Recently, Swim Pony began work on a new project called THE END. Designer Maria Shaplin, Sam and I all gathered together to start imagining how we start a conversation about what it means to die. It’s rare that I write publicly at these earliest stages of process. Normally, this time is something protected, delicate, and I worry about exposing it to the light of the outside world.
When I write grants for THE END I start by saying things like this:
THE END is a blend of theater and game.
THE END is a personalized journey.
THE END is a meditation.
THE END is a performance for an audience of one.
THE END begins with an invitation:
An elegant letter arrives in the mail. It offers instructions for the first contact (“Sit in a quiet corner for three minutes in silence, then email the address below with the first sentence that comes to mind about mortality.”) At the bottom of the paper is a date and these embossed words: “This will be THE END. What happens between then and now is up to you.”
This kind of writing exemplifies the state of mind that I am in when I first begin a project. I start by defining the very biggest containers I sense the work will fit into. I write what I think I know to be true. I state what I hope the work will provoke. These large scale definitions, things like “meditation” or “journey,” help me define the texture of what is to come. I often talk about creating a litmus tests for the work generated: in the earliest phases I want to know if the play should taste like lemon, feel like sandpaper, or sound like the wind. At the other end of the spectrum live tiny moments, flashes of a stage image or the feeling of a particular moment for the audience, that I sense must fit in somewhere even if I don’t quite yet know how. This is how I can sense that I must create a fancy invitation or include a particular piece of music.
The work that follows these initial impulses is the slow meeting of the largest and smallest imaginings. The process is the slow and steady progress of filling in the middle.
My collaborators and I begin by playing a game called My Gift of Grace. In it, we ask each other questions ranging from what fears we have about playing the game to what we want done with our body after we have died. The questions provoke conversations. They spin off into wild forests of feelings and beliefs. We can never manage to get through more than 7 cards in a sitting. There are 47 in the deck and we have made it to #23.
We write about death in 30 minute increments. The topics range from friends who have passed away to our beliefs about the afterlife. I recall the experience of seeing Paris’ Catacombs and nearly having a panic attack. I pull out the journal I kept at the time and transcribe words from six years ago:
It felt like palpable fear. Mostly, I just wanted to leave. I wanted to think of something ready to say about it (a real skill and crossbones, SO MANY FEMURS!) in case asked but mostly I wanted so much to be out and away. I simultaneously wanted to be close to the people I love most, to hug them, mesh into them, to prove we are in love and vital and alive and life seizing and at the same time throw away everything, my family, my relationship, all of it, and find something more REAL, to embrace and confront any doubt I’ve ever had and know that I’d feel more secure having been willing to give everything up to find the truth.
Later I make a list of all the things in my life that I remember dying, roughly in order:
- My father’s father
- My mother’s grandmother
- My mother’s other grandmother
- A kitten named Diva (hit by a car)
- The class rabbit Thumper (in our backyard while we had him at home for the summer)
- A caterpillar we wanted to grow into a butterfly
- Another kitten named Diva (sick when we got her)
- Two girls from my middle school killed in a fire (we sang for them a song in the choir concert)
- Two green anole lizards whose names I don’t remember
- A frog
- Several fish
- A cage of gerbils
- A mouse
- A boy from my high school (committed suicide)
- My iguana Iggy
- The plants in my college dorm room
- A girl from my college (car accident)
- My childhood cat Koko
- My childhood dog Barkley
- The plants in my first apartment
- My childhood cat Jojo
- The plants I planted in my south Philly backyard
- My partner’s father
- My partner’s grandmother
- My partner’s childhood cat Mandu
- My partner and I’s cat Tallulah
- My childhood cat Bill
- My mother’s mother
- My partner’s grandfather
- My father’s mother
- My mother’s father
- My mother’s sister
We play with spending 5 minutes in silence just allowing ourselves to think about a particular aspect of this topic and then writing in online dialogue with each other from different spaces.
We create questionnaires that try to capture the information one might need if they were to take a journey into such a land and create passports for confronting the underworld. Like some kind of Olympian god deciding the fate of an adventurer, we are uncertain about whether the player should be assured a road back out.
And by the end of these hours of initial work we send an invitation out to others to come and see some of what we’ve made. Tomorrow we’ll find out what works and what doesn’t, what gaps we made a little progress in closing, and which need more work to bridge all that space between the largest and smallest known quantities.
This is the way the work gets made, not in single genius leaps but in tiny incremental progress.
In slowly figuring out how to take what is inside and make it manifest in the world.