Artists, unlike academics, are not focused as much on authenticity as they are on artfulness. The research I do as a writer/director doesn’t begin to approach the painstaking work of a curator or historian, but the process of creating Tales of the Old West has employed historical source material at every step along the way. Whereas a historian exhaustively documents facts to build a hypothesis and argue for it, a theatrical creative team sifts through primary and secondary sources to find kernels of “truth” that help focus a production concept. Happily, I’ve found that museums like the Autry offer a unique opportunity for scholarship and art-making to intersect, and that exhibition spaces can be remarkably theatrical spaces where fact and fiction meaningfully inform one another.
Everyone on a theatrical creative team is encouraged to do their own research, but we always share what we’ve discovered in order to develop a unified interpretation and production plan. Composer Bruno Louchouarn has done fascinating research on songs of the nineteenth century, the period in which Tales of the Old West is set, and I’ve been consumed with finding images of the diverse people who lived in and around Fort Laramie between 1855 and 1880.
Because Tales originator Barbara Bragg and I have worked closely on her adaptation for two years, my research process started as we sat across from each other at my dining room table. As we worked through the adaptations of her father’s stories, I asked a lot of questions and Barb generously shared her knowledge of her father’s life and of Wyoming’s history. After our sessions, I did my own research, reading about key events, and in particular collecting images. (Check out my Facebook page to see some of the images that inspired me.)
Key pieces of research for this presentation at the Autry come directly from Barb telling me how these stories were shared. Barb’s dad first developed them when, as a young man, he worked as an interpretive guide at the Fort Laramie National Historic Site near Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Barb also told me that he scared the hell out her friends when he told the stories around the fire at backyard camp-outs. Both these “facts” inspired me to create a production that emphasizes the power of telling stories and the intimacy of hearing them in informal settings.
At the beginning of a rehearsal the whole company spends several days doing “text work”—going through the script line by line, asking questions about why the characters make the choices they do, and consulting various references. As director, I usually share images, quotes, and short articles that I think will help the actors begin the process of building a character, but I’m careful not to overwhelm what is fundamentally a personal creative process.
Actors often do research on a particular period’s manners and customs, as well as on the attitudes, accents, dress, and activities. They also invest considerable time finding the motivation for their character’s actions, using research as a foundation for their interpretations. Over the course of a career, an actor may develop a lexicon of human behavior, allowing him or her to produce portraits of incredible nuance.
Bringing stories to life is one of the most ancient forms of knowledge creation and dispersion that we have, not to mention one vital to our survival. There’s fascinating research going on at the University of Southern California (USC) Brain and Creativity Institute to better understand what happens cognitively to audiences when actors perform for them. Dr. Antonio Damasio, the Director of the Institute, has Magnetic Resonance Imaging evidence that actors and audiences mirror each others’ neuron activity “as if in a body loop”—a connection between actor and audience that is measurable in the level of brain activity of both. His hypothesis is that storytelling helps humans develop empathy as well as prepares them for challenging, unfamiliar circumstances. In other words, as humans, we can “mimic” the experiences we hear about in a story, without having to take the real-life risk.