23 Hamsters

Nov 27, 2023

Dear Animal, 

When you were a young Animal, every February, I used to give away show ideas on our socials. One per day for the month. I did it to prepare a blank slate for new ideas to arrive. I remember once that my old friend, the playwright Kevin Kerr, responded to a show that didn’t yet exist by reviewing it. Truly hilarious. Sometime when I have 19 hours I will dig back on FB and see if I can find it for you. 

I’m still bursting with show ideas. Why don’t I make some of them now? I have this conversation with the Art Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I tell them about 25 years of making theatres of snow and ice, of sand and cityscapes, in swimming pools and old-growth forests, and elevators and so on and on. But that was our past, Animal, where together we made large, impossible things. Now that I have left You, I need a shift of scale. I once delighted in working with teams of talented designers.  I’m seeking, now, to hold all this art-making within my body.  For my hands to talk to my imagination directly. Ah, they say. ‘Fabrication.’ I love the word.

On the land here I find broken things. Maybe from pioneer dumps when this place was the main street of Sunshine. Maybe from booze bottles that exploded in the fire of 2010. A neighbour who moved here in 1973 says target practice, more likely. Who knows? It’s not just shards of bottles, but China cups, and plates, and the hillside itself broken open in search of gold. There is so much that is broken in the world. Images of grey rubble that haunt my sleep. It might be important to take what I can get my hands on and put it back together. It might be important to try. Acts of Restoration.

O this world. I have been sick with it this month, You too? How can one feel peace with another raging war? It is with me everywhere I go. Even the mailboxes seem to cry out. 

O this world.

When I am really down, I get myself out by giving: time, energy, toys from the closet, books I’ve just closed, ideas for making money to my teen. It only really works if you get the right thing to the right person. When it clicks and becomes beloved. So, then I know what to do with the 1000 ideas for shows that I have—give them away. Not to you, Animal, busy this turn of the season with your new artistic director and the shows of the future, but you, no YOU right there!

At least some of these shows are specific to place, to my damp, mossy home of my yesterday, and there might be an immediate kinship with you, west coast denizen, and that thought makes me happy. I had the idea to write a book called 1000 Shows to Give Away. Maybe I’ll work on the title. Maybe I’ll spitball a little. November is the new February.

We had been kicking around the idea of a show called Shelter for a long time, because as humans, we have the ancestral knowledge of how to build our own shelter; but houses are so far from our fingertips these days. How can we reclaim that ability to make a home with our hands? I was thinking about that and then I ran across an article on fungal biotech, the growing of  buildings, or say, a set, a theatre. This emergent building method is ecologically sublime, low-energy, carbon-negative, compostable at end-of-life, natural, and non-toxic. Learning about it, I got collared, lifted by the nape of my neck like a kitten into the Mother Mouth of this idea. Could you grow a theatre, making at the same time, a show with a group of actors? How do we make ourselves at home?  Mushrooms are the medium of the future. Maybe you call the show Fairy Ring. What stories might bear fruit? What props are needed? Hammer or maybe just watering can? Wouldn’t it be fun to find out? 

This isn’t my show to make, because my new home in Sunshine, Colorado, is high and dry and, as I talked about here, you find barely a fungal strand. I’ve been commissioned to fall in love with this place, and I’m working on it, Animal, I can’t quite see yet how it will arrive, that love. Unexpectedly, perhaps, like 8 inches of snow in mid-October.  

So, that happened. Like that. It is autumn and leaves are turning. I try to get the kids to put on a sweatshirt. Then, I walk outside one morning and the air, it got to thinking, and launched a thousand crystalline ideas. They come for me. Get Ready.

I don’t feel ready. 

The snow starts early Saturday morning and we hurry outside—my sweetheart to fill our potholes with gravel so the plow can get up the drive and me to seed wildflowers.

I have been collecting seed since late summer wandering through Sunshine. I have Columbine and Blue Flax, Blanketflower and Milkweed, Penstemon and the wild Sweet Pea. In the beforetimes, I would wait to plant most things until late spring when the soil was warm enough to sit on with my bare bum. This is lore passed on by an actor in a show a decade ago, but is very good advice. But here, the seeds need cold to set, and the snow to protect them from birds, so, with freezing fingers I pinch, sprinkle and pat the ground. On the brown earth stippled with the first flakes, I see the blue and red and yellow and pink and orange. It’s coming for me.  

