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The Zen of Llamaturgy

About five years ago at an LMDA conference held in the Twin Cities, each conference member was, in a sentence, tasked to throw out into the room their “hot button” issue about the field-at-large. Before I’d really had time to self-turg, I heard myself ask, “Why (except for Lee Devin), are theatre people so pale?!” It’s easy to ask a question. It’s sometimes harder to answer it. I decided to try. I went out and got tan. I built a Fish Camp—not alone, mind you. I did so with the tireless support of Michael Dixon and the sweat equity of many friends. Now, I’m not so pale. Let me back up for a second. I loved working as a dramaturg in the regional, institutional theatre. I still love it. I would not be where I am now (tan), were it not for my years in the literary departments of Actors Theatre of Louisville, Intiman, ACT, and McCarter theatres.

While I cut my teeth in both the profession and field in those hallowed theatrical hallways, here’s what I also learned: that between 3-5pm, the sun shone between two tall buildings surrounding ACT, and if I took my pile of plays and read on the rooftop deck during those two hours, I could get tan. I learned that while it’s indeed satisfying to talk to a writer you’re just beginning to get to know in spaces such as conference or rehearsal rooms, sometimes it’s even better to bond over second act issues when you are canoeing on the Delaware River, not far from the theatre. And sometimes, when you’re at the O’Neill, or the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, or A.S.K. Theater Projects (may it rest in peace), the conversations with the playwrights are much more productive (not to mention enjoyable) on the beach, under a tree, or out on the sun-bleached steps. When the sun came out, like our nun Maria, I just wasn’t much for the abbey; I was up that tree. So I guess I already was tan. I guess I was just looking for a way to more permanently and officially put the vitamin D in Dramaturg. It’s not surprising that researchers have found sunlight and natural settings to have a profound effect on our moods. What is surprising is how little our work allows for this profundity. Our rehearsal rooms are often lit with glaring fluorescents, or they are windowless boxes cut off from the views of the outside world that we are supposedly exploring in our work. Literary offices around the country make their homes in closets, former coatrooms, desks next to copy machines, or in rooms inside of other rooms, like the last piece in a set of Russian dolls.

Our rehearsal rooms are often lit with glaring fluorescents, or they are windowless boxes cut off from the views of the outside world that we are supposedly exploring in our work.

For a profession so focused outward we are ironically so detached from this very same world when and where—and often how—we work. I’m not advocating for melanoma; don’t get me wrong. But I do wonder whether we need to get out more, so to speak. So I decided to risk it, and go outside. I am currently splitting my time between Whidbey Island and the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, retreat-hopping. In the summer I run a creative retreat center called Tofte Lake Center at Norm’s Fish Camp, and from October – May, I work at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers and very much the inspiration for Norm’s. The office at Hedgebrook is in a farmhouse. When I look out the window, I see llamas. When I leave the property at the end of a work day, I see a llama head rise to greet me, or see a protective parent gallop alongside the fence as I drive by. Sometimes, I just see a llama butt as they are bent over, eating. For whatever reasons, these sights bring me great joy. I want to take you on a tangent here and talk about joy. For several years now, I’ve been on a joy kick. Not a joyride, a joy kick. I’ve wanted to really understand the nature of it, to get inside it, to unpack it. Last summer, again at LMDA, at an open-session conference, we were adding topics onto a big board with a list of offered sessions. These topics ranged from “How to build and diversify your audience” in room 3D to “Recent adaptations of classics” in 4F to, well, everything from A-Z. All very interesting and worthwhile topics, but not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about J.O.Y. and I needed to talk about it outside. We were in Banff, for Pete’s sake! You don’t talk about joy in a windowless room when a view of mountains bathed in sunlight was just on the other side, waiting to be embraced. So I posted my three-letter word, said it was taking place outside, and set up a couple of chairs on the patio, hoping that I’d have at least a few attendees at my party, if not quite enough for a minyan. (Can you guess where this is going? I didn’t…) We had to keep bringing out more chairs. Something about the word joy, just the very notion of it, just seeing it up on the board, people wanted to be around it. The very word joy was a magnet. It was contagious. I could go on and on about this, my new obsession, but that’s for another day. (I’ll tell you more about it outside—in the sun.)


A candid photo of Liz Englemen rowing.
Liz Engelman


The point is, at the end of the conference, when our facilitator asked the reconvened group to name some of the surprises that occurred over the conference weekend, one dramaturg mentioned that she was surprised by two things: one, how many people attended the joy session, and two, how no one ever spoke about joy in relation to their daily work—Wow. But what did happen in that session was that people dropped in, dropped down to a new level. They spoke from a place that tapped into spirit and soul and heart and philosophy. They spoke their truths, or sought them out. I got to know my colleagues better in those ninety minutes than I had over years of conferencing. Yes, I previously knew what they thought about actor packets, or post show discussions, but never about the stuff that our dreams are made on. Now, ninety minutes later, in the sun, looking out on the mountains, talking about joy, I knew them anew. Which brings me back to tanning. I’m outside now more than I ever have been before in my workday life. At Hedgebrook, I might have my weekly check-in meeting with Amy Wheeler, the executive director, while she throws a ball to Mathilda, her dog. Mathilda catches the ball, rolls in a puddle, and comes running back to us to throw it again. And again. She is in the moment, and so are we, and it’s pure joy. I might walk the forty-eight acres of Hedgebrook’s property with a writer who is trying to synthesize her tireless and tiring year as an activist artist. Our conversation deepens as we walk further into the forest.

