For 2015, The Conversant is partnering with Open House, a new online journal of poetry and poetics. In this piece, Madison Davis interviews Brittany Billmeyer-Finn about the meshes: an iteration in 2 acts, an experimental stage performance inspired by the work of filmmaker Maya Deren.
Madison Davis: I would love to hear from you about the premise of the performance. What do you consider the play to be about?
Brittany Billmeyer-Finn: The play is basically another manifestation of the book itself. It is hard to talk about it separate from the larger “meshes project.” It is basically an embodiment of the text. the meshes is a journey through encountering the works of Maya Deren’s silent films including; The Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, Choreography for Camera, Ritual in Transfigured Time, Meditation on Violence and Witch’s Cradle as well as the documentary The Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti. The play is the newest part of the project, it’s the last thing I wrote and it’s sort of the culmination of the text. It’s a ritual based on the process of making this work.
MD: Both the book and the play have a close tie to the work of Maya Deren. Can you tell me what draws you to her specifically? And what keeps you interested in her?
BBF: Initially, it was kind of arbitrary. It was an assignment in a workshop I took with Susan Gevirtz at Mills. She gave us an assignment to pick from a list of artists and to respond to any artist on the list creatively or critically. So I picked Maya Deren based on my limited experience with her work. I watched The Meshes of the Afternoon first and said oh! That’s interesting! I’m interested in a lot of the same themes as Maya Deren and am inspired by them. Her films had a way of embodying my interest in the form a poem takes on the page and how that affects the experience of the reader. Her history is interesting to me as well. She was a poet first as well as a dancer and choreographer. As I spent more time with her work, the more I felt I could understand her or imagined I did. So I wrote a sort of translation of the film The Meshes of the Afternoon into a poem and that felt generative so I kept doing the thing, which was watching her silent films and turning them into poems. As I kept doing the thing I wondered more and more about Deren, who is this person? She received a Guggenheim Fellowship to go to Haiti and make a silent film about voudon ritual, have I mentioned that Deren is obsessed with ritual and we share that obsession or maybe she ignited it in me I’m not sure…Anyway, she got there and felt making the original avant-garde film was inappropriate. She started the documentary and died before its completion, losing the Guggenheim Fellowship along the way but was invited into the ritual by this community that she was filming. She was invited inside. It’s troubling to encounter that thing in which she was very obsessed. She felt she was an insider in this Haitian ritual that was not her cultural experience. Voudoun was and continues to be a very stigmatized practice due to colonialism, which of course brought Christianity to Haiti and pegged “voodoo” as satanic and for the poor and uneducated. She was able to enter into the ritual by invitation. She entered in with her camera. I was not invited in. I was able to view it through her lens. I became obsessed and bothered by my perception of her position as “ethnographer.”
MD: This is the first play you have written and directed.
BBF: It is! It was sort of an accident.
MD: Tell me about being a poet that found themselves accidentally directing a play? The ways that coming from this perspective might have helped or hindered you during the process?
BBF: It’s funny to name yourself, I’m a poet. Ugh. Stop talking but it is also totally true. I’m writing poems and trying to get them published. It’s attached to my sense of self or my pedagogy or my politics and community. It’s the idea that it’s doing some kind of work and it’s making me work harder to engage with the world. Hopefully, to be better at being a person even if I’m doing some experimental play in a small theater above a Burger King which was incredibly humbling and amazing and so much fun. I had imagined writing and directing a play as a possibility but the meshes: an iteration in 2 acts sort of showed itself to me. I applied to SAFEhouseArts residency based on a tip from a friend and Joe Landini, the curator, had the space for me and was willing to try it. So it was available to me and I said, yes. I learned an ungodly amount. I became a better communicator. I discovered new collaborative possibilities.
MD: Can you tell me about your interest in multiple iterations of a single project? What is the connection between these two “iterations” that move from text to performance? Why create a staged performance?
BBF: The book itself has 4 parts: the poems, the essay, the play and the annotated bibliography. The first two sections, the poems and the essay, came first and I had been working on those the longest. The essay found its form because the poem shape of the silent films felt like a potential erasure and that idea was a significant shift in the trajectory of the project. The form and the practice needed to change. My positionality and Deren’s became relevant to unpack in my project in relation to the documentary, The Divine Horsemen, because there are bodies at stake and the potential to reinscribe fucked up colonial representations of Haiti is present. So I started to think of the archive, access to information and the colonized archive as site of potential undoing and violence. This consideration became central to the essay section of the book and also in the play. It is where central themes of the book and the play really came into being. I’m thinking of for instance, the tension between the position of viewer, voyeur and witness. It feels important to ask myself how to show my alliances and position in a responsible way. One way this manifests is through a research practice, which is a significant part of crafting the essay. So, I did these two very different sections, the poems and the essay. I felt like I had crafted a voice in the essay that was flat by collaging languages from various kinds of texts relevant to Haiti’s history or that represent Haiti in some way, like Madison Smartt Bell’s biography of Toussaint Louverture, The Essential Deren, a collection of essays written by Deren as well as her book, The Divine Horsemen the Living Gods of Haiti and Derek Walcott’s plays in The Haitian Trilogy, essays from The Feminist Post Colonial Theory Reader, Avengers of the New World by Laurent Dubois, Kathy Goes to Haiti by Kathy Acker…to name a few and of course so much is missing which is relevant. Anyway, that is to say the language was flat and the writer wasn’t really present inside the text. In this iteration, it was about the relationship rendered by the form of the essay between the filmic language and researched language represented on the page. This iteration was an important part of the process. The play came to mind through opportunities to read. The opportunity to vocalize the work made me think of the potential impact of auditory and embodied experience of the text. So I wrote poly-vocal adaptations of it and asked my friends to take on voices and perform the essay as a sort of choral performance and movement practice. That inspired converging the poems and the essay into a larger work, which is the play. After the play was performed at SAFEhouseArts I had to send my final manuscript to Black Radish Books and so I went back through of course to make final edits and added a footnote at the beginning of the play that feels important to my own understanding of what the play has become…It is Footnote 1: The performance of the meshes: an iteration in 2 acts is a self aware production of the implications of the archive and the avant-garde. Deren’ s documentary, The Divine Horsemen, The Living Gods of Haiti is foundational to this play that attempts to unpack positonality in relation to art making. This play has a responsibility to those filmed in the documentary in Haiti. There are bodies at stake here. This play is not appropriative of the voudon ritual itself but instead engaged in the process of making as well as the position of spectator and its tensions as viewer, voyeur and witness. It hopes to push up against the passivity of the spectator while considering the way language constructs knowledge and how this is related to the historical. This should be considered in the staging and casting of the play. This play has been adapted and performed as queer performance and is rooted there.