The flakes are small, just dots of snow, then a skyfull for a dayfull and nightfull. Then it’s a world of white under a full moon. So much shine. We don’t own curtains, and I can’t sleep with the everglow outside and so I’m up, maybe it’s 4am. I sit in the dark with coffee and cat and watch the mountain in moonlight. A fox enters dancing delicately along, and then a moment later, its mate. The trail they take has a kind of narrative. One stops where I planted wildflowers. Does it want me or seeds? Later, I go out to follow the fox tracks, the story of their desire. Then, the narrative line of deer intersects the fox. Deer are fearful, and move away from things as much as towards them. By the road and hugging the bramble is the definitive path of bunny butt.  Could there be a show that weaves in these narratives of fox and deer and bunny? Can we follow them and shift our paths through the world, understand another way of wanting? Maybe it’s called Wander. I think the world would be better for some interspecies stories right now. Narrative of bunny, narrative of deer, and then narrative of my own life, nation to nation. Why do we go where we go?

I have to do the school run this morning because it is Personal Project Day. I moved here for many reasons, but most pressing was so that my youngest could attend a very small school—22 kids in 6 grades— especially created for kids on the spectrum, with what used to be called Asperger Syndrome. Intense passionate interests are a marker of Aspies, and Personal Project Day is all about those intense interests. I tromp us through the snow to get to the Jeep. From living at sea-level for a quarter century, I know that eight inches of snow mostly melts away in the heat of the day. But here, the cold intensifies and turns thick snow to thick  ice. And that is normal and school is not delayed. 

My beloved comes out in his bathrobe to help me free the windscreen. De-icing is my new love language. School starts promptly at 8:31am. My kid goes first, a showman who pulls an Axolotl out of a hat. Next is the 15-year-old who runs a Hamster Rescue out of his bedroom. He once rescued 23 hamsters from a bad breeder. This is your next show: 23 Hamsters. You might imagine a wheel for humans to run on and concessions served from those silver, hanging water bottles that release a single bead of water right on your tongue. And, hey, it’s your show, so feel very free to go that direction. 

I think the show stars his mom who I met at Back-To-School-Night. Because behind the emergency rescue of 23 Hamsters by a 15-year-old is that parent. You see, when you have an Aspie kid the whole world created by neurotypicals is wrong for them. They suffer so. As the care-giver, you are charged with the making of a whole new world. And the effort of reimagining and recreating the world, that is a feat of love. So maybe 23 Hamsters is a kind of love tutorial, and we, the audience, will squeeze into that kid’s bedroom with the 23 Hamsters, and all the props will be made out of love, even the hamsters, and, yes, we will all get to take one home.  

The recreation of the world. O yes. Yes, let’s. I’ve kicked the tires of this current model, and it could use some work. 

By the time I get us all home, it is snowing again, so softly that I can’t keep up with it. Sneaky, this snow. Rain is more plain spoken. It pours down speech as Thomas Merton says. “Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody…What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone in the forest at night cherished by this wonderful unintelligible perfectly innocent speech…Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks, I am going to listen”. A play about the rain was in development with The Only Animal but got COVID-cancelled, so it is up for grabs. We imagined a steam-punk set of pipe and spout, fogger and sprayer that would, through the course of any performance, use 329 litres of water, the average use for a Canadian per day. The audience might each get a 5 gallon bucket, to carry the water in and the water out. It’s good, I think, to feel the weight of the rain in this way. Museum of Rain was imagined as a tempestuous relationship between a woman and the Rain, the ultimate elemental love story. We had a lot of fun with water puppet work, as you can see from the photo of Colin up in the gods throwing down. Do you long for theatrical deluge? 

Water is scarce in this high desert where I live now. You aren’t even allowed to harvest rain off your roof, because it’s needed to recharge the aquifer. Last weekend, in Sunshine, we ran out of water three times. There is a sick kid who wants a bath, 3 loads of laundry, someone flushed and watered the houseplants, and sigh, all our careful systems go awry. 

So, when I got rained on this month, I felt lucky. But it wasn’t in Sunshine. I went home for 24 hours. 

Home. I know I used the word home in the previous sentence and could do a little self-editing, but, man, the word feels so good on the tongue. Home. Home. We fly up and rent a moving truck to move the stuff we left for staging back here. The offer comes through the night we arrive. Joe sold. The rain falls. The creek runs boisterous. I stay awake all night to soak up that water. Luckily,  I have deep pockets in my soul. I stuff them with moss and moisture with the last view of my garden from inside the fence. I kiss the leaves. Goodbye.

