A conversation with Jennifer Restak about Traces 3/ Found Language

A conversation with Jennifer Restak about how the work has evolved from its first iteration as Traces, performed in March of ’13 to Found Language, performed June 20-24th. 

How did you select and shape the text
My script is comprised partly of journal entries—times I wrested with self-doubt, felt ecstasy or talked myself down from an emotional cliff.  The journal entries are all taken from a time I was experimenting with automatic writing—journaling first thing in the morning, just on the brink of waking, when I kept my journal and pen just underneath the bed.  I strove to be a conduit for the flow of words.  On re-read many years later, it may come as no surprise, lots of entries make no sense.  Yet others have rhythm and tempo, consonance, stark imagery, the raw tone of someone speaking only to unburden herself, not in search of some response, or understanding. 
I felt these were the right entries to convey the inner psychology of this woman-girl in the process of change. The act of journaling is an element that has been present in the work since Traces, during the rehearsal process itself, and in performance, where a three-paneled video of a girl writing in her journal in close-up—just her hand and the book—plays next to videos of a plume of smoke and a cloud of exhaust from an airplane jet engine. 

How many iterations have there been?
Well, Traces was first devised and performed in March, 2013 at Studio 1469 in DC with Amanda Alef and Catalina Lavalle, and once again, in a bit of a side-step, in July of 2013 at Theaterlab in NY with Catalina and Michaela Lind.  After those essential collaborations I took the work back into the lab, so to speak, and have been honing and refining it as a solo show, performed again at Studio 1469 in April of 2014 with the direction of Joe Mills III and most recently, as Found Language, just this past June.

In addition to the journal entries, the script contains an invented narrative telling a story of a girl visiting her partner in the hospital after his second near-miss with death, a poem which expands and contracts along the backbone of one refrain, and a description of a girl I’ve named Wynn.  In the narrative I grab a couple of lines from Leslie Jameson’s Empathy Exams, an incredible collection of essay meditations on pain, empathy and the permeable nature of one’s identity.  In the poem I layer in a line from e.e. cummings and Alan Ginsburg.  I do this not only because these writers simply say it better, whatever “it” is, but also because found wisdom, in snatches of songs, quotes and heard utterances  constantly peppers my daily thoughts and memories.

How did the work move from the physical into the verbal?
Traces 1, 2 and 3 were largely physical.  Much of the story derived from this physical work.  But lately I have found myself wanting to expand and share the story through physical movement and through words.  I believe the physical work has enabled me to reach that place of readiness to communicate more through the spoken word. 

In the early rehearsals, I set up islands around the room using whatever furniture/material was available:  a white cube, a long desk on wheels, a silver-upholstered chrome bar stool, a little student desk.   I placed a selection from the journal entries and the narrative on each “island”.  I spoke the words in that location, using the shape, heft and texture of the furniture to inform and communicate the words.  For example, I lifted and spun the heavy chrome stool, which, through repetition became my “rocket” and provided the selection with a quick, manic tempo.  The white cube became a structure to hide behind, as I spoke of my shame in smoking and drinking to mask my emotions.  I found comedy in this section, though, discovering moments I choose reveal myself from behind the white cube, only to don a mask of brazen confidence and moments I choose to vanish.  I always use the pronoun “I” when discussing a character.  I do this as a means of aligning myself with her, and seeing and feeling from her perspective, rather than commenting on her or seeing her from outside within a story through the pronoun “she”.  As I discovered different tempos for each piece of text I also played with different physical weights and atmospheres for each.  I found these through stretching out the transitions:  I moved from island to island slowly, exploring the moment of decision—“I will now leave this spot”, to the moment of reaching away into unknown territory, to moving through that transitional space, to reaching a new “island” and finding my place inside of it.  I used the concept of push-pull which informed the work from its first iteration as Traces, and also the idea of negative space—the space around me—allowing it to affect my motion.  I discovered that the atmosphere surrounding the long table was dense, and so in making my way towards it, and away from the light and frothy atmosphere on the island of the chrome stool, my footsteps and weight became heavy, and I found myself reaching for a life-line to pull me in, as though the desk were a boat rescuing me at sea.  The desk as a ship offering me a life-line has become a solid marker in the performance: in the first moments of the show I wake to discover the desk and a burning desire to capture my thoughts on the typewriter sitting upon it.  A director who saw the show has suggested that the desk could next become the gurney my injured partner is lying on in the next scene when I visit him in the hospital. 

How did you come to use erasures, blocking out words and lines from the text and projecting those against the wall as you recited the poem?
The poem describes three moments in time: the time she met her partner, the time when she visited him and the instance when he first visited her.  [I notice I’m using the pronoun “she” in this instance, since I’m speaking to a directorial/structural choice and not one of acting] “She” is recollecting these moments, and so she scrambles some of the details—was it in Portland that I noticed the scar on his hand?  Or was that when he visited me in Virginia?  We met in Austin, that much I know.  Those aren’t the exact words of the poem, but it’s that process of sorting, of sifting through memories to reconstruct the event that I try to capture in the poem. Erasures-blacking out different words and re-sequencing them- scrambles the meaning and illuminates new possibilities.  In writing the story I discovered that the relationship was, at first, long-distance.  This became important because, in long-distance relationships, there are stretches of time in-between encounters, and so imagination fills in the gaps and reshuffles events.  The same thing happens when re-constructing events from memory:  we do our best to recollect as objectively as possible, but whenever there’s a grey area, imagination intervenes. 

