Dallas — Usually, I write Work in Progress columns before a new performance closes their production, to give some context and insights into it. In this case, I decided that it may be best to wait until after… because I was worried that the fire marshal might shut us down. I’ll explain why later.
As I wrote in the previous column months ago on Dead White Zombies’ newest work Holy Bone, experimental and emerging companies are still struggling with the dearth of usable or affordable performance spaces in Dallas. But Thomas Riccio aimed to create a more formalized performance as the culminating piece of the months DWZ spent in the earlier phases. But how could this happen? Where could it occur? Riccio felt unease about taking over an industrial or vacant building in the same way he has done in the past, for immersive performances like DP92 or Karaoke Motel. Without a CO for an “Assembly,” DWZ would not be able to fit their typical audience size of 40 to 50 people and their dozen or so performers under one roof.
An “Assembly” refers to a gathering of 14 or more people in one building for an event like a theatre production—including performers. But could you imagine the feasibility of that, only inviting a handful of people to each performance? For Riccio, that seemingly arbitrary number of occupants in a performance became the friction that inspired the structure for the final phase of Holy Bone.
Instead of keeping the audience under one roof, what if the audience travels to multiple sites? And what if they do so in micro-groups (1-6 people), so that the numbers remain below 14 at each venue? It’s a subversive way to navigate around the Building Code restrictions. But as I mentioned before, we didn’t shout this from the mountaintops, because a shut-down was still a palpable risk.
Riccio brought me on as the co-director, because the scale and logistics of this project are significantly greater than any other DWZ production. When we pitched the initial idea to the Holy Bone team, another unorthodox goal was in mind: to offer an opportunity for each performer to develop their own venue. Using the character foundations and personal interests of each performer (reading bones, social anxiety, questioning, etc.), each individual segment would be crafted by that performer. We treated this as an initiation for the performers, encouraging them to not think of themselves as only those who perform a given script or character, but to be creators as well.
We started with developmental conversations with individual performers, considering what their original character might want to have an audience confront, but that merged into considering what each performer wants to offer the audience. Riccio and I provoked the performers into deeper thinking with questions, rather than declaring what would happen in their venues. Continuously through the sessions we asked, “If you could give an audience any experience for ten minutes, what would it be?”
After articulating a framework for each venue, the whole team gathered again to discuss the direction of each piece. In these larger conversations, the performers were able to bounce ideas off each other, connecting their venue to the entire performance landscape of Holy Bone. While we were spread out geographically, it was important to create some connections among the events. For example, when Hannah Weir decided to pull out a stone from each audience member, as though she was pulling out sickness or the audience’s inner self, other performers considered how they could deepen the meaning of that object for each person. Agent Zay (Wes Ferguson) uses the stone to evaluate each person, to determine if they are ready to move forward in their pilgrimage; Rem (Charles Ratcliff) asks the audience to cleanse the stone after they have walked through various points of their life in a labyrinth.
It’s tricky to talk about “rehearsals” for this project, as it utilized such unconventional creative means. There are no “scenes” in the traditional sense to rehearse. There’s no “off book” date because there’s no fixed script. Blocking is also not a fixed entity. These group meetings became experiments, as we tried each venue out with one another. The audience plays a significant participatory role in the production, one that actually changes the work of the performers as they tailor each performance to each audience member they encounter.
In the first venue (“Kapsay’s Room”), Jennifer Culver decided to use her vast knowledge and experience with readings. If you’ve been to a DWZ show before, you’ve probably seen her read various objects for individual audience members. For Holy Bone, she decided to read bones on an abstracted map of the entire audience journey—with ideographs representing each character. This room initiated the participatory nature of the production as each audience member chose a question that framed their entire journey. Culver created this list of 24 questions (12 permanent questions and 12 that changed each weekend based on the phases of the moon) by listening to what each performer aimed to highlight in their venues.
- “What seeds should I plant?” relates to Hannah Weir’s outdoor venue.
- “How can I listen in silence?”“ connects to Bailee Rayle’s sound immersion space.
- “What questions am I not asking?” refers to Stephen Gardner’s self-reflexive interrogation.
But it’s not enough just to pick any of them, it has to be a worthy question for your individual journey. At this point, Kapsay evaluated their question by reading four shells that the audience threw along with the bones. This and other areas highlight that the audience’s willingness to participate is necessary for Holy Bone to function at all. Too many times, I see participatory theatre described in the context of moving audience members around to a new space or giving them an object like an egg shaker and telling them to shake it at appropriate times. But are they a true participant? Are they actively engaging as themselves?
Holy Bone goes to a more provocative place, where the audience must give something of themselves or receive something in each encounter. We demand active choices or responses at each step, and that is one of the unexpected byproducts of working under the restriction of keeping each building under 14 people.
There’s nowhere to hide.
Holy Bone requires participation, not at controlled moments, but a true exchange between the audience and performer. What we’re asking audience members to do is something that I had never seen before, and we had no guarantees that it would actually work.
As always, DWZ has many photographers and videographers come in and document our performances. But even when I peruse these images or videos, I don’t think that’s where Holy Bone actually is. It’s certainly not represented in text, as we don’t even have a copy of words that describe what’s happening in each space. I don’t think it even lives in the venues or in the performers.
I think Holy Bone lives in the individual exchanges between each person. Perhaps in a liminal space. In each encounter where a question is asked and someone responds, someone gives a gift, someone listens. After all, isn’t it a miracle that we are here at all, experiencing this moment together in this place at this time. Holy Bone lives in a precious moment of shared existence with even just one other person. It’s not a word, it’s not an image. Maybe it is the recognition that we are present in our labyrinth of life.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.