Winter show 2015. My desk where the sun would blind me as it rose through the east window. If there is one thing people know about me it’s that I am an early riser. I fall asleep easy but struggle to stay asleep. The late night revelers will look at the clock in their drunken stupor and expect me to roll in to make coffee as the party winds down. Being sober among drunks really depresses me, their sluggish hang dogged airs. This is where a kettle, hand grinder and pour over are helpful as I creep in the shadows undetected. My sacred predawn quietude.
Burnt out from responding to the daily prompts during September’s vegan MoFo, I kept looking at my scrappy little lap top intending to journal the winter show process but each day after I’d typed out and distributed my rehearsal notes and show reports, which averaged a thousand words plus daily, I couldn’t stand looking at the screen any longer. Craving the expanse of being outside. Let alone there was so much shit to do on this show, there always is. I didn’t have a lot of free time.
The show runs an hour, three times a night, six nights a week through December into January. By design it is unconventional; bringing in professional actors and designers from the city to work with local equine clans. The hour long play is told from 5-7 stages scattered throughout the property. The audience is seated on one of eight sleighs and pulled to each of the stages by pairs of heavy draft horses. The cast and crew usually (sometimes we have our own sleigh but rarely) run ahead of the audience to each of the stages. It takes a personality with a certain grit, stamina and madness to do these shows. I’ve been doing them for twelve years.
It had been two seasons since we had done a Back 40 show, meaning traveling to the back 40 acres of the 80 acre property. Building and performing out there on the lower plateau is epic in every way imaginable. Physically, mentally, emotionally. You are awestruck and swallowed by the grand scale of it. Attempting storytelling in that vastness takes everything out of you, pushes you further than you thought possible. I guess that’s why I keep doing this. Also, it’s just work. This is how I pay my bills.
The other significant challenge is the utter necessity of snow. Period. It is too far to travel on wagons, the sleighs are faster and easier for the horses to pull. Repeating the show each night in a three part cycle each performance has to run technically with little room for error. Once we commit to where it will be and the stages and lights start being built in place, there is no time or man power to change it after the fact. In all the years past if we were way out there, out of sheer luck it was a good year for snow. We started rehearsal with a decent base and the forecast kept telling us there was more on the way.
Some years we’ve embraced darker themes -which will always appeal to me- but the mandate of the company is popular theatre: theatre for all. The audience by and large come from the rural surroundings. Through the depths of winter they are looking for respite from the long nights. The last time we did a Back 40 show it was a goof ball Krampus comedy. We all loved it but complaints from the audience rained in, ‘Not Christmas-y enough. It scared my children. This show is about Satan. You should be doing shows about Jesus!’ The General Manager responded calmly to these decries that he was very sorry they were troubled with the show however, we are a secular theatre company and if they are looking for more Christian themes at this time of year there are plenty of other events in the community they could attend.
That said, this particular one had broad appeal. Based on Danish folk traditions it centered its theme on bringing the vulnerable in from the cold. As always it had elements of spectral fantasy, weird deer headed wild wood witches, predator bird puppetry and music, lots of music that is absurd to try and play at minus 10 and below but in it’s strange ways it always seems to work. Even as fingers on strings seer with pain, actors choke on ice particles dislodging from their beards slipping down their throats, lips & reeds freeze in place, cymbals & chimes dampen from layers of ice and drum skins shatter mid song.
Everyday in rehearsal the cast helped pull all the props and instruments between scenes; embodying the spirit of the play by looking out for each other, extending love and kindness to the whole ensemble. Proving the best way to survive these shows is to embrace it all.
Then the fucking snow melted all away. You can see some of the set pieces in progress on the boarders of the forest. The sleigh beds had to be hoisted off their runners and attached to the wagon chassis. The forecast kept saying ‘snow’ and lots of it was coming, so we hoped and we carried on. It was already selling out before we had opened. We had to keep forging forward one day at a time.
In the early afternoon of first preview Marshall and I were at scene 2. I was running the field checking the presets and he was finishing his set dressing wearing a t-shirt. We both squinted west into the setting sun and remarked how surreal it was that it felt like spring in December. The weather was absolutely sublime but the exact opposite of what we needed it to be.
