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Notes on Alchemy

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Notes on Alchemy

—Hall of Haunts III: ALCHEMY!—

An seasonal piece of theatre made for the rooms of Rutherfurd Hall

Created by: Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews (Tiresias the Reader, concept, script, lighting and set design), Sebastian Cummings (Labraid the Clocksmith), Dana Haberern (Persephone Proserpina, props), Liz Hollon (Persephone Proserpina), Rebecca Kanach (costumes, hallway denizen), Calia Marshall (hallway denizen), Lee Minora (Persephone Proserpina, songwriting), Jonathan Pfeffer (sound design, hallway denizen), Mason Rosenthal (Voice of Vincent the Rabbit, direction), Dani Solomon (Kalika the Inquisitor, production manager), Elizabeth Weinstein (Persephone Proserpina), and Vincent R. Abbot as himself.
Additional props by Chenda Cope. Production support from Laurie Rapasardi.

"Rustic Science can turn cream into butter; Biblical Science, water into wine; Modern Science shall make it possible to transform coal into diamonds, but not yet lead into gold—that is the work of Alchemy."

In his book, From Alchemy to Chemistry, author John Read describes the former (alchemy) as possessing strands of the latter (chemistry), “interwoven with threads from ancient and later religions, folklore, mythology, astrology, magic, mysticism, philosophy, theosophy, and other wide fields of human imagination and experience.” Alchemy emerged as an interdisciplinary art through the cultural and technological exchange in the Eastern Mediterranean around the 6th century BCE, and then spread across the hemisphere where it persisted until the Scientific Revolution of the late 17th century.  What we’re left with is an arcane pseudoscientific practice at the nexus of many cultures, and ideas which, by today’s standards, are mostly wrong.  But in their era the great alchemists, like today’s doctors and scientists, were the authority on the workings of the universe and all it contained.

Dana Haberern as Persephone Proserpina

Dana Haberern as Persephone Proserpina

To condense alchemy’s diverse history into less than 60 minutes was the Medium Theatre Company's assignment in October 2014. We transformed Rutherfurd Hall into the Allamuchy Alchemy Academy, home to the world’s few final alchemists and their noble attempts to grasp at the threads of their pseudoscience. Our protagonist guide invited the audience along to visit the Academy's other residents from whom she'd acquire the ingredients needed for her experiment. These ordinary objects shared their names with human body parts, like the recipe for the ironic automaton in the novelty jazz standard, “The Dummy Song”: 

I'll take the legs from some old table,
I'll take the arms from some old chair,
I'll take the neck from some old bottle,
And from a horse I'll take the hair,
I'll take the hands and face from off a clock,
And baby, when I'm through,
I'll get more loving from that dum, dum, dummy
Than I ever got from you!

We assembled similar objects in our story, but with a bit more eerie Halloween flavor, topped off with one gruesome final item: the very alchemist leading the quest must sacrifice her own life in order to revive her sister, as prescribed by the First Law of Alchemy:

“In order to attain something, one must give something up.”

Our play’s other alchemists, also abiding by this First Law, had each already given something up, and that thing was the clue for what the audience was looking for—a pair of eyes (the letter “I” twice), two hands encircling a face (off a clock), a tongue (from a shoe), and ears (corn)—all highlighted by characters whose visage was defined by the conspicuous absence (or overabundance) of these attributes.  A key detail was that for the alchemists who had no eyes or hands or tongues, the deficit of these organs was by no means a disability, but rather a different way of relating to the world and even the key to accessing greater power. We named these characters after legendary figures whose own disabilities also granted them greater abilities.  Our Reader in his library was named for Tiresias, that blind prophet of Thebes who foretells the latter half of The Odyssey when Odysseus and crew pay him a visit in the Underworld.  Our Clocksmith, Labraid, took his name from a mythical Irish king who won his realm in a boat race by becoming the first to touch land when he severed his own hand and threw it upon the shore.  Kalika, the Inquisitor, was named for the Bengali goddess Kali, whose only way to deal with her constant rampage of death and destruction was to go about with her tongue lolling out.  Our Kali, by contrast, kept hers hidden in a gesture of tempered fury that commanded the crowd’s attention and obedience. It's also important to note that some of the actors playing these characters live with real dis/abilities of their own, and performing dis/ability onstage can be a transformative act of mediumship.

