Shivering the Timbers
The Dirigo Group's 'Gypsy Chain' Speaks for the Trees
On September 17, 1998, a 24-year-old activist named David "Gypsy" Chain was killed in the Headwaters Forest in Northern California: This is a matter of public record. But had the falling redwood that killed him been cut by an angry logger? Was it murder? Was it accidental? And why was this young man -- a former Texan -- on the West Coast, spending his days and nights atop giant trees with a bunch of Earth First!ers, anyway?
The answers you get will depend on who's doing the talking: people from the lumber company, people from the activist community. Opinions vary. Some people, though, will do more than merely talk. Some people -- specifically, Laura Somers and Austin's award-winning dirigo group -- will stage a complex, multimedia production to express their view of the tragedy.
The dirigo group. All lowercase, all high talent. At the core: Laura Somers, Corey Gagne, Greg Gondek, Christa Kimlicko Jones, Judson Jones, and Tammy Whitehead. In the three years since they've joined forces, these artists have brought Austin some thrilling theatre. Their reworking of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, called simply desire, garnered B. Iden Payne awards for Somers (Director of a Drama) and for the husband-and-wife Joneses (Lead Actress in a Drama for Christa and Featured Actor in a Drama for Judson). The group's Sam Shepard double-header of Fool for Love and Cowboy Mouth, the latter of which (directed by Gagne) featured Greg Gondek wearing a 70-lb. full-body Lobster Man costume, carved a New West rock & roll love letter deep into the drywall of the Hideout's upstairs theatre. And the Gondek/Kimlicko Jones adaptation of Lanford Wilson's Home Free for MOMfest was named one of the top 10 theatrical events of 2000 by the Chronicle's own Ada Calhoun.
However, The Gypsy Chain -- dirigo's theatrical version of the life of David Chain, which opens this week at the Center for Mexican-American Cultural Arts -- is the first wholly original work the group has ever staged. And Somers isn't directing the show out of love for a good yarn necessarily or from a general sense of environmental righteousness. Laura Somers is bringing this story to stage mostly because David "Gypsy" Chain was a friend of hers. And David's sister, Sarah Chain, will be the narrator.
"Originally, I'd seen this as a sort of requiem," says Somers. "Kind of like funeral rites for David, a way to bring some closure to this whole thing. But the more I thought about it, the more I talked about it -- especially with Sarah and with David's mother, Cindy Allsbrooks -- the more I realized that there's a whole story here to tell. About the activists, about what's being done to the redwoods, about people -- anybody, really -- who choose to do something instead of just sitting back and watching stuff happen. But we wanted it to work on a personal level, too. So we're having Sarah write about her point of view, about her experiences with David, her feelings about environmentalism and everything that happened. And she's narrating the story, but she also plays different characters within the scenes."
"We're hoping that, me being there, it's a kind of reality check," says Sarah Chain. "A way of bringing two different things, Gypsy and David, together. So the story's not just about this martyr kid."
"Exactly," says Somers, nodding. "We don't want it to be that way. We want it to be about a person."
"We want people to care about the fact that this is happening," says Chain. "That it's still going on: the illegal logging, the destruction of old-growth forests."
"And at the same time," says Somers, "we want to be able to show that a regular human being made a decision to take action. No matter what that decision may be for anyone in their own lives, we want to show that it can be done, that here's somebody who stood up for what they believed in."
These ideas will be communicated by an impressive mob of talent in The Gypsy Chain, not only the dirigo group's core members, but more than 40 other artists and production personnel. "This is the largest group of people I've ever worked with," says Somers, shaking her head. "The dirigo group has an open-door policy, so the more people that come, the better -- and it's definitely more fun this way. Although, I have to say," she allows a half-smile, "it is a little out of control." There are more than 20 performers onstage, and sufficient technicians to handle a massive set that will allow some of the performers to, among other things, descend from the ceiling. "That's right," says Somers, grinning. "We're going to have people hanging from the rafters. They'll be hanging from ropes, rappelling off walls, dancing from the ceiling."
