EMPTY d. 1
Performer (Lily) stands in empty space in front of an audience. As Lily begins, she directs audience members to designated spots. The central area space is the spot for the "crops," and the edge/perimeter is for the "crows."
She takes a moment to make eye contact and take in the crowd before beginning.
LM: I'm going to ask you to pick a place to listen from, in response to statements and questions. There are only two choices, so don't get stressed out. If you have to move, please do it quickly and quietly, and don't think about it too hard-- only hard enough. If you don't want to move, please stay where you are. ***
There are crops, and there are crows. First I need to know which you are, which is in you.
If you’re a crop, move up front. If you’re a crow, fly to the back.
Crows are smart, and crops are dumb, by which I mean silent, not stupid. Neither is stupid.
If you’re a crop, move up. If you’re a crow, move back.
Crops are green, orange, red, green, brown, green, white, green, green, green, green, and yellow. Crows are black.
(time for audience to adjust)
Crops grow plump on sunbeams and rainwater. Crows are known to eat corpses.
Crows play games; they migrate and roost in huge groups; they steal food, attack whomever, and joust in midair. Crops spend their lives in neat rows.
Crops are sensitive to weather, they change with the seasons; they follow an uphill journey into bloom and yield humbly when it's time to be felled. Crows hold grudges and practice revenge; they can remember human faces, and might be immortal.
(to the remainders) Crow or crop? Crop or crow?
Crops are "good," I guess, and crows are "bad," I suppose. Although I don't particularly believe that.
(anyone who's left) Who else? Crops go here, in the middle, and crows go there, at the edge. Take a minute to find your seat, or stay in your seat.
Crops: I should tell you, the crows want to destroy you, whether or not they know it.
Crows: The crops-- our food, worshipped like gods by humans-- are the antithesis of all that you stand for.
Anyone who has elected not to pick a spot is an air particle. Or a moth.
Great. Good. This is good. This is us, on a farm. Good. Good. Good. Bad. It's bad. This is bad. I did a bad thing. It's not bad because of you, it's me, me bad, it's wrong. It's rigid. It's roles-y. It's not real. I don't believe it. I don't believe in it. I’m going to go ahead with it anyway, but you should know that I know it's bad. It's unfair to you. And to me.
Has anyone here heard of the Neo-Futurists?
The Neo-Futurists are a cult that I belong to. A local Chicago cult known for putting on entertaining two-minute theatrical skits. The first rule of the Neo-Futurist cult is that when you're onstage you tell the truth. I've been a cult member for four and a half years and it's true when I tell you that they saved me from myself. Before I joined I had a bad case of Imagination. I had a relentless, vicious, delicious imagination that induced paralysis, made me reluctant to do things, reluctant to move my body at all: an imagination that I have trained myself never to use. I don't believe in fiction. I don't believe in characters or setting scenes. I don't believe in lies, and I don't tell them. I don't believe in this scenario, that we've created here, or what I'm about to say.
OR MAYBE I DO!
Imagine me, some other, badder version of me, with tighter clothes, and muscles, and a... neck tattoo. Imagine me escaping my truth-loving cult -- not forever, but for one night, leaving headquarters in Andersonville at Foster and Ashland and getting into a stolen car. And driving. Past city limits, past the suburbs and the woods, into empty, empty, empty space, towards a farm. This farm, this imaginary farm we’re on, an ownerless plot of dirt edged by trees and immortal, amoral birds. Here I am. I pull over to the side of the road, turn off all engines, hop out. Air smells of hay and mulch, wet, rich browns, deep earth breath, sweet manure. I walk into the center of the plot.
I take out pages and a light and there in the crops I read poetics, these poetics-within-poetics. I read to myself and the crows, alone, for practice, as a prayer-- and then also to you in this bar.
It could be both. I think it's both. (she takes out a second set of pages, and reads)
(.Chicago, April 25, 2017.)
