I can’t find the Atlas Theater. I drive in circular patterns through CU’s Boulder campus. Like a dream, something is familiar (I went to school here). When I’m lost I follow random people. I follow another car through the Do Not Enter sign, which takes me right there. When I run down the steel stairs, couples and groups are walking slowly up—at least thirty people. We’re here for Laura Ann Samuelson’s performance and they’ve been turned away. Sold out. When I see her work I’m immersed. She knows how to create an atmosphere, and then she waits and discovers what is needed next, what needs to shift in the world she finds herself in.
I move single-pointedly through the crowd, and see people linger outside the closed door to the theater. There’s Maria and a few others saying hello. I glance hello and push through. I walk up to the person handing out programs. “Please tell Laura Ann, on your walkie talkie, it’s Katharine Kaufman.” I say. (It’s not a walkie-talkie, it’s a tiny ear bud). “Katharine’s a mentor of Laura Ann’s” Maria says, which is definitely not true, but I don’t correct this. The usher says, “I’ll see if I can ask.” The usher leaves. After a minute, the door opens, and I slip in.
The Atlas is an experimental theater, has really high ceilings and large catwalks you can see. There’s color and lights and steel. And there’s Emily in her sweater holding a bouquet for after; Liz in her black, Gary with his cane, limp, and bright eyes. Nothing hides here. I sit close, on the edge of a riser.
There are boards all over the space connected to each other loosely, maybe by rope, and a man’s blue jeans, sprayed stiff, so they remain in the shape of themself.
Dance department director, Michelle Ellsworth introduces Laura Ann by saying, “Keep art unstable and don’t actually worry. It’s safe.” (This makes us worry).
Pushed out of herself into her other self, there is Laura Ann, in her red union suit.
She repeats, “The inside of the inside of the outside. The outside of the inside.” I’m glad she starts over. I am getting it a little more every time. She adds a few more lines. (It’s the kind of art I soak in— like how I soak in a tub). She lies on the ground with her cheek turned. She tap tap tap tap tap tap taps the exact top of her head.
Laura Ann crawls under the boards. The boards buckle and shift. We wonder about her safety. We always wonder about her safety. We wondered when she was on the edge of the pool with Joanna, in their dresses, looking straight ahead, and stepped in like regular walking, and then they dropped into the pool’s deep end straight down. When we followed her into the parking lot and she shoved heaps of paper filling her car, and dove in through the car window, and drove away, trailing paper, we worried slightly. But mostly we were in it with her. Like I am now, saturated.
When I went to my dispute resolution meeting, after my head went forward and back when the Tercel raced down the hill into my bumper, I was instructed to pause after each question from the attorney. I saw a training film about it. They showed lawyers joking and talking in a friendly way before they started ripping into each other. I saw the film, so I was ready. I wore my sturdy red with white flowers Dries Van Noten skirt from the thrift store and button-down silk blouse (with no stains or holes) and black steel toed shoes with small angels on them. I removed the plastic covering and carried the purse Steve’s mother had given me for Christmas.
“Did your head go back and forward, or forward and back?” The lawyer from American Family Insurance asked. Breathe out, breathe in. “Back first,” I responded. “What color is your car?” Attorney from American Family says. I put my hands on my legs, felt the stiff fabric of my dress, closed eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. Open eyes “Teal” I say. “It used to be a red Honda SI with a moon roof, and now it’s definitely a teal Honda.”
The attorney showed me a photo of myself in feather of the peacock pose. I see a younger me, in black & white, balanced on my forearms. (Where did she find this?!) “You don’t look injured here,” she said.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
“I wasn’t injured,” I say. “It’s a photograph.”
To lift one of the boards Laura Ann lies on her back and uses her feet as well as hands, as if she’s flying a child. Then she has her four limbs working. “It’s the only way,” She says.
There are large perfectly cut holes through some of the boards so she can barely move her head and shoulders through. We see her head and torso, in a surreal way. Laura Ann is the lady split in two parts and also the magician (By now she’s wearing black stretchy shorts and a workout top. Later she reaches her legs into the stiff blue jeans.)
Laura Ann crawls under the plywood boards and it looks like the earth is shifting and we, the audience might be next. (flood, earthquake, fire). We feel stirred. And queasy.
Maybe she’s trapped. But now, she climbs up and up the stack of steel and boards. She makes a house; a gravity balanced decker house with her hands and feet (and a small razor she carries with her to cut the rope connecting the boards).
I am so inspired that when I get home I write on a small piece of paper.
We’re dying, you know.
And at the end what she says to us is similar to what Gero, the Japanese tea ceremony master said, after his brilliant, beautiful set up, ritual, kindness, precision, and gentleness. “I am sorry I have not served you well.” He said.
At the end of facilitating a retreat I feel this kind of thing. Did I offer enough? Did they get what they paid for? Did they see my frustration? My exhaustion? Did I hurt them with my brass? Was I good, deserving? Did I fail? This tussle and doubt is the nature of something alive like art making or meditation practice. There is a struggle, things come and go. What was good becomes too raw. Someone turns away. What was solid falls apart. Feelings rise to the surface.
Even Joaquin Phoenix in his acceptance speech, at the Oscars says to everyone in the room, “Thanks for giving me a second chance.”
I want to bow deeply in reverence to the beings who bear witness to my short-comings and say what the Tea Master said. I want to echo what Laura Ann said quietly, repeatedly, at the end, “Sorry.”
Being sorry is so nice. So real and good. I am sorry. So sorry. After I’m sorry, really humbled, then I can move along. I can be with you, listen well. I don’t need to perform myself, or my happiness. I don’t have to be somebody. Or, I can be multiple somebodies. I can be nothing at all. I don’t have to hold my sorryness in the clenching grip of my teeth.
Later it was Liz and Janet and Emily and Laura Ann and Kate and Emily’s friend (from way before) and a small dog waiting in the car, and me. I say, thanks to Laura Ann for letting me in even though all those people were turned away. “I didn’t know.” She says. “No one told me you were out there.” She would like to sleep a long time. (She doesn’t know if she gave enough).
Liz Acosta is a visual artist, a stage artist. She goes to things. She stays after. She talks to me about art as her temple. When Liz separated from her partner when she was in New York she said, “Now where was I?” She was making art. As was Janet. And Nancy. And now me.
When I was thirty- three and Chris, the Yoga teacher, and I broke up we were walking on the bike path in Boulder outside the library. He was walking his red bike with bike bags. We passed Len Baron, an elder, educator, performer. Len looks like Einstein and did a solo show about the inner Einstein. On the way back, walking alone I saw Len again on the path. I sort of collapsed.
“What do I do now?”
“Your work” he said.
Now, where was I?
At the talk-back after the show Laura Ann and Michelle answer our questions. A woman from the audience says, “You don’t have to be sorry.” (As if Laura Ann was in a counseling session.) “Oh. I am,” Laura Ann says brightly. Mostly questions are well formed, intelligent, and I am proud to be a member of this audience. A guy stands up, with his shoulders and chin jutted forward, asks “Why, What’s the point?” (We artists of the audience are ready to attack).
Laura Ann is curious and says calmly, she does what she does because that’s what she does.