INCONVERSATION

LENORA CHAMPAGNE and LIZZIE OLESKER with Claire MacDonald

Tiny Lights: Memory’s Storehouse/Infinite Miniature, a theater piece composed of two solo works by Lenora Champagne and Lizzie Olesker, explores domestic space and narrative memory. It is both a conversation between two texts and a theatrical collaboration between two experienced performer writers. Tiny Lights incorporates poetic text, gestural movement, and elements of Object Theater as it creates theatrical narrative from things both true and imagined. British theater artist and writer Claire MacDonald acted as dramaturg and an outside eye. MacDonald spoke to Champagne and Olesker about the process of creating and performing Tiny Lights, following an initial run in a raw gallery space at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn in January 2012. Tiny Lights will be presented again at the New Ohio Theatre from May 17 – 20.

Here’s what I’m thinking about...A whole world contained within, just a small thing holding everything else in it. There’s the real world outside…and then the one right here, the one we’re making for you right now.

—from Infinite Miniature

Lizzie Olesker in Infinite Miniature. Photo by William Moree.

Claire MacDonald (Rail): How did the idea for the Tiny Lights collaboration begin?

Lenora Champagne: Lizzie and I had known each other at the end of the ’80s and beginning of the ’90s, when we were both working in downtown theater. We hadn’t had a lot of contact in recent years, but we met up at a memorial service of a downtown playwright who was a very interesting artist who died early, in his 60s. We talked about how difficult it is with our jobs and children to continue making our work in a disciplined fashion and we decided to have a writing group—of us.

Lizzie Olesker: So, we got together and wrote around this table, here in Lenora’s studio on Horatio Street.

Champagne: We’d meet for three or four hours, when we could, every few weeks. We did it religiously and developed enough material that we decided to apply for an artist’s residency at the Tofte Lake Center in Minnesota.

Olesker: Being in that remote northern landscape influenced the evolution of each of our solos, giving us the time and space to write, to collaborate in that special place.

The lake lies, open and vast, before me.
I’m both in the trees and on the water.
It’s lovely and wild here up North.
We could paddle to Canada, if it weren’t raining.

from Memory’s Storehouse

Rail: Why was it that you needed to collaborate when you were each doing a solo piece?

Olesker: One thing we initially talked about was this feeling of becoming more isolated. We shared a sense of longevity and yet felt like we were once “part of the conversation” and then, suddenly, we’re not.

Rail: Did you each have a text to begin with?

Olesker: Infinite Miniature grew out of my play Shrink that began with my desire to explore the form of Toy and Object Theater. In that earlier incarnation, there was another characterthe ghost of a lost, adult brother who returns. Eventually, I let the brother go and focused on the solo woman character who sits at her kitchen table in the middle of the night, waiting for her teenage son to come home.

Can’t sleep, not anymore. But can still feel the milk let down if I think about it, like it was yesterday—crazy, crazy tingling, 18 years later. And the weight, still right here in my arm, holding him. My 10 lb. chicken, my sack of potatoes, huh.

 —from Infinite Miniature

Rail: Did you have a text already written, Lenora?

Champagne: Yes, I had the text called Memory’s Storehouse, which is Part I of my solo. I had created that piece during a summer when I was visiting upstate. I was alone a lot and there were some beautiful days, and I sat outside and wrote the beginning of the piece about Memory.

Memory is a wisp of a girl. Flighty, yet fundamentally sound and strong. She likes to wear white, because it’s a good reflector. When she has a lot to absorb, she slips into a darker color.

from Memory’s Storehouse

Champagne: I had written a piece about Alzheimer’s and our national inability to remember history. At that time, my good friend and writer Fiona Templeton came to see a rehearsal and said, “I think you should have a character named Memory.” I didn’t add a character named Memory to that play, but the idea of that character stayed with me. In a way, instead of the memory that’s lost, this is the Memory that’s found, the memory that I explore.

I also used some of the material we wrote here, together. For instance, Lizzie suggested we each write about a room. We said we’re going to come up with five rooms, and we’re going to describe those rooms.

Memory has occupied many rooms in her lifetime. Some of these rooms speak to her more forcefully or more eloquently or more insidiously than others. In nearly every room she’s abided in, she’s re-arranged something.

from Memory’s Storehouse

Rail: Memory’s Storehouse and Infinite Miniature are very concrete works, having deep roots in everyday life. Are they based on your own lives?

Olesker: Yes and no. There are aspects of my life that informed the character and the piece—the emotional life of it is truthful to me, but the factual details of it are not necessarily true. I think of it as a fake memoir but with some things that run parallel to my own life.

