Willing Suspension of Disbelief

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“An actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet has to struggle to live. And in a way that’s a metaphor for life.” – Handspring Puppet Company, creator of puppets for the stage show “War Horse”

Over the weekend I had the great pleasure of joining two very dear friends and The Good Man for a night out on the town. We started at a little French restaurant for both dinner and great conversation. We lingered a bit over our food, but skipped dessert as we had tickets to the theater, and it was nearing showtime.

While I have seen quite a few stage productions in my life, I am not what one would call a “theatre geek.” All three of the other talented people at the table self-describe themselves as such, so obviously I learn a lot from them every time we are together.

On that beautiful night in San Francisco, we found ourselves at the venerable old Curran Theater with tickets in hand to see “War Horse.”

This show first came to my attention at the 2011 Tony Awards (where it picked up five awards). The brief yet enchanting moment when the puppet horse came on stage sent a jolt to my soul. I turned to The Good Man and said, “Let’s fly to New York to see it!” and he smiled, as The Good Man does, and inserted reason into my life. “I bet it will come to San Francisco. Let’s see.”

Of course he was right.

Life almost got in the way, because this past weekend was the closing of the San Francisco run of the show. Whew! I owe The Good Man so much for pulling this one together.

Now, while I love the quirky old Curran, she also makes me tired. It’s small, short on bathrooms, the seats are massively uncomfortable and it’s stifling hot inside. And yet I keep going back there because they stage some of the best shows in the world.

I went into this production with extraordinarily high expectations. They were all beat. Hand’s down.

This is the most magical and profound show I have ever witnessed.

It’s no secret that I am a horse person. I have spent time among horses. I’ve studied them. I was trained to ride by a protégé of Monty Roberts (the inspiration for “The Horse Whisperer”) and she taught us in his style.

Which is to say one must listen to a horse. You must note the posture of their ears. Understand why a foot stamp. Realize that a deep inhale or a deep exhale actually means something.

I’ve spent hours simply watching a horse so that I could hear what it was telling me.

So you know I was going to have an extraordinarily critical eye when it came to the puppetry in this show.

I’ll cut to the chase…they nailed it. I don’t know how they did it, but they did. From simple ear flicks, to a shivering coat when brushed, to head posture. At one point, there was a long dialogue between two human characters while two horses stood off to the side. The horses sighed, tipped a front hoof on edge, stamped, and shifted weight from side to side. If you’ve ever made a horse stand still you’ve seen all of those. It wasn’t affected, just simply natural.

These bits of metal and canvas transformed into actual horses in my eyes. It was absolutely magical.

And then woven around this astounding feat of puppetry was a really difficult story set during World War I.

A boy’s father wins a young horse at auction and the boy and horse embark on a deep friendship. Albert trains the horse, Joey, with ease and understanding. They have that special bond that only a horse owner can know. But when England goes to war, Joey is sold into service for the cavalry by Albert’s father. Quickly, our young Albert lies about his age and enlists so that he can find his horse and keep him safe.

It is an extraordinary journey through history, exploring many notable events of WWI.

I’ve often been told in crafting stories that there are no new plots and it is the job of the writer to find a way to bring a new perspective to a known story. In this play, the underlying story is one we know. War is awful. Ravaging. And it irrevocably changes those who were sent to the front lines.

We know that story, but when you add the majestic layer of these well wrought puppet animals, it becomes something almost cinematic. How they staged such an ambitious production on the Curran’s small stage is still a miracle to me.

From light cues to small movements to the amazing work of the puppeteers, this show transcends theatre. You willingly suspend your disbelief and don’t want it back for a single moment.

It was perhaps one of the most profound moments of live theatre I’ve ever experienced.

Now I’m sad that I waited so long to see it because I want to see it again. This despite the fact that I totally ugly cried right there in the theatre. I mean cried so hard I was afraid I couldn’t get my composure back. Thankfully I was in good company, most of the patrons shed a couple tears, too.

We were all that engaged in the story.

Driving home, The Good Man and I talked about the show. I wanted to know what he thought about it from a theatrical perspective. He wanted to know what I thought about the accuracy of the portrayal of the animals. Together we decided it was unlike anything we’d ever seen.

Whew. I was so emotionally done-in that I slept like a rock that night. Over Sunday breakfast The Good Man and I again idly discussed the show. Just trying to speak about one of the more powerful scenes in the show brought tears to the corners of my eyes.

It’s rare and beautiful to find a piece of creative work, be it a book, movie or play, that gets inside the cellular walls of your soul and hangs on. “War Horse” is that, for me.

I will be thinking about that show for a very long time and trying to find a way to see it again.

Hey Good Man, I think it’s still playing on Broadway. How ’bout a road trip?





Hard to believe these mechanical devices become real horses, but they do




Image from AlEtmanski.com



Wild Animals Are Wild

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I am a woman of the West.

I know how to ride a horse. I know how to dehorn a calf and sear the artery if clipped. I have wrangled horses, cattle and even one summer, I wrangled honey bees for a ranch with a lucrative side deal for a major honey producer.

I have stood confidently in front of a pack of horses as they charged at me. I had a riding instructor who made us stand at various places in a large pen and she charged the horses at us and made us learn to turn the herd. Over and over.

I have stared down the barrel of a herd of calves who were naturally unwilling to herd and likely to scamper as they broke free from a trailer and ran to the four winds. I have pushed noses, tails and avoided flying hooves as I helped turn them back around.

