We met Sarah Elkins during a performance of excerpts of “How To Lose a Mountain” at the Lewis Theatre in Lewisburg, WV when we appeared on Trillium Performing Arts‘ spring concert. Sarah is a writer, and is known for her “flash poems”–poems composed to the specifications of the person who orders it for the price they offer. I bought a poem when I was in town for $10, and was fortunate enough to get two really beautiful poems. One is about my 500 mile walk, and one was written after Sarah saw the excerpt of “How To Lose a Mountain”. You can read more about Sarah and her work at www.sarahelkins.com.
Image Story Collection
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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?
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
Shortly after we came back from the first 70 miles of the walk, I wrote a post for this site, and for the Dance Exchange blog, chronicling the experience I had out on the trail. Zeke Leonard, a Syracuse, NY-based collaborator on How To Lose a Mountain used my writing as source material for the “Walk Song”. Through a series of emails and Facebook conversations, he wrote and rewrote the song, trying to capture in music and words what it was like to walk from Washington, DC, to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Below is a slice of the correspondence between me and Zeke over a period of months.
As challenging as it was as times to develop a new song (not to mention a new work!) at a great distance, something about that distance, and what is lost and gained in it, really supported the themes of Cassie’s work.
From: Zeke Leonard
Sent: Sunday, April 15, 2012, 7:26 AM
To: Sarah Levitt
I have been thinking about you all for the last several days. Though I do not wish for a life different from my own, I do wish that mine was structured in such a way that I could have been on the trail with you all, to have heard the conversations, to have seen the cold dawn, to have heard the water falling or the wind in the trees with you. Those moments belong to you all now, punctuated by your own footsteps and the footsteps of your companions. Tonight, a hot bath for you and a soft bed. Tonight, warm food and cold beer and in the morning hot coffee. But if you get a moment before they fade into sepia memory, I would welcome your thoughts and memories.
Hope you are well. Nice work.
From: Sarah Levitt
Sent: Monday, April 16, 2012 11:42 PM
To: Zeke Leonard
The 26 mile day was a pleasant shock. Walking is so strange! It is not running. It is not dancing. It is not swimming. It is weight shifting back and forth from left to right. And again. With variation from changes in the ground or your speed. Cassie, Paloma and I ran the last mile of the day because our feet just wanted something new so badly. One of the sweetest parts of the day was taking a break after 14 miles. We found a nice spot in the grass by the Potomac (which we followed all the way to Harper’s Ferry), and slept out in the sun. I woke up, and I started to wonder how I could keep walking. But you put on your pack and start anyway. Its odd–when you are walking that far, the goal is of course to arrive where you are headed. But it also felt, in those moments, that the actual goal was simply moving foraward. That in falling back in the rhythm of our individual footsteps amongst the group we were accomplishing everything.
The other thing that happened that day was that we started referring to distance differently (“We decide how we measure it”, right?). So instead of saying, “We have 10 miles to go”, we said “We have 1 more banjo to go”. And when we finished the day, we got to say: “We walked more than 2 1/2 banjos today!” I can’t tell you what it did for us to change how we thought about the distance we had to cover.
We sang a lot. Because when you are singing, you are not thinking about how much your feet hurt! We sang Disney songs, and folk songs, and Paloma was great at creating new lyrics about walking for songs we know. I’ve been working on a song for Mountain, so swe sang that one a lot, too. We recorded it when we got to town, so I hope you’ll get to hear it soon….
…We ate constantly! We taught two workshops. And we slept outside, sometimes in a tent, but mostly not. We met amazing people when we were walking. And I saw all of these things in my colleagues that made me feel immensely grateful to walk alongside them. And although you were not with us, I can tell you that you were with us–from invoking banjos as miles, to all of the singing we did. We stayed at this wonderful home last night that is attached to a dance studio and one of the women that hosted us played banjo and sang beautifully, so we all ended up singing together at the end of the night. And this also speaks to your impact on all of us–these sorts of things didn’t happen before our visit to Syracuse, and now singing and sharing this way feels like a vital joy…
Zeke and I were communicating through a number of different mediums at this point, including Facebook chat. You won’t be able to click through the links, but here is an excerpt of the conversation about Zeke’s freshly-recorded song.
Re: zekeleonard sent you a video: “500 mile song”
Attachments: IMG_6475.jpg (182 KB)
Attached is the working copy. A little fuzzy, I’ll make the edits and send it along. I am sending it this way in part because I could not agree more with your point about “finished-ness”. The YouTube videos and a typed word doc make it seem so official, somehow, which is not where this is. It can be so hard sometimes to communicate process, can’t it? As you say, in the studio we both in our own ways have methods for riffing, for trying one thing and another without having to commit right away. I will often leave a couple of pieces of whatever the current project is on the bench over night or for a day or two and look at them several times before committing to using them in a particular way. This is one difference between our chosen crafts: I canot undo what I do to a particular piece of wood. And I am so pathetically nostalgic that I can not bear to do the “wrong thing” to a piece of lumber that was once a living tree. Seems disrespectful. Obviously there is no “wrong” in reality, but every piece of wood is so heavy with meaning for me that I tend to move slowly sometimes. It has been called out by some colleagues as a fault, but there it is. And it means that people often have to wait a lot longer for a piece from me, which makes them grumpy. Always things to learn, huh? Always progress to be made.
