Somehow, even in the most challenging circumstances, creatures get born. The migrant, the nomad, the refugee, all trudging a road to the future, have to stop, find shelter, and give in to the contractions when they come. Then, giving suck, go on. We were now a theatre, and we were unemployed. We had left the career we’d prepared for, the first of a lifetime of leave-takings that made us, by one yardstick, failures; by another, all the richer.
How to weave the story? A simple chronicle of the work is secondary: those shows exist only as photos, scripts, yellowed programs. Endgame, Macbeth, Offending the Audience, Alice in Wonder, Comedying, Queenside, Mugnog, new sketches for X Communication— we ran the gamut from the Milwaukee version of “experimental theatre” to shows at the state prison and Gimbels Department Store. For better or worse, we could find a rationalization for doing damn near anything.
What counts is the journey. Win, lose, you get through it, and eventually you laugh at it. For three years, we worked to create an independent theatre, we succeeded, and then we had to leave it. When we did, we brought along the fruits of our migration.
We’d already begun design work on a puppet adaptation of Alice’s Adventures Underground for a late September opening, but we really needed a break. The end of the school year was the end of the pay check, and we couldn’t go to Europe, but we grabbed our stuff and headed westward for a month.
The imagined settings of our work on Whiteskin came to life in the mute eloquence of Wounded Knee, Little Big Horn, and the Badlands. We paused in Rapid City, where Conrad had lived during third grade. He remembered only that the house was on Silver Street, so we drove up the street but couldn’t find it. The end of the street was gone, and his neighborhood, and the steep hills he’d walked over to school, and the school— all erased by a freeway.
Heading north through Idaho, we explored Vancouver and Seattle, then headed down to the stomping grounds of our Stanford days. It had been only five years, but it seemed like ages. Still, walking into the unchanged Cafe Trieste, it seemed like yesterday.
Returning home, we had a rehearsal three hours after arrival and a performance next evening— business as usual. Conrad supervised the casting and building of thirty-odd puppets, learning as he went along, and our basement reeked with fumes of plastic wood. After Tamburlaine, I was thirsty for a more intimate sound. I made the music for Alice entirely from actors’ voices, taping hours of group improvisation, then using sound-on-sound, speed manipulation, reverb and reversal to create a dreaming, breathing world.
Until we were chin-deep in Alice it hadn’t hit me that now we were on our own, outside the framework of all we’d spent ten years pursuing. Now we were responsible for script, puppets, set, rehearsal, music, promotion, booking, funding, and trying not to kill one another. Puppetry was hard. Our story was framed by a grown woman packing to move, finding her “Alice” doll, and seeing the fantasy emerge through her apartment wall. The puppets were large, heavy, held overhead, and the height differences of the cast required me to wear high clogs made of 2x4s and to master the footwork needed to survive with six actors crammed into a tight, sweaty space. Our necks screamed with the strain of always looking up, our hands cramped with holding the hand-rods.
As opening night loomed, we weren’t remotely ready. We substituted three nights of improv . . .