Oakland Theater Project presents T.S. Eliot’s famous poem in an innovative format
What happens when the algebra of life lacks any common denominators, tangible solutions or easy answers? What is entertainment when everyday activities like enjoying an outdoor event or catching a meal al fresco feel like Olympic dives—flip, twist, jackknife, spiral, plunge—into an icy, murky fog? Or what do theaters do when forced to go dark for months and then emerge in hopes of presenting plays safely, but must first satisfy Actor’s Equity Association’s vigorous sanitation standards and stringent distancing protocols and purchase costly protective materials nearly equivalent to what is required for a hospital undertaking high-risk surgical procedures? What happens, in other words, to the art of live theater and audiences when the 2020 coronavirus reaches its claws into 2021?
Oakland Theater Project’s answer is as revolutionary as people familiar with the fearless theater company might expect: jump through all the AEA hoops to be the first live theater in California to perform before an in-person audience since the lockdown. Place award-winning actor and playwright Lisa Ramirez outdoors on an asphalt parking lot. Splash a captivating collage of projections with images spanning two centuries by Projection Designer Erin Gilley on the backdrop building. Invite an audience in up to 17 vehicles to drive in, park and tune their radios to a specific FM station to hear the production’s audio transmission.
To top it off, OTP selects not a play to present, but a poem: Nobel Prize–winner T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Originally published in 1922, the 434-line poem—considered to be a supreme example of 20th-century modernism—is adapted by John Wilkins and directed by Michael Socrates Moran.
In an interview, Ramirez says performing the hybrid drive-in-movie/live-theater-production is a little like presenting a play on the moon. Even though people in their cars are only 10 feet away, the physical separation due to windshields, metal and chrome leaves her feeling what she calls “publicly private,” or alone. An adept, nimble actor, Ramirez made numerous adaptations. “We rehearsed with no mics, so I was projecting like mad during rehearsals,” she says. “All of a sudden, I have a mic and a sound score. I had to make friends with the cars. I think of it like film acting, but with real-life movement. It’s an amazing experiment … and at times it’s the most annoying thing. I have to trust that people hear the underbelly, the sound score, and I just tell the story moment by moment.”
The “story” in Eliot’s fragmented, five-section poem is elusive, and delivered with text loaded with classic literary references: themes or lines from poems by Ovid, Homer, Baudelaire, Dante Alighieri and Shakespeare; passages written in foreign language and astutely translated into English by Gilley’s projections; and told by numerous characters. Primary themes in the work include despair, death, judgement, spirituality, crowd mentality, existentialism and renewal.
“There are so many areas from the first chapter that parallel the pandemic,” Ramirez says. “There’s the irony of ‘April is the cruellest month,’ the first line. But every line has resonance. Thematically, the way women had been brutalized runs throughout the piece; the echoes, there are so many. The ‘nymphs are departed’ is certainly a poetic phrase, but I love all the language in it, too. I love the fragmented, jagged nature of it. The rhythms of the work are contemporary. This is the Oakland version: in a parking lot, no British accents, playing characters in the world rather than an actor reciting a poem. Every night, it’s like following a map.”
If the presentation is itself a map, it’s a newly invented, hand-drawn one that oscillates between drive-in movie and stage theater. “It was my idea to do it,” says Ramirez, whose imagination flames in all directions and keeps her busy writing, directing and with OTP, performing in the Bay Area and in New York, her home until an anticipated move to Los Angeles later this year to write for film and television.
“I heard Cuomo talk about going back to drive-in theaters. I was on a trampoline jumping up and down in my home because all the gyms were closed. Due to too much coffee or pent-up energy I proposed it to Michael and Jon and after some thought, they decided to attack it,” she says. “Early tussles during creation? From the beginning, I didn’t want the narrator character to be cast or labeled as a poet. This is a person you could see on the street, speaking in a fragmentary way about politics, poetry. They were scripting it, but I had to be out there and inside the play.”
Ramirez paraphrases Eliot and says, “The poem is not to be understood, it’s to be felt.” To reach emotional resonance herself, she researches meticulously, and as is her practice, is first to arrive at the theater before every performance. After warming up her voice and placing herself in the parking lot before the gates open, she begins “making friends” with the space. As cars pull into the lot, she draws a name in the dirt that is spread on the stage area and performs other private mini-rituals.
Ramirez says that through the hybrid experience she has gained physical awareness that means she no longer finds it necessary to push every vocalization or unduly accelerate the pace to reach a climactic peak. But when the moment arrives and tension is essential, the world she creates gains velocity, and the actor who is notable for both subtle and whirlwind-force energy returns.
Like most actors, the takeaways from the production are more than audience applause and critics’ reviews. Ramirez says reflection during Covid will cause her to prioritize future projects that are especially meaningful. “In my play for OTP in November, sAiNt jOaN (burn/burn/burn), I want to talk about Black Lives Matter and youth, to explore Joan of Arc through the activism of adolescent girls,” she says. “I’m kind of on fire right now. I’m a Latina actor, producer, writer—it’s a great time to be a woman of color. I’m not complacent at all. I feel lucky. I want to be in a room with people again; but now, I’m blessed that I can stand in this parking lot. The first rehearsal, I was crying. It’s repetition, working on getting it right—there’s nothing like it.”