The Rewilding Cycle

In 2010, Open Flame Theatre (then called the Unseen Ghost Brigade) journeyed down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft, touring a tragi-comedy called Death on the Mississippi or the Adventures of the Unseen Ghost Brigade. I grew up in the Twin Cities, and the Mississippi has played a vital role in my psyche for my entire life. I grew up knowing that the Mississippi River is dying. Before going on that trip, and doing the research that preceded it, I was sure that it was dying because of pollution. In the summer, you can smell the river from blocks away, and it does not smell good. I was surprised (and a little horrified) that the river is actually cleaner now than it was 40 or 50 years ago. So why is it still dying? 

My research through histories of the river and the people we talked to as we made our way downstream performing our busking show made it clear. It is the lock and dam system itself that is killing the river. The ecosystem of the Mississippi evolved to ebb and flow, to have times of the year where it is shallow, and times where it swells. To pulse. As one person we talked to, river historian John Anfinson put it, “the lock and dam system takes away the lower part of that pulse.” Thanks to the lock and dam system the river is kept at a minimum depth of 9 feet all year round to accommodate barge traffic. This is what is killing the River. Anfinson described it this way, when I asked him what he thought the future of the Mississippi River would be:

“The River is going to become more and more controlled in the future. The more we control it, the more we have to control it. We’re going to constantly have to manage the river, to try to freeze in time the river we want… but it just will become more and more controlled, it will become like a garden, it already is like a garden, with a bunch of manicurists.” 

At the time, I had already conceived of the performance, The Wastelands, an opera that told the story of rewilding in places that have been abused and abandoned by industry. John Anfinson’s words gave me a more complete picture, a new eco-fantastical cosmology in which The Garden is a hell-scape of control, and The Wilderness a ferocious paradise, with The Wastelands as a transitional space between them. What if, like the river itself, what is at the root of all interlocking systemic oppressions is an impulse from white, capitalist, colonizer society to control all living things? And if that is the case, does that mean that the path to liberation is made of all the ways we can embrace our own wildness? 

These are the questions that are at the heart of the Rewilding Cycle. It is the creation of a cosmology that is exploring the cage that the culture of capitalism is for all of us, what it means to break the bars and step out of the cage, and what we may want to build on the other side when we do. It is about healing, about expanding the imagination, about dreaming into queer and trans perspectives  and understanding how our liberation is interwoven with our capacity to fantasize new futures outside of what we may currently think is possible. This work is abolitionist work, it is decolonizing work, and it is queer work. This triptych has been in development since 2008, and may span to 2028. Hundreds if not thousands of hours of research, rehearsal, visioning, and planning have gone into this body of work, which is half way through its second decade. We are so grateful to all who have supported this work since its inception, and we are thrilled to invite those of you who are new to the journey on board this surreal and profound exploration of freedom and the fantastic.

The Wastelands

The Wastelands is a traveling, surrealist folk opera inspired by Robert and Shana Parkeharrison’s The Architecht’s Brother and Dante Aligheri’s Purgatorio. Guided by a queer, skeletal Virgil, The Wastelands takes audiences on a journey through a netherworld of seven terraces, based on the seven stages of grief. The Wastelands explores how to survive in a world which no longer provides, and ultimately asks the question: how do we find hope in despair? 

The Wastelands was developed at Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, MA and premiered in June 2016 and toured along the Great Lakes Basin — from Buffalo, NY to Minneapolis, MN — from June to October 2016.

Everywhere our civilization goes, it leaves skeletons in its wake: ruins of factories, overgrown landfills, clear-cut forests. All across the United States we see these ruins, these wastelands, but with this empty devastation there’s always something else partnered with it; wild beginning to heal what civilization has destroyed.

How and why this rewilding happens, not just in landscapes, but also in humans, is the central story of The Wastelands. We believe these wastelands exist within ourselves as well as in the visible world; the forces behind a profit-driven culture, and its privileging of certain populations over others in a system of extreme control, have done great damage to people, individually and collectively. We believe in the need to evolve and grow beyond a culture that turns the world into commodities, because the inevitable consequence is that we commodify and objectify ourselves.