Then there was our guide (played by four different actors so that we could run multiple performances simultaneously by starting tours every 20 minutes), whose quest was to collect the objects and then sacrifice her life to resurrect her sister…who then re-collects the same objects and sacrifices her life to resurrect her sister.  This endless cycle recalls the myth of Sisyphus, eternally trundling his boulder up a hill in Erebus only to have it roll down again, or Tantalus forever stretching up to eat unreachable grapes and stooping down to drink unattainable water.  The Queen of that Underworld was herself trapped in a cycle mandated by Zeus: stuck in Erebus with her possessive husband for one third of the year, then escaping her hellish curfew to bring springtime back to earth, only to return again when winter came.  And so our guides were named for this fertility/death goddess in her Greek and Roman incarnations: Persephone Proserpina.

Alchemy is, at its essence, a Sisyphean task.  Depictions of medieval alchemists are often ones of futile struggles to beget gold and silver from lead and tin.  Our alchemists too were like those condemned by ceaseless and futile toil, especially our Tiresius as an eyeless researcher whose effort is to determine the Laws of the Universe by reading every single page ever printed, and our handless Labraid, whose project is to remove the hands from all the world’s clocks in his desire to stop Time. Even more Sisyphean was the fact that these characters repeated their encounters with Persephone and her entourage every 20 minutes in a closed time loop far more confining than the one found in the 1993 film Groundhog Day

Sebastian Cummings as Labraid the Clocksmith and Dana Haberern as Persephone Proserpina

Sebastian Cummings as Labraid the Clocksmith and Dana Haberern as Persephone Proserpina

No matter how damned or damning her task, the audience always stood by their Persephone, a loyalty fueled by many factors: she was the host and explainer of the rules of the game, a lovely woman (or women) with an equally lovely name.  She bore no disfigurement (unless one thought maybe that she and her sister were one person, in which case half of her was missing), nor any off-putting tics (unless one decided that she was delusional about even having a sister). She was the protagonist and friend, and thereby anyone who crossed her was an antagonist and enemy.  And so everyone stood and sang the Allamuchy Alchemy Academy Anthem, and no one held any qualms when Persephone said she wanted to raise her sister from the dead, though everyone knew that this was probably a very bad idea.  When she made a deal with Vincent, a demonic woman-eating Rabbit to swap a lump of human flesh for the ears of decorative corn in his cage, someone always came forward, stuck her hand in that jar of bloody gristle and made the exchange.  And when Persephone entered Labraid’s chamber uninvited and asked for help in her completely self-serving project, she never failed to persuade everyone to abandon their ethics and conspire to steal a clock from him while he lay on the ground helpless and crying.  For one performance, an audience member even kicked him and called him a misogynist. We are all actors, after all, especially on Halloween.

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As Mediums, our theatre is a concoction of truth and fiction, actors and audience, and it's up to all of us to determine the outcome of our quest. The ancient alchemies of Aristotle and Jabir ibn Hayyan led us astray with erroneous information for two millennia, yet their core ideas—that everything shares a common soul balanced out by complementary forces—were later supported by the discovery of the atom and its composite parts. But even that idea shall surely one day shudder under the discoveries of a future science that will render today's periodic tables obsolete. Whether it's Halloween or not, are we playing the part of alchemists, thinking that we know everything about the universe? An audience willing to take the side of the first character to come along and tell us a compelling story? Do we follow that story, even when it conflicts with our ethics or basic logic? And what do we do when faced with a different truth, one supported on sturdier evidence? Indeed, in order to attain something, one must give something up—that is the First Law of Alchemy.