The promised snow turned to rain and I should have called a ‘rain show’ meaning we move into the covered Timber Barn and do a modified radio show version for the audience but the barn wasn’t ready to be used as a secondary stage. All of our efforts up to this point had and were still being channeled into the show proper. We got soaked and covered in mud. The audience cheered. The cast and teamsters kept their spirits high. As the ground thawed and the wagons churned up the Back 40, it became something we had never experienced before.
We were getting seriously fucked by the elements. Trying to run in the muck, my crew developed strains in their Achilles and backs. Then horses started to get worn down. The ethical vegan in me started screaming louder. In my spare moments I would lay on floor of my cabin, staring at the ceiling listening to Graveyard’s Innocence & Decadence, thinking how insane this all was. I love this theatre and the work we create, the community and especially the horses but we can’t keep pushing ourselves like this… also that light bulb on the ceiling has been burnt out for five years and I have really got to change it…
I spent my mornings digging trenches for the LX cables that were now exposed from the melt. The horses wear one inch spikes on their shoes for traction. The risk of puncturing a live wire is inconceivable. As an example of how wildly the weather swung in December; when we were in rehearsal it was so cold the crew doing the lighting for the show used an asphalt cutter with a diamond blade to cut trenches for the cables but only got so far because the ground was too hard and weather so difficult to work in. It was on average minus 18 Celsius and the wind would pummel relentlessly until the sun set. In the past we’ve also tried using chainsaws to cut the ground. Usually we have so much snow we don’t even worry about burying the cables cause the snow and ice is enough to cover them but the climate is changing and winters aren’t what they were. The weather warmed up so much the following day I didn’t even need a pick axe to open the earth.
The days grew colder and a freeze was coming. The neighbor came for several mornings with his heavy equipment and graded the site so in theory when it did freeze the ground would be as level as possible. I hung out with him giving direction and guidance, impressed how he worked with the eye and care of an artist. From the six years I spent doing carpentry work between theatre contracts I recognized there are artists in every field, some just chose blue collar jobs. When he brought his family late in the run for the show they witnessed one of the most transcendent nights. The night we all saw two massive halos around the moon.
Snow finally came. Furiously. Blizzard after blizzard. We switched back to sleighs. For the two thousand pound horses pulling a sleigh is usually no problem but some were worn down from the exertion of the previous week. Sub teams were brought in. Percheron and Belgians who are built like power lifters.
My favorite team. Karli and her gigantic young Percheron’s.
Apart from general wear and tear among the company it sold out and ran fairly smooth. New challenges came up everyday piling on to the fatigue induced delirium, muscles aching, toes frozen, clothes and hair perpetually reeking of wood smoke but each night the spirit remained adventurous. The sky cleared and stars shone. The Back 4o mountain range glowed. Hulcar mountain solid and looming. Coyotes howling from every direction around us. As the nights air crisped, under the stage lights the actors breath crystallized floating slowly around them like sparkles hypnotizing our gaze. Green waves of Northern Lights pulsated over the tree line. It is another galaxy out there.
One night a boy in the audience exclaimed ‘This is better than TV! It’s real life! It’s like we are in the TV!” But another night there was a small child who through the whole show laughed hysterically. Maniacal. To the point it boarder on heckling. Her deranged giggle picking up at quiet moments nonsensically. At first it seemed cute and precocious but as it continued it turned darker, sinister and horrified me when she started accurately mimicking the crow calls we were using in the show. Cooing and cawing back at us from the sleigh. The cast after the show simply thought it was weird but I was deeply unsettled by it. A few nights following the coyotes let out a bloodcurdling shrill that sounded so much like a human, the horses lurched and our hearts collectively pumped. More howls and yip yip yips came in with the shrieking. We concluded they must have been celebrating a kill.
We closed after the first week in January. The phone kept ringing for tickets but horse trailers were loaded and bags packed. I got on the bus after drinking too many espressos with Lisa. I was shaking and cold, curled up in the pitch black bus listening to Doom – Bury the Debt (not the dead). I slept most of January only surfacing to work in the book shop or go running above the lake. I almost took on a puppet show contract about activism for the early spring but realized it would completely over extend me. As it is here in mid February, I’m only beginning to feel like myself again. Books and sleep and time; sweet messages from friends reminding me it wasn’t just a dream. Till summer…