A Series of Small Cataclysms

Title pageThe 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.

ErisAnd 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.

13782008_10153542655632024_4642540589408663537_nFast 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.

Group Shot
LtR: Beth Peterson, Pearl Klein, Rebecca Goldberg, Susan Graf, Christine White, Kristi Krein, Carolynne Wilcox, Andrea Karin Nelson, Stacey Bush

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)


Too Close For Comfort: Current Times & The Postapocalypse

FlagI’m gonna take a little respite between End of World Subcatogories (back to that next time!) to ponder something I’ve been stewing on for a bit, particularly since a friend of mine tagged me on this particular tweet:

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Whilst it specifically mentions dystopian fiction (the Societal Breakdown!), I would say I’ve had many more Disturbing Thoughts regarding postapocalyptic and disaster fiction as well since the advent of the wormhole this country seemed to collective fall into on November 8th of last year.

Depending on the day, it feels like we will either explode in some kind of nuclear conflict with North Korea, with all the unhinged tweetings of this creature who is supposed to have the best interests of every American in mind (fat chance) (I still can’t put his name after the word “president”), or plunge headlong into something resembling The Handmaid’s Tale at the hands of our current vice president. And then there is the very real and imminent threat posed by climate change/global warming. You don’t have to be a scientist to believe this…we are rapidly approaching the tipping point of no return.

I used to find this sort of fiction cathartic – not sure I can fully describe why, but it has something to do with “Oh, it’s just fiction – as bad as things might be, we’re not THERE yet”…because I don’t think I’ve ever felt this close to THERE as I have over the past few months. And thus, my interest in this type of story has shifted a little…rather than being as completely cathartic as it was before, I look to these movies, television shows and books as a means of instruction, really. What are these people doing in these simulated situations that I could learn from, in the very real possibility of the Sh*t Hitting The Fan for real.

From Walking Dead, I’ve learned not only how to kill a zombie (it’s gotta be the brain!) but which weapon tends to be better in this type of apocalypse. Guns work, of course, but they’re SO loud!Better to use something like a katana, a crossbow or a barbed wire-covered baseball bat: they’re quieter, and get confiscated less. And that the following skills are better than currency: hunting, farming, healing.

From The Stand, I learned to trust my gut – especially when it comes to my dreams. From The Last Ship, I learned that in an outbreak, one should keep one’s distance from others as much as possible.

From most dystopian fiction, I’ve learned that if something is amiss with the way things are being run, don’t ignore it, don’t go with the flow. Resist early, resist often, enlist like-minded people to your cause and fight tooth and nail to keep the freedoms and benefits you have.

From nearly ALL postapocalyptic fiction, I’ve learned one HUGE fundamental thing: other survivors can be your source of greatest strength and your biggest enemies, because the collapse of civilization brings about all sorts of opportunists who size you up according to what they can take from you. Darwinism at its most base, I suppose.

Oh. And if I start talking about what I’ve learned from speculative, climate-change scenarios, I’m going to start crying.

Would love to hear why this type of fiction appeals to you, and what, if anything, you’ve learned from your experiences of it!




End of World Subcategories: The Viral Outbreak

Now we come to (arguably) my “favorite” of the post apocalyptic scenarios: the global pandemic. Inplague-based fiction, there is usually some kind of horrible viral outbreak (and zombie fiction could potentially be a subcategory of Outbreak fiction, but I feel it’s gotten big enough to warrant its own subcategory). We see people succumb, one by one, to this disease. Then we see the survivors deal with the end of the world, then we see the survivors come together to form new communities (and maybe fight something else before they get to live happily ever after).

I say “favorite”, in quotes, because, well, who really wants any of these to happen? But, if I had to be a survivor in any of these ways human civilization could perish, outliving a deadly disease would probably be the easiest. I say that with difficulty, because of course it wouldn’t be easy. But, where everything is concerned, it’d do the least harm, because:

1.) No radiation & drastically reduced human population would give the earth a chance to heal, and hopefully, we’d pull back from the tipping point of climate change, and many  endangered species would come back from the brink. As long as the remaining survivors figured out a way to shut down nuclear plants before they melt down, that is…

pandemic2.) Lack of other outside forces to dampen the fun! And by that I mean aliens, zombies or other creatures. Basically, “all” you’d have to deal with are the dead bodies (and I’ll get into THAT in another post), other survivors being horrible and loneliness until you find others. And maybe bureaucrats with creepy agendas.

3.) There’d be vast stores of canned food & drink lying around. Also, you could grow crops out in the open without any threat from aliens or the undead. Or radiation/pollution contamination. And, you’d still have to worry about the weather, but not in a climate-change kind of way.

I mean, that’s not many, but they’re all kinda huge. If I got to pick the type of apocalypse I wanted to survive, this would probably be it. But if I change my mind, I’ll let you know.