MD: It seems like at each stage of your project there is a zooming in process. A constant pulling apart and moving inside like a nesting doll. This feels connected to the choice to embody each of the elements in the staged performance. The characters in your play, The Film, The Writer, Maya Deren, The Footnote and The Voice 1-3 are all embodied characters. It seems like a way to spread them out and deconstruct the process. How are you thinking about that choice?
BBF: To talk about the play as another manifestation or embodiment of the text that came before it, intuitively shows its process so that there is a building toward something and then the reflection and some sort of undoing what has been done. It is non linear but there are patterns. In Deren’s Witch’s Cradle the witch played by Pajorita Matta has a pentagram on her forehead that reads, “beginning is the end is the.” I think it is that. The discursive trajectories and creative discoveries influence the evolving shape of this project. It’s articulating the same language over again but taking on new forms, finding itself in varying contexts and sites and is held by sites, objects and bodies. What’s interesting to me is the imagined thing’s relationship to the reality of the thing. I wrote the play that is in the book and then I adapted that play into what was performed at SAFEhouseArts. The play is a text first, a completely imagined thing that I wrote thinking, if this is a play and I have access to all the things I would need to put on a full length play this is what it would look like. The reality of putting it on is that it won’t be that imagined thing. It discovered itself in process with the cast. It was very much an ensemble, ritual performance. I think that’s the main idea: it’s representative of the process of making.
MD: From inside it, there was a definite collaborative atmosphere but always with a very strategic and watchful directorial eye. It seemed like you had a pretty clear idea of what you wanted. How much do you feel like you went in with and what was the process like?
BBF: So, as I’ve said I’ve been working on this project since graduate school. I started working on it in maybe 2010-2011. It has gone through a lot of forms and through the hands of many people. Many who were also my collaborators and cast members of the play. Maybe this is a good moment to pause and name the cast who are some of my favorite people in the whole world: Maya Deren played by Zoe Tuck, The Writer played by Kate Robinson, The Footnote played by Cheena Marie Lo, The Film played by Tessa Micaela, The Voice 1-3 played by Madison Davis, Stella Peach and Ivy Johnson. Stella also was the sound engineer and wrote and recorded the score. So I had this wonderful ensemble of performers, poets, musicians and theater nerds. Before the residency began I had to adapt the script. It needed to be shortened and so this was the first of multiple rewrites. About half way through this first rewrite, I abandoned its direction and decided to let go a bit and that left a lot more room for us to experiment by not trying to control everything. I had certain frameworks that needed to be in place, certain characters that needed to be highlighted in certain ways, certain characters whose relationship to one another needed to be highlighted in the action of the play. I knew it was a multi-media piece. I knew it was a ritual. So there was an overall structure, the newly imagined thing and the text. As a cast we became an ensemble of directors. It evolved in the moment because it had to. I had never done anything like this before and most of the cast had already influenced the project in some way. This group of people that I did this with are absolutely inside of it and helped make it in a real way. And yes, I also had a vision for it. There were so many things I couldn’t tap into until we were in a room and we thought, oh! Audio tracks! Stella Peach you’re amazing! I gave them some parameters but it was very much their music, their interpretation. The Film, played by Tessa Micaela, is a very stoic and flat character that takes subtly. Kate Robinson, who plays The Writer, has been with the project from the beginning and has influenced it in a very particular way. The Writer character was practically written for Kate. The Footnote, played by Cheena Marie Lo is the audience’s guide, a grounding force, which is so true of how they hold space. Maya Deren, played by Zoe Tuck though a real historical person needed to be played as a sort of apparition, an imagined version of Maya Deren and Zoe really engaged with this idea, was very dedicated to creating the character. Since Zoe is also my wife she had to deal with my play neurosis at home too so she deserves extra kudos for that. And of course; Ivy, Stella and Madison (that’s you) who played The Voice 1-3 had to work often as a unit, following one another’s’ timing and movement with an intuitive knowledge and sense of each others’ bodies. We were a team and for me it was this really beautiful opportunity to be vulnerable in a room full of my brilliant friends who took the thing seriously and helped me find its next shape. The play isn’t just mine and the thing that was created before the play isn’t just mine. It’s based on someone else’s work so it has always been entangled and that is how I prefer it.
Audio recordings and an annotated bibliography are available at Open House.
Brittany Billmeyer-Finn is an Oakland based poet, playwright & shopgirl. Her first full length title, the meshes is forthcoming from Black Radish Books. Her play the meshes: an iteration in 2 acts was recently performed as part of the SAFEhouse Arts residency program in SF.
Madison Davis writes about family, water, mourning and disaster. Her recent work can be found in The Portable Boog Reader, It’s Night in San Francisco but It’s Sunny in Oakland anthology and Open House. She lives, works and works retail in Oakland.