We ended Silk Moth Stage‘s 2022 season in mid-September, with Give Us Good by Pam Mandigo. I haven’t posted about it yet because it’s hard to find the words. I have rarely had the experience of seeing what I dreamed become reality in such a complete way. The only other time that comes close was the remount of Antony and Cleopatra, where I kept feeling deja vu because so many moments I had imagined manifested before my astonished eyes.
Silk Moth Stage
Give Us Good—and the whole Silk Moth Stage experience—was like that. I had this idea, drawing on everything I’ve learned about theaters of the past, to create a theater experience unlike any other around. I wanted to do plays that connected to the landscape and had powerful language. I wanted to always welcome and acknowledge the audience. I wanted to deal with difficult topics, but in a way that audience members could engage at their own level of readiness. I wanted plays that could legitimately mean different things to different people. I wanted to create healing and renewal.
I’ve resisted starting a theater company for literally a decade. When people asked why, I always said it looked like a lot of work (which it is!). But those who know me know I’m not afraid to work hard. Really, I didn’t have a clear vision for what kind of theater company I would make. What would I create that isn’t already everywhere? And then, when I knew what to create, that’s also when the time was right, when the right people were ready to join me. People asked me if the whole thing was overwhelming or challenging, and it mostly wasn’t. Over the past thirty years, I’ve done each of the things I had to do to run a theater company. Just not all at once. Silk Moth Stage feels like a natural progression growing out of all my other work and life.
Below, one of the things I have done before, a bit, and was really proud of: My publicity work!
Give Us Good was an extraordinarily special project for me, because I was directing the only play that was ever written as a gift to me. When we were striking Pam’s show Washed, which The Great American Theater Company took to the DC Fringe in 2011, Pam said, “I know this wasn’t really your kind of show. Tell me what you want in a play, and I’ll write it for you.”
I don’t know what possessed me to say this, but the words that came out of my mouth were, “Write me a Victorian roadtrip bromance, with puppets.” With astonishing speed, she churned out Give Us Good, which takes place in a world where everyone has their own monsters, and sometimes one’s monster gets out of hand, and you have to call a monster eater.
I don’t usually do these, but it’s not often that I’m directing a play I know you don’t know.
The story follows Tom, a veteran, whose monster becomes dangerous. He sends his girlfriend, Amelia to run in one direction, and he takes off in the other. He thinks this move will protect her, but it’s a dangerous place, full of monsters. Amelia runs until she finds Jebediah, chopping wood in the forest. Monsters ate his whole family and rendered him mute. She stays with him, for a while, until it becomes clear that she has to make a choice between being stuck in the forest forever or exploring a world of possibilities. She chooses adventure, and Jebediah gives her a jar of his own blood to protect her.
Meanwhile, Tom has stumbled, injured (by monsters, probably) into a swampy graveyard staffed by Nezzar and Ronnie (identical? twins?), wise-cracking grave diggers. They bind up his wounds and introduce him to Sambai, a monster eater. Sambai sets Tom a handful of tasks to stop his monster, including “bake a poison pie as big as the moon.” Nezzar helps Tom with these tasks, and during the course of working together, they fall in love. Nezzar reveals that he has his own monster, inside his body. It’s eating him alive from the inside. With reluctant instruction from Sambai, Tom eats Nezzar’s monster. Tom thinks he should leave, because he promised Amelia he’d find her. After a long journey, sick and exhausted, he finds Amelia. She tells him she’s off on her own adventure, and releases him to return to Nezzar. At the end, Sambai, with some assistance from Ronnie, catches and kills Tom’s monster. Ronnie tells her she’s finished her own “monster eater correspondence courses,” and is going to help Jebediah deal with his monster infestation.
End of play.
We created a workshop of it, in another yard, back in 2012, but never managed a full production. During the workshop, we learned something that ended up being crucial to the success of Silk Moth’s production: It’s literally impossible to make a puppet that looks scary in broad daylight. All of our attempts at monsters were pathetic. In desperation, I grabbed some shakers and jingle bells from my toddler’s toy box. Each monster had its own rhythm, and the actors would just pretend like they were there. We loved the effect so much that we didn’t even discuss building puppets this summer. Instead, we hired Michael Deaton, a local percussionist, to help us create the monsters (and provided interactive percussion before and after the show).
I had a hard time casting the show, and nearly gave up on it. Silk Moth isn’t well-known in our area yet (this was only our second show), and we didn’t have that many people audition initially. When I finally assembled the cast, though, I knew that these people, these specific people, were the ones we were waiting for.
The cast was:
- Nina Alabanza (Ronnie)
- Jacob Laitinen (Nezzar)
- Robert Gotschall (Tom)
- Heidi Jablonski (Amelia)
- Ethan Goodmansen (Jebediah)
- Amber James (Sambai)
Nina and Heidi, I’ve known for years but hadn’t found an opportunity to direct them in a full show before. Amber and Robby were both in Merry Wives at the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, and I was beyond thrilled to get to work with them again. Ethan and Jacob were brand new to me. I feel especially grateful to the Shakespeare & Performance MFA program in Staunton; Ethan, Amber, Robby, Jacob, and I are all either students or graduates of that program, and our shared vocabulary was a boon.