Welcome to my shrinking world, my old story. Everything held right here between the stove, fridge and phone. All of it contained right here, in this triangular cell. On the continent of this table, floating in an ocean of minutes… Ladies and gents… Welcome to the Tiny Universe Theater!

from Infinite Miniature

Lenora Champagne in Memory's Storehouse. Photo by William Moree.

Rail: I became aware that we’re mothers and have had our children at different points in our lives. It seems to me that one of the issues that we’re all dealing with is the relationship between the private and the public for women in our 50s as we move on in our lives. Do you think that’s something that’s there in your piece?

Champagne: Absolutely. Women of our age in the past and even now in New York City, we’re not center stage, because cultural capitals are interested in what the next new thing is, and you can’t be the next new thing if you’re in your 50s. There’s something about that sense of our place in the culture that we’re dealing with in our piece.

I think the kind of concerns I explore about aging and loss are things that other people strongly related to. Part of what I’m after is using my own personal exploration as a kind of canvas that other people can project themselves onto.

The other house Memory stores things in, more like a storeroom, is her body. This house is falling apart.

from Memory’s Storehouse

Olesker: Infinite Miniature is also about how one’s world gets smaller and smaller. It seems to me that this also happens in a play or performance. You’re taking a whole life and condensing it into just the hour or the minutes that we’re seeing on stage.

Rail: Has anything changed for you as a result of doing this piece?

Champagne: I feel so regenerated. During the rehearsal of this piece, I realized that I’ve been making performance work for 30 years. It’s only a number, but it’s a significant number. I saw Joan Jonas when she was 68, performing at the Kitchen and doing this amazing dancing. I thought, I just have to keep going. She’s fabulous and she can do this. I just have to keep it up.

Olesker: This may sound corny but creating and performing Tiny Lights reconnected me with doing something that I love. It brought me a real feeling of love—that’s the only word for it—and that pushed me through any self-doubt or insecurity I had.

Rail: I’m interested in your saying you’ve had self-doubt because it transmutes into your piece being about loss; the loss of your son reflecting an earlier loss of the mother. I’m thinking here about that scene where you have the small girl watch her mother in the dark, imagining her sinking into the carpet, into the underworld. I’m wondering, what gave rise to that subterranean narrative?

Olesker: I guess everyone has the experience of losing the parent and then losing the child.

Champagne: I’m projecting, but I think that subterranean thing has to do with depression as much as it has to do with an underworld. That sinking into the carpet is like, the mother can hardly go on, she has to come home and remind herself why she’s still here. It’s not only an underworld, but it’s also a real depression.

There’s always something dirty, something not done. It’s always there. It calls me, it doesn’t. It’s empty and full and I put my hand in and it’s wet and it’s dark and there’s no bottom and it’s your mouth—no, it’s mine and it doesn’t come out—yes it does, I pull it out. Twist it and turn it every day and fold it and unfold it…

from Infinite Miniature

Rail: There’s a way in which you transmute the event into a poetic narrative. It makes me think of different poets in relationship to your work.

Champagne: I think the kind of compression you have in poetry is something essential for me when I write. When I revise, it’s about taking away more than it is about adding. Rhythm is really important to me, and if there’s a word that has too many syllables for the rhythm of that line I’ll find a word with fewer syllables. As I get older, it matters more and more; the sound of a line, the rhythm of a line, and the shape of a line. Not just what are the ideas here, but how are they said?

As night approaches, the light fades and darkness falls. There’s a gray glow about the sharp angled roofs—dark blades cutting slices of light. The sinuous, gnarly tree branches wind over themselves, black ink expressions against the flat sheet of sky. What will happen tonight, she wonders…

from Memory’s Storehouse

Olesker: We were also aiming for a kind of physical poetry in the piece. Objects transform (a small box becomes a city apartment, a dish towel a stage curtain) and everyday gestures accumulate into a repetitive dance sequence.

Rail: One of the things I liked best about the piece was your camaraderie on stage, the feeling that the audience shares an ordinary intimacy with you both. At one point you hand Lenora a glass of water, Lizzie. You care for each other on stage. Tell me how that came about.

Olesker: We had very limited resources so that became part of the aesthetic. Like, we just used clip lights and household lamps to light ourselves that we’d just turn on and off. We made live sound cues with records and a record player. It was clear that we were helping make each other’s performance happen.

Rail: It was a beautiful frame. What I saw there was something very special to women at this time of our lives. There was a care and thoughtfulness on stage that seemed to be going somewhere.

Memory writes, ‘What’s next for me?’ in small letters at the bottom of a previous page instead of in tall letters at the top of a new one.

from Memory’s Storehouse



TINY LIGHTS: Memory’s Storehouse/Infinite Miniature will be presented May 17 - 20 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher Street, Manhattan).  For tickets and further info, visit www.newohiotheatre.org or call 212-675-6446. 

Contributor

Claire MacDonald

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