The memories stream through the empty house as I sweep one last time. Babies crawling. My old dog Reba sleeping. She was so loyal to me that once when her stomach growled she barked at it to protect me. (Can someone please make a show with a Dogged heroine like that?) I see my kids as toddlers in the bathtub, I see them as six-year-olds running the hoverboard from Slime into the wallboard. I remember the straight-arm hold it takes to get a toddler from fingerpaint on the kids’ table to sink. I bump into myself in the empty house, my arms full of produce from the garden, and handfuls of mushrooms from the forest, and babies who won’t sleep, with lovers who will. Here is the spot on the stairs where my water broke, the spot in the kitchen where my marriage broke, where, making pancakes on Sunday, I said, ‘I think it’s time to let each other go.’ The sweet spot by the door where I married my true love in a surprise wedding and one of the best theatrical reveals of my career. The memories can’t be swept up, gathered, pushed in cardboard boxes, packed in moving trucks. They will stay here. O Joe. 

This house was your rehearsal hall, Animal. Remember the workshop we did for the Farmer’s Market Puppet Show? It came out of a visit to the Farmer’s Market where the only entertainment was a solo acoustic guitar rendition of ‘Closer to Fine’. You have experienced that, right? Couldn’t we provide more organic entertainment? The idea was that puppeteers would arrive at the Farmer’s Market with cutting boards and knives and shop for the week’s produce. Out of these seasonal veggies and fruits, they would carve puppets, and create a short puppet piece, and then perform it for kids and kin. We made a chorus of carrot mice for kids in the audience. My youngest was a toddler, and I thought he might love the show, the puppet sword fight complete with tomato blood and the celery bird that pooped purple potatoes. He watched standing at the edge of the table stage, and softly wiggling his carrot mouse. At the end of the piece I asked, ‘what was your favourite moment?’ He said, ‘The part that was my mouse.’ I was deep into discovery on audience-activated work at that time, and the lightbulb above my head flashed bright right then. Yeah, when we, as audience, get to do something, that becomes the main event. Even more important than puppet death scenes or purple potato poop. That lesson went into City and the City, and tinkers. Anyway, this show ended with Puppet Soup, which could make a great title, come to think of it.

The truck is packed. I stand at the counter where I have prepared 10,000 dinners and I write a note to Joe.

I stick it in a little crack in the skirting board that you would only know if you have cleaned cat vomit off the stairs. Goodbye, sweet Joe, I love you so.

The visit was brief but we made time, my new husband and I, to go to the forest and find mushrooms, to go to the beach and feel that forever of wave. We arrive at the pier at the moment of the solar eclipse, and watch all that is bright go dark and then back to bright. Rob calls it a metaphor, but who is he to say? I often remind him when he makes puns that I am Professionally Funny. And now, I might remind him who is in Charge of Metaphors around here. But, then again, he might be right.  We touch the mandala and get muffins at the Gumboot. I run into friends and give/get crunching hugs.  

And then we get on the road, and I cry for hundreds of miles. Away from damp paths and moss fingers. Away from the home where I raised my kids. Memories in motes of light floating everywhere away. I think of seaweed, the way it attaches to rock to hang on in the tide. This attachment is called a ‘holdfast’. I wish I had that to never let go of all that is Joe, but along the way, and on the road, it slips away. Holdfast. That would be a good humane technology to develop. That would make a great hyper-local show that is all about holding tight to the place you call Home. 

We drive until we are dangerously tired and then stop at a cheap motel in Tremonton, Utah. The woman behind the counter won’t let us go to our room unless we take lobby cookies by the plateful and Halloween candy by the handful. Sugar is her love language. It’s a domestic trend. Sugar in the egg-salad sandwiches, in the six kinds of coffee creamer, and in the popcorn triangles we buy at the truck stop. Welcome to America; if you aren’t jangled, jacked up, and jittery, then you aren’t participating in the national conversation. 

I come up with a show called Road Trip. It’s for you, fellow driver, along your highway that never ends. It is 40 hours long, story and sound track woven together, giving directions for places to stop and providing introductions to a taxidermy jackalope and other colorful characters. Maybe it opens with this song. I can attest it is indeed a Long Long Long Long Way. Road Trip is narrated by the Google Map voice, who tells you where to turn but also what snack food to buy and how to get where you are going in this life. She is there to direct you.

How else would you be able to decide at the truck stop, which knife to buy?

 Or might you prefer your knives as earrings? 

