I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Cofounded by artist, director, and set designer Jessica Grindstaff and composer and puppet-maker Erik Sanko, Phantom Limb Company creates multimedia theatrical productions fusing marionette puppetry with dance. In recent years, the company has focused on a research-driven, collaborative trilogy that explores environmentalism and our changing relationship to nature.
In Falling Out, the series’ finale, Butoh and flex dancers, doubling as puppeteers, interact with video footage from Japan where survivors of the 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster recount their stories. On the eve of the premiere at BAM this fall, Grindstaff Skyped with the London-based director Sophie Hunter, who directed the trilogy’s first installment, 69°S. Falling Out travels to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, in the spring of 2019.
Jessica GrindstaffI love the book you gave me—The End We Start From by Megan Hunter.
Sophie HunterI’m so pleased. I’m in the middle of developing and producing the film adaptation. I think it’s an important novel and also dovetails with this conversation.
JGI feel like I have a lot in common with the author in terms of approach and practice. I consider my work activism, but I have a hard time explaining how because of the public image of what activism looks like. What we’re doing with Phantom Limb is creating relatability that can inspire real empathy.
Hunter’s protagonist, a mother who gives birth to her first child as her city is submerged by floodwaters, is a character readers can relate to, and, as we read, we try on this idea of a dystopian future. This story couldn’t be conveyed by data, news, or what scientists tell us about ocean levels rising. I can’t think of a better way to talk about our endangered environment than through books, theater, film, and television. For better or worse, entertainment is everyone’s touchstone right now.
SHIn Hunter’s book, the experience of the mother and child engaging with macro, epic events—impending flood or tsunami—alongside domestic and intimate events is very powerful. In your performance trilogy, this idea of the intimate and the epic coexisting is also fundamental. But there’s also your interest in putting something on stage that goes beyond a clear narrative?
JGI like the way you put it: the intimate and the epic. That interest came from the first part of the trilogy, 69°S., when I was applying for a grant to go to Antarctica to research the story of the explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men. One question on the application form was, “What is the broader impact of your piece?” Thinking about it, I realized that I wasn’t sure whether retelling a story is an important thing to do. Then I started looking at Shackleton through the lens of leadership. This was pre-Obama and a lot of US policy decisions were still in total denial of climate change. I thought about what a difference leadership can make on a large scale, and how communities can support or elect them. I found out that ninety-five percent of scientists’ work in Antarctica was around climate change, and I became really impassioned about the topic. I began looking for ways to communicate about it through theater.
Antarctica is epic, and a tsunami is epic. In the second part of the trilogy, Memory Rings, we worked with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the story of the world’s oldest living tree. The tremendous forces of nature and the reality of climate change are the epics for me. But often they’re too overwhelming to wrap our heads around. The intimate allows people to relate to the epic.
SH Let’s back up. This trilogy has been in the making for a decade, which is quite epic in itself. You’ve talked about it as an exploration of humankind’s relationship to nature. How did you decide on Fukushima as a starting point for Falling Out, and as an ending point for the trilogy?
JG Erik [Sanko] and I always knew we wanted to end the trilogy with water. There’s such an urgency around the ocean temperature changing, sea levels rising, desalinization of the ocean, and the lack of fresh water on the planet, and then also flooding and tsunami; the list goes on and on. Water will become the most important topic in the climate change conversation, as environmental disasters become more frequent and more devastating.
SH How did Butoh come into the mix in relation to the environmental theme?
JG Butoh is a Japanese dance form that emerged after World War II and I’ve always thought of it as a reaction to the war and a way of embodying the pain from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not all people in Butoh agree, but for me it’s connected. Now, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that was initiated by the 2011 tsunami, there’s this tremendous pain as well as recovery happening in Japan. Nearly 20,000 people were lost and so much land was destroyed by the reactor. 1945 and 2011 are nuclear tragedies in different ways, and I wanted to create an artistic response to the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown, one in which Butoh and Phantom Limb’s art form, puppetry, meet. It snowballed after we found our Butoh collaborator, Dai Matsuoka. When I went to Japan from February through April 2018, I realized that while it is a new idea to combine Butoh and puppetry, we’re by no means the first to develop novel artistic practices out of the disaster. Almost all the original artwork I saw there was in response to this catastrophe in one way or another.