Books: The Stand, by Stephen King, The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood, The Last Man by Mary Shelley (this woman was highly ahead of her time), The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, Blindness by Jose Saramago

Films: Smallpox 2002Outbreak, 12 Monkeys, Contagion,

TV Series: The Last Ship, Helix, Containment, 12 Monkeys, The Strain

5 Favorite Post-Apocalyptic Books

I remember reading a short story in Starlog magazine when I was a teenager about a girl who thought she was the last survivor on earth after a nuclear war. She was super surprinuke-park_2-1-1024x700sed and stunned when one of her friends called her.
“I thought I was the last person alive!”

“Nope – the whole group is alive.”

“How is that possible?”

“Don’t you know? Books absorb radiation.”

I loved the notion of it – that those of us who read and had shelves full of books as a comfort blanket might somehow be spared if we had hoarded enough books. My friends and I were voracious readers – junior high was a minefield of mean kids, and we were big nerds. The idea of all those who’d bullied me dying in some kind of enormous calamity was tempting to fantasize about.

The Stand1.) The Stand by Stephen King – I think this may have been the very first post apocalyptic book I read, when I was 15 or so – I’m glad it was a good one! I’ve read it several times since then, make a point to read it again every few years (think I’m due again). 99% of the world’s population is decimated by a superflu bug, and the survivors begin receiving messages through their dreams – one from an Adversary and another from a messianic figure – and these dreams, whichever they choose to follow, lead them to either Boulder (the good guys) or Las Vegas (the bad guys). The Adversary (Randall Flagg), of course, leads through fear, while the messianic figure (Mother Abigail Freemantle) leads through example. There is the title Stand-off towards the end.

Handmaids Tale2.) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I was on my way to see the 1990 movie in the theatre and picked the book up on the way, which I read afterwards, helped me figure out why the world had gotten to where it had gotten in the movie. YES, this is postapocalyptic, though not in the traditional sense – it’s dystopian, and while many dystopian societies in fiction are the result of a prior, more physical apocalypse, I propose the idea that a dystopia IS actually the product of a social apocalypse of some kind. In this social apocalypse, Offred (Of Fred) has tried to escape Gilead (which rose from the ashes of the US after a terrorist attack and gov’t takeover by religious extremists – also, fertility rates had gone WAAAAAY down) with her daughter and husband, and gets caught and since she is still fertile, she is forced to be a handmaid in the house of the Commander and his wife, which is basically a monthly and ceremonial rape to provide them with a child. I am enjoying the Hulu series so far as well…curious to see how they will expand into a 2nd season.

The Road3.) The Road by Cormac McCarthy – this was a fairly recent read, and I’m very glad I read it in the summer and during a period where I was pretty content, because had I been depressed, it likely would’ve thrown me over the edge. It is BLEAK. Takes place years after some kind of apocalypse – because nothing grows anymore and there were so few survivors, I am assuming either nuclear war or asteroid/comet strike – it’s not specified. A father realizes he is dying and needs to find someone to take care of his young son, so they journey towards the coast through and extremely bleak and ravaged landscape. The fact that McCarthy’s prose is SO eloquent elevates it literarily, and makes it THAT MUCH MORE DEVASTATING.

glimmering4.) Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand – I read this one at some point in the late 90’s, and reference it to artistic collaborators all the time. Was probably the first climate-based apocalyptic fiction I ever read. There is an avalanche in the antarctic ocean that releases methane into the atmosphere, which mixes with the bromotetrachloride particles left there by a solar storm. The depletion of the ozone layer hastens, and the particles begin glimmering. No one can see the stars anymore, there is no more normal night, only a constant glimmering in the sky. Several of the main characters have AIDS, and one of them starts being aware of…ghosts? Visions?…as he is dying. It has kind of a bleak or hopeful ending, depending on how you look at it. The interesting takeaway from this was that the AIDS virus was a path towards human evolution towards less corporal, light-energy forms…hence the aforementioned ghosts/visions.


Birdbox5.) Bird Box by Josh Malerman – devoured this one on the beach in Crete last September! Apocalyptically-speaking, it was kind of in a category of its own. In bits and pieces, the characters figure out a hypothesis for why people are suddenly going mad and killing themselves and each other: some kind of interdimensional creatures have arrived on earth (this is nowhere as cheesy as it sounds), and they are SO out of the realm of human comprehension that just looking at them drives people insane and they immediately try to end it all in horrifying and violent ways for themselves and anyone around them. Those who survive manage to do so by staying inside with all the windows closed and blocked. The protagonist knows there is a surviving colony of people “down the river” and must journey with her two young children to find this colony, and all of them must be blindfolded for the entirety of the journey.