Road Trip wends you through the ridiculous, the gorgeous, the reprehensible. Put the pedal to the metal and run straight into your biggest fear. Or, if you can, turn Right into some kind of redemption.  (Bonus: the verbiage above doubles as your 100-word project description for your grant application to make this show. You’re welcome.)

This leads me to think about desire paths. You know the term? When you are in a public park, sidewalks are meant to take you where you want to go, but you might notice a trail worn in the grass. This is a Desire Path. A park is full of them. As is the world. A very small rebellion. An initiative to go another way. To deviate. To go directly for what it is you want. 
I go to Denver’s Art Walk to see if I can find a desire path there.…

I find this table made in 1939 with the feet of a bird. The past has beauty to offer the present.  I’m thinking about that, waiting at an intersection, I watch a motorbike Pop a Wheelie. It takes me back.  Could totally be the throwback show about growing up in the 80s. It’s a cabaret, I reckon, featuring songs like ‘Two for flinching’, ‘Takes one to know one’, ‘and ‘No duh’.  Budget for a lot of big hair.

I enjoy some giddy delight with that idea and make notes on my phone in the middle of the night under a tent of sheets. Then, I retreat to the couch so I won’t wake Rob. I hear the sighs as the children dream. Clunks as the fridge makes ice. Terrific idea for a show for one person at a time where you try to sleep and I personify insomnia and put stuff in your head that keeps you awake all night long. We could call it Sleep No More. Catchy, eh? 

I rehearse it again the next night. Sigh. I lie there for hours, listening. It’s too cold for crickets, too still for wind, too late for teenagers. The birds have mostly migrated, and no creek, no creaking trees, like the beforetimes. It’s just quiet. Having spent so many years in the theatre, of course, I know a few kinds of silence. Silence when an audience is with you. Silence when they are confused. Silence when the show has ended but the audience doesn’t want it yet, silence while they all hold their breath. Wouldn’t it be nice to make a show that explores Six Kinds of Silence? I think about that for a while, and I check the time on my phone. 3am. Close enough to dawn to call a day.  

So, I’m on the couch again with coffee and cat and computer, and there is new snow blowing off the roof. Fairy dust. Sparkles. Moonlight. I wish the screen you are reading on would rend and that icy-clean breath of the mountain could blow through to you. Damn, I keep running into the limits of what language can do. Writing: a virtual reality, if an ancient one, the story of someone else, somewhere else, not really touching you, but maybe touching you. Language has a lot to carry. It coincides with my other top career choice, if art doesn’t pan out, and that’s ditch digging. I love the grunt of the shovel, the bite of wet earth, the effort to move it. I’m made for lifting heavy things. After ‘A Story That Has Never Been Told’ an acquaintance messages me, considers my writing a cry for help. Ah, hells bells. I’m okay, already. The dawn here is a crayon stack, tangerine and aquamarine, and I’ll draw something out of the day. I won’t stop writing even if I end up in art school or whatever. I go to the Creative Writing Department about possible graduate degree there but when I mention playwriting they get tense, WE DON’T HAVE ANYONE WHO DOES THAT HERE. They don’t capitalize it but I do, because theatre makes noise, and stories are good out loud and shame on them for not having a playwright professor. Damn, offer the job and I will jump to gladly sign myself and my lousy BA up. Yeah, I just split the infinitive. You can do a lot of things in the theatre. 

And I hope you do. I hope you take an idea. They were here all the time, anyway. Because really, how is a show idea conceived? I’ve described it to my students as a ‘pricking of interest’. You encounter something in the world, it’s already there. You feel pricking. Pay attention. There is a show waiting for you. Meet it and morph. Mosh pit it. Say hello to the idea with as much exposed skin as you can. And, as we used to say, Animal, if we don’t have the money, we will stick it together with scotch tape and chewing gum and bits of rusty wire. Some ideas are inevitable. They show themselves.

As for me, I’m a little lighter at the end of this. It’s like carving a sculpture out of stone, remove enough and you will find a new form.

23 Hamsters. Adopt one. Take it home and give it lots of love. It’s from me, with all the tutelage, the years spent in your grand company, Animal. It’s also from you. 

And, as always– onwards. With a capital O.



P.S. Hey, look, I wanted to give you 23 shows, one for each Hamster, but I ran out of room. I’ll squeeze the rest into future missives. 

All photos by Kendra Fanconi except 23 Hamsters which was a collaboration with Bing AI Image Generator.