I've been picking flowers and keeping an eye on the street birds. On my block it's starlings, robins, sparrows, gulls, sometimes a mourning dove. I don't know their calls but I could point them in a line-up, though the family that would end up in a lineup are the Corvids, the crows, and I've waited for those but never see them. The picked flowers I can't name for you and I'm wary of describing them too well in case it's your lawn that I steal from. Those die within hours, unlike store-bought cut flowers, and unlike any potted thing I'm ever responsible for, which dies within days. I don't mean to kill the flowers; that's not the point, it just happens. But I'll stop. I'll stop picking them. Right now, I promise to stop picking the flowers. I'll try to ID them from afar, like the birds.
If these useless gestures are the only things that I do these days, am I one of the good ones, or one of the bad? If there is an amount, an "enough," that I could do daily, and instead I'm learning birds, where on the farm do I belong? I have a problem. I am convinced of my utter powerlessness, my irrelevance, even, convinced of it and willing to say so. I’m loudly fascinated with silence, with emptiness, with the spiritual practice of shutting the fuck up.
The other day I woke up with no particular faith in the power of art. I'm not despairing, and I don't want to stop writing; I just want to ask if the power of art is the point. If in your fear or your confusion or your privilege or your oppression -- if in your distinct and incomparable pain -- you're making or taking in art thinking exclusively of its power, I ask you now to ask yourself whether or not your experience of art is being co-opted, co-ordinated, drafted, deployed. Ask how often one is made to think of art (or voice or perspective or narrative) in terms of gained ground, of enemies, of territory, capital, nation, empire, cultural or literal war.
I'm not implying there's another option. I want us to be aware.
Since November, I've wanted to kill something. Not anything alive; I don't want you to be alarmed. (Note before I go on that I can write the phrase "since November" and perfume the room with a melancholic political tune: drum up emotion, pluck the strings of some collective American heart-- without actually saying anything at all. I don't know what it is in me that likes to make awfulness romantic, that wants to play such manipulative music, but it's in there, and I think it should die.) I wanted to kill something before November-- but in November the wanting got bad.
A year or two ago I got a clever idea for a truth-telling Neo-Futurist play. Not one of the short two-minute skits we write but a big one, 90 or so minutes, prime-time, full-length. The idea was that I, my self, my actual me could get on stage and take someone hostage and kill them. Not a real anyone, not a living person; a character. A fiction. I, a real person, could attempt to kill a fictional character. Bam. Instant drama. Sky-high stakes, opposing actions, conflicting pictures of reality. Clean platinum playwriting gold. Come on down to the cult headquarters and see a play where something true kills a lie.
Something about the events of last November made me decide to do this, to really go for it. Last January I pitched the idea, and it got picked. I promised other human people -- the truth-telling cult leaders -- that I would do this, or I would try. They signed off and they gave me a budget and it's time to start writing now but I have a problem. If I'm going to kill a fictional character, I have to make the guy first. I have to write him. I don't do that. I haven't done that for years, and I sort of forget why people do. I know it requires belief, and love, and a certain kind of craft, a spinning; I skipped that part. I’m here alone, in a field, sharpening a scythe.
At the risk of sounding like a six-year-old, I'll speak my questions out loud:
Why write things that aren't real?
Why make people up? For fun? Is that all?
What are fake people made of?
Are they made of real stuff?
How do I do it? Where do I start? With his appearance? Or his soul? I know this one will be a "he"; for some reason, I know that.
I'm worried. I have multiple concerns. There are common pitfalls, universal booby traps into which writers fall in the early gestation of character. I worry this is about self-hatred, or civil war. That I'll divide myself or all of us up and make him obviously and unavoidably in my own image, or the image of the people that I know. I'm most worried I'll shortcut it and inadvertently turn him into my dad. Not that I want to kill my dad. I don't want to kill my dad. I love my dad. I think. But I'm worried, just the same, that deep down in there something wants to kill him a little bit and that thing will find its way out. Aren't I supposed to want to kill my mom, and fuck my dad? Is that it? How does that work if you're sexually fluid? Do I want to fuck and kill them both? It's my mother's birthday today, April 25th; I didn't send her anything but as a small gift to her I'm going to end this paragraph here.