How about the words on the floor?
These emerged in the last iteration of the show, in April ’14, when I spoke the words from the final movement of Ginsburg’s Howl—the “I’m with you in Rockland” movement, as I call it.  In rehearsal, the tone of this movement acted upon me, and ultimately gave emotional color to the realization that I/girl cannot fully reach my partner.  In repeating it in rehearsal, I found myself drawing with colored chalk  in broad strokes how I felt, and the rhythm of the words.  There was no logical explanation for why I was drawing, but making sweeps of bright color on the concrete floor just felt right and enabled me to capture the tempo and flow.  I don’t actively write on the floor in this iteration of the show—words are already written--and all that’s left from the Ginsburg is the final line of his poem, but trace remnants remain, I hope, of having spoken and lived the emotions of Ginsburg’s poem.

So how did you arrive at the dirt? 
Dirt was part of the piece from the beginning of this iteration, and it was suggested in the last one, where I enter with a hyacinth flower and dash it to the ground.  I see dirt as a visual metaphor for the muck of memories, and also, of course, as a means of burial.  The dirt was at first intended to encircle a grave downstage from the writing desk.  But as I worked, the grave vanished from the piece; I discovered I didn’t need it.  But the dirt remained in my mind, for its smell and texture.  The work since the beginning of Traces 1 has always been sensory—smell, sound and touch were used in what we described as a “sensory montage” in which the audience was blindfolded and surrounded by sensory stimulus meant to evoke memories and emotions felt by the girl.  I brought it out late in this rehearsal process, but the first time I tried the dirt, burying the words, flinging it above, and bathing myself in it on the ground, both Katie [Macysyhn, performance artist and collaborator whose piece “Bobbie” was featured in conjunction with mine] and I knew it was right.

So, you’re saying she has already lived these words, and so she covers them with dirt…
Well, that action of burying the words, covering them in fresh soil came slowly to me in rehearsal.  In fact, at first, I found myself working with rope, likely inspired by the life-line the desk provided, but also as a means of circling the audience, and binding them together with one another and with me, connecting them to the world of the piece.  There’s still part of me that likes that idea, but in working with the rope to circle and bind, I discovered too many y-factors, places where the rope could get stuck or knotted, where using it distracts from the intended meaning.  The process of leaving the rope behind has led me to believe in economy of action, in finding that action which is simple, clear and easily executed. 

Working with the soil became a ritual.  The question of ritual as a means of healing has always been present in the work.  In the last iteration, the girl brought herself to a campsite in the woods and set up camp by placing each object deliberately in its place, balancing the camp site, making microscopic adjustments to the placed objects in a way that suggested a compulsive, OCD nature, but the intention behind this deliberation was to set the stage perfectly for the performance of a cleansing ritual. 

You mention OCD.  Not that it’s uncommon, or even particularly strange, but the OCD issue leads me to another question:  In the last iteration of Traces, and also in this one, I found myself wondering, is she, too, a little unstable? 
Well, I hope it becomes clear to the audience that her partner is bi-polar and they both struggle with that fact throughout their relationship.  It’s the cause of his accident which lands him in the hospital, and it’s also what makes him at times very hard for her to reach.  She finds some purpose in helping him, and one of the toughest moments for her is realizing that when he starts to feel better due to the lithium he’s been prescribed, he may no longer need her.  So, yes, I believe that in reaction, she loses her equilibrium.  It’s implied that she absolutely could relate to him, but whether this is in spite of or because of his illness, is left unsaid. 

Lastly, how did the title change from Traces to Found Language?
Well, Traces was, in part, an exploration around the ephemeral nature of experience.  In rehearsal we derived much of our physical vocabulary through the process of embodying a trace element of matter—a waft of perfume, a speck of dust in the air. The story we built was about memory and the trace elements of the past.   As I mentioned, the work was largely non-verbal, with the exception of the poem and the video projections of writing.  Now, in this iteration I’ve found the words, the language, to express the piece.  Somewhat, at least.  I think when we undergo difficulties we yearn for a script, for the “right” words to prop us up.  The new title reflects this girl’s struggle to articulate her feelings confronted with a loved one’s mental illness and near-death.

Thanks for talking through this with me.  What’s next for you and Found Language?
Well, this October 15th-November 8th Thursday-Sunday I’m performing Nightmare Suite, with Molotov Theatre Group at DCAC.  It’s an adaptation of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft.  I’m already working on absorbing the lines.  I’ve recorded them into my phone and I listen to each sentence and phrase, picturing “the movie in my mind,” the images the words summon.  I then speak the line.  I’m an aural learner, so it’s a good way for me to work.
In the new year I will go back into the studio and further refine Found Language.  In particular I’d like to grow the storyline around Wynn, the girl that the main character describes in her journal.  I see Wynn as a creation of the girl, a structure or container for the girl to gain objectivity on her circumstances.  I’d also really like to use that idea offered to me of the desk as a hospital gurney, and tighten up other stage business.  The dirt will remain loose, and “fresh,” though. ;) I expect to perform it again in April 2016. 

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