"From the ceiling," repeats Somers, her gray eyes lighting up with a definite mischief. "Choreography in midair. I think that'll wake everybody up a little more, give the audience a totally different experience in theatre -- as opposed to your basic proscenium, where you come in and sit in your little chair and watch a typical little show or whatever. Something I've always loved is shaking people up and taking them into a different world."
The word for world, this time, is forest -- with Somers taking the audience deeply into the domain of Humboldt County's ancient redwoods, there to witness confrontations between chainsaw-wielding loggers and tree-sitting activists, there to glean the environmentalist take on what's being perpetrated in the name of private industry.
There's a lot of hammering and sawing going on on the set, a long series of flats being built, a wide expanse of wall being erected, an entire biome to be suggested by a few enormous trunks. It takes, appropriately enough, a whole lot of wood to build these trees, and a whole lot of building to contain them. And the man behind this quickly concretizing suggestion is Austin's Patrick Thornton.
"He designed the whole thing," says Greg Gondek, the actor Cindy Allsbrooks chose to play her son onstage. "Patrick's a local artist, makes his living doing conceptual design for movies. He worked on Spy Kids, recently -- designing the guns, the weapons and aircraft, the mansion. He did the toys for that movie."
"And he built a friggin' model!" interjects Judson Jones, who plays Big A, a character based on the man whose fatal action -- possibly, allegedly -- was the genesis of this production. "I mean, who does shit like that? An entire scale model, complete with people, everything exactly the way it needs to be. We couldn't believe it. He said he'd work on the set design, then he comes in with this. It's -- it's unbelievable."
"Patrick does, yeah, he does great work," agrees Gondek, grinning. There's a hint in Gondek's grin, just the slightest hint of the Mad Tom persona he adopted for his last role: Edgar, in the Public Domain's production of King Lear. "And we're following the design pretty close, too," he says. "Those trees in the model, how they go all the way to the ceiling? We're doing that. Three trees -- two of them 12 feet in diameter -- all the way up. And the ceiling is 35, maybe 40 feet high. And we've got a cityscape beyond that, we've got that giant jail cell on the other side. Mostly, though, it's the trees."
It takes a hell of a lot of wood to build trees like this. Getting hold of which, especially for this show, can prove a bit tricky. "We had to return a bunch of the lumber," says Somers, frowning. "A whole big shipment of it. We found out that the company supplying the wood was one of the companies involved in illegal clear-cutting. It was a bad situation. There was just no way we could accept it."
"It would be totally against the point of the whole show," says Corey Gagne, The Gypsy Chain's musical director and also the actor portraying the owner of the fictional Lost Coast lumber company.
"And so we had to be very careful," says Somers. "We had to make sure we knew where our materials were coming from."
"A lot of it's recycled, too," says Christa Kimlicko Jones, who, as part of a choreographed vocal quintet, embodies the spirits of the trees. "We drove all over, looking for stuff."
"For months," says Somers. "We've been picking up stuff for months, anywhere we could find it. And we had someone donate $2,000 worth of lumber, so there was a lot of wood, and we've been storing it in my garage and my back yard." She laughs, but not exactly with joy. "And of course, we needed someplace big enough to put it -- to built the set in. And we'd been looking around at various spaces, trying to find something with tall enough ceilings -- we needed a lot of ceiling space, especially with all the rope work and rappelling that we wanted to do -- and we couldn't find anything. We were starting to get worried. And then we heard about this place -- the Mexican-American Cultural Center, this huge warehouse. And the moment I stepped in, I thought, 'This is it.' I'd been waiting for the perfect space to, like, present itself to us. And it did."
But the Center for Mexican-American Cultural Arts and its newly constructed timberland aren't the only places this show is taking people to; nor is it always the audience that's going somewhere. Those who knew David Chain personally are, in bringing his tale to life, revisiting all the wracked and barren landscapes of grief -- in ways that sometimes border on the surreal.
"We're going through this whole creative process," says Somers, "and I'm starting to feel separated from my friend. Because the story's becoming about ... somebody else. David's become like a myth, like somebody that you read about in storybooks. I'm starting to feel that I don't know him anymore -- and that's really hard to accept. I think that we've achieved something greater than just Dave's story, but ... what's being lost?"