There's grim parenthood involved in writing character. I don't know that I'm ready. I don't mean artistically-- I mean not good enough, morally, to do it right. Maybe this whole murderous wish is evidence that I'm a villain. I steal flowers and wait idly for ravens and work mindlessly and write a little and I'm not doing anything else right now. I live in borrowed space, on stolen time. I reject art as power. I want art to be light, to make space, I want to empty, empty, empty it out. When I sit to write a person -- even a fictional person-- who bleeds and sweats and cries and spits and shits and screams and eventually will die by my hand at the end, it's so wet. It's sticky. And heavy. I can't lift it yet. This is a process after all, it's the beginning of the beginning, and I need it to be light. I want to run with something dry. Hay. Cloth. A hat. Not the guts of a man, just the shape, filled with straw. A scarecrow.
Why build a scarecrow? To protect our crops. To keep away crows.
There's a thing about straw men, a magnetism. Or maybe I just have a thing. I'm sure it springs in part from a fetish that I, a life-long city dweller, have developed towards farms and gardens, towards bare earth. It seems so essential, so honest. In my mind, I mean, the fictional farms in my mind, feel so true. Here we are, right now, on a dirt plot I made up for us, in an imaginary field, based on whatever farms I've passed in a car on a summer vacation. The air is cool. It feels ancestral, to me at least, and I hope it does for you. Even though it's fake, I know it's fake, this is bad, it's bad, it's not real. (to a specific audience member) Slap my hand. (waits, gets a slap) Thank you.
They're the best of both worlds, and they're everywhere, the hay people. They're Halloween creatures, Batman villains, and have the sexy spookiness of crows while at the same time they're filled with good dry grass, with crops, and they help every lost Dorothy find her way home. They're protectors. Soft soldiers. They work in the service of men, and in our image, and they can stand up forever for us, our silent, funny guards. They sustain what's good, and ward off what's bad, in a peaceful way, posing no real threat to anyone. They're the best kind of lie. Maybe this is also the purpose of characters and fictions.
I still don't trust them.
I'm curious to name where and when and how much we might be seduced by the promise, the shiny appearance, the light loose shape of good, feeling good-- seduced into making scarecrows out of the thick wormy growth of reality, the bounty of our actual lives. Scarecrows out of friendships, out of lovers, out of projects and movements and Presidents and Presidents' opponents-- great celebrity straw men, the expensive high-tech ones, hooked to machines that tweet wounded chirps all day to ward off crows-- to ward off the idea of crows, the idea of the proximity of crows. I believe it's the absence, or the forced invisibility, of crows which becomes most dangerous.
Remember what I said at the beginning, about romantically invoking November. This could all be a trick. I could be a crow. A real farmer in the audience might throw tomatoes.
Here's a perverse image: somewhere outside of here, in a dark, empty, empty, empty field, a trespassing city person stuffs an old shirt, draws a face on a bag and hangs it all on a pole. The crows just watch. The next night she dismantles it. Then she starts again, does this every night, over and over, putting up the same scarecrow only to continually take him down.
Why do this? Why do I want to do this? The flower-picker says, "It's something to do." I want to name what's vital and nourishing about destruction.
I have to get back, and so do you. We can’t ever live in fields like this, which is something to remark, as well. I want to say something that might be true, but I want it to grow, too, so it has to be said here, in a lie, a place we won’t stay. Maybe it won't be a lie if I speak towards the future. If I make a promise. If I promise something besides a scarecrow. I promise there's more beyond the scarecrow, beyond the scarecrow situation. I promise there is more than these few roles in the round electric circuit of growth and decay. I promise to remember. I promise to keep an eye out. I promise to learn its name.
(Lily clicks the light off. END.)