This week I will graduate with my MFA in acting, so we are turning the page on the last chapter of the trailer’s involvement at CalArts.
Every year, the Theatre School sets aside the last two weeks of the academic calendar for New Works Festival, an event by and for the students. The trailer was chosen to be a venue for the event. Three shows were performed in and around the Spartan: “The Nomad Project”; a dance piece about the transformation of the dancer’s body; “True Love,” a reading of Chuck Mee’s play that also involved a BBQ and water-gun fight; and “Outbound to Wonderland” a play written with the trailer in mind about a 9-yearl-old girl’s subway journey to a stop called Wonderland.
As with Arts in the One World in January, I was amazed at how people came together to make this event happen. When one of the artists was worried that her computer speakers wouldn’t be powerful enough to be heard, she made a phone call and an hour later she had a sound designer – a PA system and a couple of professional speakers on booms – in time for the performance of her show.
Another example: the cast and crew of “Outbound to Wonderland” decided it would be best to set up their outdoor stage in the middle of the night, when they could properly test their lights and visual effects, and still everyone involved in the production (actors, designers, crew etc.) showed up to help out.
New Works took care of much of the logistics and the scheduling at the trailer, so I was able to relax a little and be a spectator. I watched the shows and witnessed how, over the course of the semester, the trailer had become much more than an elaborate backdrop—it was now a central character. The Spartan had evolved into something of a mobile landmark at CalArts and a symbol for the creativity and unique collaborative nature of this school.
The stars–and the moon- were in alignment last week when Cody Braudt, a BFA-1 student at Cal Art presented his play “Outbound to Wonderland” at Trailer Trash during the New Works Festival 2011.
The play focuses on the relationship between a precocious seven-year old girl and her writer father, a dreamer who fights for his daughter’s right to develop her imaginative powers. Cody describes Lizzie as “spunky, sarcastic and ironic with a strong sense of fantasy- and sometimes a lack of focus.”
Nora King as Lizzie and Casey Jackson as her father
When a school psychologist prescribes medication to improve Lizzie’s math scores and classroom behavior, her father recoils, worrying that medication will squelch Lizzie’s creative side. Together, father and daughter plan an evening together under the stars in Wonderland, their imaginary world that is a tip of the hat both to Lewis Carroll and to the real-world name of the last stop on Boston’s Blue Line.
Several of the play’s scenes are set underground, on a subway platform and inside a subway car. Filmed images from a speeding subway window are imaginatively projected against the Spartan’s aluminum siding, in a superb use of space, sound and light.
The inspiration for the play came more than a year ago when Cody and his dad were visiting schools in Boston. To get Cody a real-world feel of student life in the city, his father insisted that they take public transportation. Descending the subway steps, they saw the sign, “Outbound to Wonderland.” At that moment something clicked: they both thought it would make a great title for a play.
photo credit: Thrillho
In the end, Cody chose Cal Arts over Boston. But the idea for the play surfaced again when he first arrived at his new school and saw Sam’s trailer parked in the lower lot. “I thought it would be a perfect place to stage a play,” said Cody. Later when Sam gave a talk to one of Cody’s classes, the two agreed Cody’s new work could take place at the trailer.
Two days before the first performance, the crew descended on the trailer at midnight to set up. Then, during the tech rehearsal it rained, underscoring the challenges of outdoor performances. The challenges of working with a small venue was another element.
“It’s a creative challenge,” Cory explained. “It’s not easy to work with the constraints on space. But that’s what makes it stimulating. It’s difficult to imagine the play being staged anywhere else.”
Cody (right) and his fellow technical directors for Outbound to Wonderland.
Cody practically grew up in the theatre world, acting professionally as a child at the Guthrie Theatre and other Minnesota venues. At Cal Arts he wanted to turn his hand to the technical side of productions. “It’s a whole new world of creativity. As a director, I want to be able to bring all these aesthetics together, to understand sound and lighting design.”
The move to Cal Arts was difficult at first, having left a tight-knit group of friends behind. “After high school, some of them stayed in Minnesota; others moved to Chicago. I was the only one who went all the way out to California.”