SH You and I met when we worked together on 69°S. For all parts of the trilogy, you’ve invited artists from other disciplines. For Falling Out in particular, you sought out cross-cultural, global collaboration.
JG There will only be forward movement in the climate conversation if it’s global and collaborative.
SH Yeah, biologists, hackers, authors, politicians, and artists from all over the world coming together to find solutions.
JG It’s important that the cast is diverse too and that we’re not telling a story of climate change with a bunch of twenty-seven-year-old white dancers. I was kind of late in realizing that. The stories of the first two parts are mostly European, so I felt the urgent need for Falling Out to be more representative of the world. What I failed to do, in this project, is talk about how climate is impacting the poorest people on the planet first. If you’re wealthy enough, you can stave off the effects much longer. Climate is a class issue. But there’s only so much one can grapple with in one evening. I’m thinking about that inequality a lot for our next work.
SH Despite the various mediums and disciplines coming together in these pieces, the platform is theater, and all three will have been performed at BAM as part of the Next Wave Festival. I know you have thoughts about the potential limitations of theater and about preaching to the choir. I remember us, during the three years developing the first piece, doing the maps and numbers and asking, “How does one justify all this work resulting in only one hour of performance?” And “How many people is this going to reach, not only in terms of demographics, but also competing with digital media?” How to go beyond theater? Or perhaps I should ask, Why theater?
JG Let me toss the question back at you: Why is theater your chosen medium? (laughter)
SH I’m still utterly compelled by the shared experience of the physical, by having x number of people in one space, in the dark, away from any digital interference, and each performance being utterly unique. A stage can accommodate different languages and go beyond language. Your theater is predominantly nonverbal, which is a common ground for us, though I now also work in opera. I’m interested to see how your work evolves, whether it stays in that medium or goes into film, or somewhere else. I know you have a background in fine art as well.
JG We are working on a film idea for that reason—reach. But I agree that there’s this potent energy in a room where something is performed live in front of an audience. Every performance is ephemeral and can only occur once. I experience a lot of anxiety in making live work. When the performers in 69°S. walked around the stage on four-foot-tall stilts, I felt apprehensive every single night. All my gray hair came from that! (laughter) But I know that the audience is also caught in that tense energy. Hosting people is such a gift, and I want to use the space responsibly because it’s a live exchange. With film, you lose that live audience. Some might argue that there’s the online feedback, and you can’t discount that. But it will never be quite the same.
SH Back to the subject of activism and art, clearly, this trilogy—with its environmental concerns—is a political work. But art can be political without demanding a political outcome. Would you say that you’re making work that’s a commentary, or is it meant to inspire people to do something?
JG When we started with 69°S. together, I was coming to the subject with hopefulness. I thought that by understanding Ernest Shackleton’s decisions in terms of his leadership style, people could make a difference within their own communities. My hope was that they would go out and follow his example. I said that outright in interviews, panel discussions, and talkbacks.
In the second piece of the trilogy, my hope started to fade. Extreme weather and climate change had accelerated, but there was so much inaction around it that I started to feel quite pessimistic. So MemoryRings was me sitting back and giving a commentary. And at the end of the run, I felt the work didn’t really make a difference. I mean, it’s not easy to make a piece of theater, but it felt too easy to sit back and remark on our shared predicament.
