A Series of Small Cataclysms
The title? It’s the name of my play. Well – it’s not just mine – it is co-written by one of my besties and tribe member Jen Smith Anderson, and we’ve been working on it since summer 2013. There were many, MANY meetings where we just sat in my living room, building our world while eating delicious foods and consuming copious beverages.
A quick disclaimer: this post is less about any impending or fictional apocalypse and more about the journey of our play, so if that’s not of interest, feel free to skim or ignore. But, it does illustrate that my interest and investment in this topic goes far beyond being a fan of the genre when it comes to pop culture. I’m interested as an artist, as an explorer, as a historian. And I’m interested as a human being who might have to put survival strategies in place at some point soon, given the perfect storm of critical events swarming our little Earth at the moment. So read on, if it might interest you!
We didn’t know much about our piece at first, only that we wanted to work on a theatre piece together, and after reading a couple of great already-written plays by amazing authors, decided we really just wanted to make our own thing. We also decided we would not give ourselves any deadline, that we would work until it felt right. I can’t even remember at what precise moment we decided it should be post apocalyptic, but that we were talking a LOT about things like Stephen King’s plague epic The Stand (which we’ve both read multiple times) and climate change. We knew we wanted it to be woman-centric, and talked about the idea of female characters based on the 4 elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water). We talked about there maybe being a wedding, or some kind of event they were gathering for. And we talked about the story encompassing circular time – like, past, present and future are all happening NOW. And Jen brought up the idea that the play’s present did not have to be OUR present…that we could set it in the nearish future…and that may have been why it ended up inching into the postapocalyptic.
Anyway – we spent most of the summer and part of the fall of 2013 just meeting and talking about things. We wrote little blurbs of things we were thinking about. As November began to rapidly approach (you know: November, of NANOWRIMO fame, and also its little-known, red-headed stepchild NAPLWRIMO), I suggested we should just dive right into the actual writing of our play, otherwise there would never be an end to the world-building. So we started, and a tale began to unfold.
It was about 120 years in our future, and we used the soft, climate-change apocalypse depicted in Earth 2100 as our environmental history. At first, it was just four grown sisters (each based on one of the four elements) gathering at the death bed of their mother. It was basically a bittersweet family living room drama taking place at the end of the world.
And then, chaos ensued. And by chaos, I mean CHAOS, Eris herself, the Greek Goddess of Discord decided to crash our play. I must admit that yes, I tend to write about mythology a LOT, it is definitely a HUGE source of inspiration. But this was not supposed to be a mythology play, this was supposed to be a postapocalyptic play. It was not supposed to be mythical and magical, it was supposed to be rooted in FACT and SCIENCE, but seen through a female lens. And so, I was more than a little thrown when, as I was writing the scene where our mother character wakes up after collapsing, I discovered, along with her four daughters, that Eris had taken over her body. I remember my heart racing and my breath coming out rapidly as the writing seemed to materialize through my keyboard. I took a break to look over what I’d just written. WTF??? I thought to myself. I need to get rid of this. Then I read it again and sighed. When a goddess decides you need to write about her, ESPECIALLY the Goddess of Chaos, you don’t ignore her. You don’t erase her words. You get the fuck out of the way and let her through. I’ve been visited by enough *divine voices* in my artistic career to know when I’m just a lowly vessel they need to get their point across.
So I got out of the way and let her speak. And BOY has she had an interesting tale to tell! At any rate, Jen and I wrote the bulk of our play between November of 2013 and January of 2015. And we had this THING that was part post apocalyptic family drama, part mythology play, part ritualistic choral ode. We really liked what we had created, but felt like it was SUPER WEIRD, and were really unsure how others would respond. I was part of a playwrights group at the time, and we both decided I should present it to that group for feedback, so I did. I attached our little play to an email, sent it out to my group, and then showed up the following Sunday at our meeting, feeling a little anxious about what their opinions would be…
And by and large, they REALLY liked it! At that point it still needed a great deal of work and development, but they were really into the world we had created…so much so that the group ended up splintering off into a second group with the idea of creating something postapocalyptic between us…but that is a tale for another time. Energized by the response we received from that group, Jen and I decided it was time to gather together a group of actors for an informal reading.
We had that first reading in the conference room at Uptown Espresso in the South Lake Union area of Seattle, and invited 9 of our actor friends to read so we could hear it. As I mentioned above, the play has some ritualistic elements. The conference room we were in had walls and a glass door, but the walls did not go all the way up to meet the ceiling, so the cafe’s patrons could hear us when our volume rose. There are moments in our play where the entire company is chanting “The doors of the sky are open!” over and over, and it builds in volume. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as our actors chanted and everyone in the cafe turned to see WHAT IN THE HELL was going on in the conference room…what I felt was POWER. The sheer power of 9 female voices in unison, the energy that stirred up. And I started to feel like maybe, just maybe, we HAD something here.
Fast forward to summer 2017, with not only 2 more informal readings under our belts, but also the related but excerpted 10-minute How To Build A Ritual we performed at Freehold’s Incubator Studio series in Spring 2016 that explored mostly the ritual and choral elements of the play and consisted only of chorus. We decided it was time to have a formal reading and invite an audience as the first step towards a full production in 2018.
At the present time, we are a couple weeks following that reading, which was presented at The Pocket Theatre in Greenwood. As we were in rehearsals for this reading (we had about 5, which is more than average for a reading, but added some physical and sound components that required a little more practice), doing some element-based work, the very planet itself seemed to be putting forth little tremors that echoed our work: flooding in India, Bangladesh and Houston. Hurricanes in the Gulf and the Caribbean. Wildfires throughout the western half of the United States. Earthquake in Mexico. It felt like artistic synchronicity at its most foreboding. And the play?
We packed the small house of The Pocket theatre, and had to add chairs. While I acted in the reading, Jen had decided to take a more stage managerial role. However, on the night of performance, one of our chorus members was mired in Seattle’s horrible traffic, so Jen had to step in for the first act, but upon watching the audience during the second half, she said they appeared to be intensely engaged, leaning in to listen, and never really yawning or checking out. We received useful feedback during our short talk-back following the show, and also many kudos.
Now? We have a little work to do as writers before we embark on a full production, and have plans to meet and hammer out a revision side by side in the next few weeks. Hopefully, we’ll be able to hold off on nuclear war with North Korea and/or stave off Handmaid-ship successfully and/or survive more and more intense hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires for just long enough to be able to produce A Series of Small Cataclysms fully next fall. Hopefully.
A Series of Small Cataclysms: The Reading took place at The Pocket Theatre in the Greenwood Neighborhood of Seattle, WA at 7pm on September 28th, 2017, with the following cast/creatives: Jen Smith Anderson (Understudy, Stage Manager, Co-Playwright), Stacey Bush (Chorus 4), Rebecca Goldberg (Tara), Susan Graf (Chorus 1), Pearl Klein (Chorus 3), Kristi Krein (Chorus 2), Andrea Karin Nelson (Aria), Beth Peterson (Ignis), Christine White (Ma/Eris), Lyam White (Director), Carolynne Wilcox (Vesi, Co-Playwright)