As the school year comes to an end Cody has fallen in love with Cal Arts. “I’ve made new friends and have still been able to keep my old ones – they’ve been very supportive.”
When discussing the importance of home and community to artists – a theme central to the Trailer Trash Project – Cody says, “Home is not about a place, it’s about the people you enjoy being with, people who will support you. People who won’t stifle your imagination.”
detail from poster designed by Cody Braudt for "Outbound to Wonderland"
As the crew stuck the set late last Thursday night, Cody’s thoughts had already turned to future, considering how to expand and improve on the play, and of new productions he would soon undertake. But he stopped long enough to discuss ways that Trailer Trash could join him on his journey, Outbound to Wonderland.
Sam's 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion, viewed from a hill at Cal Arts. Photo credit: Scott Groller
My trailer, our trailer, which I inappropriately refer to as “The Mansion”, was acquired in August 2010, in Torrance CA. Shortly before, my mother– a one time filmmaker for the United Nations, once a Katrina refugee, currently a freelance journalist with a fervent passion for social justice and a newly developed interest in sustainable living – and I, a one-time private banker employed by philanthropist and all around jolly good guy, Mr. John Pierpont Morgan.
Well, my mom and I we’re on the phone..Truth is we’ve grown apart quite a bit over the last 10 years. More often than not we’ve been on opposite sides of the country, opposite sides of the Atlantic, sometimes unintentionally (and admittedly) sometimes with quite a bit of intention.
We’ve been through a lot, and it’s just the two of us. So, you know, tension ensues, occasionally, sometimes, often, whatever. So we’re on the phone, and the topic of this particular conversation is one that comes up every couple years.
It goes something like this: “So, whaaaaaat’s next ?” You see, my mom’s been a nomad for a little while now. That tends to happen when a storm like Katrina hits an already fragile community like New Orleans.
But me? I’ve been in denial about my nomadic nature. I had a proper desk job for a couple years before coming here, a serious girlfriend. I had a PLAN, a checklist, which I adhered to methodically: a sequence of suit-and-tie jobs, then auditions, which eventually, allowed me to be here, right here, at this very moment.
At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2010, Sam played Godzilla in Eric Ehn's adaption of the play. Here he hawks the production in the streets of Edinburgh.
The thing is, I’m about to graduate, as an Actor. (Did I mention that?) And my future is quite uncertain again. And so…
My mom and I are on the phone, my grandmother has passed away and left her a little bit of money, and she wants to buy a trailer and live in it. And I have been wanting to restore a trailer – I want to MAKE something, something living, and useful to someone, something longer lasting than a two-hour play. And that’s as far as my thought process went ..
So a month later we buy the trailer. And I park it on campus, THIS campus, tucked away behind the basketball courts and I start BUILDING and my mom starts BLOGGIN’ and we call it “Trailer Trash” because it’s a GREEN restoration, and we’re using recycled materials.
So after having grown apart over the years, here we are collaborating, truly collaborating, in a way that’s completely new to me. We’re collaborating on a project that’s very personal to both of us. We are building, in fact we are RE-building from old fragments, a new home that is both unconventional and yet, in the most American way, as conventional as can be.
I don’t know about building houses, or little. I don’t know about trailer living. I don’t know about doing all this while going to school full-time and sometimes feeling like I’m losing my mind!
This project has been a true experiment, from the beginning. The most amazing thing about embracing the experimental nature of this project has been to watch it grow and evolve. What began as a guerrilla building project has become–because of this place [Cal Arts] this faculty, this student body– a PERFORMANCE PIECE. (Why the hell not?) And it’s about building a HOME for a family that’s been without one for a while. About learning to work the system of a higher education establishment [to get permission to put the trailer on campus.] It’s about learning to become an artist- and not just a performer. Learning to put my thoughts into words (believe it or not this is not something that comes naturally.) It’s about figuring out what this project is, what it means to me, to us, and so this thing is THERAPEUTIC, baby.