At the time, I became interested in the Dark Mountain Project. Two men started this group, and they basically live off the grid, having decided that the world is coming to an end and all we can do is explore our collective misery and grieve for what we’ve lost. But I’ve come around to the other side of that. It happened in Japan. When I spent time there with people who had lost everything, and I witnessed how they approached their life as a day-by-day effort, rebuilding their communities, I understood the importance of hope. I really didn’t expect to end this trilogy on a hopeful note—things are worse than they’ve ever been, environmentally—but being in Japan, I found hope.
What just happened in North Carolina with this massive flooding from Hurricane Florence—it’s a perfect storm. We all know that the factory farms’ contribution of carbon dioxide is worse than that of the automobile industry. Now the floodwaters have come into the pig lagoons and it’s going back into the groundwater and the drinking supply. Then we have the flooding of the coal refinery waste areas, which are filled with mercury and arsenic. These are huge toxic events, and we knew about these risks before sea levels rose. It’s insanity. I think if we can’t pivot and make sustainable choices in our day-to-day lives, then we don’t deserve to be on this planet. We don’t deserve its beauty. But if billions of people wake up every day and commit to doing small things to help the environment, it will amount to change.
In Falling Out, what I’m trying to communicate is: these people have been through something we can all emotionally relate to: losing your child, your partner, your home, your land, and having your life filled with radiation like you live in a haunted house—you can’t see it, smell it, or feel it, but you are being slowly poisoned. Watching that, we have a visceral emotional response. And then I’m putting forward their hope: after going through all of these things, people I met in Fukushima have started a homestay project to bring young people from Tokyo up to their land and teach them how to farm, grow apples, and raise oysters—basically trying to reinvigorate and rebuild their community in a brand-new approach to building, operating, and infrastructure. The performers in Falling Out interact with recorded interviews and stories in a practice of physical empathy with the screened footage. It’s my wish that the audience comes away from the show with an understanding that this immense tragedy is all of ours—it doesn’t belong to Japan; it’s North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Texas, New Orleans, Bali… it’s everywhere. So, if it belongs to all of us, how can we wake up in the face of that and do better?
SH It’s the hope that incremental, individual change still means something. Popular culture is rife with apocalyptic, dystopian visions revolving around water. These daunting struggles for survival seem so compelling right now. I know you were drawn to the Gilgamesh epic for Memory Rings.
JG Yes, the Epic of Gilgamesh was a big thread throughout the show. It’s the original flood myth, which we all know from the story of Noah in the Bible.
SH I was thinking about Japanese creation myths, specifically their version of the Earth-diver myth, which is rooted in the idea of a supreme being creating an animal or human who then casts their staff or their hand into the depths of the ocean and brings up some matter, which then turns into land. This image made the current reality so achingly poignant, especially that article you shared with me about the father who took up diving to find the body of his daughter lost to the tsunami. It’s such a horrific thought that this country which, in Japanese myth, was born from the water, is now consumed by it. Water is as integral to our existence as it is—through our own actions—to our demise.
JG In Falling Out, there’s a scene in which performers are holding up pieces of tulle over a performer on the ground. They use all their core muscles to reach up, and it looks like they’re on the bottom of the sea. We call it “the drowning.” But it also is very peaceful, like swimming. Every time I look at the footage, I see a sonogram. It’s as if the dancers are in amniotic fluid. So much of this trilogy feels like a birth to me. In Memory Rings, we reference the eternal return as well, using concentric circles for the story. Everything is part of a cycle. And, as you know, with 69°S. we worked with that very long timeline. Now Falling Out feels like a circle that begins where it ends, and when the show closes, you don’t know if you’re looking at the future or the past. This question is very important to me. This “drowning”—the ocean coming back over the land where it once was—is it a birth or is it a death? Can we even tell where the water should be, or where it was first?
SH Watery beings who emerged from the sea, from the watery womb—will we ultimately return there and be submerged again?
JG I find peace in these images of cycles and circles. Because you can’t really argue with those vast processes. Obviously, if I were in the situation of fighting for my child’s life and running from my city as it is swallowed by the ocean—which is the ending that begins the performance—I couldn’t find that peace. But if one takes a long view, there’s something beautiful about that notion of the return, or of the circle.
