Diane Glancy

Diane Glancy

The Writing Process for The Bird House

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“In the beginning was the word””” John 1:1.  Actually, a play begins with thought, maybe an image or piece of dialogue”” but until there is a word on the page, there is no beginning.

Diane Glancy

The Bird House began during a conversation with Randy Reinholz (Choctaw*), co-founder/ producing artistic director of Native Voices at the Autry, on his patio under a bird house a relative had made.  At the time, I had three old relatives that I cared for, since I’m the oldest member of the family not in the “senior center” with them.   I remember asking Randy if I could write a play about aging, stroke, loss, diminishment “” all the grimness I love to write about.  Of course, the answer was, yes.  I added land pollution from pesticides and drilling for natural gas in West Texas where my son lives.  Once I began writing, I kept going until I had several pages.

After a word enters the page, the words keep growing, much like the mud that grew on the surface of the water in an old Cherokee creation story.  Then the play stands on a little clump of mud in the uncertainty of what it’s going to be.  As the first draft takes shape, I saw this particular play was about three characters struggling for their survival “” Reverend Hawk, his sister, Clovis, and half-sister, Majel.

There’s more to the Cherokee creation story.  At one time, the animals lived on a sky rock, but it grew crowded, and they fell off the rock to the water below, and drowned.  One animal finally swam to the bottom of the water and picked up a piece of mud and placed it on the surface of the water where it began to grow.  But it stayed a clump of mud until a bird”” usually the vulture”” flew over the mud to dry it.  Where its wings touched the mud, there was a valley.  Where its wings lifted, there was a mountain.  The land became the “turtle island” of our continent because in one version, the mud was placed on a turtle’s back that was swimming in the water there.  But focus.  Focus.   It’s hard not to get lost in words.

The “fall to the water below” is where a play begins.  The characters are in a difficult situation full of tension and conflict, which somehow will be resolved with character change and epiphany. By the third or fourth draft, the author is the vulture beating his/her wings over the mud-clump on the pages of his/her play.  An author has to be willing to drown, because there at the bottom of the water, is where the “stuff” of the play is.  Eventually, there will be a dry space on which the author can build the play.  Then it moves into its next stage, which is the establishment of meaning”” the “holy ground” of the play.  Dramatic holy ground.

Reverend Hawk is pastor of a small congregation in Ropesville, Texas.  Most of his congregation has moved on to look for work in other places.  The church board is thinking of selling the parsonage, then the church.  The sisters live in the back room of the church.  It is a constricted place where their lives grow more constricted.  Of course, since this is native theater, the church represents the reservation and placement of the characters into the loss of a way of life.   Hawk also struggles with his understanding of Christianity and God’s purpose in his narrowing life.  Another grim subject that I love.

I also knew the play was full of birds.  I almost could hear them in the background. (Actually, I can hear a morning dove on the roof as I write this, and other birds in the backyard).  Somehow, I was led to re-read Black Elk Speaks, about a Lakota holy man at the end of the 19th century, who faced the end of the Plains Indians’ way of life.  I saw my own little play as a re-version of facing “the end.”Â  And I could ask in The Bird House, what possibilities are waiting there?   The book, Black Elk Speaks, is full of birds (from the geese that first appear like arrows in the sky to speak to Black Elk — which lead him to an understanding of the Plains Indians “end times,” which was a real “end time,” not just a forecast”” to other birds such as the spotted eagle, grouse, crow, magpie, chicken hawk).

I’m moving onto dramatic holy ground here (because it seems to me the word is holy as it creates the world of the play”” a world that should carry the weight of the real world).  Reverend Hawk is an after-image of Black Elk, who was left with an enormous sense of failure as he faced his holy visions.  From grimness to grimness.  What more could I do?

Native Voices at the Autry’s 13th Festival of New Plays presents staged readings by four Native female playwrights, June 16-18 at Wells Fargo Theater, The Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, LA. TICKETS: $10/play or $25/ four-play festival pass; half price for students, senior and military; free for Autry members. 323-667-2000, ext. 354 , www.NativeVoicesattheAutry.org.

The Bird House by Diane Glancy (Cherokee*) is directed by Robert Caisley with dramaturgy by Shirley Fishman.  Set in the back room of a failing church in the high plains of Texas, The Bird House delves into the lives of a minister and his two sisters as they sort through the snarls of their past and adapt to loss and the uncertain future of their home and family. Saturday, June 18 at 1:00 pm.

Diane Glancy (Cherokee*) is professor emeritus at Macalester College.  The Bird House is the fourth of Glancy’s plays that Native Voices at the Autry has developed.  Another play, The Reason for Crows, about Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk, was read by Mixed Phoenix at the American Indian Community House in NYC.   In 2009, she received an Expressive Arts grant from the National Museum of the American Indian, with Christina Wright, costume designer, for a project called, The Language of Clothing: A Collaboration of Words and Costume, which became The Catch, a play about the history of native education that began with the 1875-78 Fort Marion prisoners.

*refers to the artist’s tribal affiliation

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