From The Knight Times - By Shawna Downes
The little Cellar Theatre houses a motley group of students tonight. They have gathered here for rehearsal, but right now there are no scripts, no lines, and no characters. The actors take the stage, featureless except for questions and answers scrawled in chalk on the black walls. “Your house is burning. You can take one thing. What do you take?” “What do you think you’d do in a 7.7 earthquake?” A strange sight begins to unfold as rehearsal progresses. Professor Robin Gordon instructs the actors to lean forward until they have to catch themselves.
“Now you’re walking,” Gordon says, as the actors begin to slowly stumble around the stage in an unsteady rhythm. Ensemble member Sarah McCarty leans forward and suddenly stumbles, then takes several shuffling steps across the stage. She pauses for a moment and stares offstage, slowly turning to repeat the process in a different direction.
“What if a catastrophe has just struck and everything you have to do is like relearning how to walk in total disorientation,” Professor Gordon says. “Let your imaginations begin to guide you. What could possibly have just happened to erase my sense of direction—my sense of abilities—so that it feels like I’m learning to walk again?”
This semester, Warner Pacific’s drama students are creating a new play about disaster using a process called devised theatre. The play, Disaster/Relief, will be written and staged by the students involved in the production under the direction of Professor Robin Gordon, who has an M.F.A in New Works Creation from The Ohio State University and a B.A. in Theatre and Dance from Reed College. “You’re going to basically see a work in progress in November,” Gordon said when I interviewed her in September. “I’m less concerned about the immediate outcome than the process,” she said, adding that this new work will not adhere to all of the conventions of drama laid down by Aristotle in The Poetics. “He provided the spine, and we’re gonna rock it,” Gordon said, snapping her fingers and dancing in her seat. The students involved in production are using a variety of methods to create this new play and make their vision a reality. The play will be staged in the Cellar Theatre this November.
Although the production team is not starting with a script, they are not starting from scratch either. Disaster/Relief will be created using a non-fiction book, The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley as a framework. Ripley’s book examines how individuals react in a disaster—and it is usually not how we would expect. Instead of running for the doors, in most disasters people have a three-stage reaction: denial, deliberation, and then action. In addition to this process of reaction, the fact that individuals have different disaster personalities quickly complicates an emergency situation. I asked several students involved in the production about their disaster personalities.
“My disaster personality is paralysis,” Daniel Young, the production assistant, said. “If something’s coming at me, I’m gonna get out of the way, but if there’s an experience that I don’t expect and I have no understanding of how there could be a solution, I have to reevaluate it and try to come up with a procedure on my own. If someone shouts instructions I work off of that, but not knowing what to do is terrifying and it makes me freeze.”
Zack Kahler, ensemble member, is the opposite. He said he is probably the type of person to jump into action immediately, although he’s never experienced a situation he would call a catastrophe.
“I gotta fix everybody else and then fix myself,” explained Jessica Ingram, who is handling audience services. She told me how she found herself trying to take care of everyone else from her hospital bed after she and several other students fell off a bridge one year at summer camp. Sarah, on the other hand, doesn’t think she would handle a disaster well. “I’m sure that I will fail. Miserably,” she said.
“My hope,” Gordon said during my interview, “is that through this process we may come to know our own disaster personalities.” She added that our assumptions about how we might respond in a disaster might not be correct. Life experience has taught her that disaster produces a verbal response from her. It does not prompt her act immediately. “With every story we come to know ourselves better by understanding what people are up against,” she said.
At this point in the process, the crew is still devising the story that they will tell in November. Almost every night of the week, a segment of the production team gathers in the Cellar Theatre and gets to work. They bring in stories, sounds, and images of disaster and consider the question: how would we tell this story using the language of theatre as our medium? Part of the process of learning to tell the story is experiential. Gordon has had to get creative to evoke the physical and emotional responses that people experience in a disaster without a disaster actually taking place.
“Where are the exits in this room?” she asked her team gathered in the theatre during class. The students pointed out the various exits. Most of them use the main door to enter and exit the room each day, but that would not be the most direct path to get outside if it became necessary to evacuate. Gordon asked the students to consider: what if there was a menacing figure blocking the main door? The students began to mull it over.
Then Professor Gordon shouted, “Run!”
The students dropped what they were doing and ran. They ran in focused silence until they found themselves on the wet sidewalk outside with bare feet or soggy socks. As they debriefed back in the theatre, they analyzed their physical reactions—racing pulses and quick breaths—and the way the crowd all moved as one even in the face of an imaginary threat.
In rehearsal, the actors explore the group dynamic further, both for the sake of understanding how crowds work and becoming unified as an ensemble. The ensemble spread out on the stage and walk with their eyes closed, grouping together as they find one another. A group quickly forms in the middle of the stage, but two actors far away from everyone else: Tim Wilkins and Sarah McCarty. Both stand on opposite ends of the stage. Tim approaches backstage, but senses darkness, and turns around. Sarah wanders to the front of the stage, her eyes closed tightly, listening hard to determine where the others are. Tim nearly runs into a wall. Sarah’s fingers are spread out and tense. She finally crashes headlong into the group, and Tim finds them moments later.
“I want to hear Sarah’s story,” Gordon says as the group comes back together to talk about what they experienced. Sarah explains how her anxiety escalated as time went on. At one point she even sensed the others, but she kept walking, too caught up in the fear to change course.
Warner Pacific has an emergency plan, but how many people actually know what it is, let alone where to find it? Professor Gordon and I sat down at her computer to search for the campus emergency plan on the college website. In the middle of the Campus Safety page we finally found it: a small link to a PDF containing the emergency plan instructions. “I didn’t even know these plans existed,” I said. “I’ve never practiced this.”
One of the key challenges of disaster preparedness is that it is inconvenient. In order to stage a fire drill, classes and meetings must be interrupted. The individuals participating in the drill usually know it is not a real disaster and as a result, nobody takes it seriously. But Gordon argues that it is immensely important to practice disaster. “In a disaster, you cannot think. You have to do it beforehand,” she said. We may assume that we would be able to find the quickest way out of the Cellar Theatre with a moment’s notice, but in the midst of a disaster, thinking may not be an option.
Disaster/Relief will be more than just an entertaining play this semester. Gordon hopes that it will prompt important discussions about whether or not we are prepared for disaster. “Knowing how to help yourself puts you in a place where you can help others,” she said as we discussed the outcome of the play. The production will run from November 10th-20th, with performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets will be $5.00 in the bookstore.