When we were at the most tragic part of our excursion in Japan, up on a hilltop above the school where all the children were lost in the tsunami, we looked down into the valley at the destroyed houses and I asked people, “Knowing that the tsunami has come to these places before, why did you build your home here?” And most of them said, “It was convenient because our lives and livelihoods are based around the sea.” These are agricultural communities, cultivating rice paddies and fishing. Some psychologists say that memory of catastrophe is retained by three generations, and after that, it becomes almost like myth. Tsunamis just so happen to come about every three generations. You can find 600-year-old so-called tsunami stones, built into hillsides to signal: If you build below this mark you will die. But people keep building below that mark. I tried to imagine everyone building on higher ground, knowing that every one hundred years or so the sea comes and washes over these valleys. And everyone, from a safe location, would watch the tsunami in awe, like watching the aurora borealis or a meteor shower, the absolute beauty and power of the planet. Because even a tsunami is inherently a beautiful force. But it’s at odds with our plans, our habits and conveniences.
The question is, How can we be more sensitive to the planet that hosts us? How can we use what we’ve developed, all our advanced technology, to protect rather than exploit? I think our ideas of progress are not in the right place currently. Unfortunately, it’s going to be these catastrophic events that force us to recalibrate.
SH Alongside our capacity for terrible hubris, we are, thankfully, also capable of empathy. Can you talk about how empathy is activated onstage—through the combination of Butoh and Flex dance, and especially through puppetry.
JG Puppetry’s a powerful tool for empathy. As an artist, it gives you this tremendous opportunity to get inside of the audience because they project their own emotions and ideas onto this object or vessel on the stage. It’s a great tool for activism too. Marionettes—literally “little Mary’s”—were historically used in churches to reach people who couldn’t read the scriptures. Puppetry allows you to go deep with people by accessing their feelings. And I’ve always felt the same way about dance. I remember going to see dance with my grandmother as a child and feeling self-conscious that I didn’t know what it “meant.” But she would ask, “Well, how did it make you feel?” She would talk about the emotional quality of certain movements, and sometimes I saw her cry in the theater. And I thought, Oh, this isn’t really about words or about having the right answer. She taught me how to view artwork.
In terms of the specific forms of dance we’re working with in Falling Out—Butoh is nonnarrative. I mean, no narrative. But you can watch a full-length evening of Butoh and walk away with so much story and feeling and even a new perspective on the world. The first time I saw Flex dance, a street dance that originated in Brooklyn, I witnessed body movements I had never seen before. A lot of them felt puppet-like, almost stop-motion, but that was contrasted by very liquid, watery movements. For me, there’s so much opportunity for storytelling in that.
In Falling Out, we are working with a Flex dancer named Banks Artiste. We were struggling to represent the tsunami, the earthquake, and the radioactive fallout, and in the process we made twenty different versions. We’ve now arrived at this six-minute solo in which Banks goes through the whole disaster in his body—just him, alone onstage, letting the tsunami move through him. And it’s powerful and intimate. It’s about emotion, not about description or trying to approximate what it looked like. I found Flex dance to be a potent form to essentialize textural and visceral experiences of the land through the body.
SH There’s this constant tension in your work between the narrative and the abstract, between connecting dots and leaving them deliberately unconnected. It creates a space that’s ambiguous for the audience to interpret, a zone that is opened up to all of us. With 69°S., I remember this being an ongoing and sometimes fraught discussion between us, given my more narrative-driven background. We then had a joint epiphany as we were both submerged in water, each in our own old and decrepit mineral baths in Saratoga Springs. We came to a mutual understanding that this art form, this medium, must have space around it. I’m interested in whether you’re now, with the third part of the trilogy, more aware of that balance, or whether there’s still discussion around that ambiguous space.
