Thursday, August 25, 2011

1000 Words: Kwan Yin, or – A View from the Other Side of the Makeup Brush

It was another cool, late Spring day in Chicago when I opened the door of my Hobbit Hole to cast member Kat O’Connor and Stephen Pettinga, Ruby Sara’s wonderfully talented husband in his guise as Fabulous Photographer-On-Loan. They were there to prep for an early afternoon shoot of the goddess Kwan Yin (and later, Freya) for the 2011 Goddess Calendar Project.

I was asked earlier to apply Kat’s makeup for the shoot, and couldn’t have been happier to oblige. Kat’s eyes are amazing, and proved a wonderful canvas on which to play out my cosmetologist fantasy. The chance to transform our resident “Tiger Lily” into a kinder, gentler feline was a real treat as well.

Kwan Yin by Stephen Pettinga © 2011
Soft. Warm. Pale. With a hint of Asia, please! – is what Kat requested for her makeup. And as I applied those qualities through color and shade upon her face, I worked to bring out the goddess in the woman as well. We talked about Kwan Yin’s beauty and grace; her calm and healing presence. A white cloak (beautifully crafted by Amy Christensen), and a green bottle representing the Water of Life helped transform Kat into this female bodhisattva. The goddess Kwan Yin was indeed present.

Kat is a professional actor and photographer in her own right, so when she suggested a more urban setting for the Kwan Yin photographs, I knew she was on to something. As a goddess of mercy and compassion, I couldn’t think of a better location than Rogers Park in Chicago to honor Kwan Yin’s gifts; her much-needed benevolence was momentarily bestowed upon us brick-and-mortar mortals of the Far North Side. We walked around the corner of the street, and found a venerable Chicago three-flat doorstep to take the pictures.

In the doorway, the early afternoon light mixed beautifully with shadow. Kat was radiant and reflective in her interpretation of Kwan Yin. Stephen took shot after shot as I lent my set of arms to the goddess; the extra arms representing Kwan Yin’s quest to free as many sentient beings as possible from the bonds of samsara. In this, I think it would be safe to say, “The more arms; the merrier.” Looking back at that day, I found it comforting to know that most goddesses – and some tiger lilies – have a really great sense of humor.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Professor Green’s Musings on Steampunk

My introduction to Steampunk came about with the writing/production/ performance of our show Professor Marius Mandragore’s Salon-Symposium Regarding Spirits, Spells, and Eldritch Craft, which we produced in autumn, 2009. As we were writing it, I remember asking my partner/artistic director Matthew if he thought the sort of odd piece of Victoriana that was emerging would have any sort of appeal to people. He answered: “Oh yes! It’s very Steampunk.” That was the first time I had ever heard the word. Yes, I know, I’m very sheltered.

My first researches into this cultural phenomenon seemed to indicate that Steampunk was where people went when they felt they were too old to go in for Goth anymore – Victorian society, corsets, steam engines, etc. That didn’t seem too bad. After all, being a history professor in my early 40s, having grown up listening to Gilbert and Sullivan, and having a penchant for wearing monocles since the mid 1980s (I actually wore one along with a neck scarf to my high school graduation)[1], it was probably inevitable that I end up somewhere like this anyway. Never being one to let first impressions decide me on anything, however, I decided to dig a little deeper, and found that Steampunk was more than aging Geeks (like me) in frockcoats and tinted sunglasses. It was… is a speculative subculture filled with revolutionary possibility.

According to the (highly recommended!) Steampunk Bible, edited by Jeff Vandermeer and S. J. Chambers, “STEAMPUNK = Mad Scientist Inventor [invention (steam x airship or metal man / baroque stylings) x (pseudo) Victorian setting + progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot.”[2] Sounds good – plenty of room for unique characters, settings, and social commentary. Sounds like the scene could get pretty radical. How radical, I wondered? I took a look at the first article in Steampunk Magazine, issue 1, entitled “What Then, is Steampunk?” and found the following: “Steampunk is a re-envisioning of the past with the hypertechnological perceptions of the present. Unfortunately, most so-called “steampunk” is simply dressed-up, recreationary nostalgia: the stifling tea-rooms of Victorian imperialists and faded maps of colonial hubris”[3] (My monocle felt a little guilty, but I read on through the end of the article.) “We do not have the luxury of niceties or the possession of politeness; we are rebuilding yesterday to ensure our tomorrow.”[4] Aha!

Here were some of the do-it-yourself, green sensibilities that I, as an earth-based spiritualist, held near and dear. Steampunk Magazine, by the way, is a virtual goldmine for this kind of information. Check out A Steampunk’s Guide to the Apocalypse and you will learn all sorts of interesting skills, including, but not limited to, scavenging, water distillation and filtration, and solar heating. You can access it here. And donate some money while you’re at it – these are good people doing worthwhile work! So Steampunk is not just old Goths in Victorian garb, it is not just airships, it is not just cool wheels and gears, it is a full blown counter-cultural movement with revolutionary overtones (we must never forget the ‘punk’ in Steampunk).

Is there room in Steampunk for magick and the occult? That’s an important question to me – my spiritual and artistic interests are both well-grounded in an understanding of the “occult sciences.” Where does Professor Mandragore and his salon-symposium fit in? Well, to some extent the good professor never quite fits in anywhere. His salon, “itself a mystery of the profound collusion of space and time,” is largely unhinged in time, moving back and forth across the “cosmic strands of magico-potentiality.” [His words not mine.] For all of that, he is definitely possessed of a Steampunk aesthetic, in manners, speech, and dress, and an enlightened worldview that I think would appeal to a good many on the punk spectrum, despite his monocle. It’s not as if magick is absent from the genre, after all. Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates features a Restoration-era brotherhood devoted to protecting England from harmful sorceries. Ekaterina Sedia’s lovely novel The Alchemy of Stone has not only a female automaton as protagonist, but stone gargoyles, autochthonous nature spirits who helped mortals to create their civilization and who have over the eons become estranged from humanity. If you have not read either of these books, I recommend you run out right now and do so.