We believe that a first step in rewilding is beginning to have hope that other ways of life are possible – that we are not trapped in a culture where the value of life is based solely on utility. Our performance is not about proposing a program for how to do this; we are not trying to convince anyone of another system to replace what we have. Instead, we are asking the questions: What else is possible? How does one find hope in despair? What does it mean to rewild oneself and one’s community? What are the wastelands, and how can they transform into the wild, in the world and in ourselves?

The Garden

“The Garden” is an original queer, surrealist opera conceived by Walken Schweigert and created by Open Flame Theatre. The culture of capitalism attempts to control nature in order to utilize it. “The Garden” investigates white-supremacist and colonizer culture’s desire to beautify, manage, and control nature (which, of course, includes people) and reveals the horror that ensues when it does.

For our all-transgender ensemble, this performance is ritual act to reclaim all the parts of ourselves we are told are shameful and monstrous. The heart of this performance asks: how do you uproot oppression? This question is a journey; one that begins with looking at how internalized transphobia manifests in us as individuals, and in our communities.

Our story follows Hayden (played by Walken Schweigert), a trans witch who journeys into the underworld to barter with the Devil (played by Katie Burgess) for the life of a friend who was killed in a hate crime for being trans. The “hell” Hayden encounters, however, is not the one they expected. They become the main course at a bounteous banquet served in their honor, elegant aerial silks become constraints, a gorgeous bride is also mad with grief. In this hell, terror is intermingled with beauty, until Hayden begins to question if everything they’ve been taught to fear is beautiful? To save their friend they must confront their own demons, harness their own power, and discover that the Devil wears Hayden’s own face and doesn’t represent the monstrous evil they were told she does…

The world of “The Garden” is one of decadence, furnished with satin, delicate woodwork, and elegant facades, underneath which hides nightmares. Our set includes a 27 x 10 x 14 foot tall aerial rig made out of scrap metal specifically for this performance by metal workers in Detroit. Seven performers use this rig to tell the story through music, acrobatics, mask, and aerial silks.

The music itself branches into new styles, composed by the Detroit-based, queer, witch-pop band Crune (made up of Open Flame member Walken Schweigert and Matthew Ryan Surline). Using theremin, violin, synthesizers, cello, and hurdy-gurdy, the opera is orchestral-techno-metal with experimental vocals. The audience sits on either side of the rig, watching each other watching Hayden as Hayden discovers and embraces their own power: playing the violin and the hurdy gurdy, singing upside down from silks a dozen feet in the air.

From a queer/trans perspective we are exploring the ways in which we have internalized transphobia in a patriarchal, white-supremacist colonizer society and how that causes us to feel fear, shame, or disgust for the things that give us our power make us beautiful.  It ultimately asks the question: what do we need to face, bear witness to, accept, and embrace about ourselves in order to live and love freely and truly?

One cannot escape from The Garden by running from or denying one’s fears. The only way to conquer our fears is to face them. The only way out of hell is through it.

The Wilderness

The Wilderness is an outdoor, site-responsive, surrealist opera imagining liberated futures. This performance incorporates live music, dance, circus arts and poetry within an operatic framework. What does it mean to decolonize our societies and live in relational rather than extraction-based communities? What is the relationship between liberation and the wild?

The third performance in the operatic Rewilding Triptych, The Wilderness is an investigation of the relationship between liberation and the wild. The premise of the triptych is that what is at the root of systemic oppression is the impulse from western, capitalist, colonizer culture to control nature in order to utilize it. The Wilderness explores the kinds of cultural fabric we might weave to render this system of control powerless and obsolete, and what kinds of community power we can build in its place.

The first part of the triptych, The Garden, asks how do we liberate ourselves from internalized, interlocking systemic oppressions (e.g. transphobia, and white-supremacy)? Part Two, The Wastelands, asks what is rewilding, and how is the process for bioremediating a contaminated industrial lot similar to and different from healing collective ecological grief? The third part of the triptych, The Wilderness, asks how can we learn from the wild what a diversity and abundance of liberated practices/worlds/communities could look like? 

This outdoor performance will take place in wilderness areas (state parks, etc) and will follow a choose-your-own adventure format. Using poetry, live music,  and aerial silks hanging from trees, the audience navigates their own fantastical journey led by the performers on branching paths. The audience will be able to decide their own fate along the way, which determines different scenes that will be performed in the glens of the woods, painting a unique portrait of a liberated potential specific to each audience who views it.