She frowns, looks toward the far end of the enormous room. Is she seeing the sheets of plywood there, the various props, the banks of speakers and amplifiers ... or is she looking into the halls of Pasadena High near Houston, where she and David went to school?
"The thing that I always think about is his smile," she says. "He was one of those friends that you carry with you for the rest of your life. He was one of the most influential people I've ever met -- at an age when you're at, you know, your most awkward. When you're growing, and fighting against your family, all of that. He was a person who was always there to listen when you needed to talk. When he was younger, he'd been interested in becoming a doctor, so it doesn't surprise me that he went out and became an activist -- especially since he had a real rebellious streak, too. He always liked to argue. It drove his friends crazy, the way he'd argue us, like, to the death. He was relentless, he'd never let up, not for a second. And he'd enjoy it, too. I can just see him smiling that little smile of his, totally loving every moment of the argument.
"It's so funny," she says, "because when I hang out with these people, the dirigo group? The closeness I share with these people? It's a very familiar feeling, it's the way I was close with David, the way our whole gang was back then. There were six of us, and we went through so many things together, we were like a family." Somers pauses to puff on her cigarette. She scratches at her left eyebrow, below where a birthmark the color of weak coffee and vaguely the shape of Japan stains one-third of her smooth forehead. "I was talking to David's best friend the other day, and I asked him if he thought what we're doing is weird. And he said, 'Yeah, it's weird.' And I told him, 'Well, it feels weird to me, too.'"
Sarah Chain understands the feeling well. "There was a 24-hour period that David's death was about my brother dying," she says. "And then everyone knew, the world knew. And then he was "Gypsy" Chain -- not David or Dave, you know? So there was a totally separate grieving process where I'm grieving my brother's death, then I'm dealing with this huge political thing where an activist has been killed. And I go to California a week later, and we're having memorial services, and we're grieving with other people -- with activists who are grieving because here's somebody who went down in their fight."
And what about the loggers? Were they grieving, too? And what about their fight?
"The biggest thing I'm afraid of is being sued by the lumber company," says Somers. "Everybody keeps saying that we're protected by the freedom of speech, and I've got permission from David's mom and the family, but this might be too over-the-top. So I've talked to several lawyers about our concerns with slander, and making sure we're not messing with the trial that the family's brought against the company."
"My mom wants to make sure all the facts are there," says Sarah Chain. "She wants to make sure that the story's being told correctly, that Laura knows everything she knows. And that's important, because it's a huge issue and it wasn't properly investigated at all."
"We're not using the company's name, of course," adds Somers. "But the characters in the story are not that far from the truth."
Nor will those characters be -- whether dangling from above or staging realistic combat a few horizontal feet away -- that far from the audience. And there will be much movement. And there will be music and videos and songs, all affording at least a glimpse into the culture of people whom corporate concerns might deride as tree-huggers.
"It's great seeing the two different groups, the theatre community and the environmentalists, come together and share this experience," says Somers.
"I've been very impressed with Laura's ability to handle this crowd of, um, crazy people," says Kimlicko Jones. "Because this process has been extremely organic, we've all had a hand in the whole show. We started with improv at the very beginning, creating our own characters, all of us working together on developing the script. Then Laura comes in and says 'Okay, this is where we have to start working on this version, now. This is what we're going to do here.' So we weren't constantly changing the script around any more. And she was the main person who took our improvisations, all the variations, and created the actual written script. She really gets down to business. I love her."
Somers smiles as she looks around the busy set, giving a thumbs-up to the group of actors pretending to have the crap beaten out of them by other actors, nodding at the man and woman hammering on what will be the bars of a jail cell, tapping her feet to the drumming of the band's tall congas. "This is the most fun that I've ever had working on a play," she says, grinding out her cigarette on the center's dark floor. "This is the scariest that it's ever been, with the most pressure, but it's also the most fun."
Which, when you think about it, doesn't sound too unlike some forms of activism.
The Gypsy Chain runs Aug. 2-Sept. 1 at the Center for Mexican-American Cultural Arts, 600 River St. For information, call 693-8083 or visit www.thegypsychain.com