What a lovely contrast is song-craft! Words can be thrown around like two-year-olds, inserted and removed at a moment’s notice, placed and replaced. So lovely. So just now I am on a crusade against “dawn”, “road,” and narrative. At the moment it is a little too narrative, you know? Needs more of what I think you are referring to as imagery. So that will be the next iteration. Not sure when I think that will happen, but I am getting tired of singing it in the shower, so I need to get it on tape soon. Thinking I might try multi-tracking it in Garageband so that I can can do slide guitar overlay, and so that I can pull the vocals back some. I always think my vocals sound dumb if they are too present, which I think is actually about me not being confident in the words. Also a function of listening to a lot of 20’s and 30’s blues records, in which it is the shape of the sound of the words, not the words themselves that really matters. So I get caught in this purgatory of neither/nor, neither having words that are good enough to carry themselves not being able to simplify down to the place that it can just be around sounds made along with the music, you know? Again, always things to learn.
We’ve continued editing and crafting this song over the last year. It doesn’t appear in How To Lose a Mountain, but we consider it a bonus track, and a song that was foundational to the process of collaborating at a distance. We sing this song a lot, and we’ll continue to watch it transform as we sing it here in DC and Syracuse, together and apart, on front porches in the hot summer months ahead.
When Cassie gave Sarah writing assignments to generate text for her character in the show, she had no idea how many drafts would be written before landing on the final text that appears in “How To Lose a Mountain”. Sarah wrote the drafts below with input from many members of the cast, and sound designer Stowe Nelson contributed a draft as well. Although many ideas fell away from the final text (namely, the emphasis on literally describing the theatre space), all of it laid the groundwork for the arc of Sarah’s character in the show.
Moving Field Guide with the Young Activist Club from Takoma Park at Glen Echo Park.
Our family was out for a bike ride Saturday April 14th and were treated to the open lock house, lock 30, so we had to stop and check it out. Inside was amazing. We were so pleased to see each room and the artifacts, maps, and stories. In the cooking area we saw a woman taking photos of the ceiling. We looked up too. What was up there? It was ladybugs!
Our daughter was very excited to see so many ladybugs. “They are good luck, right?”
We enjoyed our lunch on the porch with Pepper the Docent and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. My daughter went out to her bike to ride in the heath grass and yelled out excitedly
“MOM there is a ladybug on my HANDLEBARS!!!”
“Oh now that is Good Luck!” I replied.
She was excited beyond words riding the ladybug around in the grass. She jumped into the air. Huge smiles! “A lady bug, a real ladybug on MY bike!”
As a Mom of a 7-year-old who knows how to use netflix, an ipad, search google, and the like I am overjoyed to see her appreciation and pure joy over her ladybug.
It shows me that when we remove our children from all of the distractions of modern life, that seem to consume them when available, they are pure children still. Perhaps the lock keepers daughter in the 1800s found a ladybug one day playing in the same heath. I wish I had captured the photo of the ladybug but the moment will stay with me a long time.
Nature in its purest form brought a child to leap! Joy!
I am motivated to keep providing these experiences for her. Work life is hectic and it is easier to pop in a movie but as a parent my compass has been reset. I WILL get out in nature as much as possible. She WILL have the purest form of joy available.
Sunrise Sendoff at Dance Exchange on the morning of the start of the walk.
Rock Creek Park Moving Field Guide with Dance Exchange, Sandy Spring Friends School, and students from the University of Maryland.
Dance Exchange performance of excerpts from How To Lose a Mountain at the Kennedy Center on Day 1 of the walk.
Kevin Borg & Katrina Borg (7 of Diamonds)
The hand we are dealt in the generation, in this place: Four-wheeled, fueled fossils on which our transportation and economic systems depend, but cannot be sustained.
The seven of diamonds: A number both lucky and sacred. Might we yet play a better hand?
Dymph De Wild (7 of Hearts)
In the Woods
For centuries wanderlust has been associated with freedom, mobility, displacement, enrichment, development, connections, inventiveness, and boundaries. In the Woods depicts the artist on one of her walks in a Belgium forest on a cold winter night. Today with the forest long gone, the artist continues her meanders in the American landscape moving through space while collecting fragments of her new life along the way.
Nicole Salimbene (Queen of Clubs)
Gambling on Consumption
I am inspired by the idea of the consumer as gambler and the questions: what do we win or lose when we shop? Or in the wake of 9/11, when we were told to shop? The image of the queen of clubs is deconstructed and printed directly onto my personal receipts. They hang clothesline style, an airing of my dirty laundry as a consumer.
Piet Niederhausen (Ace of Clubs)
Betting the Farm: One More Year
In urban culture, the small family farm is a symbol of stability and idyllic country life. But for many small farms, every year is a gamble on weather, crops, markets, and loan rates. It’s a gamble that goes back for generations, investing untold labor through cycles of prosperity and loss, to a time when nearly everyone was dependent on the harvest and anxiously awaited the hand they were dealt.
Rob McDonald (8 of Hearts)
Let the Cards Fall Where They May
Some say let the cards fall where they may. Here is one, the eight of hearts, settled in a scraggly bed of chrysanthemums that comes back year after year in a garden I once made for my wife. It is a melancholy image, a love letter resting among hardy flowers of autumn.
Daniel Robinson (Ace of Diamonds)
In many games, the ace can be either the beginning or the end of the deck, the first and last card that constitutes the never-ending connection of all the cards in the deck. This symbolic connection provides the structure for this image. The ace takes on a mythic quality suspended in a glowing circular space that floats against a darkened space.