Yes, there is room in Steampunk for Professor Mandragore, myself, and many other people with even more radical philosophies and exciting stories to tell. I look forward to watching the movement evolve and to participating directly in that evolution. Right now, however, it is time for a cup of tea and a pipe of tobacco after dinner. Cheers.

[1] I couldn’t find any spats to complete the outfit. More’s the pity; accessories are what make the ensemble.
[2] Jeff Vandermeer and S. J. Chambers, eds., The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature (New York: Abrams Image, 2011), 9.
[3] Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective (NYC), “What Then is Steampunk? Colonizing the Past so We Can Dream the Future,” Steampunk Magazine 1, 4.
[4] Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective, “What Then is Steampunk,” 5.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Video Blog #6: What is the role of music in our work?

Terra Mysterium presents a series of behind-the-scenes videos exploring who we are and our creative process.

This week: Shannah Lessa discusses the role of music in the work of Terra Mysterium.

Have any questions you'd like answered in a future video? Leave them in comments. We hope you enjoy the video!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Performing at Oasis: Creating Art and Community

Photo of "Finding Eleusis" taken by Angie Buchanan

This past June, the directors and staff of Earth Traditions created a new intensive retreat for the People of the Earth, and named it Oasis. An oasis is a place to refresh the body and mind. It is a central place where the Spirit can find care, and people from great distances can connect to exchange goods, ideas, and commune together in peace. The staff of Earth Traditions made all of the above possible with their tireless efforts.

Photo of "Betwixt and Between" taken by Angie Buchanan

Terra Mysterium was included in the planning process from the start. We wished to present all three of our current touring productions for this community. As a performance troupe, we are currently an itinerant company of storytellers, bards, and myth-makers on the winding road. To be given the gift to perform for a community who would understand our intent was a powerful experience. Our work found a home in the hearts of those who attended Oasis. Many of these people have been long familiar faces, while others became new friends. All were a part of the birth of something new, rich, and powerful.

The twin forces of art and community creation allow those of us who engage in the work to explore the intersection of culture and mystery so that what fuels us (in the end) is the need to embody a creation of substance. Earth Traditions created a space where everyone could explore deeper magicks, more complex subjects, and find ways to create and invest in community. Far from a festival experience (which can be a wonderful and rewarding experience as well) Oasis was intended as retreat, but, for me personally, it embodied a lovingly crafted challenge. This challenge asked me to examine how I might reinvest, rethink, and reengage in the world around me. As the Pagan, Earth-based, Nature-centered, Dark Green Spirituality movement matures, we need more events like Oasis. We need to gather as a community to share deep knowledge and hard won personal gnosis. While play is essential to the work at hand, we must continue to engage each other in profound and substantial ways that will benefit the land and the people.

Photo of "Professor Marius Mandragore's Salon Symposium" taken by Angie Buchanan

Terra Mysterium is committed to the work of culture creation. We walk in wonder upon and within the “Land of Mystery” that is theatre, storytelling, myth, and magic(k), and life itself. Our works are created to inspire, challenge, and invite the audience to participate with us in the creation of a new culture. The ancient myths are alive and walking though us and with us everyday. When the land, animals, and people around you are no longer seen as commodities but instead as sacred, mysterious, and full of wisdom, then you have made the shift to a place where magic happens, where all possibility exists, and where a tale is being created.

Terra Mysterium would like to give thanks to the staff of Earth Traditions, and to the creators of culture everywhere. We are glad to be a part of this work, and look forward to walking the winding road with you wherever you may be.

1000 Words: The Goddess Hel

Following the He'e'e shoot, we had to travel a bit. Everyone had been sensing the presence of Hel since we began that morning. Shannah in particular was aware of her expressing a strong preference not to be misrepresented. In traditional lore, the Norse goddess Hel is goddess of the underworld, and depicted as half corpse, half living flesh. Death and the underworld aren't these terrible, frightening things; "make me pretty" was the request, and that is what we strove to do.

We drove to a nearby cemetery and wandered around looking for someplace to shoot. All of us stopped at this arcade of mausoleums. It felt right, and it took little discussion to determine we all felt the same way. A flock of crows wheeled overhead. It was sunny but cold that day, so we brought Shannah's coat so she could warm up as needed. It turned out we needn't have bothered; in that space between the mausoleums, headstones, and a stark, barely-budding tree, it was warm and the wind was calm.

Shannah had been anxious about the shoot all morning. She wanted everything to be perfect. We picked a spot next to a crypt with an old iron gate and began slowly. Gradually a calm settled in, and it seemed that Shannah stepped aside as Hel took over.

I look back at these photos and see a vibrancy in her eyes -- a knowing of strange and mysterious things. The woman in front of me becomes ethereal, dark, sensual. She knows who she is and reveals it in glimpses. This is her place, the dead are her people, whom she loves.

She is pretty, and more than that. She no longer moves like Shannah. She no longer looks at me like Shannah. She glides, she whispers, occasionally she smirks. Through it all her eyes shine.

She is a wild thing, untamed, and fierce in her beauty. Death comes for all but she is a gentle, nurturing soul.

We remained in our otherworldly bubble for a time. I don't know how long; it felt suspended and timeless. Other than moving from spot to spot no one said much, because no one needed to. I think we were all listening -- or, more accurately, we were all hearing. We were alone in this still place... at least in the sense of the living. We were all reverent. We thanked the dead for their hospitality as we left.