Today’s guest post come from Maya Rook, a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, New York. She is pursuing her PhD in American Cultural History at Drew University. Collaborating on The Tower has inspired her to write her dissertation about the Donner Party. If she were to eat a piece of human flesh, it would likely be from the belly or rear—braised until the meat is tender and then broiled so the skin reaches crispy perfection. Check out her food blog and personal website.
Just over a year ago, I was at a celebration with friends and overheard someone talking about the Donner Party. My interest was piqued, as it isn’t everyday you hear people casually chatting about this group of California emigrants who resorted to cannibalism during the winter of 1846-47. I’d always been fascinated by the topic and was soon deep in a conversation with Adam Scott Mazer about his plans to write a play called The Tower based on the history and mythology of the Donner Party. Strangely enough, I’d recently wanted to get involved in theater but didn’t know how, so the timing seemed quite auspicious. When Adam discovered I was a PhD student in American Cultural History we decided to work together on the project and I was brought on board as the dramaturg.
If you ask theater people what a dramaturg is, you probably won’t get a clear answer. Nobody seems to know. But in the context of The Tower I provided historical research and assisted in the creative development of the play. I felt the benefits of collaboration, the thrill of alternative ways of presenting the past beyond the academic sphere, and the fulfillment of creating a space where both my scholarly and artistic sides can manifest. As an academic I was able to bring a high level of integrity to the research of the play. And as an artist I was able to satisfy my penchant for tearing down the scholarly norms that I often find too binding when I’m interpreting history. In this post, I want to share with other academics and history lovers some of my personal experiences of working on this play, especially with those who have a creative side that doesn’t always have the opportunity to come out in formal scholarship.
Over the past year The Tower has developed from a seed of an idea to a full-blown psychedelic tragedy. It really began as a collaborative workshop process in June 2013. Although Adam had a vision for the play, he opted to use the workshop as a means to generate material rather than beginning with a formal script. The director Philip Gates, Adam, and I worked together to lead seven sessions where we threw material at a group of stellar actors to see what they could come up with. For example, one of my favorite days of the workshop began with a brief lecture on different forms of cannibalism—ritual, survival, and psychosexual—followed by an overview of tarot (which is the inspiration of the title of the play—more on this later!). Prior to that session, Adam, Phil, and I collaborated on music and art we felt somehow related to the energy of the play, including paintings by Lichtenstein and Dali and music by Cut Copy. Then we divided the actors into three groups and had them each randomly select a type of cannibalism, a tarot card, a song, and a piece of art. The assignment? Make a composition that incorporated all these elements.
Putting these prompts into the hands of actors was an incredibly satisfying experience. I could sit and contemplate a topic for years and not come up with the creative brilliance that this group developed in just an hour or two. When the sessions concluded, we selected the best material and held a works-in-progress performance at an art gallery for an invited audience.
After a few months’ hiatus, Adam, Phil, and I traveled to Donner Lake in November 2013 to more fully immerse ourselves in the Donner Party’s experience. We met with Gayle Green, a historian who had worked at the Donner Memorial State Park since 1985. She shared with us not only her wealth of knowledge but also her connection to the land and the people who lived and perished there. Being on the land truly deepened our relationship with the individuals of the Donner Party. The history of the place and their lives increasingly became entwined with ours. On a personal level I felt we had a responsibility to channel these experiences into the play.
Soon after our return, Adam began crafting the script for The Tower, taking material from the workshop and inspiration from our trip and transforming them into characters and narrative. During this phase one of my roles was to provide feedback for the script. But most often I served as a beck-and-call dramaturg, assisting in the writing process by answering Adam’s texts, such as “Was tripe a common food back in DP times? Were there any class connotations to it?”; “What would a traditional meal in 1846 consist of?”; or “Any euphemisms for peeing from the 1800s would be great.”
In addition to providing detailed historical information on urination in the 1840s, I also helped to define our overall approach to the past. Tarot was incredibly useful in this aspect, as The Tower card symbolizes chaos, collapse, and sudden change. It represents the necessary destruction of old structures that no longer serve a purpose. In the play this card manifests in different ways. For example, it can represent the changing identity of a character or the collapse of civilization. As a historian I also see this card as tearing down the restrictive boundaries of time and space. We decided early on that this play was not going to be straight historical narrative, but that if we were going to detour from historical accuracy we should at least be aware of that and make it a conscious decision rather than an oversight. In preparing for The Tower we viewed the past not as something that can be fully known but more as an uncertain ephemeral experience. We decided to abandon linear time and recognized that “facts” never tell the whole story. There are many moments in the play where past, present, and future collide. In approaching time in this manner, we allow a unique space for the Donner Party to flow into our present lives, mingling what is dead with what is alive—destroying the boundaries of self and other, and of time itself.
I highly recommend that academic historians venture into creative endeavors, such as The Tower. Not only can it add a level of sophistication to creative forms that deal with history, but it can also inspire your own academic work. It helps to open your mind beyond traditional scholarship and work with popular culture as well. Most of all, it is a collaborative process. I find academia to be too isolating at times, and working on this play has brought me into a community that is dependent on collaboration. Also, it’s fun! Through this process I’ve watched history come to life in a way I’ve never experienced with the written word alone. I’ve seen actors embody historical figures that are very precious to me, the writer create a script that conveys the experience of the Donner Party rather than just recounting the events, and the director magically bring all these pieces together into a cohesive work of art.
In a world that is increasingly interdependent, I believe it’s critical to step out of our prescribed realms. Academics are continuously making the effort to engage more fully with the world outside the ivory tower. In this process it’s important that we take some risks, embrace collaboration, and find innovative ways to turn our expertise into accessible forms. To paraphrase Aleister Crowley’s explanation of the Tower tarot card’s meaning: Tear down the fortress of thy academic self, that thy truth may spring free from the ruins!
The Tower opens Saturday, April 12, at Standard ToyKraft in Brooklyn, NY. It will run:
Sat 4/12 – Sun 4/13
Wed 4/16 – Sun 4/20
Wed 4/23 – Sat 4/26
All shows begin at 8pm
$15 tickets are available for purchase.
For more information on The Tower check out:
An interview with playwright Adam Scott Mazer
A radio interview on The World of Ideas with Adam Scott Mazer and Maya Rook
A video interview on Vaude Visuals with Adam Scott Mazer, Maya Rook, and director Philip Gates
A video trailer for the play
A podcast on IndieTheatre Now with Adam Scott Mazer and Philip Gates
Any additional information can be found here.
Questions for the dramaturg? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org