las vegas in june – an american geographic update

Greetings friends and family!

We are happy to be back on the east coast following an extraordinary month for the company in the city of Las Vegas working on Mission Drift. This trip was amazing. We spent the majority of the month taking field trips to places like the Culinary Union offices, the Atomic Testing Museum (where we got a backstage tour with the curator and saw a nuke back-pack), to the Springs Preserve (an incredible facility dedicated to sustainable desert living), to a 60-year old pig farm in north Vegas (shockingly nestled between new housing developments who are now suing the farm’s owner for the stench), to the Neon Boneyard (an extensive collection of old signage). We then would return to the rehearsal room and create material through composition and movement assignments, and writing exercises. At the end of the month we presented two workshop presentations to individuals we met there and received feedback.

A work-in-progress of Mission Drift will be presented as part of the 2010 Ice Factory Festival at the Ohio Theatre AUGUST 4-7th at 7pm.
Tickets are now on-sale and can be purchased here:

We strongly recommend purchasing in advance as seating is very limited and there are only four shows. Each will be followed with drinks and conversation, as this is a work in progress. We’re incredibly honored to be a part of the Festival again, after joyfully previewing Particularly in the Heartland there to sold-out houses in 2006 before heading to Edinburgh. As many of you know, the Ohio is very sadly closing after over 25 years of tremendous producing history. We hope you’ll celebrate it’s life by checking out this final Ice Factory Festival. More info on us and all the shows here:

NOW! An in-depth update on what we’ve been doing, with thoughts from all of us and images from the trip.

You may have read our facebook posts, perhaps you spoke or texted with one of us while there…
Any way you cut it, this month-long residency in Las Vegas – the first in our American Geographic series – was one of the most inspiring, tough, and productive periods the company has ever had. And we felt we owed you all a full explanation of what so many of you helped make possible with your support this year. So what follows are thoughts from each of us about different experiences we had, and some images to fill out the picture.

Rachel (director) on the show’s progress:
Holy crap. So I teach directing at NYU’s Playwrights Horizons Theater School, and I am always talk about “process,” and over the year the idea of “PROCESS” gains this mystical impervious-ness, like…yeah…it works. But I felt process during our time out there in a way I don’t think I ever have before. Days of absolute agony. And hours or even minutes that make it all worth while. It’s been like learning to trust the company (and myself in it) all over again, which has been both hard and a dream.

Here’s how I’d describe the show as of now: Mission Drift is a musical, told through a mixture of narrative storytelling, adventurous or violent transactions between characters, Elvis and lizard-like movement, and song, about Las Vegas. It envisions this American city – the nation’s fastest growing at the turn of the millennium and now an epicenter of the housing crisis and recession – as both a church to money, and a small town trying to survive unreasonable growth. The characters in Mission Drift are individuals tiny against a landscape of history that stretches from the New Amsterdam colony, where a young and ambitious married couple named Catalina and Joris are living, to a booming Las Vegas, where a newcomer waitress-from-Wisconsin named Joan watches the Frontier implode as the city makes way for more growth. And the characters are also gods in this landscape, spirits reincarnated who carry on the battle between creation and destruction, vision and delusion, development and desert; an entrepreneur and a prophet thru time. Over all this reigns Miss Atomic, based on the real Vegas pageants during the 1950’s that celebrated the above-ground testing happening 60 miles north of the city. Played by Heather Christian, Miss Atomic is a showman and a showgirl, seductive and frightening, a storyteller, a hunger pulsing within each of the characters.

Kristen (performer) on our visit to the Springs Preserve:
The Springs Preserve is a beautiful natural history/ecology center that we visited during our first week in Las Vegas which focusses on two things: 1) educating people about the flora, fauna, geology, and weather of the particular part of the Mojave desert that has since become Las Vegas, and 2) educating and providing services for people who are interested in sustainable desert living.  The Mojave only gets 4″ of rain a year, and yet the people who live here use a good deal more than that.  The Preserve’s agenda seems to be to illuminate the ways in which people can bridge this gap by recycling water (yes, even toilet water), and limiting their water use (goodbye big green lawn, hello xeriscaping)!  I spent a good deal of time in the Mojave as a child and a lot of those sights and smells are precious to me, so it was wonderful to spend a day learning more about what makes the desert tick, and hearing about the ways in which humans have learned to cope with the punishing heat and dryness of the region.