JG I’ve come to a similar place with Falling Out, and it also happened around a body of water—so I think we’ve found our solution for whenever we’re stuck. (laughter) I wasn’t in a bath, but I was living on the edge of a beautiful piece of water in Massachusetts this summer.
Working on Falling Out, I had all these smart, skilled people around me talking about story and narrative, and how it’s got to be clearer because you don’t want to alienate your audience. But that’s not how I think. I come from a background in visual art. When people ask me why I’m making art, my answer is, “Because I can’t talk about it.” I just need to make these images. That’s how I’m processing ideas. So this summer, I was by this body of water, and we had just done the last iteration of the show in Wisconsin and then at Snug Harbor on Staten Island. And we had so much story crammed into the show: a voicemail that was referenced in a song that occurred several times; a party in the beginning, and this beach thing at the end, so you could understand the show as in reverse; and a person who lost their family. It was so complicated, and it barely hung together as a story anyway, which is what everyone is wanting, right? It just didn’t feel like my work. So I got on the phone with Dai, our Butoh master, and, looking out over this beautiful tidal estuary, I said, “You know, I think the beginning, middle, and end of the show need to be totally rethought. It’s just lame.” Dai rarely says anything critical about the work; he’s a really kind and peaceful guy. But he said, “Yeah, it’s really lame.” (laughter)
So we just scrapped it all and started over. The beginning of the show now is this slow crawl across the stage by five dancers who are also the “puppeteers” who keep this female puppet floating on her back and swimming across the stage but touch her as little as possible with their hands. They use their backs and legs as they’re rolling to puppet her. You don’t know whether you’re seeing someone in the afterlife, or someone on a gentle swim. This scene is collaged with audio and later video of the woman describing what happened to her and her town on the day of the tsunami.
We did the same with the end of the show. We let go of the voicemail, the beach party, and other things. Because it’s the second time I’m directing a pretty epic piece, I’m now feeling more comfortable to just tell everyone, “I’m course-correcting, and this is what we’re doing.” When you and I did that on 69°S., we were at our all-time low in terms of agreeing how the story should move on. We were stuck. But it was the trust in the strength of our relationship (plus the power of the mineral bath) that enabled us to make that big course correction.
SH How does motherhood inform your work? I imagine a sense of urgency and acute awareness of the next generation.
JG There’s a lot to say about it. Having a child and being an artist, the two things are totally interlinked for me. It’s changed everything. Having a child has actually made me a much more serious artist. Implicit in my work is the future and the world we’re handing over to our children. That responsibility for the next generations feels more at the surface than it ever did before. Freya, my daughter, has been part of our rehearsals and our touring since she was a baby. She used to be passed around among the performers during rehearsals because I couldn’t afford a nanny for the entire time, only the essential days. As a result, she’s been around all kinds of different movement and has been experiencing a sensory perception that will stay with her for the rest of her life.
SH I’m slightly earlier on in the journey, but my experience so far has been nothing but incredibly rewarding and massively influential. It’s essential to have your child with you. It’s nonnegotiable; you have to fight that corner: if you want to employ me, as a mother, as a woman, then these things have to be in place. I remember a production I did of Phaedra, where I structured the day around feeds, and that was incredibly grounding for all of us. It put everything into perspective.
JG Because a child embodies nothing but truth.
SHThere is something related to truth that I actually want to talk about. When I first came to meet you in person, I was handed this vast research document you’d put together while developing 69°S. It charted your trip to Antarctica—the conversations and experiences you had there—and I was really struck by that. Tell me why research and expedition, which are key to all parts of your trilogy, are so fundamental to your process.
JGI’ve always been an artist who reads everything I can get my hands on in terms of research. As for the expeditions, an assistant working for me forwarded a link for an artist and writer’s grant, the United States Antarctic Program. It came with two books that taught you how to apply and what it meant to become a government contractor. To my absolute amazement, Phantom Limb got the grant, and Erik and I ended up going to Antarctica, which was a life-changing experience. It altered the course of our work in that it redirected us to focus on climate change.
