Twenty-six years ago Jessica Wallenfels was standing on the precipice of her life and looking over the edge into the abyss. Today, Wallenfels is one of the most popular and respected theater artists in her adopted city of Portland. The November Project, created by Wallenfels’ company, Many Hats Collaboration, and making its debut on Sunday, Feb. 7, in the 2021 Fertile Ground online festival of new performance, is the latest evolution of a journey that began more than a quarter-century ago.
In 1995, as an undergrad at California Institute for the Arts, Wallenfels was spiraling out of control. Drugs had taken over, and things got so bad that the school stepped in. “After a series of embarrassing events,” Wallenfels remembers on her blog, “my theater faculty had devised a plan for my probation.” The plan included Wallenfels attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a move which, at the time, made her feel “stupid and embarrassed and angry.” At first she was, in her words, “an oddity,” the only woman among several men and twenty years younger than any of them. But she was drawn in by the storytelling and the ritual. One day, another woman did come in and uttered a statement that still resonates with Wallenfels: “No man comes in between me and my drugs.” This simple statement, which could be seen as a desperate observation of a woman in crisis, struck Wallenfels differently. She saw in it a statement of empowerment, a woman who was putting her own needs before those of the men in her life. A seed was planted.
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By 2002 the seed had flowered and become an original piece called Rest Room, performed at various spots around New York City. Those NA sessions in California had helped Wallenfels understand that in her life she was surrounded by addiction. Some of the people closest to her had been trapped in the cycle of substance abuse. With their permission, she interviewed them about their relationships with drugs and used those interviews as a soundtrack for the piece. (If you go to the blog you’ll find a short video from that production; about halfway through the less-than-a-minute segment is a heart-stopping moment when you can hear Wallenfels’ mother, saying through tears, “I think I’ve had enough … of this conversation.”)
In 2006, Many Hats Collaboration was made up of Wallenfels, director and photographer Lava Alapai, and sound designer Annalise Albright Woods. They were granted a place in Portland Center Stage’s JAW Festival, in the site-specific component known as You Are Here that was taking place at the World Trade Center that year, and decided to revisit Rest Room. The Trade Center gave Wallenfels something she never had in New York: a set. She cast Yolanda Suarez and Paige Jones, and the characters evolved into archetypes of women on the drug addiction spectrum. Alapai got the idea to add a video component, because a piece that takes place inside of a bathroom just can’t get too voyeuristic.
In 2007 Many Hats did Rest Room again, this time onsite at Portland Center Stage. With a larger bathroom, Wallenfels saw an opportunity to explore a wider breadth of women’s relationship to drugs, and cast a chorus to accompany her archetypes. The cast went over the stalls and under the stalls and stood on sinks and danced on toilets and came in and out of stall doors. “That piece,” remembers multifaceted theater artist and sometime Many Hats collaborator Jamie M. Rea, “was the reason why you do site-specific work.” Beth Thompson was one of the performers in that show, one of her first in the Rose City, and a friendship and partnership were born.
Today, twenty-six years after that defining moment at CalArts, the seed has grown and evolved yet again: Rest Room has become The November Project, and what had started out as one woman grappling with her own demons has now become a community wrestling with isolation, grief, rage, hope and resilience in the time of COVID, racial strife and everything that makes up the turbulent societal landscape that is America 2021. This latest incarnation is directed by former cast member Thompson, who also now serves as managing director of Many Hats Collaboration. Wallenfels, the artistic director, is performing in it once again, and Alapai is once again taking charge of video editing: The three share writing credit. “We all have this decade-plus history of working with one another,” says Thompson, “and coming back to this piece 13 years later and how we’ve changed and how our relationships have changed.”
“That story that we heard in 2007 “is quite different,” says Alapai. “We’re all different people now.”
Why bathrooms? How does a piece set in a bathroom not just exist but evolve over two decades? “I’m insane,” says Wallenfels. “I’m fucking insane. That’s why.” (The sub-title to her blog is “The Thing That Won’t Let Me Go.”) But the truth is that what sets artists apart is that they see the world differently, and perhaps, more deeply. “My best friends and I always felt like [bathrooms] were this sanctuary,” explains Wallenfels. “It’s the place you go with your friends, or you go to take a moment by yourself or you go to indulge in an addiction, or you fix yourself, or you reset or something. The idea of that being a place for women specifically always intrigued me, because it brought into relief a number of ideas about sisterhood — and competition sometimes — and how we feel about how we look. It’s like an off-stage place from the rest of the world for women, and the performativity of femininity. And some of the real shit of femininity, which is sometimes ugly. All of those dichotomies and contradictions have always fascinated me.”
Between 2007 and November 2020 the context of that dichotomy shifted a great deal. And Rest Room — now The November Project morphed to reflect that shift. In some ways, the change was quite practical. “Lik, every other theater company in 2020,” says Wallenfels, “we were like, ‘Welp, all of those plans are chucked out the window. Now what?’” Rest Room was one answer. Also, the political showdown in November was coming up, and with everything that entailed, Rest Room became a way to see and be seen – of coping: “ We were wanting to process the election together through art.”
