Profile: Ain Gordon
April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Writer and director Ain Gordon’s work has often been preoccupied with the past, but his stage production, “Not What Happened,” focuses as much on a direct thematic line between what was and what is.
“Not What Happened” will be performed Saturday, April 28, at 8 p.m., at Mass MoCA.
Gordon’s work captures the experiences of two women separated by time. One lives in 1804 and the play captures her in her kitchen, during summer, on a baking day. The other is a tour guide 200 years later in the same physical location, now a historic farm. Her job is to reenact this same woman, and she’s been doing it for half her life.
“The character is actually more comfortable in her historical role than she is in her own body,” Gordon said. “She’s verbose and talkative, un like the other one, but the way they’re connecting, I don’t want to give it all away, but where they’re connecting is also about being in mid-life and in any era, what is the visibility of women in mid-life in this country.”
In Gordon’s conception, the 19th century is a time when women, especially of a certain social and economic class, were born into roles that they were require to play — there were very specific kinds of lives that a woman could lead. The re-enactor is also playing a role and, in the layers upon layers, embracing that same role the previous woman is required to live.
“It is a lot about the mirrors that we don’t necessarily think
about and how these things are still going on cloaked in other guises,” said Gordon, “and also about all of us, as humans, our knee-jerk rush to create a story that makes sense out of anything that happens. Is any of that ever true and how fast do we do it, and how fast are we departing from the truth?”
The show at Mass MoCA is the third of a three-date tour designed to further development and as presented on stage, the play is still a work in progress. Gordon says to expect a basic staging with two actors holding their pages in front of projections, what he describes as an advanced stage reading. From there, the production will hibernate for a year while Gordon finishes up two other commissions, and then returns in the summer of 2013 for a full scale workshop, and then production the following fall.
Gordon’s real interest in history is in the stories of ordinary people, of how those stories are uncovered and perceived now and of whether we ever actually get to the truth of any situation.
“I was interested in what some people might say was a woman of no consequence on a day of no importance engaged in an act of no significance,” he said. “I was really interested in what it would look like to think about that as a historic piece of information. I very consciously tried not to endow her with the traditional things that would make it worth watching her and to see if I could make her interesting enough and the workings of her mind interesting enough that the fact that this isn’t a do or die day, it’s just a day, would matter.”
Gordon’s 19th-century character is not based on any specific person, but is rather a figure of marginalized history, which remains center of his narrative fascination. Gordon teamed with artist and historian Forrest Holsapple and went on frequent trips to Vermont over a period of time that had the team tracking the landscape Gordon was portraying in the work. Hols apple’s photographic work and photo manipulations of period photography will be used in the performance — the Mass MoCA show represents their debut on stage.
Time spent investigating re forested pasture land, cellar holes, foundation corners and abandoned graveyards gave Gordon the opportunity to think about the physical space his character inhabited and what that meant to her every day life.
“I spent a lot of time contemplating the real distances that everyone was navigating,” Gor don said. “How long it took to get anywhere to see even another person, to even have a visit, therefore how lonely it was, how silent it was, how solitary a woman alone on baking day really would be. “
Gordon augmented those visits with a trip to Historic Deerfield, where the hearth cooking experts taught him how to bake bread like the woman would have. He also delved into the world of re-enactors, interviewing someone in that world and spending a lot of time on their posting boards online, finding out their concerns on the job, the sorts of things that would affect his modern woman character.
Gordon traces his interest in ordinary stories of historical people — and the often un steady ways they are related to listeners — to his childhood.
“I spent a lot of time as a child with old people, particularly old women,” he said.
With a great-grandmother who lived into his early teens, and two sets of grandparents — one in New York, one in London — that he spent a lot of time with, there was ample opportunity for mining family lore to amuse himself.
“Both of them did not go out anywhere except to buy food,” said Gordon. “They didn’t play. They didn’t watch television. They didn’t do anything. There was nothing to do, and in England, in particular, they lived in a small seaside town that was kind of a forgotten place and everybody there was 80, so nobody did anything. The only thing there was for me to do was talk to them, and I realized not just by luck, at some point, early like 7 or 8 years old, that they had stories and that if I would unlock the door, they would entertain me.”
More than just storytelling sessions, though, the activity became a way for Gordon to exercise his analytical abilities in regard to narratives — it began to seem to him that the information he was being given was not the most solid information despite the fact that these were real stories about real people.
“I began to realize that the stories were inconsistent, that they would change,” said Gor don, “because they would get repeated and new details would emerge and other ones would go away and things would be contradicted, and that I couldn’t know what really happened, I could only piece together these things.”
When Gordon would return home and tell the stories to his parents, he found that they had no idea about any of it — their own parents were a mystery to them. It was at that point Gordon realized that each person is a closed treasure trove of stories and interpretations.
“Inside these aged, stooped, relatively inactive people were scandalous, active, wild, un known people, sexual people, but you couldn’t see anything of it anymore,” he said. “Inside these people were these other people, and I think that’s where it really started for me, with this idea that there’s all this invisible history that is being pushed to the side.”
When Gordon began to apply this experience with the discipline of history, he realized that the field requires a historian to take the chaos out of real life and, as he says, “create a traceable sequence of events in order to tell that story.”
“I’m interested in all the sidebars that ended up on the cutting room floor,” said Gordon.
To Gordon, this is an exercise that makes life bearable, and the very non-linear quality that history, as related through people, exhibits offers an outline to living within the chaos, and that’s something he brings to his work.
“For me it actually makes present day a little less hard,” he said. “When my life seems like it makes no sense and is just a pile of crap, well, that’s what everybody’s seems like at some point and the way we hear a story now makes you think that your life would make sense and should be on a progression instead of doubling back on itself all the time, which is what life does.”