But it was a difficult process to get this trilogy off the ground—as you know, we went through six directors before we landed the perfection of you and it was very hard to raise money—along with all the hurdles you encounter when making a large-scale piece of noncommercial theater. Coming out of the first production, Erik and I sat down and asked ourselves, “What have we learned? What are the positive takeaways?” One was the intersection of art and science: speaking with scientists as artists and realizing how similar our processes are and how much we can offer each other. The other was this notion of extended research and expedition, of actually going to a place and meeting the people who inhabit it. Antarctica has no permanent residents, but meeting the people who spend time collecting data and running the infrastructure was indispensable. We went to Shackleton and Scott’s huts, which are preserved in their original location, and our combined aural and visual impressions there became part of the piece. For Memory Rings, we went on an expedition to find the world’s oldest living tree, Methuselah, in California’s White Mountains. The exact location of the tree is undisclosed to prevent vandalism, and it took us days to find it. But when we did, Sierra Urich, our filmmaker on both excursions, filmed the bark with a macro lens and looking at the footage later you couldn’t tell whether it was a satellite image or a close-up of a patch of skin. We projected that shot in the piece. We also recorded sounds of the wood. The tree was near a tiny town where we met two people in their late forties who had never walked or driven out of their town. Hearing about their lives became integral to developing this work.
My practice doesn’t happen at my desk; I’m not just making up a world. It’s an interaction with the world. When I went to Japan, I understood that the expedition actually is the project. It is the work. I trace my process back to the tiny boarding school I went to in Massachusetts, the Buxton School, where every year we went on an all-school trip to a destination deemed interesting for the students to explore. We would contact key figures and interview them and explore our theme. At the same time, we would develop an all-school play. We were around eighty students and everyone would be involved. We would then bring the production to homeless shelters, schools for underprivileged kids, and old folks homes in our host city. This process was an enormous inspiration for me, one that I’ve carried with me all these years. Logistically it might be a nightmare, but I would love to get Falling Out to Japan.
SHYou have to! I’ll come with you.
JGWe have similar research habits in terms of exploring and immersing ourselves.
SHTrue. One of my first projects was an exploration of perspectives on technology. This meant doing field trips and interviewing people of different ages and being totally awed by what a seven-year-old or a ninety-year-old had to say about their relationship to a mobile phone or to television. And I realized that everything one needs to tell a story or create a work was already out there. You just had to open your eyes and have conversations. I remember feeling a great sense of humility. It was a moment of repositioning myself as an artist.
JGThe value of the interview was one of my epiphanies in Japan. When I went, I thought I would create some new story or drama around the catastrophic events there. But I had absolutely no reason to come up with a story. The narrative is right there and my work is to honor what people share with me, to interpret and communicate their experience in a respectful and helpful way. And do so creatively.
SHWhich connects to what we spoke about earlier—urgency, legacy, and having an impact in the face of climate change. It is our responsibility to tell these existing stories.
The Select Equity Group Series on Theater
Sophie Hunter is an English theater director. She is the cofounder of the London-based theater company Boileroom, whose productions include The Terrific Electric and The Sanguine Night (2017). Hunter also serves as a collaborating director and dramaturge on marionette and puppetry production with Phantom Limb.
Originally published in
Our winter issue is dedicated to this planet’s greatest resource: water. With contributions from Saskatchewan and the American Southwest to Iceland and Northern Europe, an array of voices are brought together here—artists and writers investigating water as site, sustenance, and symbol, along with those expressing alarm and calling for intervention.
Featuring interviews with Lauren Bon, Oscar Tuazon, Jaque Fragua, Brad Kahlhamer, Ruth Cuthand, Janaina Tschäpe, Jessica Grindstaff, Tomoko Sauvage, Cecilia Vicuña, and Alicia Kopf, as well as writing by Laura van den Berg, Natalie Diaz, Stefan Helmreich, and more.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee