Sarah Levitt, Takoma Park, MD

My text for How To Lose a Mountain was mostly developed by Cassie giving me a prompt–some phrase, idea, or topic she wanted to address through language–and then leaving me alone to write for a while. When I had a draft, I’d bring it to the group, get feedback, and go back into writing. Writing text for performance remains one of my favorite frustrations–finding what is “right” in language depends on the words chosen and their sequence, and it is often the very subtle shifts that make the most impact, that change the meaning and that make a character, transition or scene make sense in the narrative arc of a show.

My opening monologue in the show was the text that settled last. Here is some early writing that developed during our 2012 Summer Institute:

text 1

Cassie was really interested at this point in exploring what was visible and not visible in the process of mountaintop removal, and I was trying to find a way to talk about that without talking about it directly–this tends to be my strategy when developing text. How can we address a big topic by making it personal, by making it tangible, by making it a little bit messy and idiosyncratic? In this text (developed for our Summer Institute performance at the Capital Fringe Festival in July 2012), I described the theatre space I could see as a way to ground myself in the present and keep from slipping into memories:

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Through writing this text, we started figuring out who I was in the show: someone who had to live in the present, someone who wanted to move forward and not look back in order to keep herself together.

After the Institute in July, we left “Mountain” for a while, and returned to it in the fall. We entered into a period of figuring out what I needed to say vs. what could be danced to tell the story. We knew my character had this thing about the past, and wanting to move forward, but why? We talked a lot about how much context to give and how much backstory the audience needed to know:

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You’ll see a more direct attempt to create my backstory in that first draft above. The second version cuts the opening paragraph and picks up from the text that seemed more true to the tone of the show. Always we were asking questions like: would that character actually say those words? What would she actually reveal through language? What is she saying in movement that she doesn’t need to say in text? What is she saying through movement that reveals the subtext?

This opening monologue needed to set up my point of view, give me a starting point so I had somewhere to go, and set me up in opposition to the other characters on stage. It also needed to be something the audience could relate to–could they see themselves in my character? Could they relate to my values? We were asking a lot of this opening text, and we had many drafts ahead.

For a day or two in January 2013, we returned to this idea of naming what was around me in the theatre as a way to anchor my character in the present, and create more tension between nostalgia and my ideas of progress:

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The biggest problem with this text as an opening monologue was that none of us could justify how I would be able to dance alongside the other performers and interact with them if I ripped into the conventions of theatrical performance so early in the show. Questioning within a performance the validity of theatre and dance as social action is extremely compelling to me, but it wasn’t right for the story we were telling in “Mountain”.

In February, we traveled to Syracuse to work on text with Zeke for a couple of days. We decided to try pulling out a narrative around speed as a way to talk about distance and progress, and our sound designer, Stowe Nelson, developed this draft after listening to a Radiolab episode about speed:

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This draft really helped us to label some characteristics about my character and Zeke’s character in the show. It also helped us realize that my character had to have a value system–I couldn’t just spend the whole show pushing back against what Zeke and the other characters held dear. What did I value? Why did I love speed and progress? What was my character excited about? Why?

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In this draft, we brought back in the idea of light. Cassie’s 500 mile walk that was part of the process of making this work began from her questions about the source of her power. Finding out that the source of the electrical power in her house was mountaintop removal made her examine the consequences of a very simple act: turning on the lights.

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Electricity seemed to be a way to talk about speed, about convenience, about immediate access. But why did my character care? What about this speed and convenience was important and exciting to her? I went back to an idea Cassie and I tried over three years ago in an early rehearsal for this piece relating to airplanes and being far above the earth:

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This text (in bold) definitely gave me a backstory, but it was just too many words, and tone-wise, not where we were in the piece as of early March. So how could we say all that? How could we say, in way less words, that I loved progress, and I wasn’t interested in looking back? That I privileged speed over thoughtfulness?

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Easy: tell the audience you don’t have time to explain yourself to them. Finding this one line (one line!) did a lot of the work for us in terms of setting up my values and who I was in the work.

The final opening text (for now) is below, along with the text that comes later in the show.

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The other thing, of course, about creating text for performance, is that the text we write is not actually meant to be read on a page, but said out loud, and there is so much to be mined in this translation from page to performance. I had the chance to try out each of these drafts in rehearsal, and through embodying the character that might say those things as I tried out different versions, it helped me find out who I was in the  show we perform today.

Posted on: April 19th, 2013