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Flash Dispatch, 2-5: Diary of a Residency
Faucets, Tubing, Pipes, a 13-year-old Rookie Drummer and a 75-year-old Grandmother

By Rebecca Stenn
Copyright 2001 Rebecca Stenn

(Editor's Note: PerksDanceMusicTheatre is in residency at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin this month. Rebecca Stenn, artistic director of the Perks and the Dance Insider's features editor, will be sending dispatches as her schedule permits. Jay Weissman and Dave Eggar are musicians with the Perks; Michele de la Reza is a dancer with the company.)

SHEBOYGAN, Wisconsin -- My company has been here for a week. I am sitting at my desk in the cabin that Jay and I are staying in, looking out the window at the snow coming down. We are in the middle of the woods. We are in Wisconsin.

The Perks has been commissioned to create an evening-length piece, with members of the community, and to work here for a month. In the planning stages, we imagined an incredibly diverse cast, with many nationalities and a wide range of ages. When we actually arrived for our first week of workshops last November, we learned the first lesson in community-based projects: Be flexible. We'll take everyone, we decided, looking at a sea of ten-year-old faces, a retired rag-time pianist named Al, an assortment of families and teenagers including an adolescent heavy metal guitarist who we've not heard from since, and one elderly woman.

After meeting our proposed cast, the next step was to figure out what to create a piece about -- how to give the best theatrical/collaborative experience to our community members and how to best motivate and inspire ourselves. This would mean asking some questions: What makes this community unique? What are some of the things that are universally understood? We looked around.

Sheboygan, Wisconsin is a quiet place. It is a small town located on the shore of Lake Michigan. The town is lovely, and the lake is especially beautiful in all seasons; it is vast and seems like an ocean. But these observations are an outsider's viewpoint. When we started asking questions about the inner workings of the place, and listening to people's stories, we realized that there is something quite unique about this town, something that infiltrates just about everyone's life here, directly or indirectly, and that is the Kohler Factory.

The Kohler Company (porcelain, metal for faucets. etcetera -- your toilet is probably made by Kohler), it turns out, employs a large percentage of the residents of Sheboygan. Factory workers, designers, international sales reps, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (which has hired us) and countless other jobs are supplied by the Kohler Company or Foundation. We realized quickly that this would shape our piece and we set about looking for a story to best express it.

Our first research trip was of course to the Kohler Factory itself. This took some doing -- we needed to be okayed at a number of checkpoints. When we had finally signed our last waiver, we were ushered into a lobby where we were issued steel-toed boots, safety goggles, gloves, hard-hats and ear plugs. Our mission was actually the garbage room -- the discards, really, seconds or things that hadn't come out perfectly and couldn't be sold. We were awed and silenced by the factory itself: It was exactly how I had imagined it to be and then much much bigger. There was the fog and smoke, the cauldrons of fire, the blackened walls. Men were welding and cutting steel. We got yelled at a number of times to "stay in line" to avoid speeding forklifts, and to keep our goggles on.

Downstairs in the dungeon-like discards room, we collected our treasure: everything that could possibly be used as a musical instrument or set piece. We loaded up a van and were on our way.

Back at the Kohler Arts Center, we got an artist to design the very first 'industriaphone,' as our musicians have dubbed it: a rack where our 'percussion instruments' are hung -- faucets, metal tubing, pipes, engine parts, anything that makes noise. Barrels are used as set pieces and drums, and long steel pipes are the anti-gravity machine. But more on that later.

Now we had our setting, and quite a few of our props. Next we needed a story. This is where the universality of every community comes in. We have long been interested in inter-generational relationships, and where better can one explore this, than when one is presented with a cast with an age range from four to seventy-five? How do the generations relate to one another? What about the passage of time? How similar are our journeys? How do they change as we grow older? We looked at our cast. We had very few men. That decided it. Our piece would be a woman's journey and we would hone in on a girl-child, a middle-aged woman, and an elderly woman to illustrate our narrative.

A journey -- starting with an elderly woman remembering. Can we all see through her eyes? Her journey is nearing completion; she is peaceful. She is remembering herself as a younger woman and she remembers the hardships and tribulations of that life. Now she remembers herself as a child; the journey of fantasy.

Day 1

We begin with Joyce (our 75-year-old) facing the clump of everyone else in the piece, about thirty people. They mirror her movements. I am very moved by the group's focus, the beauty of concentration in the eyes of a four-year-old. The faces soften and crease with intent, eyes widen with meaning. They follow this grandmother, they follow her quiet wisdom.

Next we have Susan (our middle-aged character). She is a mother of four in real life and three of her boys are in the show. Sometimes she straps Finn, her youngest, to her back as she marks through her choreography. He is oblivious to all the attention, quietly munching on his pretzel. When Susan does the mirroring to the group her little boys are so serious we can barely stand it.

Finally it is Greta's turn. Joyce is her grandmother in real life. Greta is eight and she plays our child character, the one that gets lost in fantasy. Greta has the biggest eyes imaginable. After the opening sequence, she and I do a duet together. The softness of an eight-year-old's hands could break your heart.

Day 2

These are some of the things that run through my mind as I watch our earnest community members: Curiosity. Sheer joy of movement. Foreheads literally crisscrossed with thought. The quiet dropping of the eyes and shy curl of the lips into a small satisfied smile when we say, "Hey, that was good!" Boundless energy. Jay has to "run" the boys. They have too much, it bubbles over, he runs them and when they are exhausted, they concentrate well.

Day 3

The company is jazzed, exhausted, focused, bickering and, suddenly, crazily, jolting into exalted agreement -- that "of course" feeling you get when it turns out exactly as it is supposed to be.

Za (his real name is a longer name that is difficult for non-Vietnamese speaking people to pronounce and he asks us to call him Za) is in the hallway learning complex drum rhythms with our cellist Dave. We haven't exactly banished them, but they are incredibly loud. We count, we yell over the din. Za has somehow been incorporated into the company -- we fight over him. Michele and I want to make a trio with him, while Dave and Jay want him to be a drummer. Za is thirteen.

Day 4

being played by various cast members. Dave is a bit of a task master. "Again" he says to the kids as they bang out rhythms. Again! Again! Again! Mabel, a twelve-year-old, looks a combination of nervous, restless, bored and excited all at the same time. I've just run over to Jay, and asked him to simplify the complex rhythmic structure he has given Za, who has developed an extremely worried look on his face. I don't believe this kid has ever played drums before. We're eleven days away from opening night. Eleven days and counting.

 

(Editor's Note: To read more about the Perks, please visit its web site.)

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