The following was written as part of a writer-in-residency for the Fusebox performance festival in Austin.
In "Vine of the Dead," a skeptic gambles on ritual
By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Writer-in-residence
To interview theater artist Jim Findlay is not so much to posit questions as it is to receive them. He unfolds his conversation about his artistic process and practice in thoughtful interrogatives.
And he begins with what might be the most fundamental question for any theater maker.
“I guess I’m always asking myself the same question,” he says. “What is the nature of what we’re doing and why are we in this room together?”
For Fusebox Findlay will invite an audience to a room and perform “Vine of the Dead, 11 Ritual Gestures.”
In a layered visual and aural environment, Findlay — an Obie and Bessie Award-winning director and designer — will unravel tales and considerations of death and transcendence as well as that forever urgent wish we have to communicate across the divide between life and death.
“So much about life is trying to understand what’s on the other side of life, what’s past death,” Findlay says.
“I don’t understand religion, I’m a skeptic and I believe in the observed world. But part of the impulse behind (creating “Vine of the Dead”) was me wondering, how can I connect to ritual and what can ritual be to me? Do you need to be a believer in order to access the mysteries of life or is mystery indifferent to your skepticism?”
Findlay’s multi-faceted artistic practice is rooted in design. He’s created enthralling visual and sonic theatrical landscapes for the Wooster Group, composer David Lang and choreographer Ralph Lemon, among others.
In his own productions Findlay has invited the audience to fall into and out of sleep in the immersive installation performance “Dream of the Red Chamber.” And for his black comedy “Botanica,” he marshaled some 200 plants to fill a futuristic human terrarium.
“I come at any work from a visual starting point,” Findlay says.
And for “Vine of the Dead?”
“I just wanted to make something really beautiful. I wanted to make big beautiful images.”
He also wanted to make a piece that was, for once, truly personal.
“I realized I had been resisting telling my own story, with talking to an audience directly about something that was really personal to me,” he says. “Surprisingly I’ve never done that in 20 years of making theater. But then I thought, what if I cracked something open instead of trying so hard to wrap it up it and disguise it?”
What he unwraps is his ruminations on his mother’s mortality. In an unhurried fashion, he enacts rituals throughout the course of the performance. And his daughter, Aleta, is performs in “Vine,” too.
“There’s a line connecting me and my mother and that line continues in the other direction and leads to my daughter,” says Findlay.
But his questions continue: “I mean, why do we separate our children from our art making lives? Isn’t that just artificial? And what does that say about our notions of family?”
Findlay first presented “Vine of the Dead” when his daughter was 10. She’s now a much taller 12-year-old and Findlay plans on performing the piece annually for the next 20 years.
“This work is about mortality and so it’s a gift for her — a gift for her future self.”
Skepticism tussling with religion and mysticism. A personal contemplation on family and on mortality. A series of theatrical rituals enacted within visually rich surroundings and over the course of an evening,
Says Finlay, sans question: “This is an honest attempt to reach the other side from someone who doesn’t believe it’s possible.”