At Norm’s, I have learned more about truth and beauty—and choreography—from the loons on the lake than I ever could inside with a book. No choreographer could conceive of a movement as magical as two loons dancing across the lake in complete sync, one following behind the other a little at an angle, both gliding over the water, together. Again, pure joy. No director could fine tune an exchange like the moment when a female loon chooses to abandon her eggs as a stranger (me) in a kayak approaches, diving into the water and flapping her wings strongly but silently, attempting to distract her approacher (me) and signaling to her mate to help protect the nest. Philosopher Charles Taylor wrote, “Nature draws us because it is in some way attuned to our feelings, so that it can reflect and intensify those we already feel or else awaken those which are dormant. Nature is like a great keyboard on which our highest sentiments are played out. We turn to it, as we might turn to music, to evoke and strengthen the best in us.” Wordsworth once said, “Art is emotion recollected in tranquility.” Over these last five years, I have been blessed to be able to turn to nature, to tranquility, to turn to this music that has both evoked and strengthened the joy in me. I can now actually talk about joy in relation to my work, because my work is how I live. This I know, as a llamaturg.

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Miss Liz, you are joy; the outdoors just brings it into bold focus! Only now reading this but your radiant article is such a reminder: the sun shines even in Seattle. Llamas are funny. Work is life is work. Be alive.

Thanks Liz! This is one of those lessons that I learned at the O'Neill and never forgot: it's hard to be outside in all of nature's beauty in the morning (whether you're paddling a boat or just sitting and talking) - and then go into the theater in the afternoon and be an ass.

Liz - thank you for this simple, beautiful reminder that life is all around us...puppies rolling in puddles and llama butts...and that our art is connected to life, whether we're indoors or out.

Afraid neither of mentioning race or hue, nor of having a contrary opinion, let me say that I like theater indoors, especially the cozy black box -- though being dark brown, I like getting darker in the sun -- which is not to say there is an either/or in this discussion, so much depends on preference and weather.

The first time I met August Wilson, (I live in Pittsburgh and have met him three times) he told me to "write from my center of joy." I have puzzled over this for years, but recently discovered what I think he meant while I was in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. While walking from the fellows residence to my studio every morning with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, saying hi to Fella (the friendliest of the three horses grazing outside my window) and swimming in the lake at Sweet Briar (in spite of the snapping turtle said to live there) I rediscovered the thrill and the joy I find in being a creative artist. Although I did not come back with a tan, I did come back with a solid first act of a new play, and more than the usual number of freckles.

You're the best, Liz, really. Myself, being a bit of a bear, like candle lit restaurants and shady patios. But the impulse is the same. If you enjoy the working moment the work will be more joyful.

Of course. I'm in art because it gives me joy. When another writer complains about writing, or speaks of it in an obligatory or fatalistic way, I think, "Then why are you doing it?" I still don't understand that.

I have to say, I initially thought this column was going to be about race. The word "pale" seems an unfortunate choice.

I couldn't agree more with all that is said here. The thing that revives my flagging spirits every year (as flag and rise as they do, cyclically) is seeing brian mertes and melissa kievman's Chekhov on Lake Lucille. It's an all-day affair, drama nerds and drama townies, a giant pot luck, swimming in the lake and the full canvas of the landscape is used to thrilling affect. Actors appear to walk on water, actors appear in a second story window or on the roof, live music accompanies the act breaks, babies squirm and squeal, there's a port-a-potty, there are fireworks, gunshots, smoking and when it gets dark... the real stars come out. This one day a year, I feel hope and inspiration about theater and community above all other days. I see family in the networks we create with each other boiled down to something as simple as overlapping blankets on the front lawn. Each family is invited to donate what they can and the proceeds go to preserving the lake and to charity, this year's is habitat for humanity. Why do we call it a retreat when we are fortunate enough to travel to places like hedgebrook, voice and vision, orchard project, nysf, sundance, playlabs, pataphysics at nacl and all manner of spots set in beautiful natural surroundings--we aren't retreating--we are building community with fellow artists and with nature. It's not so much a retreat as well, a treat. Vive the woods, the water and the open vista, I cannot create a word without that renewable connection. And cookies.

JOYfully contemplating llamaturgy from Central Park, where children running with shovels for wings and a father playing tag with his kids create their own choreography. Loons in a day's work.

Thank you Liz!! When i was a wee gal (teens/20's) i used to camp, hike backpack -- sit next to lakes, read under trees. JOY was so accessible, even in miserable situations. watching the sun's movement in the moving shadow of branches... breathtaking storytelling. now i hardly ever... and i needed this reminder that my life in the theater is more than the screen in front of me. thanks so, so much!

Thanks so much for this today

its right on time

I did an acting workshop in Italy a couple of years ago and the biggest piece of JOY

I found was when we got to a place where we were all frustrated and didn't know the next creation we all stopped and went outside to hang out together. I had never done that in a US theatre before. Once we had a drink or too and enjoyed the HOT sun we came back to the same place and continued

I hope we all don't ignore the creation of the world right outside our office windows our frustrations our cramped NYC apartments.

Im gonna go out now!!

Having just come back from the Double Edge Theater farm in western Massachusetts (where oddly we had a bit of discussion about llamas and their habits) watching them rehearse their outdoor summer show based on the Odyssey I would say, Ms. Liz - you have a witness! (and perhaps a convert) And site specific theater of various kinds seems to be more and more what I am, to my great JOY, involved in trying to promote.

Joy! Very nice morning reading - thank you Liz. Maybe the natural extension of the playwright meeting held outdoors might be site specific theater? I mean, why would a group committed to the distribution of transcendence and beauty (theater artists) sentence themselves to flat-black windowless rooms with questionable ventilation? Or the proscenium arch...why would we attempt to standardize the frame for point of view? New stories might need new rooms, for ourselves and our audiences. Let's ALL go to the roof for some joy!