Impossible Expanse: PearlDamour Invites the Ocean Onstage

NOV 12, 2021

Created by artistic duo PearlDamour, Ocean Filibuster pits the ocean itself against Mister Majority on the floor of an imagined Global Senate in the debate over a bill to drain and monetize the oceans of the world. Here, Jenn Kidwell (who plays both Ocean and Mister Majority) joins creators Katie Pearl and Lisa D’Amour in conversation about the piece, which opens at the A.R.T. in February 2022.

Katie Pearl: So Jenn, how does it feel to you to say the words “I am the ocean”?

Jenn Kidwell: I recently had a shift in the notion of that line, “I am the ocean.” Before, it felt like an audacious notion, that that statement would be embedded in a theatrical text. It felt like a kind of flirt, a challenge to the audience: “I dare you to say I’m not.” That’s theater, right? I speak it, and then it becomes true. But recently, I had this moment where I realized, “No, actually, it is a statement of fact. Saying ‘I am the ocean’ is not a way of saying that you are not the ocean—it is actually an acknowledgement that we all are.

Katie: Does that change the way that you think of Ocean as an embodied character?

Jenn: Well, I feel like character in this case is so different, right? Because the “thingness” of Ocean, or what we understand that body to be, is outside of any kind of human psychology. So, I don’t know how that shows up on a stage yet. I think that’s to be discovered, but it feels like a really juicy, challenging proposal for a notion of embodiment.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much people fear freedom—the terror that people feel at the thought that other people could be free. And in the piece, the ocean invites us to be boundless. The ocean is like, “Just come in, join me.” And Mr. Majority is like, “No, I can’t. I can’t allow give myself over to a more collective sense of self.”

Lisa D’Amour: Katie, I am wondering: what has been most joyful and pleasurable for you in making this piece?

Katie: Some of those moments were right at the beginning, Lisa, when you started writing Mr. Majority. When you got to that part where he compares the ailing Ocean to your sweet dying dog—he asks, “Wouldn’t you put him out of his misery?” And I remember bursting out laughing, because it’s so manipulative of Mr. Majority to play on these human emotions. And it was so Lisa! It was such a Lisa turn to have Mr. Majority veer like that, from “What are we going to do with the earth?” to “What if this was a dog?”

Jenn: What do you mean by “so Lisa?”

Katie: One thing I love about Lisa’s writing is that the characters that Lisa creates are unbound by the conventional. Their thought process isn’t always A to B to C to D. Like they’re in here, and then they swerve and come in through a completely different doorway, without warning. I think this works for the ocean, because the ocean does not use human logic.

Lisa: I’m wondering what you two think about the spectacle in the show. There’s video, music, and interactive mini-labs at intermission. How do you think these elements of the production might support or interact with content about the huge, unknowable ocean?

Katie: I love thinking about how fun the show is going to be to watch. And how Tal, our video designer, encouraged us to use animation rather than photo-real images of ocean life, so that we engage the audience’s imagination. We’re experiencing an imaginatively driven world and imagery, instead of a photorealistic one. So much of this show is about taking action and activating the imagination around living with the ocean. And the A.R.T. space is so huge; the music and video help to expand and open and explode the play, really taking the audience on a ride.

Jenn: Everything that you just said, Katie, makes me feel that it’s fitting for us to feel small, actually, and for us to reckon with the scale of the ocean. I was just at a residency in Wyoming, and I had all of these moments of feeling like, “Oh, I see. We’re so tiny that I am feeling emotional about my size right now.”

After Wyoming, I traveled to Utah and visited Arches National Park. Everything there is just so enormous. And then I understood why some people feel a terror when they see the ocean: because I was having a moment where a mountain was terrifying to me. We humans build these narratives about our importance, so when we’re confronted with that as a lie, it’s like, “I don’t understand myself anymore.” It feels connected to the lies propping up arguments about human dominance, like those of Mr. Majority.

Lisa: I have a desire in the script to help people feel the expanse, to feel humbled by it and feel connected to it. It’s good to put an impossible task at the heart of a theater piece, right?

Jenn: Speaking of impossible, I have a question for PearlDamour. What is it about who you are as individuals and together that brought you to this moment to make this piece?

Lisa: Katie and I have grown up together as artists, from our first experiments in 1996 in tiny theaters in Austin. We started really in a rambunctious way, trying to turn theater upside down. Then in 2005 we were doing our first big 24-hour site specific performance with five other artists on a bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. And Hurricane Katrina hit during the show. My family from New Orleans had all come to see it—so I had accidentally evacuated them.

Jenn: Wow. And that’s crazy, because they traveled upriver.

Lisa: Yeah. And Katie and I then had to live through that experience as friends and collaborators. Then that whole led us to our next piece, which was How to Build a Forest—it was about loss, and life cycles, and the human relationship to natural ecosystems. It was a turning point, and our work started to directly address issues of the environment and community growth and our relationship to the expanse of the earth/ocean.

Production still from PearlDamour's

Above: How to Build a Forest in 2015 at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans. Photo by Shawn Hall.

Katie: We always set ourselves an impossible task. So we said, “Well, we don’t know anything about the ocean, so let’s do a piece about that.” Rather than: “Oh, we know a lot about that, so let’s make a piece about it.” 

Jenn: Wow. That’s exciting. I was just having visions of you two closing your eyes and jumping off a high place, and the rest of the team is like, “There’s water, don’t worry.” But you don’t know how far down the water is.

Lisa: And so what happens when you jump in?

Jenn: Well, in this show, I think it means getting to the question beyond the question.

Katie: Yeah, we are so far beyond “Can we save the ocean?” Now it’s a much different conversation than that.

Jenn: Yeah, let’s make sure that while we’re saying “save the ocean,” we also ask ourselves, “How did we get to a moment in which we have to save the ocean? What were all of the behaviors that led us up to this point?” 

Lisa: Sorry to laugh. But there’s a lot of recognition.

Jenn: Yeah. What if we were just living with the ocean? In some other dimension, humans are like, “Oh, you had to save the ocean. So tell me about why you had to save it.” It’s not aliens. The call is coming from inside the house.

Image Credit
How to Build a Forest in 2015 at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans. Photo: Shawn Hall.

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