Culture Conversations: Theatre
The Evolution of Kathleen Cahill's Course 86B
The theatre lights dim and the stage transforms into a world where the audience forgets actors, costumes, and lighting. Transfixed onlookers are given a reprieve from their daily lives as captivating characters quickly become familiar friends. Plot seems to vanish as seamless storytelling weaves scenes that are more experienced than watched. When the lights come up, the room erupts with enthusiastic applause and lively conversation about the spellbinding play accompanies people on the walk to their cars. When live theatre is done well, it has no equal for its ability to enchant and intrigue an audience.
To a theatre-goer, a play is a diversion that happens over the course of an afternoon or an evening. But the amount of work invested by the playwright in crafting that experience can take months or even years.
On April 11, Kathleen Cahill, resident playwright for Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC), will debut her latest work “Course 86B in the Catalogue.” It’s a project that began to take shape in 2009 and has been worked on intermittently for approximately 3 years. A trip to the desert landscape of Boulder, Utah planted the seed of inspiration that has grown into the piece that SLAC’s website describes as, “a comedic riff on evolution set in a small community college in an arid state where extraordinary artifacts from the ancient past abound – some of them still living.”
On her trip to Boulder, Cahill was struck by the abundance of relics from the ancient past. “Utah is really an archaeological dream land, a treasure trove of prehistory. Our guide told me about prehistoric plants on mesa tops that you can’t get to except by helicopter and he showed me dinosaur prints. It was just blowing my mind,” she says. This sense of wonder ignited ideas that became part of her play. “It came out of enthusiasm for being in a state where there are more prehistoric remains than almost anywhere else. That is so mysterious and unique.”
Utah residents can take for granted that their state is home to rare paleontological resources and archeological artifacts. Locals can drive for a few hours and find themselves looking at rock art in Nine Mile Canyon, which has been called “the world’s longest art gallery.” It’s not uncommon to hear about the discovery of new dinosaur bones, and people can walk alongside dinosaur tracks, footprints left behind by creatures that haven’t walked the Earth for 65 million years.
Southern Utah can give a person a different sense of time because it allows one to visit dinosaur tracks and petroglyphs over the course of a day even though neither of these things existed at the same time in history. Considering this time warp Cahill started crafting a play set in an otherworldly wilderness where characters from different time periods live in the same peculiar place.
The work slowly evolved as Cahill wrote pieces of it on and off over the next two years. Her experiences in Boulder were finally translated to paper and turned over to the hands of actors. In February 2011 the first public reading of “Course 86B in the Catalogue” was held through SLAC’s New Play Sounding Series. Its opening introduced Stevie, a teacher at Delta Community College who has left her husband and retreated to the desert. She is a paleontologist teaching the “History of Life on Earth,” also known as Course 86B in the catalogue. The audience journeys with Stevie as she begins to realize the nature of her new town. Dell, Stevie’s student, has an uncanny ability to draw renderings of ancient life and possesses a robust familiarity with the Holy Bible. Dell’s boyfriend Sterling may evolve to be human one day, but he isn’t there just yet. To top it all off Stevie’s estranged husband Bill has lost his job in the financial sector, moved to the desert, and taken up residence in a chicken coop not far from Stevie’s house. The reading elicited frequent laughter and loud applause at the end.
After the reading, Cahill invited feedback and questions from her audience. Some were confused by Dell, saying it wasn’t clear if the character was from another time or if she was simply a country bumpkin. Sterling also presented a problem for some people because he was thunderously loud and too primitive. The majority of audience members had positive feedback and one young man noted, “The play is hysterical, and it’s unbelievable for such a young work.”
Reflecting on the first reading Cahill says, “The characters were very much in their infancy.” They grew considerably over the next year. Through a handful of private readings and a workshop, Cahill helped her characters mature. Dell survived her “adolescence” and emerged as a confident woman who is proudly from the 19th century. Cahill worked to characterize Dell through the language she uses and her timid approach to modern technology.
Sterling is still loud, but endearingly so. He clearly wants to be human and strives to be one of the guys. He even likes football. Cahill compares him to an adolescent boy, in part because just as boys are not yet men, Sterling is not yet a Homo Sapien.
Bill’s motives for following Stevie to the ends of the Earth are clearer, but to say what they are would give too much away. His story arc has been fleshed out and Cahill reveals that some of Bill’s character was inspired by the economic meltdown. “People were losing their jobs right, left, and center. And I thought, what happens to that guy from the financial industry? The idea is that he’s out there in the wilderness, in this wild place and he starts to become more genuine. More human.”
Stevie also changed. She has literally grown up. “I initially had her as a young PhD student and this was her first job,” Cahill says. Cheryl Gaysunas, who was seen in Cahill’s play “Charm,” read the part of Stevie and commented that she felt older than she was written. Cahill took note and made Stevie a more mature woman.
