The Garden

The Garden

Video by Ben Wolf

The Garden is a queer, experimental opera about the roots of systemic oppression in all its forms. The culture of capitalism attempts to control nature in order to utilize it. The Garden investigates  white-supremacist/colonizer culture’s desire to beautify/manage/control nature (including people) and reveals the horror that ensues when it does.

The Garden is a surrealist opera conceived, composed, and directed by Walken Schweigert and created by Open Flame Theatre. The Garden is an intensely physical piece incorporating aerial silks, trapeze, acrobatics, ritual, and a unique method of physical training and devising, sourced from Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, MA. The Garden’s libretto is made of arranged excerpts of the original Italian text from Dante’s Inferno. The music itself branches into new styles. Composed by the Detroit-based, witch-pop band Crune and using theramin, violin, synthesizers, cello, and hurdy-gurdy, the opera will be acoustic-techno-metal with experimental vocals.  The Garden will premiere at the Southern Theatre in Minneapolis, June, 2020. 

Open Flame’s inquiry into rewilding and its relationship to systemic oppression began in 2010 when we created a circus-influenced tragicomedy that we toured down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft. Then-named The Unseen Ghost Brigade, we saw firsthand how the attempts of the Army Corps of Engineers to control the river was resulting in the death of the river’s ecosystem. This was how we began to see the relationship between oppression and control, liberation and the wild.

Having developed this inquiry over the years, we believe that Western civilization attempts to control nature in order to utilize it. The Garden investigates white-supremacist/colonizer culture’s desire to beautify/manage/control nature (including people) and reveals the suffering that ensues when it does. The heart of this performance asks: how do you uproot oppression? The journey one must take in search of an answer to such a question begins with looking at how systemic oppression manifests in us as individuals, and in our communities. We see this on an environmental level, a societal level, and a personal level. If we dam a river, it floods worse the next year. If we deny institutional racism, implicit racism runs rampant. If we refuse to acknowledge our inner demons, they surface and attack in a thousand ways.

In the U.S., the dominant culture asserts control overtly and covertly. Our ensemble believes that true liberation and autonomy is at the core of human well-being. The Hell of our times is carefully manicured, controlled, and managed to look ‘beautiful’ by a particular definition. Anything different, outside of that definition is punished, covered up, perceived as terrifying and monstrous. We come to fear those parts of ourselves. The Garden is a journey to understand, have compassion for, and uplift those parts of our truest selves and embrace them. For our queer ensemble, The Garden is a ritual performed with the intent of reclaiming ourselves.

The world of  The Garden is one of decadence, furnished with satin, delicate woodwork, fancy silverware, and elegant facades, underneath which hides  nightmares. An orange bitten into explodes with blood. A cupboard opened has skeletons inside. A statue comes to life to unleash a ferocious horror.

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!