Selected References

  • Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. "The Danger of a Single Story." TED Talks. TED, July 2009. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
  • Aristotle. Poetics. Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print. 
  • Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. BBC. 1972. Television.
  • Bishop, Claire. Participation. London: Whitechapel, 2006. Print.
  • Brooks, Douglas Renfrew. Poised for Grace: Annotations on the Bhagavad Gita from a Tantric View. The Woodlands, TX: Anusara, 2008. Print.
  • Dear White People. Dir. Justin Simien. Perf. Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner. Lionsgate, 2014. Film.
  • Duncan, Kath.  "Wannabes." Re:sound #69: The Body Image Show. Third Coast International Audio Festival. WBEZ, Chicago, IL, 2007. Radio. 
  • Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. Dir. Regan Brashear. Perf. Patricia Berne, Fernanda Castelo, Hugh Herr. New Day Films, 2014
  • Groundhog Day. Dir. Harold Ramis. By Danny Rubin. Perf. Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and Andie MacDowell. Columbia Pictures, 1993. Film.
  • Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Back Bay, 1996. Print. 
  • Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Viking, 1996. Print.
  • Kinsley, David R. The Divine Player: A Study of Kṛṣṇa Līlā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. Print.
  • Nicolas, J. L. "Red Hand Counties." World in Words Magazine. 20 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
  • Read, John. From Alchemy to Chemistry. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.
  • Rose, Billy, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson. "Dummy Song". Hoosier Hot Shots, 1944. Louis Armstrong, 1953. Decca Records. Vinyl recordings.
  • Sagan, Carl. "Astronomy and Astrology." Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. PBS. 1980. Television.
  • Salzberg, Hugh W. From Caveman to Chemist: Circumstances and Achievements. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1991. Print.

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Notes about Nobody

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Notes about Nobody

Nobody's Home

A multi-sensory meditation-comedy on the nature of nothing
performed for extraordinary audiences in ordinary bedrooms

Co-created by Mason Rosenthal and Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews
Performed by Mason Rosenthal
Direction and design by Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews
Music by Jonathan Pfeffer
Costumes by Rebecca Kanach
Movement consultants Magdalene San Millan and Chelsea Murphy
Logo design by Kylin Metler

Mason Rosenthal with "Somebody Special" during the second Philly run of   Nobody's Home   in January of 2014. Photo © JJ Tiziou www.jjtiziou.net

Mason Rosenthal with "Somebody Special" during the second Philly run of Nobody's Home in January of 2014. Photo © JJ Tiziou www.jjtiziou.net

Nobody's Home is an original piece of theatrical performance created by Mason Rosenthal and Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews of the Medium Theatre Company. This interactive one-man variety show stars a personality named Nobody played by Rosenthal, who serves the audience guided meditations, hand-shadow fables, foot rubs, sweet tea and snacks until his harmonious world gets poked at by lingering bitterness from a past relationship. Andrews and Rosenthal created the piece collaboratively through theatrical improvisations to premiere in Philadelphia’s 2013 SoLow Fest, a DIY festival of new experimental solo work. What started as an idea to lead a small audience through a guided meditation gone wrong in Rosenthal’s bedroom, quickly turned into an elaborate interdisciplinary work that’s since played to packed crowds at colleges, house parties, and on board a recreational vehicle at the New Orleans Fringe Festival.

A Voice Inside Your Head

The original idea for Nobody was that of a spiritual teacher, based on German-born author Eckhart Tolle. Mason originally performed the "Eckhart voice" while wearing a mask built by sculptor Ryan Kelly in the 2012 Philly Fringe Festival piece Mining the Mine of the Mind for Minderals (MMMM for short), which Mason co-created and performed with Megan Mazarick. A month later the mask and voice returned in a more sinister fashion as "Nobody" or "The Voice Inside Your Head" in the Mediums' first Hall of Haunts at Rutherfurd Hall and some subsquent solo engagements. The voice (sans mask) appeared yet again in the Mediums' 2013 play, Meet the Mediums. Here the Voice Inside Your Head was used as a comedic conversation partner for the play's antagonist to perform internal dialogues for the audience.