The characters have changed and the ending has undergone quite a bit of work. Plotlines have been expanded, written and rewritten. For Cahill that’s part of the process of writing a play. “It’s an odd thing. If you build a piece of furniture, you work on it until it’s done. But with a play or a novel and these kinds of things you’re making something out of nothing. It’s vague, amorphous, and ephemeral. You can put in a lot of time, but it’s not good time. I’ve ended up not liking tons of what I’ve written and thrown it away and just saved one page. It’s this constant shaping, thinking. It’s a messy process. And it’s hard to say when you’re done. At least for me. It’s so gummy.”
Gummy might be a word used to describe an idea that just emerged from the primordial ooze. At some point the idea evolves and takes shape. In Cahill’s case her most compelling ideas transform into plays. “As you travel through life some things stick to you and some things don’t. And there are things that stick to me because of who I am, and out of that comes my work. Someone else would go on that trip to Southern Utah and not have the same reaction. It’s a mixture of me and it. It’s the dancer and the dance. In this case it’s me and the experience that I had passing through me,” Cahill says.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Mary Toscano at the Main Library
Pass quickly through Worry Lines at the Salt Lake City Library, as patrons using the 4th floor gallery as a shortcut between restrooms and lounge chairs are wont to do, and you may find yourself remarking, “Mary Toscano has gone political.” And sure, in her exhibit of new drawings there are works dealing with ecology, pollution, the occupy movement and food sourcing. But these are not political works -- at least not strictly; and not principally. If anything they are works about space, which is ironic considering how little of it the artist uses.
Just thinking in terms of square footage (or square inchage in this case); consider that Toscano only fills up about a sixth of the space she allots herself. And by “fill” we are talking about figures executed in her simple though elegant line drawings accented by colored washes. But by using so little of her space, Toscano brings attention to it, activating the emptiness with possibility. In this latest exhibit, the mechanics of her art have made a perfect union with her thematics.
"What a Fine Nuisance" a male figure, aged somewhere between youth and responsibility, calmly eats his breakfast. He stands within an interior that is established by the presence of an oven, a sink, and a set of cupboards, each unattached to the other as if our protagonist is in a home decor showroom. This briefly suggested interior setting is interrupted by the unexplained, and, to the man, seemingly inconsequential presence of a dozen pigeons. They are sprinkled across the space, bringing the unhygienic exterior into the domestic interior.
The setting, however cursory in this witty work, is missing in most of Toscano's other pieces. In the drawing that hangs next to “What a Fine Nuisance,” no context or background is given for the four primates that sit in a circle. They appear to have little to do with each other, except for the largest who, dressed in his flannel shirt, reaches towards another. A looping red line, that reminded me of Harold’s purple crayon, runs along and between the figures to highlight the work's title, "Bloodlines." But don’t worry. What could have been simply a reiteration of the obvious bumper sticker of silhouettes advertising evolution is made powerful by the delicate emotional quality of the work.
All of Toscano's works are infused with emotion, both by the melancholic quality of her line and the masterful juxtaposition of her source material. A work like "Insomnia” -- where a figure that resembles artist swirls washes of color around her with one hand, her tired eyes highlighted with blue -- wears its emotions on the sleeve, but for the most part, Toscano's works are restrained, going for unsettling rather than dramatic effect. This unsettling effect is frequently achieved by the juxtaposition of source material. When the three coyotes of “A Line Drawn” are placed opposite Toscano’s recurring male figure, they create an intriguing if unspecified story. The man’s insouciant stance suggests the line separating the two worlds has been drawn out of reasons other than fear or the need for protection. Replace the man with a young girl, as Toscano did in an earlier work featuring, three baboons and the effect would be substantially different. Use any of the four sets of figures in a different drawing and the outcome would be completely changed.
The unsettling quality of Toscano's work is enhanced by the ambiguity of her narratives. Even a work like "King David," which features images of one man making protest signs, another being arrested, escapes concrete interpretation. If the central crouching figure is meant to be the David of the title, which David? The triumphant king or the fallen sinner? The genocidal warrior or the disappointed father? And who is that redhead approaching from behind?
"Good Fences" is a more playful work, though equally open to interpretation. The title brings to mind Frost's “Mending Wall,” a poem whose irony is lost on many readers, though I don't think it would be on Toscano; but the image of three raccoons climbing over and through a wood fence while a young hipster takes out the garbage reminds me of DreamWork’s Over the Hedge, an example of the allusive richness Toscano achieves by filling in some but not all the space.
Not all is ambiguity in Worry Lines. The worry of the title is more explicit in "Pick Your Pink," a work meant to remind us that despite appearances the pink salmon filet on our plate likely came from a farm rather than the diminishing wild populations. One wants to thank Toscano that her message is conveyed in this playful manner rather than from the abundant populations of didacticism out there. Her views are even more explicit in "Plastic Makes It Possible," where manufactured space invades the wild, as the carcass of a bird is entangled with bits of plastic from a variety of sources. There's not a lot of ambiguity here, and none of the interaction that activates many of the other works, but there's something unsettling all the same - how something so ugly can be made so beautiful by this artist's signature line.