Sometimes the written word can dislodge a block standing between ignorance and knowledge of who you are and what matters to you. Over the weekend I encountered such an epiphany, jarred there by a colleague currently on sabbatical in New York. The context is not unimportant, but ephemeral. The rich heart of its writer beat so loudly that I felt as though it jumped from her chest to mine.
I am like a trained horse with the mind of an ox, standing high atop a diving platform in Atlantic City, staring down at the cup of water I am intending to dive into. I am too dumb to have an opinion about the cruelty of the procedure, or the idiocy of it. It is what I do. Someone will make me leap into the air and I will dive into it and survive. Oats and a towel. That’s what one gets.Natsuko Ohama
For decades, Atlantic City’s Steel Pier featured High Diving Horses, a death-defying boardwalk stunt that featured the animals jumping from platforms as high as 40 feet into a water tank, straddled by a trained “diving girl”. The linked article rife with atrocious (and delightful puns) refers to no one being able to convince Sonora Carver, the wife of the dentist-turned-frontiersman-inventor-of-diving-horses, to “get off her high horse” even after she landed face first with her eyes open, blinding herself. Ouch.
I feel like I’ve been diving into the cup lately. We are in the middle of the spring tech season. Last week we opened the MFA Acting Y3 rep of plays, Oliver Mayer’s Blade to the Heat, and Will Power’s Seize the King. Two weeks of tech have left me feeling road weary. And yet, fresh off coming home from seeing Blade Saturday night, I was still vibrating from its power and the communal experience with the packed house.
I met and had dinner and attended the play with Emeritus Scenic Design Professor Don Llewellyn and his wife Carol. I scooted out of the tech for As You Like It at the Bing, and picked the two of them up to go to the Village. Don taught brilliantly at USC for many years before I began as the production manager for the school. We all enjoyed being his colleague and observing his uncanny ability with organizing space and color, texture and necessary scenic elements. He retired about five years ago, and has stayed vitally interested and active as a mentor at times in the work we are doing with the design students. He and Carol are both cultured and literate, fun and curious. I always enjoy any time spent with them. Carol marks my birthday annually with a gift of homemade chocolate toffee, delicate and rich, dusted with finely crushed pecans. This confection sometimes is accompanied with the shared bounty of their tangerine tree, so around January 15th, I start to crave the toffee and the sometimes tart/sometimes sweet tangerines. Or maybe what I crave is just the tangible proof of their friendship. At any rate, I am grateful and enriched by their presents and presence in my life.
On our way back from dinner to the show, we were passing through Alumni Park when we spotted a bird I’d never seen before. That’s rare because I consider myself somewhat of a birder, a life long fascination which began as a child, schooled in all things avian by my paternal grandmother. My family spent a lot of time when I was a kid driving back and forth between Wilkes-Barre where my maternal grandparents lived and Greensburg, Pennsylvania where we and our paternal grandparents lived. I remember one of those five-hour car trips I spent attempting to memorize Roger Tory Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds” and then asked my indulgent brothers to quiz me. I think they stumped me with the Willet.
But Saturday, I stopped the shop cart and pointed at the bird standing in the grass, so elegant, and small. I had no idea what it was. No surprise that Don and Carol would know – “It’s a night heron.”
There’s no such thing as an accidental encounter; I thought about what this surprising appearance could mean. A shore bird, known for its loud “flat guok!” standing motionless and silent in the middle of campus. This behavior is called stand and wait behavior where a heron stands motionless and alert, awaiting for a prey to approach. (Kushlan, James, Feeding Behavior of North American Herons). There she was, svelte and trim in her gray frock, the white fascinator feather cascading down her back. She remained stock still, only her eyes following our progress past her.
What do these signs and metaphors mean to those emotionally susceptible?
Where to resolve the idea that we only do what we are told to do, diving blindly off a platform with little to be grateful for besides the food sustaining the jump and something to dry ourselves with at the bottom vs. the regal poise of a predatory bird in the dewy grass of a campus space? Perhaps I find myself with an academic holiday to reflect, but I gravitate to the still posture of wary anticipation.
How many times have I/we flung myself/ourselves off the metaphoric board with a heigh ho “we’ve-done-it-before-we’ll-survive-it-again!” kind of reckless abandon, seeing the tiny cup grow in size until my hooves hit it, haunches dropping to the ground amidst the thunderous applause of all who are watching? Though we may have a 99% success rate with our landing, what does the practice of the jump and the resonance of this expectation of what we deserve at the end of the day say about our culture and ethics? At a time when oats and a towel no longer seem to satisfy the expectations of student practitioners?
Maybe a predatory bird who squawks in flight isn’t much better as images go. Maybe it’s not so much the daring of the diving horse that grabs my attention, as it is the reasons we theatre folx continue to take the plunge. Surely it isn’t because of the oats and a towel, but more the second of fearless belief in our own mastery or immortality as we leave the security of the board behind. Is it the grip of the daring rider on our back as we propel together into the air? Not just the dumb gravitational pull on our body as we descend, but the collaborative leap of faith taken, the warm grab of someone’s encouraging haunches that makes us continue? How do we in the academy teach reluctant riders about how we are joined as one to practice in a profession that demands our full attention and commitment. How do we answer their metaphoric questions like “why is the platform so high? Why is the cup so small? Why is it so hard? Why do you make us do things that are so unreasonable?”
On the other hand, perhaps what seduces me about the unexpected night heron is the still, calm, apparent lucidity of his/her/their gaze. Her seemingly scientific ever-efficient approach. No less deadly are the outcomes of her langourous approach.
Maybe a horse is just a horse and Don and Carol and I just happened to see an unusual bird on a campus.
Topics to ponder on President’s Day. Thank you, Natsuko, for the inspiration. Before we go, I wanted to share something relevant from the app “The Pattern” that my dear friend Bob turned me onto. This was the message I received earlier last week:
In the meantime, I encourage you all to come see the USC MFA Rep productions of Will Power’s Seize the King and Oliver Mayer’s Blade to the Heat. Tickets are available through Feb. 27, 2022.