31 October 2009

Cheerleaders of the Revolution

[The excerpt from "Commitments and Consequences: Leonardo Shapiro and The Shaliko Company" below recounts an episode from 40 years ago today. It was one of the very first performance events presented by my friend Leo Shapiro, whose work I have written about before, including an earlier post on ROT, “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos)” (5 August 2009). Part of this excerpt, along with the account of a participant, Andrea Lord, was published on line in “Peace-Love: Halloween, 1969, Taos, New Mexico” on FountainofLight.net, 31 Oct. 2004, (http://www.fountainoflight.net/publish/article_1197.shtml#top).]

After Leonardo Shapiro finished his last project at New York University, Ecology Action West in Berkeley having invited the emerging avant-garde theater director to start a street theater for them, and he took off for California. In the summer of 1969, Shapiro left New York City on a meandering route that took him to the Woodstock rock festival and Ram Dass’s retreat in Millbrook, New York. On his way west, Shapiro drove to Minnesota to visit family; then he headed south and west through Pipestone, Minnesota; the Black Hills of South Dakota; and Denver. One day he stopped his “old green VW bus with a red flag stenciled with Che Guevara” for lunch in Taos, New Mexico. Propitiously, he had arrived on San Gerónimo Day, a bright, sunny Tuesday, 30 September, and happened to meet Fred Aronow, whom he knew from NYU and who was the assistant cameraman and sound recordist for a documentary film on ecology and the environment, The Water Is So Clear that a Blind Man Could See, the last half-hour of Our Vanishing Wilderness on National Educational Television (the predecessor to PBS), which was focusing on the Taos Indians.

Aronow recalled that he had been in the central plaza of Taos when he heard someone call his name. The plaza had been closed to traffic for a performance of “some colonial period Spanish dance music” by local singer-accordionist Jennie Vincent, part of the Fall Fiesta, the city’s parallel celebration to the San Gerónimo Festival at the pueblo, and Aronow was surprised to see an East Village acquaintance calling to him from the dirty, beat-up, hand-decorated bus. Aronow took his friend to Taos Pueblo where the film crew had been working daily for several weeks already and been given access to areas and aspects of the pueblo and the festival that tourists seldom see. Shapiro was stunned to encounter a living culture, unlike those of other Native American societies he had known in Minnesota and Florida, with “a live and lively oral tradition, unbroken for thousands of years and a rich ritual and dramatic ceremonial life.” He was 23, had a “few hundred dollars,” and was unfettered. He remained in New Mexico for two years.

Taos and its surrounding countryside holds attractions for many who come only to visit or pass through. Photographer William Davis was drawn to its beauty--“a result,” he believed, “of a rare combination of mystical and human elements.” As John Nichols--who moved to Taos not long before Shapiro came there, had written extensively about the area, and recorded one of Shapiro’s largest protest events--said of Taos Mountain, which physically, emotionally, and psychologically dominates the town, the pueblo, and all the villages of the valley: It “casts spells” to keep people from leaving and lure back those who try. It does seem to have cast a spell on Shapiro, who returned 20 years later. For those who came to escape establishment America, there was a spirit conjured up by the combination of the times, the land, and the people who gravitated there that generated ideas and ways of living in reaction to America’s consumerist society. In Shapiro’s view, “Everybody was making up social structures, cooperatives of various kinds, a newspaper,” and Andrea Lord, who had arrived in Taos from Los Angeles in the spring of 1969, saw the commune community as “a new way of being,” where “people were opening up their minds to new information . . . , new ways of relating to everything and everyone.” On Shapiro’s first night at The Family commune, Roger Sundell, who was working on a film about the commune (Peace, Love, 2 Hours--Taos, 1970), said to him, “Want to build a house, go ahead,” and Shapiro summed up, “Anybody could live there, it was like making it up as they went along, together.” “It was a very exciting time,” Lord concludes, “full of promise and hope,” and Shapiro decreed, “It was a scene, it was sort of astonishing, out in the middle of nowhere.”

Soon after arriving that fall, Shapiro presented The Second Coming, a music-theater piece based on William Butler Yeats’s 1921 poem exploring the polarities between the spiritual and the physical realms. He was drawn to Yeats’s poem because he responded viscerally to the sound of the verse, especially, he said, on recordings of Yeats reading it himself. (He paraphrased Yeats saying, “I want all my poetry to be spoken on a stage or sung.”) Much of the sentiment Shapiro would later put into his productions and his writings can be seen in lines of the poem which warn:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats was describing the state of civilization as he saw it following the destruction of World War I--impending civil war in his Irish homeland and the violent overthrow of the established regime in Russia that foretold the pall about to fall across the globe--but it was not much different from what Shapiro saw in 1969 during the war in Southeast Asia and the vehement resistance to desegregation and equal treatment for women and other disenfranchised citizens at home. (Yeats’s “rough beast” is, furthermore, slouching toward Jerusalem, foreshadowing, perhaps, the destructive forces descending on the Middle East.)

Andrea Lord reported that in the late summer of 1969 she was living at the Taos Community Information Center, a sort of clearing house for commune information run by The Family, when Shapiro came in “dressed like a traveling man, a troubadour, very excited, wanting to share his talents.” He began meeting at the Information Center with a handful of people, eventually drawing in Lord, until word of mouth attracted about 20 performers. “People came to Taos because they felt stifled and were looking for freedom to be,” Lord thought. “Acting in Leonardo’s play was a part of challenging the old way of looking at things. I know he was trying to take the lid off of some part of society. I guess that was why I became part of the play.”

The core group of performers was from The Family where Shapiro was doing a workshop. The little band, few with any theater experience beyond school performances, began to meet frequently, rehearsing at first at the Information Center as Shapiro guided them through exercises from Grotowski and other sources such as the theater-games classes he took at NYU. Lord described one session in which the performers lay on the floor with closed eyes and “pretend[ed] that you are coming alive for the first time blind and discover your environment.” Another time, Shapiro took the group to the Rio Grande River Gorge, where they would perform the piece, to practice tumbling. “It felt like a circus troupe,” Lord said. She remarked with some surprise, given the habitual casualness of the community at the time--“very in the moment, on the run, etc.”--on how hard the group worked under Shapiro’s supervision, rehearsing, making costumes, building the set. “This was part of Leonardo’s energy . . . ,” asserted Lord. “So, the fact that this production happened and was extremely successful was a tribute to his vision.”

Shapiro conceived the idea of doing something meaningful on Halloween, so The Second Coming was a kind of ceremony beginning with an invocation from British occultist, Satanist, and student of magic Aleister Crowley. Given Shapiro’s sentiments, not least that artists and poets are our oracles, Yeats’s bleak and apocalyptic vision of approaching chaos was a perfect matrix for such a spectacle. Yeats’s devotion to the occult and magic lent itself to the Crowley incantations and the poet’s rejection of Christianity was appropriate for a Halloween observance at midnight in the New Mexico desert. The way Shapiro saw his own time was surely reflected in Yeats’s prediction that an unknown and potentially destructive god was coming to rule over the Earth, perhaps to usher its ruination.

The performance of Second Coming started at midnight on a brisk, chilly Friday, 31 October 1969, in a canyon of the Rio Grande River Gorge about 15 miles outside of town. To get to the clearing in which the performance took place, which Shapiro dubbed “The Midnight Theater,” spectators had to come down a narrow path through dry waterfalls following a rope guideline and a succession of torch-bearing performers “wearing hopsack robes and hooded masks.” It was quite a trek in the pitch darkness, through the desert and down into the little box canyon from cars parked above. After the audience was seated on the ground, Shapiro recited the Crowley invocation from atop a rock outcropping, like a small mountaintop a couple of hundred feet above the clearing:

Magic is the science and art [of] causing change to occur in conformity with will.

Any required change may be affected by the application of the proper kind and degree of force in the proper manner through the proper medium to the proper object . . . .

Every man and every woman is a star.

He then lit a fireball formed of gasoline-soaked sagebrush which hurtled down an invisible wire and smashed into a six-foot-high, 30-foot-long crescent of briar that was also saturated with gasoline. When the bonfire ignited, the performance began--a ritualized dance that Shapiro developed from the Grotowski plastiques he had learned in New York. Lord described it as “a blending of movement, discovery and natural design,” backlit by the bonfire; she remembers the performers forming shapes such as pentagrams and speaking lines from Yeats’s poem as they moved among one another before the burning briar arc. Shapiro and Lord both recalled that Second Coming was quite successful, attracting about 100 spectators or so, and the director declared he was impressed that there was an audience in the Taos area for such a spectacle. Further, Lord believed, the performance gave “some kind of creative center and expression” to the nascent counterculture community, which was still “very untried and vulnerable.”

Out of this effort grew the Appleseed Circus, the “street theater without streets” Shapiro assembled. The origins of the troupe were in the invitations he issued at the end of a theater column he wrote for Fountain of Light, a Taos area commune newsletter; then he began inviting people to come west and join him. This notice attracted local interest and the messages he sent east brought friends from home starting early in 1970. This little “anarchist cell” began recruiting members by advertising in local newspapers--there were numerous counterculture publications circulating in the area--welcoming “everybody . . . if [you’re] a little crazy and willing to work.” People started coming “to help create a symbolic vocabulary and subtext in the community.”

Shapiro’s initial idea was for the troupe to travel in horse-drawn wagons but they soon discovered that there were too many fences across the countryside and so they were relegated to automobiles and roads. At the start, Shapiro‘s “cheerleaders of the revolution” had only his Volkswagen bus and a Ford panel van, but then, on the frame of a pick-up truck which the troupe got from the dump, they built the flat-bed stage they would use for their guerrilla performances. Within a year, the troupe began collecting vehicles and, thus, the Appleseed Circus traversed the countryside surrounding Taos County in two school busses, a bread van, the truck pulling a wagon, and Shapiro’s green minibus. The nomadic troupe, numbering at its peak about 20 people, roamed in this motley assortment of vehicles like an old-fashioned circus from its base in Dixon into Colorado, Utah, and Arizona doing guerrilla theater. For their performances, the Circus wore green overalls with big red felt apples on them and, Shapiro recalled, an ‘A’ created by one of the company members. “To me all these things were poetry, were theater,” he wrote. “I lived in a very pure world.” Appleseed may have returned to Second Coming--some of the new members recalled having worked on it--but none could remember specific performances. Appleseed turned its attention to other projects until Shapiro disbanded it in 1971 after an unsuccessful trip east to recruit new members. By October, Shapiro had launched The Shaliko Company, the radical theater company he ran for 21 years.

[I got to know Leo Shapiro when I first saw his company perform at the Theatre of Nations in Baltimore in 1986 and I began to follow his work after that. Leo remained in New Mexico, doing guerrilla theater in the Four Corners, until 1971, when he returned to New York City and started The Shaliko Company. He returned to New Mexico once again in 1993 to retire. Eighteen months after a diagnosis of terminal bladder cancer--“What . . . you get,” he joked, “when you’ve been pissed off all your life”--Leo died on 22 January 1997, 15 days after his 51st birthday. I continue to admire his work and his artistic integrity.]

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