Libby (performer) on the Neon Museum:
the neon museum…oh boy.  to me this is one of the most important museums that I’ve had the privilege of experiencing.  I’m inspired by the folks who currently maintain the vision to make sure this particular history is preserved.  these are people – historians- passionate about preservation kinda before everyone else understands the validity of the passion or the preservation…like they are finding dinosaur bones and people just don’t understand that yet.

basically, the neon museum does not yet exist…so what we visited was the “boneyard”  this is what will eventually be the neon museum once all the funding and stuff is in place.  the boneyard houses hundreds of pieces of neon relics. signs from the Sahara, the Golden Nugget… all these pieces of signs that once graced the Las Vegas skyline.  within these pieces lives the history of Las Vegas and the history of America.   it is car culture. it is the atomic age.  it is the belief that building something unique enough, bright enough, and catchy enough in the desert will make you turn your car around.  wonderful.

we live in a new age of advertisement and marketing and what we can learn from these signs from the past is that art did once exist in selling.  there was care in the detail there was effort to make things beautiful and intriguing to the costumer and not to say that this does not exist now but there is something about the neon and the scale of these signs and the design behind them that makes these SIGNS so significant and beautiful and timeless.

Dave (production stage manager) on the Atomic Testing Museum:
From Jack Bauer to Fox News there’s always someone telling us to fear suitcase nukes, which I have always assumed to be pure and complete fiction. Then Karen, the curator at the Atomic Museum takes us into a back room and shows us a deactivated backpack nuke. While a bit larger than what one would imagine, there it was – a nuclear device designed by the US to be set off by only pair of soldiers who were told to set the timer and run.  This was created over 40 years ago.

The Atomic Museum was filled with a combination of terrifying information, photos and artifacts and absurd near-comical propaganda and safety information.  We saw Disney produced animations showing the limitless potential of atomic power and old science kits for kids that included actual uranium.  These things were just around the corner from the images of the Bikini Kill test zone where an H bomb vaporized an entire island.  We also saw the images and effects of open air testing in Nevada. Speaking to Leighton who worked on the test site for most of his life, one began to think it might not be so bad to see one more test to the North of Vegas over the skyline of the strip.

Ian (performer) on our talks with Culinary Union folks:
Over 36 million people visited Las Vegas last year—and somebody had to feed them. With over 60,000 members, Culinary Workers’ Union Local 226 provides over 90% of Las Vegas’ food and beverage service. It is the single largest union in Nevada. And while the numbers are impressive, what really struck us about the Union was the passion with which it fights for its workers. The Culinary 226 administrators we met, whether young or old, believe firmly that job security, home ownership, effective health care, and secure retirement plans are not the priveleges reserved solely for executives, but rather the necessary rights for all employed individuals. “Make sure that in the end the power goes to the workers!” one of the young administrators said after generously attending the Mission Drift  workshop.

Jill (performer) on our visit to the Office of Cultural Affairs:
We met Nancy at the Office of Cultural Affairs, which was located in a historic schoolhouse, decorated with pictures of the building in older days: horses and wagon wheels in black and white. Nancy was a native Las Vegan, and told us of a childhood spent in swimming pools, riding horses, and houses with wagon wheels in the front yard. She loves her hometown, and feels hopeful for its future. Everything grew too fast, she said, we just didn’t have the structure to support it yet. I told her Las Vegas really did feel like a small town to me, and that made her happy.
Matt (sound designer) on the Luxor:

I miss the Luxor.  I hate that I miss the Luxor.  It’s somehow more… dignified than, say, the Excalibur, while remaining just a shockingly artificial and generally alien.  I think the “Magic Carpet Ride” attraction sums it up best, by shoehorning a Persian myth into the Luxor’s faux-Egyptian theme.  Maybe it’s fitting that they’re going to strip out all of the “Egyptian” decoration and go full-on Ultra-Lounge.  But still, at night, the sight of glittering black pyramid and the truly awesome beam of light it emits into the sky engendered warm feelings in me: a man-made star to steer by.

Jessica (performer) on the pig farm:
At the pig farm a very attractive man with startling blue eyes, like freshwater pools, and no teeth made my aquaintance: Jim. This is the name of my dad’s youngest brother who was killed when he was graduating high school and whenever I meet someone with this name, I take a special liking to him, a feeling of reincarnation and looking for sparks of someone. I definitely found it.

“Working on a cooling unit for us. (the workers.)” Jim’s a mechanic. “Pigs’ve got one, now we get one. Pigs come first.”

Jim’s worked there for 3 years. Sweet man. Overalls. Sport sandals with big thick white socks. 110 degrees that day. Five hot dog rolls in rows on the garage dirt floor. “Go feed the pigs then go back to the pond, throw some of these rolls in, fish’ll come up out of the water, sun shines right on ’em, 40 pounds.”

He warned us about the two geese – he calls the Three Amigos – and demoed how to wave them away with low slung Charleston arms. He said my name like it was crisp metal joints clinking into place teasingly over and over, “Jes si ca.” He had a wife but now he’s with a woman he can shack up with. “Does she also work in a farm?” “No,” he answers. “She works inside. In an office. You know, air conditioned.” And I wonder what it’s like to be a man among pigs. An outside man. With dirt all around finger nail beds that look perfectly manicured.

After walking through the pig slop bins, I felt all desire for bacon stripped away.

Punning inadvertantly.

Brian (performer) on City Center:
The City Center is a mammoth consortium of several hotels, condo towers, spas, casinos, and a sparkly 21st century mall, now known as a “retail and entertainment district.”  Pieces of the center opened in December 2009.  It is enormous and surprisingly eco-friendly, with looming, very shiny towers built partially from the remains of the hotels that were imploded to make room for City Center.  One anecdote related to us about its construction mentioned how, before it’s completion, some of the glass in one tower aligned to form a magnifying glass that focused the sun’s rays at a certain time of day so much that it melted a car stalled in traffic on the nearby interstate.  To me, it greatly resembled a future Former World’s Fair Site, brimming with excitement about the “next thing”, but eventually abandoned when a better “next thing” came along.  I had lines from Shelley’s poem running through my head as we walked around:

“And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. “

Ian (performer) on Big Elvis:
Elvis is one of the greatest icons of Las Vegas, and everyone loves a good Elvis impersonator. Unfortunately, as the Las Vegas strip continues to corporatize, the entertainment has become one large wash of multi-million dollar spectacle, forcing out the smaller acts, like impersonators. But there is one real, impersonator gem, and it’s not in the Cirque Elvis Tribute show. No, it’s in the classic styled Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall casino: BIG ELVIS. Peter Vallee has been Big Elvis for 15 years, through three different ownerships, at Bill’s. He is astounding. Without the help of surgery, he is down to 405lbs from 960lbs, and his beautiful and spot-on Elvis voice, which he has been using since the age of 13, carries out to the street through the open doors, drawing in passers by.

The TEAM went to Big Elvis one night, and Brian and I decided to take it in with cigars and brandies—“man night.” We watched Big Elvis take his wooden throne and fill the room with his immensely resonant and velvety, Elvis voice. We watched his sidekick dancers hype up the audience and move playfully to the music along side him. One in particular, Virgie, seemed a woman of true Vegas grit, and she joyfully danced with audience members and gave Big Elvis all of her focus and energy. There’s not a lot you can do for free in Vegas, but this is one of them. And it is awesome.

Well the time came in the show when Big Elvis needed the help of four, male audience members. Instantly, the female TEAM members began egging us on. Alert in our seats, Brian and I fumbled over our cigars and brandies, deciding whether or not to “man up” and volunteer. Just then, two middle-aged gentlemen walked up to the stage. Time was running out. A few more micro moments of indecisions passed, and, finally, we jointly made a move toward to stage. Big Elvis had his four. A Big Elvis helper, and later “musical guest,” handed us each an inflatable guitar, while Big Elvis explained that we would be competing for a mystery prize. The competition: who could have the most fun rocking out to “Viva Las Vegas.” A few moments later then song began, and hilarity ensued. All four of us started going wild, each antic topping the last and pushing the next. High kicks. Riling up the audience. Going back-to-back with Big Elvis. Hell, I even had a kick ass dance with Virgie. It was “man night” mayhem. And the audience loved it. The song ended and it came time for the clap-o-meter vote, but there was such a raucus for each contestant, that a four-way tie was declared. So we each walked away with “Thanks for Performing with Big Elvis” certificates and a burned CD of Big Elvis singing his hits. Brian and I returned to our seats, high-fiving our adoring fans as we passed. We sat back down, rekindled our cigars, clinked glasses, and enjoyed a good, and well deserved, laugh. It certainly wouldn’t have been so memorable a “man night” without a little egging from the TEAM ladies.

That’s what we have for you right now. There will be more stories told at the Ice Factory!
Hope to see you there, and thank you for reading.

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