I’m starting to ask myself, with no real expectation of reaching any answers: Why is it that I still haven’t unpacked my stuff after Katrina? And why do I still refuse to settle down and put pictures up on the wall?
…maybe it’s not just me…[he stops to address conference participants] If I were to stop and ask: How many of you in this room consider yourself in TRANSIT? How many of you have ever lost a home?
I realize that most artists are nomadic by nature. We have to be, to survive, to pursue our dreams, to make, to MAKE .. We gotta’ keep on moving. And if possible, we ‘gotta do it in STYLE.
Axle Contemporary's gallery on wheels. Photo credit: Matthew Chase-Daniel, published in the NYTimes Feb. 3, 2011.
CalArts alum Jerry Wellman and Matthew Chase-Daniel transformed a Hostess delivery truck into a mobile art gallery of contemporary art in Santa Fe, NM. Check out the story in the NY Times. See also Axel Contemporary’s web site.
This trailer restoration started out as a Zen affair. I had a strong sense of purpose. I was fulfilling my need to create something tangible, useful for someone else but myself. After studying acting for two years, and spending a whole lot of time thinking about myself (how to carry myself, how to market myself) I began to feel as though I was missing something truly vital.
The project wasn’t only about giving back. It was also about adding a dose of humanity to a learning process that can easily become contrived. So I was convinced that the Spartan was my key to success. Now a month and a half later, more often than not, I feel as though I might just be losing my mind.
There’s so much to keep track of that I’m making many lists. But I have too many lists to keep track of. There are too few hours in the day. I get out of class in the evenings and work on the trailer till late at night.
My mentor tells me I need a plan but it’s a whole lot easier to paint a chassis than to
Sam and his mentor, sculptor and CalArts faculty member Michael Darling who came on his day off to help Sam weld a replacement rib onto the chassis.
make a plan- so most of the time I put it off. I’m not a planner, but I’ve been doing my best at it – even though I think I might actually have some allergic reaction to that activity. My plan, when I make one, goes like this: week 1: prep chassis for new floor, order plywood floor for next week’s installation etc.. I can think about the next 2 weeks or so, but I have a hard time getting my head around the big picture- it feels like a distraction. I know, that sounds absurd. It’s just that there’s so much going on and so many windows and screws and paints and materials to think about that I fear I’ll get lost in all the planning and never actually get any work done. So I start working… furiously. And then, of course, I end up hitting brick walls. I’ll start thinking about the configuration of the sub-floor but I get stuck because the gray water holding tanks have to be welded on to the chassis and installed before the floor can get laid over.
So I’m finally starting to warm up to the (basic!) notion that the more I know what the trailer will look like as a final project the less overwhelming it will all be.
I view this week as a test. Next Saturday, I will be towing the Spartan about 6 miles away to Newhall. Students in the Arts and Activism class at Calarts (who volunteered to be on the trailer committee) and I, will be giving a workshop to the kids and parents of Nomadlab. We are planning a series of games and exercises for them that will take place in and around the trailer, and center around the idea of “home”. I hope that the trailer will be an opportunity to talk about what home means for them and what their ideal home would look like.
I have 5 days to get a floor in!
Trailer Trash: 60-year-old fiberglass insulation headed for CalArts’ trash bin for building materials than can not be recycled.
A Nomad student draws scenes from his neighborhood. Photo Credit: spartanrestoration.com
The Nomads take a good look at their own back yard in a drawing lab taught by artist and Cal Arts instructor Evelyn Serrano. (See Sam’s post #3 for more on the Nomads also this link. ) The kids are told to take their time, to observe closely before starting to draw.
“Don’t compare your work to anyone else,” Evelyn tells them. “You are all different so your art will be different, too.” She points out the details in a tree and the colors and squiggly lines of a nearby play set. At the end of the session, the children seem eager to show their work to the rest of the class. Evelyn says she is proud of them for being fearless, unafraid to take risks with their art. Then Evelyn and Sam look over the spot where the Spartan trailer will be on display for the Nomads on November 6th.