keeping the appointment

The poet Mary Oliver observes: “writing…is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.” (A Poetry Handbook, 7)

This, for Oliver as well as a host of other writers, is the most important thing. One must set aside a time each day and show up at the desk. Even when you don’t know if any words will come. Maybe, especially when you don’t know if any words will come.

I continue to struggle with this. What do I have to add to the conversation when so many others have already spoken? How can I traverse the space between the thing that makes my body thrum and the words to describe it, make sense of it, and to–on the best days–even make my reader feel it in her own skin? When I was in college a friend once snapped at me, “Jennie, you write as if English is your second language!” The heat behind the comment quickly evaporated, but its meaning has stayed with me. There are times when English does feel like my second language. Problem is, my first language is no language at all, but a way of feeling and moving in the world. Everything I write originates from just that place.

And yet, the bigger the feeling, the more I am driven to put words to it.

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture….” –Elvis Costello

I imagine a pyramid of svelte men and women in bright colored body suits interpreting the majesty of the Empire State Building. Elbow scaffolding, hips that carve space, calve muscles straining chrome. But for me, the joke is that such a comical dance is not just limited writing about music, it’s all writing. To dance about architecture is to aspire to pirouette a fan window or jeté through a portico of air–knowing that when I dance across the stage, it will look a lot more like a shambling gait. And I can call it a rough draft, or a moment of showing up, or even a way of moving from point a to point b. But really I know, this may be as good as it’s going to get. And I might as well call it art because that is what I aspire it to be.

Taking the art challenge

Here’s the deal: chances are if you are reading this you are a creative person. You thrill at those moments when the muse is chatty, and you are poised to take down every word. Problem is, despite your very best intentions, you have trouble keeping the appointment with that shy creature.

Back to Mary Oliver: “Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself–soon it begins to arrive when you do. But it you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all. Why should it? It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime.” (8)

Scary enough for you?

So, check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted on Tuesday. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Surely even busy people like you and me should be able to manage that! Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. Feeling inspired? Keep writing with or without the prompt. It’s all golden.

After your initial revision, post what you wrote. Really. I will do the same. This online community would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We will receive it with the open, generous mind of fellow-writers and readers. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.

My hope is that all this devotion will spill over into other days, other writing. And that is deserving of gratitude, ardent loyal, love, and acts of piety.

Write on!