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09/10/2010

Beth Nixon and the Cardboard Consciousness

Beth and Alex Torra in Cankerblossom Garb. Photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg.

Whimsy exists in Beth Nixon’s world even when she’s washing dishes, chatting on the phone with a complete stranger. Such were the circumstances surrounding our interview on Wednesday, and yet we still entered a world with anteaters aboard buses, otherworldly childbirth and donkeys making tea.

Nixon, the 2008 First Person Arts Artist-in-Residence,* is the cardboard mastermind behind Pig Iron’s sell-out Live Arts show Cankerblossom. (Psst…they have released $15 Pillow Seats to the remaining shows. Only available at the door.) I caught up with Beth to find out a bit more about Cankerblossom, her history as a puppeteer, and how collaborating with Pig Iron has impacted her work. Along the way, she brought up an interesting tension between memoir influenced by the imaginary and memoir straight from real life.

On the origins of Cankerblossom
Pig Iron invited me to participate in a think tank they were doing in December looking at the relationship between projections and live actors. It was based on an inquiry Geoff Sobelle had been heading up around stop motion animation and how that can be combined with live actors. Because I’d worked a bit with them in the past, they knew I made stuff and invited me to join them on their inquiry.

Beth and Alex workshopping at La Jolla Playhouse. From Le Pig Blog.

Dito [Van Reigersberg], Alex [Torra], and I created a small piece and presented that to the workshop and people got excited by the ultra low techness of the cardboard and the high tech world of the animation and we took it from there. Pig Iron invited me to team up with them for their residency at the La Jolla Playhouse in February and that was where Cankerblossom really began to hatch.

On Cankerblossom as puppet show…
It’s not a puppet show, not a clown show or a normal theater show. It’s not musical theater or children’s theater but it does exist in all these worlds, and others that I’m not sure I know the names for.

On how Cankerblossom fits into the Beth Nixon canon, elks and anteaters…
The ensemble element and point of entry of the project are new for me.

[My own shows are] often on a much smaller scale, just me and maybe one or two other people, that’s it, no stage managers, and crew, not much infrastructure besides my own bones. I’ve worked previously in a low-tech world, maybe some sound effects: live music, alarm clocks, shoes clunking on a table. Working with sound designers, lighting designers, set designers who are amazing at their craft has been different and awesome for me. Working with Dan [Rothenberg], having a director, an outside eye, which [in the past] was just whichever friend of mine saw it first, is pretty amazing. It’s different, really freeing to work with a whole ensemble, all committed to an idea from the beginning, a team of people invested in the story feels wonderful and unifying, whereas I’m usually alone in my studio gnawing on things and wondering if what I’m thinking about will resonate with other people.

We also started from a different point of inquiry. Often times I make work in order to process … there is normally something going on in my life, or politically or something that’s happened to me or someone I’m close to, a question I’m struggling with. And through creating the show I process it. I animate the scenario that occurred on the bus and put in an elk or an anteater. It comes from a different place, thru building puppets and writing, I come to terms with whatever it was I was wondering about. With Cankerblossom it started from a question about technique and medium and what story do we want to tell with them. It’s different from starting with a personal or political query and wondering how you share it with an audience.

Beth and Friends

On her background, creatures and freaks…
I’ve always been building stuff, playing dress up. I was with a children’s theater as a kid and we built the sets, made everything. Creatures and beasts and animals and weird looking humanimals are what I like to draw and sculpt. It was when I had to do an internship in my supposed career field in college and I was panicking- I like to write, act, draw, build, so how can I choose which is my career? I saw an ad for the Red Moon Puppet Theater in Chicago and they listed the skills involved. I thought, that’s a nice mixed bag. I interned there and with Bread and Puppet and saw actual humans sort of making a living doing this thing. That’s when I started working with cardboard.

On the brilliance of cardboard…
Being broke and traveling around, cardboard is an accessible medium. Once I started working with it I was continually impressed by its accessibility, malleability. And if you made something ugly that sucked you could scrap it, without feeling like you wasted something. So it’s low stakes. And at the same time, it’s surprisingly versatile, and durable, and just plain magical stuff. Cardboard and I have been working together for the last 12 or so years.

On what she’s doing next…
I haven’t had a huge amount of time to think deeply about what I’m doing next cause this has been all consuming, working as a performer and creating the work and also designing and building the pieces. So grand plans for what happens next will start to brew September 19th. But one thing [that I’m] working on with The Rotunda is to develop a youth theater arts program for 5th -8th graders in West Philly. It starts in October. I’ll be the artistic director working with the kids and with teaching artists. Having grown up in a children’s theater, I’m excited to work on that from this perspective.

In terms of other pursuits- I’m excited to dig further into clown work; I’ve been nibbling around the edge of it for a while. A new show is rustling around inside its cocoon…Also, hoping to create another illustrated palindrome calendar…and indeed, hang out with my family. My kid, Ida is almost 1 and a half!

On First Person Arts…
I hosted two StorySlams and had a great time doing that. I know Dan [Gasiewski] from Puppet Uprising and was asked if I would be an artist fellow. So I went to meetings, ate pizza, performed at a Salon during the Festival. I presented a work-in-progress puppet show in which I gave birth to a series of strange objects, doubts and realizations. I was pregnant with my daughter and processing the horror and potential that can come out of you. I think it was called, “Canned Corn or Unicorn?”

On imagination and memoir…
I have a great appreciation for FPA. I’ve struggled some… because I work in how the imaginary realm tells my story. All of it comes from a place of personal experience but by the time it comes out into the world, it’s often in a place of make believe, metaphor and allegory. Thus far it’s been hard to navigate how that fits into the land of memoir that First Person Arts focuses on. I have a more loosey-goosey idea of what counts as memoir. I’m interested in a wider realm of what’s true and real with more room for the imagination than I felt like was FPA’s focus.

After the interview, I asked around the First Person office to see if Beth was right about that line between memoir presented more literally and the kind that takes a “loosey goosey” route. We kept coming back to the idea that if it tells your story, then it doesn’t matter how it’s told. Personally, I’ve always been enchanted by fantastical storytelling.

But what do other folks think? Does the imaginary have a place in non-fiction? Or should real life be presented exclusively in a real way? What’s “real” anyway? Ponder that in the comments, won’t you?

– Karina Kacala

*The residency program no longer exists.

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