In Nobody's Home, the offstage voice of Nobody returns to a more genial, Tolle-inspired character, with some twists that evolved (and continue to evolve) through the devising process, as Nobody now dialogues with not just the audience or another character, but also with his most vulnerable self.

Mason Rosenthal and home host Bruce Schimmel durin the "7 Homes in 7 Days Tour" in January 2014.  Photo © JJ Tiziou www.jjtiziou.net

Mason Rosenthal and home host Bruce Schimmel durin the "7 Homes in 7 Days Tour" in January 2014.  Photo © JJ Tiziou www.jjtiziou.net

Devising a Plot

We created Nobody's Home out of Mason's desire to make a show for his tiny South Philly bedroom. He asked Morgan to direct and they began working with structured improvisations using a stopwatch based loosely on techniques similar to those employed by the composer John Cage: Morgan would sit outside the room for 2 minutes while Mason set up the environment. Morgan would enter and Mason had just 1 minute to come up with some unique bit of performance. When the timer went off at the end of that minute, Morgan returned to the hall for another 2 minutes, and the cycle repeated, with Mason exploring different motifs that ranged from stillness and silence, to wild cacophonous dances under the bedclothes, to Aesop-inspired hand-shadow fables told on the fly. The best of these moments were then expanded into more fleshed-out scenes, and Morgan began collecting objects—a plastic portrait of an eagle, a ceramic chicken, a pair of brass swans, a handful of rubber turtles—all of whom became the play's co-stars.

Mason also enlisted composer Jonathan Pfeffer to create and perform a live musical score for the original run. Jon's role was originally conceived as a Paul Schaffer to Mason's David Letterman, and another theme emerged: that of a charismatic talk show host who would do a variety of things to entertain the audience

See the full roster of Medium Theatre Company shows ➔

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Message in a Moon-bound Balloon

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Message in a Moon-bound Balloon

—The Sea of Tranquility—

An original piece of theatre
made for the rooms of Rutherfurd Hall

Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews (Ensemble, Radio Host, Professor T.P. White, banjo, guitar, script, design, songwriting, direction)  
Sarah Gladwin Camp (Ensemble, Sabina Rutherfurd, Last Panther, choreography, bass drum)
Stephen Dahmer (Ensemble, Robert Rutherfurd, guitar, cello, music direction)
Dana Haberern (Ensemble, Margaret Rutherfurd, mandolin, fiddle, animation, costumes)
Daniel McNamara (Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, ensemble, piano, clarinet, music direction)
Mason Rosenthal (Tour Guide, Young Rutherfurd, ensemble, direction)
Alie Vidich (Jenny Jump, music box, bass drum, choreography)
Written and directed by Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews and the Mediums, with production support from Amy Hufnagel.

The Sea of Tranquility premiered at Rutherfurd Hall March 2nd, 3rd and 4th of 2012. An excerpt, "The Moon and our Furture", was performed at the Rotunda in Philadelphia, at the Bread & Puppet Theater in Vermont and at Goddard College's Alternative Media Conference in 2012-13, and also appeared as an installation at Great Small Works' International Toy Theater Festival in New York City. While developing the show, the Mediums also held workshops, performances and talkbacks with all of the students and most of the teachers at three public schools affiliated with Rutherfurd Hall.

The Sea of Tranquility Conceived

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, 19th century inventor and astronomer who took the first telescopic photos of the sun, moon and stars. His son Winthrop commissioned the building of Rutherfurd Hall

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, 19th century inventor and astronomer who took the first telescopic photos of the sun, moon and stars. His son Winthrop commissioned the building of Rutherfurd Hall

This play was born from two phone calls concerning earthquakes and the Moon.

The first call came from Japan during the summer of 2011. It was the middle of the night in Tokyo and there were fears that another quake would come. The first one had been big enough to cause a tsunami and damage a nuclear power plant in the seaside town of Fukashima. Another tremor could increase the damage, the death toll, the threat of radiation, and there wasn’t much that one could do to prevent this. So, while the Sun shone above me in Philadelphia, this midnight voice from Tokyo asked for a song about the Moon.

The second call came from Allamuchy, New Jersey, asking for an original piece of theatre. The parameters were that it be set in the grand rooms of a historic mansion, that it be tied to New Jersey history and folklore, and that it include reference to a certain astronomer who was the first to take telescopic photos of the Moon. A friend and I drove up to that New Jersey mansion to meet with its caretakers, where our meeting was interrupted by the rarest of occurrences in the state of New Jersey: an earthquake.

Two earthquakes and one Moon, experienced from opposite sides of the planet. That, and the town of Tranquility, New Jersey, which I was told (albeit erroneously) was the namesake of a lunar sea, inspired me to write “The Sea of Tranquility” as a song about two people who are a world apart and then united by the end of that world. From there I worked backwards to expand the song into a play based around three characters from history and/or myth. These are:

  1. Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, the prominent 19th century astrophotographer who shares a name with parts of the Moon and New Jersey, as well as the mansion where the play would be performed.
  2. Jenny Jump, a folkloric figure who may have taken any number of possible leaps that leant a name to a mountain range, a state forest and a legendary rock in that forest. A version of her also appears in one of the many books about the Land of Oz.
  3. The White Pilgrim of Dark Moon, a traveling storyteller-cum-preacher who dressed in white from head-to-toe and rode a white horse from Ohio to New Jersey, where he was struck down by smallpox before his own congregation.

Down the road from the Rutherfurd mansion is a gated community called Panther Valley that is also home to a golf course and a quaint strip mall,  not one single panther. So I gave the panthers a home in the play alongside other characters that could run the gamut from fact to fable.

The Sea of Tranquility Devised

"The Moon and our Future," a toy theater with three layers of moving backgrounds, built by Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews. Devices like this were used throughout the 19th century for art, entertainment, as well as scientific presentations and political propaganda.

"The Moon and our Future," a toy theater with three layers of moving backgrounds, built by Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews. Devices like this were used throughout the 19th century for art, entertainment, as well as scientific presentations and political propaganda.

The Sea of Tranquility (the play) is about how we tell stories, and also how stories are told.

Bear with me on this one—these are actually two different concepts.

One concept describes the media that we use to tell stories. Today most Americans get their stories from television, the internet, movies, popular songs, advertisements and slogans prevalent in our culture. Setting this play in a 110-year-old mansion and dealing with characters that were older than that, I wanted to use the precursors to modern media: the folksong, the radio drama, the illustrated lecture, the masquerade ball, and live theatre.

The other concept concerns that any story can be told from any number of viewpoints. Take the American Civil War as an example: What would its story be like told from the perspective of a Confederate soldier? A Union soldier? Their wives, children or parents? How would it be told by their descendants living today? What is that story like from the perspective of a former slave or her descendants? A Native American, Mexican, Canadian, or immigrant from Germany, Ireland or China? How would a general’s version of that war differ from a corporal’s, or a politician’s? The story changes to suit the storyteller and there is no single story for any occurrence. The same goes for those stories that we deem auspicious enough to be called “history,“ for history is written by those who wield the power to write and publish it. The Sea of Tranquility is not concerned with one version of history, but many histories told from the viewpoints of many characters.

