2011-2013 Lab Artist: Ain Gordon
Ain 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.
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.)
In theater I have questions about “naturalism” or “realism.” I find I more readily accept the conceit of the real only through the conduit of the overtly theatrical; a stylized contract opening the door to rehearsed spontaneity. This thought-cloud drifted till it collided with the field of performed history; historical re-enactors are performing the past in the present for an audience who could not be in their world but are included as if it is “natural.” (Again, I am pretty sure I could not be this clear, if I am being clear, before several visits to Vermont.)
So, how to research the sensorial fallout of a rote task two hundred and eight years ago? (Yes, for me, research, like this blog post, is circular; honing in on intention through doodling in place.) Sorry, but I am not entirely willing to answer the above question in this forum because it is at the core of the piece I am writing. I will say that myself and Forrest (co-researcher and collaborator) went to Historic Deerfield and spent more than four hours with two passionate hearth-cooking experts; two fierce defenders of their historic cache. In one of Deerfield’s late 18th century kitchens we built a fire, prepared dough, and made bread. The heat from the fire, the cold from the open back door (or smoke would overwhelm), the ache in my shoulders from pounding and kneading, the hearth’s sparks and crackles, the dim candlelight (yes it was a gray wet morning) and, finally, the steaming bread. This was my visceral entry into owning the sensorial fallout I was trying to imagine.
In the News
History, Imagination Intersect in New Work - Richard Henke, The Commons
Local History and Dreams Intertwine in Ain Gordon's "Not What Happened"- Jon Potter, The Brattleboro Reformer
"Not What Happened" - Exploring History's Vanishing Presence - Debra Cash, The Arts Fuse