A door slams. The angels in this room, where everything is upside-down (the sea and islands above us, trees hanging down so their tops our near our heads), freeze at the sound, heads turned to the side. The ukulele music stops mid-strum. I watch the last bubble drift past my foot and come to rest gently, unbroken, on the white floor.
This is the third of four rooms audience members pass through at each performance of Clay Feet/Wire Wings: The Space Between, the latest stage production of Pacific Union College’s Dramatic Arts Society (DAS).
In two different classes of the Adventist Forums Sabbath school that meets on the PUC campus, class members were given glimpses into the creation of this original — and unpredictable, indefinable, and often inexplicable — theatrical production.
In the first class, poet, sculptor, and professor John McDowell talked about his “God Poems” and “Angel Poems,” which were the inspiration for Clay Feet.
In times of crisis, he told the class, three things step forward: Religion (which says you need to align yourself with God’s will, and that this crisis makes sense in His bigger plan); Philosophy and reason (which say you can’t trust your feelings, but logic can get you through); and lyric (which says, “Bring your all your turmoil and crisis here — put it on paper, and in so doing you will have release, inhabit life more fully, and bring order to the chaos”).
McDowell explained how the lyric had been the best answer for him in coping with the crisis of losing his mother to cancer. Of course, the three are all connected; and so through lyric we also explore religion and philosophy, as well as our emotions and experiences.
So it almost seems natural that two collections of McDowell’s poems were adopted, adapted, wildly de- and re-constructed, and performed by DAS. Mei Ann Teo, director, called it “breaking” the poems.
When Teo and members of the cast presented at the next AF Sabbath school class, she described the work as “collage, ensemble, experimental theater.” It’s collage, because the play is a very personal expression of the cast and crew’s own journey and exploration of the poems and of the larger questions they express. In an intensive, exhaustive process, they worked together to build Clay Feet. And it’s experimental theater, because DAS has never tried anything like this before.
For the AF class, Teo and the cast talked through, demonstrated, and even involved the class in some of their process. Teo had the class try out one of the exercises that had been core to the ensemble’s creation of Clay Feet. First, she said, write five things you have been taught that God is. After sharing some, she asked us to do something else: write three things that we now, from our own lives and experiences, believe about who God is.
In a way, this is the essence of the play.
At the performance itself, attendees first enter the lobby and are inundated with religious/God/angel imagery. Asked to remove their shoes, to pose in front of a mural of the second coming, to dip their hands into a basin of water, to wear white scarves, to ring a beautiful collection of small bells, it quickly becomes clear that this play will require more of you than just “sitting and watching.” And, unless you have some inside scoop, you probably have no idea what’s going on. The crew recommends that people read the notes in their programs!
The next room is a room of mirrors — walls and the ceiling, some with text written backwards so it can only be read in the opposing reflection. Here a character in dark clothes hums to the tune of a music box in the center of the room, then breaks into a searching and sorrowful monologue.
In the next room, “angels” offer you bubbles to blow, bounce on a trampoline, play a ukulele. Everything is upside-down, including the way they angels talk — constructing sentences backward.
Finally, the main production in the theatre has seating in the round. As the program notes explain, the opening is “the apocalypse, a memory wipe, the end of an ideology, the end of God as he has been defined by culture, man, religion, and time.” The rest is “God-begotten souls” asking who, where, and why God is. Who, where, and why they are. And from whom and where and how they get the help they need.
It is here that we see McDowell’s poems coming through. His God Poems were written as narrative, based on the common (and biblical) things we say about “seeing God in others” or “God understanding every experience,” and making that experience literal. Thus we have “God Surfs” and “God in the Kitchen.”
The Angel Poems are not narratives. They’re more mysterious and ambiguous as they explore the mysterious and ambiguous roles of angels, who must, McDowell says, represent God to man and man to God, who are in-between. The pieces of the play that explore angels are thus the most abstract, probably the most difficult to relate to or contextualize if you have no background to the play.
But, even that mysterious element is beautiful, and indeed a part of the message. Like poetry and experimental theater, life is utterly complex and often far from definable. Let alone the life of the divine, and the human intersection with it.
Still another facet of Clay Feet, is the artwork. Rather than having a set, the play takes place in a sculpture installation. From the mural, bells, and water basin in the lobby to the surreal all-encompassing art of the two middle rooms to the dramatic red and black realm of the main theatre, the journey through the physical space of the play almost feels like a journey through an art exhibit or museum. The cast also adeptly integrates vocal music into the play, experienced, like the rest, in “surround.”
As a whole, Clay Feet is a richly layered experience, a journey for each individual and yet also a communal experience. An artistic and often abstract work, it is best experienced by those who understand and can embrace the mystery and multi-message nature of poetry and experimental theatre — for the rest (one was overheard wishing she had had subtitles!), perhaps the best advice is to read the program notes, and simply enjoy the beauty of the production.
Perhaps the best summary of Clay Feet is Teo’s comment in her director’s note, where she states the task they took on: “To use our God-given curiosity to ask dangerously, and push past all that we have already learned and forgotten in order to, perhaps, experience again.”