[NOTE: In the original performance of this essay, I had a container of Non-Newtonian fluid on stage with me. It’s white and goopy. I allowed people to pass around the jar so the audience could play with it while they listened.]
My name is Kate, this is Oobleck, and I propose to speak about a malleable world. What do I mean by “a malleable world”? I mean a world that we here in this room can manipulate, a world we can bend and shape to our liking. This world that I speak of is real. It floats within the Earth’s stratosphere and from this tiny, malleable place we can gaze down through the hazy orange sky to the patterns of the Earth below. All of us here, right now, in this room live on this planet.
I haven’t really watched movies in quite some time, partly because I’m busy and partly because I don’t have people to talk to about them anymore. But recently I watched The Babadook curled up on a love seat in a cat onesie in a studio garden apartment lit only by Christmas lights, marveling at the beautiful visual storytelling of this film. The film establishes itself with a color palette of muted blues and yellows. The film introduces the Babadook about 20 minutes in, when the main kid in the movie pulls out a bright red book from his bookshelf to read. Before you even see the cover of the book, the movie is telling you what it is: an intrusion. Soon, the muted blue and yellow world gets encroached upon by red: a red tie at the doctor’s office, a red pillow in the living room, a red carpet at the bottom of the stairs. As I watched I would tense up whenever I’d see the color on screen, even during the not scary parts. When things would get really intense I (out of a bad habit that I have while watching horror movies) would say out loud “oh damn!, don’t wear that red dress girl! It’ll make you crazy!” Laura turned to me at one point and jokingly said “you need to stop being so observant.” I found this funny because to me I wasn’t being observant at all, I was just speaking the language of the film. It’s a language that I’m fluent in and felt really good to speak again. I love this language of world building. It speaks volumes without ever saying a word.
I first read Elinor Fuchs’ 5-page essay A Visit to a Small Planet in my college dramaturgy class as a fresh-faced directing major. In the essay, Fuchs suggests that a reader of a play should consider a play as its own planet, held at a medium distance. This allows you to see all of the planet without losing any of the detail. Nothing exists outside or beyond what is said, no other course of action is possible, nothing happens by chance, not even chance. This essay is a tool I constantly return to in my work today.
I began to hone my ability to talk about world building in college. I found myself being drawn to the film students despite being a theater major myself. We would talk and argue about films at parties thrown in drafty downtown 3-flats that smelled of stale beer, cigarettes, and BO, in rooms that were lit only by Christmas lights that were bought on sale after the Christmas season the year before. We would sit around dented thrift store coffee tables playing King’s Cup and taking generous swigs of cheap whiskey while we talked about Edgar Wright’s most effective use of his signature editing style (Scott Pilgrim vs The World), or debate about whether or not Christopher Nolan’s films hold up to multiple viewings (they don’t). We would talk about mise en scene, and how tracking shots tell a different story than fast cuts, and how the quality of 35mm film feels in comparison to digital RED cameras. The tools of the trade were always considered when talking about film. They are treated as an integral part of the world building and storytelling process.
The Small Planet exercise takes the stance that if you can first describe a place in detail the characters will come into focus. A world can be described through space, time, climate, mood, and tone. I describe people through the spaces they occupy. I believe that those spaces speak directly to who those people are. Spaces are malleable just like people are malleable and as artists we are able to shape and manipulate the world around us in a very direct way that then affects other people. My film friends understood that, it was a conceit that was already part of their vernacular. My theater friends and colleagues have told me on multiple occasions that I have a designer’s eye, as if a designer’s eye is different from a writer’s eye or a director’s eye. I think they are all one in the same and I believe my film friends would agree with me on that. We are all looking at our world through different lenses and then trying to create work through that lens. If we can understand and describe our world in the way we see it, we can better describe and understand ourselves and each other.
I am now lucky enough to work in an overheated make-shift theater with a group of 12 writer-performers. Each week we enter into a performance gauntlet called Too Much Light MakeThe Baby Go Blind where we attempt to perform 30 tiny plays in 60 minutes. It’s a randomly ordered, high octane shmorgishborg of performance art and it’s my unique task to provide sound, lights, and any other technical design elements for the show. At least 4 days out of the week you can find me perched in the corner of the theater, surrounded by an unimaginable number of buttons, sliders, and knobs. I get to talk about world building at this theater but it’s often in a watered down way. One of the main critiques I hear when talking to writers and performers about world building it that it’s too deterministic, too constrictive. As if setting constraints and defining a world within a piece of art hinders the creative potential of the work. But I think that the thought experiment and the constraints it provides are the perfect jumping off point for creating any type of art. That creating a clearer playing space allows for the artist to say more and be better understood by their audience. Film see the need for those constraints but for some reason world building isn’t talked about in theater except amongst designers and when you’re the only designer in the room it can start to feel like you’re talking to yourself. It gets lonely. It makes me miss talking about film. It makes me miss talking in that language.
So, humor me here. Let’s imagine, all of us, in this room are on that malleable, impressionable planet, the one that is made of oobleck, floating in our stratosphere. Where the only shape comes from direct intention, where “nothing exists outside or beyond what is said, no other course of action is possible, nothing happens by chance, not even chance”
Oobleck is a non-Newtonian substance that is liquid and oozing when left alone, but becomes solid when acted upon. We live within the oobleck and are constantly at work, pounding upon the ever melting walls, each impact turns the mush into a surface upon which one can stand or sit or place their dinner on. We manipulate the oobleck to turn it into sound or light or color or words. We pull our tools from the oobleck and hold them as long as we can until they dissolve back into the ground.
We are not born on this planet of oobleck but rather we find it as we gaze out of classroom windows or lay on the grass at night, or looking up at the tall buildings of downtown cities. We spot the little goopy orb floating high above us and silently say to ourselves “that’s where I want to be. That will be my home someday.”
Oobleckians are observant, articulate, and contain a world within themselves. We are constantly pulling out bits of ourselves and bits of the world around us to construct a world of our own design.
Once our tiny worlds are constructed we quickly run them back down to earth to show others. We use these tiny, constructed oobleck worlds as mirrors to show the non-Oobleckian people of earth what we can see from our viscous planet. We put little windows around small moments of human existence and attempt hold them up for as long as we can.