All of the actors brought a serious focus to the work. They asked interesting and smart questions. They played together with kindness and patience. They spoke up when something wasn’t right, so we could fix it. I was a little nervous about them taking the play seriously. There’s something about saying, “So, you usually do SHAKESPEARE but my friend wrote this play and I think it’s really good…” But all of them brought their whole toolkit to bear on Pam’s text, mining its rhetoric, drawing connections from one scene to another, debating crucial bits of backstory. I knew it was a great play, but seeing them work on it showed me how deep it is.
As an ensemble-driven company, the plan was for most of the design and construction work to come from within the cast. Heidi took on the costume design, and most of the construction (with assistance from Dallas Hetrick and Makayla Baker Paxton). My original plan was, “Let’s just borrow what we can and hope for the best,” but Heidi created a thoughtful design that supported the storytelling beautifully. Amber and Ethan rounded up the props. Robby and Jacob found safe ways to fight. We had help with the gory wound makeup from Erin Newman, who created astonishing effects.
I’ve gushed elsewhere about what an amazing experience it was to work with Holly Labbe, who was the movement director, so I won’t repeat myself. I cannot wait to work with Holly again.
The play would be, I think, difficult to produce indoors. It has a tree, and water, and a guy who chops wood for half of it. At Silk Moth, we have a tree, which we hung with bells. We have a stump in just the right place. We can move easily in and out of the audience. The play wasn’t written for this space, but it’s hard to tell.
One thing that surprised me about working on Give Us Good is how much of me Pam put into it. I don’t think any of the characters are like me—and yet, I think they all are. I’ve never directed a play where I deeply identified with any of the characters, and in this one, I identified with all of them. Every night in rehearsal, I would notice some new, specific piece of my own self in the text. Some of this was intentional on her part, but I think a lot of it was not; mostly it was in the space between subconscious and serendipitous.
Give Us Good did everything a Silk Moth Stage play should do, and maybe that makes sense, since both the play and the company are so tightly tied to who I am as an artist.
- It is very funny, but never shallow.
- It’s both metaphorical and not—if you choose to understand the monsters as representing mental illness, you’re not wrong, but you’re also not missing anything if you experience it as an adventure story about fighting literal monsters.
- It was entirely possible to do a faithful production of this play by relying on imagination and fairly minimal tech, including live-generated sound.
- The language is carefully crafted. It’s not in verse, but it has a clear rhythm. Pam’s use of rhetoric guided our choices as actors and directors. Certain words and phrases surfaced multiple times, but transformed by speaker and circumstance.
- It’s not a play for children, but my kids watched it over and over, and some audience members brought their kids, and we didn’t feel uncomfortable about kids seeing this material.
- The audience was integrated into the experience. Amelia has several long monologues where she’s explaining her past to Jebediah, and being able to share those directly to the audience enhanced their theatrical potential. We had people sitting among borrowed Halloween gravestones, and when Nezzar was talking about the people who were buried there, he sometimes referred to graves, and sometimes cast audience members as headstones. Sambai has to “appear” in several different moments, and we arranged this by having her sit in the audience, blending in and sharing snacks with folks until her cue to materialize.
- The end was surprising and inevitable. The play had plenty of other possible “happy endings”; Amelia and Jeb could have made a life together in the woods. Tom could have defeated his own monster. Ronni and Nezzar could have changed careers since they’re pretty ambivalent about digging graves in a swamp. Instead, each person got the ending that moved them to the next stage in their journey. Even the minor characters experienced growth as people, and had satisfying endings. Everyone had big protagonist energy.
I was a bit concerned, going into our first season, that people wouldn’t get what we were doing. The kinds of questions people asked had me concerned. People kept saying, “But it’s at your house? You built a theater…at your house?” Folks asked why the shows started so early, and then looked at me quizzically when I said that Mother Nature is our lighting designer. We didn’t have a curtain speech like they do at the American Shakespeare Center where they remind the audience that they can see them. Something about actually being here, though, made it clear for people. Perhaps it was the walk up our lane, with the cows glowering at them as they passed. Maybe it was the silks billowing in the breeze. It could have been the live music, or the food. But people really got what we were doing here. They engaged with the performances, and lots of them stayed afterward to enjoy fire and conversation. I think next year, people will get there faster; you have to teach an audience how to attend your theater, and when there’s a critical mass of people who already understand it, it’s not hard to bring others along. We had about 50 people who saw both plays, and many of the others told us they would have come to Give Us Good but they were out of town both weekends.
Corey Holmes, the Director of Education at the Wayne and my long-time friend, came to see the show. Afterward, she sent me this text, perfectly capturing one aspect I hadn’t been able to name:
There is so much beauty in it, but I think what makes the space magical is there are never any pauses, because even when the actors don’t have words, the space is so alive with crickets and twilight and magic. ‘The rest is silence’ doesn’t exist in your place.
We’re not just doing outdoor theater. We’re doing theater that is in conversation with the environment, with the people, and with the text.
I can’t wait for next season!