“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/GNC ensemble, this performance is a 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 transgender witch who journeys into the underworld to barter with the Devil (played by Katie Burgess) for the soul of his lover, Melanie (played by Megan the ManEater) who killed herself in transphobia-fueled desperation. The “hell” Hayden encounters, however, is not the one he expected. He becomes the main course at a bounteous banquet served in his honor, elegant aerial silks become constraints, and finds his lover to be driven mad with grief. In this hell, terror is intermingled with beauty, until Hayden begins to question if everything he’s been taught to fear is beautiful? To save his lover he must confront his own demons, harness his own power, and discover that the Devil wears Hayden’s own face and doesn’t represent the monstrous evil he was told she does…
The world of “The Garden” is one of decadence, furnished with satin, delicate woodwork, and elegant facades, underneath which hides nightmares. Designed by Elisa Sugar, our set includes a 27 x 10 x 14 foot tall aerial rig made out of scrap metal specifically for this performance. Seven performers use this rig to tell the story through music, acrobatics, and aerial silks.
The music itself branches into new styles, composed by the Detroit-based, queer, baroque-horror band CRUNE (made up of Open Flame Composer Walken Schweigert and Matthew Ryan Surline). Using theremin, violin, viola, synthesizers, cello, harmonic operatic singing and hurdy gurdy, the opera is orchestral-techno with experimental vocals. The audience sits on either side of the rig watching each other watch this infernal cast of characters (which includes Sea Thomas as Lillith and Arlo Sombor as The Creature), reclaim their own power and transness in this surreal underworld.
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 were made possible in part by a JFund Award from the American Composers Forum. This hurdy gurdy was made by George Leverett of Altarwind Hurdy Gurdies!