“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 Garden is being composed by Walken Schweigert, primarily on the hurdy gurdy. The hurdy gurdy purchase and subsequent compositions for The Garden are made possible by a JFund Award from the American Composers Forum. This hurdy gurdy was made by George Leverett of Altarwind Hurdy Gurdies!