Get two rising Aquarians in a room and the conversation doesn’t stop flowing. That was the case when I (sun sign Gemini) visited playwright, director and performer Sibyl Kempson (sun sign Leo) in her office at Abrons Arts Center on New York’s Lower East Side. Kempson’s theatrical performance “12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens,” an iterative series commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art marking the solstices and equinoxes for three years (March 2016 to December 2018), was selected by National Medal of Arts-winning choreographer Ralph Lemon as a must-see event in A.i.A.‘s Annual Guide to Galleries, Museums and Artists. Kempson’s autumnal equinox ritual, the third in the series, will take place at 10:21 a.m. this Thursday, September 22, on the Whitney’s front steps. Participants are asked to bring a family heirloom plate or dish to be sacrificed.
By the time I started my recording with Kempson, we were already deep into an associative ping-pong. The conversation bounced from Jean M. Auel’s historical novel Clan of the Cave Bear (1980)—a book dramatizing interactions between Neanderthals and an adopted Cro-Magnon girl—to depictions of feminine competition in ‘80s soap operas like Dynasty and Dallas, the polarizing figure of Roseanne Barr, the AIDS crisis, the supernatural, and of course, astrology. The roving nature of our dialogue shed light on Kempson’s intertextual approach, which returns to themes of religion, feminism, and science. The mission statement for her company, 7 Daughters of Eve Thtr & Perf. Co., founded in 2015, says that it is dedicated to the intersection of these three broad topics.
Rather than defining her work as ecofeminist, Kempson prefers the term “Fem-Animism.” In an e-mail, she wrote that this idea aligns “the Feminine with the Natural and with the Other . . . acknowledging the power of those three parts of life that scare those in power into building structures to subjugate them—and at the same time it is insisting upon the view that everything is alive.” Kempson eschews traditional narrative and straightforward politics for a process-oriented approach, which she attributes to her studies in painting with Amy Sillman and in ceramics with Annabeth Rosen as an undergraduate at Bennington College in the ‘90s. And she credits Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney, her mentors in Brooklyn College’s MFA program in playwriting, for encouraging her to keep working in an intuitive way. “Once I’ve got a real mess going, way too much writing, I start to look for patterns in the piled-up, naughty wreckage,” Kempson said.
One of Kempson’s most ambitious writing efforts to date, Fondly, Collette Richland, took shape in just that way. The absurdist play was produced in 2015 by the renowned downtown theater company Elevator Repair Service, with whom Kempson has also performed. Based loosely on Jane Bowles’s writing, Fondly, Collette Richland is a dizzying two-and-a-half-hour production that follows a married couple, Fritz and Mabrel Fitzhubert, from their suburban home to a fantasy world in an Alpine hotel populated with historical and religious figures. Punctuated with philosophical and theatrical references, the play reveals a gender-subverting subtext. “Squint hard, and you could read Mabrel’s story as a sort of allegory of awakening, as conceived by a Wagnerian feminist,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times.
It sharply divided audiences. As Kempson told it, the experience was formative. “I came to realize over the course of that very harrowing introduction that that’s how you know you are doing your job,” she said. “When half the people are really upset and half the people are really into it, then you know you are risking something.”
“12 Shouts” builds upon Kempson’s older work, including a group of three vegetable plays in homage to asparagus (Spargel Time!), potatoes (Potatoes of August) and pumpkins (Ich, Kürbisgeist). It also cements her interest in rituals and astrological weather. A key collaborator is Thomas Riccio, a performer and academic who has studied shamanic customs across cultures. Rites such as planting and burning, examined in Riccio’s research, have been incorporated into previous editions of “12 Shouts” at various spaces in and outside the Whitney. The work has also involved adaptations of ceremonies, like a male beauty contest practiced by the Wodaabe, a nomadic subgroup of the sub-Saharan Fulani ethnicity; a rosé tasting for female participants; a broom-sweeping ceremony; and Kempson’s “bad translation” of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which she called a “deceptively feminist” play about threatening feminine sexual power.
Kempson explained that the significance of “12 Shouts” is to “observe [seasonal] patterns that we wouldn’t notice otherwise” that occur precisely at the time of each seasonal change. “A lot of the beauty of a city partly has to do with nature,” she added. “This island [of Manhattan] is a really special place, and it’s between two rivers that have provided almost endlessly.” The iterations have come from Kempson’s close attention to the astrological weather report. They also draw from earlier rites. This week’s autumnal equinox performance, for example, involves burning tobacco, sage, and sweetgrass that were planted during the summer solstice performance.
These days Kempson is keeping busy with two projects: “The Sasquatch Rituals,” a developing set of site-specific performances that will begin this fall at Mount Tremper Arts in Ulster County, New York, and THE SECURELY CONFERRED, VOUCHSAFED KEEPSAKES OF MAERY S., a play about Mary Shelley. Created in tandem, the plays both respond to Bigfoot legends that recur across cultures. “MAERY S. is a musical play that juxtaposes Frankenstein’s Monster with Sasquatch,” Kempson said, “and also looks at some of the sad things that happen to feminine creativity.”
Such myths are the source of Kempson’s work and, she believes, much art around the world. On the first day of the fall semester, she asked her theater students at Sarah Lawrence College about the formative experiences that led them to theater. “Everyone who is involved in theater had something happen that is partially based in fear or awe,” she said. “Almost all the time it has something to do with that rift between what we see and acknowledge, what is part of the laws of reality that we are taught, and this other aspect of reality that those laws can’t be applied to.” Those forces, she testified, that are beyond ego, that we “dismiss or try to look away from: That’s where my creative life is.”