I walk into the IX Art Park off the Charlottesville downtown mall and soon feel quite removed from the jovial and slightly pretentious dinner I was enjoying just prior to my arrival. A group of young “water bearers” greets me at the gates. Dancing their ghostly routine, all I can hear is the rustling of their plastic bag costumes and the creaking of metal buckets. I settle into my seat at dusk; as the last glimmers of sunlight wane, the stage illuminates in response. Sirens roll down Monticello Aveune, serendipitously timed to announce the show’s opening. The stage is set for NO WAKE, both within this makeshift theater and throughout the surrounding urban atmosphere, and I am officially out of my comfort zone.
What I am about to witness all began years ago on the opposite side of the country. Creator, director, and producer Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell moved to Puget Sound for a one-year “life sabbatical” seeking refuge among the pines. The inspiration for NO WAKE stems partially from the houses precariously situated along those rocky cliffs. Built before modern housing safety regulations, they are especially vulnerable to floods and drifting debris. From her current mountain home, Tidwell recognizes that it can be hard for people who live inland to connect with what’s happening downstream. “It’s a piece about compassion towards each other as humans and compassion also towards nature, seeing it and seeing the consequences of it.” She added, “There’s a lot of throwing bottles in the water and the water comes back and gets them.”
With a plot structure drawn from Homer’s Odyssey, NO WAKE serves as a modern myth. It’s not directly activist nor does it deal with specifically contemporary concerns. The intention is for the piece to be allegorical in nature, confronting issues that remain relevant to all people throughout time. Regarding audience expectations, Tidwell said humbly, “I’m hoping that it feels like a dream and that people come to it with openness.”
One thing is clear, despite being a highly engaging and mesmerizing performance, NO WAKE is not intended to be entertainment. “The difference between entertainment and art,” Tidwell explained, “is that entertainment provides answers and art can only give you questions.” Like any good work of theatre, it allows the audience to ask their own questions and to see their own ideas alongside the director’s.
Those expecting a tidy ending with a hearty dose of closure should look elsewhere. In fact, the ending itself is hardly an ending at all, leaving the audience to guess as to the fates of the main characters. Discussing this dramatic decision, Tidwell revealed, “I didn’t want to wrap it up neatly because I don’t think we can,” adding, “I’ve come to this philosophy of embracing discomfort and not knowing.”
This lack of resolution is a pervasive theme with calculated doses of discomfort manifesting themselves throughout the production. First, there’s the silence in the opening. The water bearers return with a haunting dance, their costumes now spectral under the stage lights. Then comes the music: sporadic, dissonant minor chords stagger out with heavy reverb. Unintelligible layers of whispers appear, then disappear. What I could have sworn to be audio glitches were actually intentional noise artifacts surreptitiously snuck into the original score. All dialogue is pre-recorded and mouthed by the actors, affecting a marionette-like delivery. And just when you’ve become accustomed to this cacophony, things take a hard left turn, replacing the dissonance with spurts of all-too-safe melodies in 4/4 time. While there is plenty of harshness, the piece is not about harshness. And while there is play, the piece is not about play. Rather, NO WAKE presents both ends of the spectrum and allows the audience to find their own middle ground, all the while “trying to embody this bipolar aesthetic,” as Tidwell put it.
“Entertainment provides answers and art can only give you questions.”
Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell
Even before the show begins, the audience experiences a sense of vulnerability. Sitting outside, exposed to the elements, they have no choice but to remain present to their surroundings. The goal is to reach your senses in a way that naturalism and realism can’t. By pulling you away from your phone, away from your lingering thoughts, NO WAKE places you in a carefully crafted gray area between being somewhere imagined and being exactly where you are.
Aside from the immediacy of performing en plein air, outdoor theatre has another distinct advantage over the typical black box setup. Tidwell explained that producing a play out in the open generates not only a sense of curiosity, but inclusiveness as well, citing that audience members were eager to strike up a conversation as they walked along the upper deck. “I want to make things that are both beautiful and have artistic integrity, but don’t presuppose that you’ve been to a lot of theatre.” This egalitarian approach offers another layer of significance for the cast and crew. According to Tidwell, “It makes you feel like you’re part of something else beyond making theatre. It’s connecting to the community on site.”
As the centerpiece of this year’s artist-in-residency program at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, NO WAKE is as much about the process as it is about the product. One key example of this approach is Tidwell’s decision to pay every member of the cast and crew, even down to the dozens of school-aged water bearers. In a town the size of Charlottesville, it can be hard for actors to find paying gigs, which ultimately devalues their work. She emphasized that it is essential to recognize everyone involved as professionals by compensating them like professionals.
NO WAKE is a gray area that does not strive for easy answers. On one side there is struggle; on the other, hope. In between, there is only interpretation. It is a simple, yet powerful story of a mother and daughter who suffer, who grieve, who survive, and who finally move on. As Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell will tell you, “Suffering is needed until it is no longer needed.”
NO WAKE runs from March 17 through April 16 on the upper platform of IX Art Park. Admission is free, but tickets are required. For advance reservations, visit thebridgepai.org.
Photography by Ashley Travis