Something long overdue is happening in the stage light of the Greenville, SC arts scene. With Shea Bahnsen at the helm, the Dark Room Theatre Company’s inaugural events signal a shift from the arts as insulated disciplines, defined by tradition, to multi-mode collaborations. Missy Vaughan Kleppel, an actor and local theater teacher, has taken the project under her wing in the hopes of reproducing the safe, fertile environment she encountered while a student at Sarah Lawrence College where writers, actors, musicians and visual artists and were encouraged to create together.
The Dark Room Theatre Company is an arts incubator.
When presented with an opportunity to get my words out, it is my long-held belief that writers should tempt/coerce/bribe trustworthy actors to read their stuff. Writers prefer quiet corners and have a historical tendency to flee at a moment’s notice. I, personally, jump out of my skin if I see a weird shadow pass out of the corner of my eye. It only makes sense to employ the skill of an actor such as Sara Bouvier who has been performing and stage managing in the Greenville area since the age of twelve.
Sara literally jogged into our farm on a July Fourth several years ago and we decided to keep her. She’s a part of our staff, working tirelessly every week night to be certain all the horses are standing on all hooves and satiated, safe for the night. She tucks us in. When the hay is all thrown and the light switches are off in the barn, Sara graciously gives me even more of her time by being a first-reader for my fiction, helping me work through plot and characterization and the thousand questions that come from the insulated neurosis of a writer’s brain.
As an aside, Sara was recently going through her shelf and found a literary journal that I had edited almost twenty years ago. We were supposed to meet.
So, when Shea and Missy asked if I would give a reading of my work for their Words and Sounds event I immediately signed Sara up for the task. The evening included a selection of creative non-fiction by Jeff Levine along with the musical talents of: M. Lookwood Porter, Annie the Healer, and John Moreland.
We decided on the first chapter of my novel, Khora. Working with Sara in preparation for the reading was transformative to the editorial process of the work. The story takes place in several locations: Istanbul, a small town in the mountains of NC, Russia. Places become characters, as much as the characters who come from many places. At its heart, the story is a mystery focusing on a missing work of art, a Byzantine icon, but as the characters — all outsiders who have suffered great losses — come together, they discover a community of outsiders and through it, many kinds of redemption, not always black and white.
Art needs community.
“Who’s your narrator,” Sara asked, and I realized that, although the story is written in third-person, I hadn’t defined who is chronicling the events as they unfold.
When I finally answered that question, Sara’s voice changed as she worked through the excerpt, as she absorbed the personality and nuance of the character relating the scene. This was art taken outside of its bubble of creation, art as a collaborative vocation, and far different from when Sara and I just tossed around ideas in the wee hours of the night (when not chasing off intruders, but that’s a story for another day). We were making the story fit for the light of day.
This is how the story begins:
Two crosses, equidistant, a foot in diameter, flanked the altar of St. Anthony’s Church in Beyoglu, Istanbul. The pews were tall and cumbersome, the benches too short for kneeling and the bones of Thomas’ knees too prominent to genuflect for any length of time. The air smelled like wet wax and stale, whispered breath. Thomas stared at the flanking crosses for so long they merged together in the center of the chancel to form one cross: proportionate, perfect, a compass of symmetry representing the four corners, as if time were a sextant and the intersection of the coordinates the center of the map.
Earlier that year he could not find a Byzantine cross anywhere in Istanbul, but as winter gave way to spring, he began to see them everywhere: in the crossroads of the narrow street beneath his apartment window, in the form of the basilicas, chains jeweled by tawdry stones in the windows of the specialty shops, in the merging of the jet streams high above the smog. He believed he would find crosses in the currents of the Bosporus Strait, if only his sight was clear enough to gauge the movements of the water.
Thomas was in the business of finding the intersection of fact and myth. The city of Istanbul was a little bit of both, always changing like the seaside weather, one minute cloudy the next a shadow cast by the sun: a city divided by continents. Thomas knew that if he sat still long enough, the correct signs would find him.
I wrote the opening one grey, February afternoon in Istanbul because I needed something to do; I needed to occupy my hands. An old friend was flying in that evening after an extended stay in Afghanistan and the character of Thomas was a way to pass the time, to chronicle my trip. I picked the story back up when it was time to reconcile my recollection of Istanbul, a city that stores so much mystery and trauma for me, with the essential character the place had became in my head. The novel grew from perception and heartbreak, a way to test memory, remove my blinders: a fixed point in an uncertain world.
“Is writing a compulsion,” Missy asked during a Q&A session with the authors after the reading.
It’s a safe compulsion, healthier than checking the light switches eight times before I close the barn for the evening, but my actor, my first reader, my Sara, acknowledges the compulsion and keeps me on track. We all need someone that says, “What happens next?”
This is the sort of work that Shea and Missy are doing with the Dark Room Theatre Company. Imagine if we all had that safe place to create, explore and produce our art, whatever that art might be.
Dark Room is temporarily located at The Wheel in Greenville’s Pendleton arts district. They’ll be moving to a permanent location in the near future. Until then, mark your calendars to join them Saturday, June 7th at 7:00 pm for a theatrical fundraiser: Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening and Other Plays by Don Nigro. “A night of dark, beautiful, intense monologues” starring Hannah Smith, Libby Ricardo, Shea Bahnsen, directed by Missy Vaughan Kleppel.