August 7th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Theater with kukla_tko42: Living Tarot

A couple of weeks before this year's Pagan Picnic, I got a call from kukla_tko42 asking me to help her out with a bit of performance art. She had signed her theater troupe up to perform their Living Tarot interactive improv theater bit as a programming event at Pagan Picnic. Not the first time they'd done it, I think it was the third, but each time it presented the same challenge. To do a proper living tarot, even just the Major Arcana ("trumps"), you need at least 23 actors, 2 for The Lovers and one each for the other 21 cards. Even calling in every spear-carrier and extra in her phone list, I don't think that Kukla has 23 actors on call, and if she does, she obviously couldn't get them to show up outdoors in the summer for an unpaid free performance. I forget how she filled it out, or how far she filled it out, the previous times; I wasn't there for any of them. But this time she was calling friends and asking us to stand in. In the end, I think she managed to staff a respectable 14 of the 22 stations.

Since I'm a big (fat) bearded bald guy, with horns, who owns a pair of furry leggings that she had made for me ages ago (her interpretation of the traditional iron age satyr play uniform), she asked me to play Trump XV, The Devil. It's not really a part that I identify with. Just because I'm an American of Infernal descent doesn't mean that I self identify as The Devil, or even a devil. If I had a dollar for every time I've been a victim of this particular form of ethnic stereotyping, I wouldn't need SSDI. So I creebled and whinged about it a bit, and then, as I always do when it's Kukla, I gave in. After all, the part I wanted to play, The Hermit, was already cast.

Basically, the way it works is that she and the rest of her actors set up 22 tableaus, or at least as many of them as she can cast, representing the 22 major arcana cards in the "traditional" tarot deck. The way it's worked in the past is that she stayed out, casting herself as the person "dealing" the cards, and randomly assigning each attendee a sequence of 3 cards to visit. Each card is instructed to prepare at least one short speech in character, preferably more so they can improvise, to present to people who come for that part of a reading. This time it wasn't quite so organized, and she cast herself as one of the cards, so nobody was handing out assigned visits. Instead, people wandered the cards in any random sequence they chose. Had it been up to me, we would have been in numerical sequence, since the cards were originally intended to be perused in numerical sequence, as a wordless book, but she chose to randomize us some.

I said yesterday that Kukla places only limited faith in my acting abilities, but I know (the hard way) that she has possibly-excessive confidence in my ability to prepare for a role. Getting any direction out of her was like pulling teeth. Basically, she trusted me to finish the design on my costume, tell her what pieces and props I needed for my costume and tableau, pick the interpretation(s) of my station that I wanted, script them myself, and deliver them without any critique or help from her. Costuming and setup were easy enough, I grant. For all that I think I look better with a shirt on, she encouraged me to go shirtless. I wore my usual horns; she offered me bigger ones, but I resisted. I wore my goat pants and went barefoot. I begged a length of silver braided ribbon off of her to stand in for the chain loosely chaining the fallen Adam and Eve to the throne of Sin, and a pair of Barbie and Ken dolls to stand in for the fallen humans. I brought my own Ultimate Folding Recliner Lounge Chair OF DOOM (really, an insanely comfortable chair) to stand in as my throne. I meant to ask to borrow a pair of bat wings from her, but I forgot until afterwards, d'oh. I passed on anything to stand in for the torch.

She contributed one note of brilliance to my tableau, one that absolutely made it. Kukla, like too many other people I know who've been to too many Neopagan rituals, feels that you can't have a ritual without sending people home with some damned useless tchotchke or other magical token to remind them of the experience. So she gave the other card stations grass seed and flower seeds to hand out. But it occurred to her that that was way too constructive for Trump XV, so I got a bag of Halloween candy. Perfect! So I was sitting in the recliner, with Barbie and Ken chained at my feet, and a bag of candy concealed under my "throne" where I could discretely reach down to get more. The dolls were more of a pain in the neck than I expected, because I failed to anticipate how thoroughly articulated the dolls she was going to give me would be, or how hard the ground was; I could not get them to stand on their own for love or money. I ended up holding their ankles with my toes and gently tugging on the "chain" to keep them vertical. I'm told it worked well enough, visually.

Anyway, with the overall design done, I sweated my dialog and characterization for weeks. Trump XV has a lot of potential interpretations. I had to pick a set of them that could be explained in only a few lines to an audience some of whom would know no tarot or any esoteric symbolism of any kind. I had to polish those lines. And then I had to get myself into character and deliver the lines for about two hours. Here are the speeches I ended up with, as best as I can reconstruct them from memory. And remember, it's OK that I don't remember them word-perfect, because I didn't deliver them exactly the same each time.
  • (Gestures to Ken/Adam and Barbie/Eve with the hand holding the "chain.") "The sons of man and the daughters of woman could cast off the chains of temptation any time. I don't worry. They hardly ever do."

  • "If your spirit didn't mean to experience the pleasures of the flesh, why did it put on flesh in the first place?"

  • I only offer one Deal, the same Deal that everybody else offers. All that anybody will ever offer you are momentary pleasures of the flesh. And all that anybody will ever ask of you is that you wear their leash, however lightly or briefly."
I managed to get myself into character enough that I could present each of these speeches with a straight, serious face. I even managed to get my voice limbered up enough to go back down to its original basso profundo register and stay there for the length of the performance, imagine a white James Earl Jones. And at the end of each presentation, I would reach out with my left hand, palm up, offering 2 or 3 pieces of individually wrapped hard candy, and ask brightly and almost innocently, "Candy?"

The best single outcome was when a family from the neighborhood wandered over to see what was going on. This was on a Sunday afternoon around 1:30 pm, in Tower Grove Park in the city, and they were a black family (father, mother, two boys around 8 to 10 years old), all obviously dressed as if they had just come from church, almost certainly A.M.E. unless I miss my guess. It was the kids who approached my station first. The oldest said, somewhat challengingly, "You're the Devil, aren't you?" I said, "Why yes, yes I am. (Palm up.) Will you take candy from the Devil?" Both kids in unison, faintly scared (as much by the classically threatening posture of a stranger offering candy as by superstitious fear, I assume), jumped back hard and yelled, "NO!" But ... they stopped there, one jump backwards, still staring at the candy. And almost imperceptibly, they snuck up on my smiling face and outstretched hand, and they took the candy. A little bit later they came back with their parents, and I gave the parents speech number three, feeling a little weird about lecturing an African American middle class family about leashes or chains, but they both looked really thoughtful, like I'd said something especially meaningful to them personally ... and yes, they took the candy, too.

Kukla says that I stole the show.