I have stood near the back of a horse trailer when a flighty animal came blasting out. I have stood in the front of a horse trailer when a balky animal wanted no part of loading in.

I have even been in the line of fire of a charging herd of insane sheep (all sheep are insane) and got the hell out of the way.

Once, I was almost trampled by turkeys.

All of this is to say, I’ve got a little experience with large animals and herd behavior. I know how to stand confidently and turn those charging animals in another direction. I know not to have fear but only conviction.

I am a powerful woman of the West.

Today, I was out walking with a friend (known on this blog as Worm Girl) on a walking path that is next to a grassy berm that runs along a busy street.

Along this berm were about thirty wild Canada geese.

Suddenly along came a fire truck with sirens at full blast.

And when those thirty geese turned in masse and began running toward me (and away from the siren)…
.
.
.
…I screamed like a little girl, threw my arms over my head and hid behind my friend.

That’s me, a powerful, animal wrangling, rootin’ tootin’ woman of the West.






Annie Oakley photo found all over the web in public domain and used here under Fair Use.



While I’m bragging…

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Might as well share my other blue ribbon, for best short story in the Western class.

On Saturday I got a chance to read an excerpt aloud at the fair. Many of the writers/readers were a bit shy and reserved in their reading. Not me. I went in there with *jazz hands*

Would you expect any less from me? I didn’t think so.





Dyin’ or Revivin’?

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Last week I received an email by the good folks running the literary competitions at my local county fair. After notifying me that my story won a prize, they invited me to come out to the fair next weekend to read my story aloud on stage as part of their literary event.

Well I was just pleased as punch to say yes. What a wonderful opportunity.

This past Saturday, I had some time on my hands while I sat in a chair waiting for my hair to turn that color that only my hairdresser knows how to make.

I started thinking about this event next weekend and planning. I need to spend some time practicing reading my story aloud. Practice is everything in a public speaking situation.

I wondered if I’d be asked any questions about the story. I thought I should try to think up what I might be asked so I could be ready with good answers.

One of the first questions I thought of was, “what was your inspiration for this story?”

I had to spend some time thinking that through. It’s a story that’s been rambling around in my mind for a while, and I’ve taken several stabs and getting it out, to both greater and lesser success.

Mainly, I was inspired by the fact that upon reading the guidelines for the competition, I noted that there was a “Western” genre available to compete under. This is not something I often see, so that really got my creative juices rolling.

My absolute author-hero is Larry McMurtry. I adore his way with description and dialogue, and his western novels are a cut above.

I have a collection of short stories that McMurtry edited. It’s western stories written only by writers raised in the west.

When I saw that my county fair offered a Western category, I knew there was no doubt that I had to write a western story.

That said, what I wrote isn’t truly a classical western. Technically, the western genre implies a story set in the 1800’s, the so called “Old West.”

If you read any of the literally thousands of short stories that Louis L’Amour wrote, you’ll find within his formula a common theme. The great conflict in his stories is of man against nature which includes cattle grazing the land, the weather and water. In fact, water rights always seem to play a big role in L’Amour’s short stories.

I guess that the western genre has declined so much because these concepts seem hopelessly old fashioned.

But are they?

Until his untimely death last year, my dear friend who farmed cotton and chile on his family’s farm in La Mesa was fighting with the state of New Mexico over water rights. This problem was such a vital aspect of his life that it was mentioned in his eulogy.

Yesterday I watched a televised show where renowned French chef Eric Ripert spoke passionately about the “farm to table” movement, and visited a Virginia farm where the owner was doing something revolutionary.

He was not overgrazing his land.

He spends time calculating how many head of cattle his land can bear and then actively rotates pastures to be sure that his cattle never overgraze. His land flourishes, his cattle are healthy and he’s seen as an innovator.

This is not innovation. Louis L’Amour wrote stories about this very idea over 70 years ago. This concept is also something they taught me in my collegiate FFA organization**. It’s called “being a good steward of the land.”

And so, to bring this back to my point…

I wanted to write a western story because although I keep hearing that the western fiction genre is dying, I’m seeing that the topics driving most true western stories are still essential and vital to today’s world.

And so maybe Westerns aren’t dying. Maybe, much like the land, if tended to and nourished, the genre can continue to flourish with a modern sensibility.

Writing a western story set in modern times that won an award at my local county fair is so deeply satisfying to me. It’s my affirmation that the Western genre is alive and well inside at least one little girl who was born and raised in the west.

_______________________


Further proof: The Western genre gets back in the saddle





**”I believe in the future of farming…”


My Favorite Wayback Machine Line of the Day

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“No matter where I am in the world, in such disparate places as Sunset Boulevard, the canyons of Manhattan, an old mine tunnel in the Black Range above Hillsboro in southwestern New Mexico, or the limitless sagebrush desert norths beyond the Rio Grande gorge of Taos, I think of the land and some incident that happened on the malpais rocks and soil of Hi-Lo.

Like the gravity filled land, the thoughts and inspiration are perpetual.”

— Max Evans, in his book Hi Lo Country: Under the One-Eyed Sky


Just re-reading my February issue of New Mexico Magazine…the “Best Ever Books Issue”. It’s a dandy.

If you aren’t reading New Mexico Magazine, you oughta be.




AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf