Ain Gordon: Not What Happened


2011-2013 Lab Artist: Ain Gordon

ain13Ain Gordon is a three-time Obie Award-winning writer/director/actor, a two-time NYFA Fellow and the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in Playwriting. He has been commissioned by venues around the country to unearth marginalized histories as source material for live theater – particularly as these stories reside in geographical “place.” For the research and development of Not What Happened, Gordon turned to rural Vermont for a source of inspiration, and wrote:

"I am particularly interested in historical re-enactment as it relates to the ‘preservation and interpretation’ of rural, farming, and pre-industrial America (a nation of fewer artifacts). I want to research the historic re-enactment field; the training of the workers/guides, the costuming, ‘character and narrative development,’ and the individuals attracted to this work. Something is resonating for me between this non-theater but performance-related mode of fictionalizing fact and my own questions about ‘naturalism’ on stage."

VPL partnered with with Marlboro College and the Center for Creative Research at New York University to bring additional resources to deepen the residency with Gordon. Following a planning visit with VPL to Marlboro College in the winter 2010, three professors Kate Ratcliff (American Studies), Carol Hendrickson (Anthropology), and Brenda Foley (Theater) responded to Gordon’s research interest by creating an interdisciplinary advanced-level seminar course “The Presence of the Past.” The course focused on questions of memory, commemoration and historic preservation in rural (or once rural) America. Gordon participated in the class, and together with faculty and students, investigated the questions of how rural American history still resides in the natural environ waiting to be found and how communities, institutions and individuals re-enact, commemorate and remember history.

In the Fall of 2011, Gordon began his VPL residency by taking an almost forensic approach to finding the traces of colonial history in the rural landscapes of Vermont. Central to the research into rural Vermont was his collaboration with historian and photographer Forrest Holzapfel and members of the Marlboro College faculty in Marlboro, Vermont. Holzapfel's focus on rural photography practices of the 19th century and vernacular architecture enabled him to work with Gordon to "read" the present natual landscape for clues to the past man-made landscape. In Gordon’s words, “I am trained to read the urban landscape for constant clues to previous incarnations; an altered doorway or a bricked up window – I have now spent time with a man who reads the gnarl of a tree-stump and finds the same brand of information.” Throughout the fall Gordon and Holzapfel went on monthly walks - primarily in once cleared and inhabited tracts that had reforested. Donned in body mic’s, the pair examined cellar holes, stone foundations, abandoned grave yards and the re-assertive landscape. The research relationship developed into a collaboration where Holzpafel designed, created and sourced images from his photography practice to be used as part of the set design for Not What Happened. These photos framed the “hardscrabble” landscape and obscured ruins of America’s increasingly eradicated farm life.

In April of 2012, Gordon presented a work-in-progress showing in Marlboro, VT that he described as, “a battling duet between two people who could never meet – the historical re-enactor and the actual historic figure they re-enact.” In June 2013, Gordon returned to VPL’s Lab to work with actors, Holzapfel, a director and a technical team for a production residency and preview performances of Not What Happened in preparation for a New England tour and presentations at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival and the Krannert Center.

View Ain Gordon's 2015 Radicals in Miniature residency.

Research Questions by Ain Gordon


How to research the sensorial fallout of a rote task two hundred and eight years ago?

I admit I could not frame that question till halfway through the research. I knew I was pulled toward an activity of no historic consequence (I often am). I knew I was interested in a moment and location that was daily and transitory, the task rather than the artifact of that task. (I often am interested in the moment before “the moment.”) Also yanking at my consciousness was the giant silence of one imagined cloudy morning in pre-industrial rural early America (facing the empty virtual page on a cold gray Wednesday knowing I should write is my version). Girdling these tangents was a question about historical reenactment. (I’m not sure where I got that – it appeared.)

Interview with Ain Gordon

ain gordon interview 250wideYou are frequently commissioned to create "site inspired" theater works that draw on lost or overlooked histories; how do you start?

I start by walking.

I do not surf the web or read books; at first I resist stories packaged for long-distance viewing. I go to the place and I walk. I look for current conditions and negligible clues to their beginnings. I walk. I look for some form of question that sticks. Next I ask many people the most open-ended version of that question I can verbally manage. I am trying to both learn the question's ramifications and be available to unexpected response. I do not want the answer I could give myself just as I do not seek the story I could find at a distance.

The first to arrive in me is never plot. I don't often experience that required sense of beginning or end, but rather a constant modulating hum chaptered by emotion. When I'm lucky, the force of that emotion accumulates into theme. Then comes character. Then I scramble for a container – a situation to tilt character and theme into action.