There was an even more profound change. The piece went from public to private bathrooms. “In this time when so many of us are doing all the parts of our life at home or with our partner and kids,” asks Thompson, “what does the bathroom become?” “Literally,” says Wallenfels, “I wanted to see how other people were coping in their bathrooms alone.” An extremely personal piece had become still more intimate somehow. “That is as personal as you can get, right?,” says Alapai, “Your own bathroom.”
Which of course created new challenges and opportunities for devising. If the actors couldn’t come to rehearsal, rehearsal had to go to them. “It was very much three separate creative processes,” says Thompson, “between creating the prompts on my part.” In addition, Wallenfels adds, “we gave them a piece of me doing this choreography that was the only thing that everyone would do. That was our bit of unison for the piece, from Rest Room, which the actors had to learn.” “Creative process two,” continued Thompson, “these folks by themselves. And then creative process three, receiving that material and then organizing it.”
Because of the limitations of not being able to be in the room, a lot of responsibility was placed on the actors. Thompson’s prompts would run something like this: “They would choose one of these words: ‘chrysalis’, ‘longing’. They would write on it and then they would choose phrases from within their writing and then they would make seven gestures for one of those phrases. They had to do that five times. And then the next prompt was like, ‘and now take five of your favorite gestures and create a tiny piece with them and an aspect of the architecture in your bathroom, two levels. Two tempos. And then cumulative on that.”
“Beth made it possible,” says Wallenfels, “and she created a safe space for people to devise remotely.”
The actors would videotape their work created from those prompts in their own bathrooms and then send the footage back to Many Hats, where Alapai edited them. “There is a lot of Lava’s eye in this piece,” says Thompson.
“It was a collaborative effort,” says Alapai. “I would throw something together, we would watch it together and then we would pull it apart together. I would take notes and then I would come back with something else. That’s how we molded it. [The collaborative process] was easy in ways that it should always be easy.”
(There was a fourth facet of the creative process of The November Project: music. Alapai’s editing and Thompson’s directing were scaffolded around a score made by a Memphis musician and performance artist, Amento Abieto.)
There was a final important change from Rest Room to The November Project. The cast is much larger and more diverse. What used to be three people in 2002 and 2006 grew to eleven people in 2007 and the November Project cast is more than double that. All of the cast from 2007 was invited back – and new faces that Wallenfels and Thompson had seen around town. “We knew we wanted a variety of body types, identities and ages,” says Wallenfels. “We knew we wanted to work with people we hadn’t worked with before. And we knew we had to cast people who were going to be OK devising remotely.” There was something else they were intentional about when putting together the cast. “One of the things that I’m excited about with this piece is expanding it from women to women and nonbinary people,” says Wallenfels. Thompson agreed that the time had come for the project as conceived to expand: “It didn’t feel simple for me to just be in a piece about women at this moment.”
In theater, the standard model is that a play is written and then fixed. If it’s very, very lucky, subsequent generations might come along and see what it has to say about their contemporary times. What Wallenfels has done is something very different: using a single idea to create a work of art that, of its own volition, moves and changes and grows to reflect the new moment in time. Even more special is Wallenfels’ unique alchemy of charisma, vision and authenticity that makes other dynamic, intelligent, opinionated, passionate artists want to go along for the ride and give it the best of themselves. The blessing of this magnetism is not something she takes for granted. “The idea that something that started so personal could widen out to become something that speaks to a more democratic vision of who we are is super-exciting,” she says. “I feel really grateful that people are wanting to re-engage with me.”
- The November Project debuts at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7. Sunday is the final day for rollouts of new shows, but all festival projects will be available through Feb. 15 to stream on Fertile Ground’s Facebook and YouTube channels.
PREVIOUS STORIES ABOUT FERTILE GROUND 2021:
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- Martha Bakes in Black & White. Bobby Bermea talks with playwright Don Wilson Glenn and director Damaris Webb about Martha Bakes, a play about race and history and the nation’s first First Lady in her colonial kitchen.
- Tough questions, tough answers. Lisa Collins’ “wonderful and exacting” new play Be Careful What You Ask For delves into a Portland killing and matters of race, Max Tapogna writes.
- The rhythm and meaning of Lilies. In the short Lilies, Max Tapogna writes, poet Joni Whitworth and filmmaker Hannah Piper Burns find the mythic amid the reality of Covid-19.
- A “Hot Mess” of a zombie jamboree. Mark LaPierre and Ian Anderson-Priddy’s zombie comic-book musical, Max Tapogna writes, will make your pulse rush. If you have one.
- Strike up the virtual festival band. This ArtsWatch Weekly update talks about Kwik Jones’s screwball comedy/mystery thriller Cat Napper and Rachael Carnes’s post-apocalyptic What a Memory Looks Like.