"The Coming of the End of the World: Prophecies Come True. Earthquakes, Eruptions, Wars, Plagues, Famines and Fires." Engraving for the Mexican press by J.G. Posada, c. 1900

"The Coming of the End of the World: Prophecies Come True. Earthquakes, Eruptions, Wars, Plagues, Famines and Fires." Engraving for the Mexican press by J.G. Posada, c. 1900

The Sea of Tranquility’s performers came out of circumstance and happenstance from a variety of backgrounds: dance, theatre, music, puppetry, filmmaking, costume design—in short, everything we needed for the show. I handed them an outline of the script, and we played theatre games that built into techniques for improvisation and character development. I’d take notes during our rehearsals, and then turn these notes into bits of a script, which the performers then expanded upon with stagecraft, choreography and musicality. After rehearsing scenes, we each gave feedback on what worked, as well as suggestions for what could change. Through this methodology, we collectively scripted the play, both offsite in Philadelphia and onsite at Rutherfurd Hall in Allamuchy, with each cast member taking leadership based on their personal strengths.

Many of the ideas in the play were inspired by other sources, including interviews with longtime residents of Warren County, research into New Jersey history and folklore, and science history that put Lewis Morris Rutherfurd's astrophotography into context. The wood engravings of Mexican printmaker J.G. Posada (1852-1913) were also a big inspiration. Posada provided many images of political events and environmental disasters for the press in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His woodcut illustrations, along with others from that time period, appear in the show.

Bibliography

  • Abumrad, Jad and Robert Krulwich. Radiolab: Escape.  (New York: WNYC, 2012. Podcast.) This episode of the popular science podcast recounts Isaac Newton's process of deducing why the Moon revolves around the Earth.
  • Beck, Henry Chalton. "The White Pilgrim of Dark Moon." Tales and Towns of New Jersey. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1964. Print.) 26-47. Henry Beck goes into great detail recounting conversations about the mysterious man from Ohio who rode into Warren County on a white horse, as well as the road and cemetery associated with him.
  • Botton, Alain de. “Atheism 2.0” (TED, 2011. Podcast and video available online) 
  • Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed. TV series, 10 episodes. (London: BBC, 1985. Video.) Science historian James Burke was the BBC's correspondent on the Apollo Space Program and then went on to make the landmark series Connections in 1978. His series from 1985 is Burke at his peak, tying all of human history and invention to space exploration through an auto-ethnographically Western lens.
  • Ervey, Cassie with Nicole Lindow and Melissa Maltese. Allamuchy: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. (2002. Print.)
  • Jensen, Derrick. A Language Older Than Words. (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2004. Print.) In his memoir, Jensen writes about inter-species communication, making deals with ducks and coyotes, and listening to trees and stars.
  • Johnson, Helen R. History of Allamuchy Township, Warren County, NJ: 100th Anniversary. (1973. Print.)
  • Neill, John R. The Wonder City of Oz. (Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1940. Print.) Neill was an illustrator of the Oz series created by Frank L. Baum and then took over as series author for four books from 1940-45. Jenny Jump was one of his main characters, inspired by the many places named for the original Jenny Jump in New Jersey. 
  • Nelhart, John G. Black Elk Speaks. (New York: Washington Square Press, 1972. Print.) Nelhart recounts his experience listening to Nicolas Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux elder who tells American history from a native perspective.
  • Posada, J.G. Messenger of Mortality. (Mt. Kisco: Moyer Bell Limited, 1989. Print.) Posada made many engravings of disasters for the Mexican press in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We used these to depict references to blizzards, earthquakes, tornados, volcanos and other apocalyptic events.
  • Sagan, Carl. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. TV series, 13 episode. (PBS, 1979,) Video. Carl Sagan's classic series poetically illustrates the universe and our place in it, and how we have come to know what we know about it.
  • Weird New Jersey (Website.) An invaluable reference for things to do and see in the Garden State includes some histories of Jenny Jump, Panther Valley and other ghosts from the past.

See the full roster of Medium Theatre Company shows ➔

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