This article was written by Artist in Residence, Patrick Gabridge.
When I tell people I’m the artist-in-residence at Mount Auburn Cemetery, they are often shocked that such a thing exists and also very curious about what, as a playwright, I intend to do at a cemetery. Most folks assume I’ll be writing about the various people buried here. Which I will. But even from the very start of my residency this winter, I knew I wanted to write about the diverse and unique natural environment of Mount Auburn.
Since I started in January, I’ve been walking the grounds, toting binoculars with birders at dawn, looking for nighthawks at sunset on the tower, shining flashlights in Consecration Dell looking for spotted salamanders, and trying not to step on tiny toadlets by Halcyon Lake. And, more crucially for a playwright, I’ve been listening to the people who are deeply invested in protecting and improving the flora and fauna that make Mount Auburn such a special place.
The challenge for a writer tasked with creating plays about Mount Auburn is the embarrassment of riches when it comes to potential stories. A hundred thousand tales are wrapped around the people interred here, and they are surrounded by hundreds of species of birds and trees, and thousands upon thousands of plants, all of them tended by dedicated stewards.
In the end, I chose to create two series of short plays–one mostly about historical figures buried here and their role and relationship to the formation of American identity, and another set of nature plays. Some are already written and will be read on the grounds in September—like a short play called Hot Love in the Moonlight is about the mating habits of spotted salamanders. There will be a play about birds and birders (Cerulean Blue), and another about Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz. I’m still exploring play ideas around some of the secret mushroom spots that may or may not exist, and there will almost certainly be a play inspired by conversations with the grounds crew members who help Mount Auburn remain the gem that it is.
Beyond writing and research, the next step begins with reading and playing with the text with actors and audiences. This September, you will see me and Courtney O’Connor, my director, gathered with clumps of actors at Consecration Dell and near Auburn Lake, and other spots, with scripts in our hands, reading dialogue aloud. We’ll see if the structure and content of the work makes sense, if it has power, but also how it works in three-dimensions. How does it feel to have our voices and bodies in action on the actual grounds? It’s one thing for me to imagine how it all feels and sounds when I’m typing away in my office, but it’s entirely different when we have actors do it while standing on the edge of a pond.
At the public readings in September, we’ll start exploring what the plays feel like with an audience. (Plays are nothing without an audience.) When staging site-specific work there are additional concerns we don’t have in a traditional theatre, where the environment is controlled and well understood. We have to ask questions about where does the audience sit or stand, is there noise (traffic, neighbors) that will impact that site? How do the plants and topography affect where we can stand, how much sound reaches the audience, the visual palette? Entrances and exits are never simple when performing outdoors. How does the audience know when the show is over? And, in a cemetery, where do we perform such that we are respectful of the people who are buried here. How do we perform plays about nature, in nature, in ways that don’t harm the environment we’re talking about?
Having to answer all these questions, as we explore people and ideas in the text, is part of the challenge and fun of doing site-specific work. The other thing I truly love about this kind of theatre is that the barrier between the performers and audience is much more fluid and informal than in work created in a traditional spaces. The enormity and concreteness of the natural world around the very small play we’re creating helps unite the audience and performers.
In June of next year, we will fully stage the Nature Plays on the grounds, in a production that we hope will engage and delight audiences in all kinds of interesting ways. In the meantime, my team and I will be researching, writing, and playing, as we explore ways to illuminate the important natural elements of Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Mount Auburn’s diverse collection of monuments and funerary art from the early nineteenth century through today, interwoven into the landscape, is the reason for so much of our aesthetic richness, educational value, and historical significance. By nature of being an outdoor collection, many of our monuments now require an extra level of care and maintenance to protect them after years of exposure to the elements. The Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery has been working on a multi-year initiative to prioritize conservation of the most significant monuments on our grounds ever since 2014, and plans are now underway for the latest in this series for 2018. (more…)
We are excited to introduce Mount Auburn’s new Artist-in-Residence, award-winning playwright and author Patrick Gabridge. His past work includes the plays Drift, Mox Nox, Lab Rats, Blood on the Snow, Fire on Earth, Constant State of Panic, Pieces of Whitey, Reading the Mind of God, and Blinders, as well as the novels Steering to Freedom, Moving (a life in boxes), and Tornado Siren. Stay tuned for more information and special programs featuring his work in the coming two years!
It has been recognized since Mount Auburn’s early decades that the Cemetery’s aesthetic richness, educational value, and historic significance are derived in large part from the remarkable tapestry formed by its diverse collection of monuments and burial markers carefully sited in the landscape. In the nineteenth century, the Cemetery and individual lot owners commissioned a vast array of public art: monuments, structures, and buildings. Visitors, therefore, experienced the site as an outdoor museum as well as a place of burial. Today, Mount Auburn continues its dual mission of active cemetery and cultural landscape by striving to inspire all who visit and commemorating the dead in a landscape of exceptional beauty. While the Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery has long offered tours and programs to the public, in recent years we have further embraced our role as a cultural resource and have begun working with contemporary artists and art organizations to create original site-specific programming.
In 2014, Mount Auburn became the first cemetery in the United States to establish an artist residency program. Our two-year program supports the creation of new work by a contemporary artist inspired by his or her in-depth experience at the Cemetery. The resident artist is charged with creating works for visitors, drawn from their direct experience, that convey a fresh and innovative perspective of Mount Auburn. To date, we have awarded residencies to filmmaker Roberto Mighty (2014-2015) and composer Mary Bichner (2016-2017). Currently, we are delighted to be hosting playwright Patrick Gabridge as the 2018-2019 Artist-in-Residence.
We are excited to introduce Mount Auburn’s new Artist-in-Residence, award-winning playwright and author Patrick Gabridge. His past work includes the plays Drift, Mox Nox, Lab Rats, Blood on the Snow, Fire on Earth, Constant State of Panic, Pieces of Whitey, Reading the Mind of God, and Blinders, as well as the novels Steering to Freedom, Moving (a life in boxes), and Tornado Siren.
Here at Mount Auburn, Gabridge’s goals for his residency are to gain a deep understanding of our National Historic Landmark site and to write a series of site-specific plays that will be staged throughout our spectacular landscape. He intends to create work that reflects the spirit of the place and the people who are buried within, as well as those who visit and work on the grounds. Gabridge began his residency in the winter of 2018 with extensive research and moved on to writing as he collected stories and inspiration. Public readings and associated talk-back sessions in the fall of 2018 will help Gabridge further develop the plays for full production in 2019.
Learn more about our current Artist-in-Residence
Playwright Patrick Gabridge
Mary Bichner, Musician and Composer
Mount Auburn: Spring & Autumn Suites
During her residency, musician and composer Mary Bichner composed a series of new works inspired by Mount Auburn’s breathtaking landscape and landmarks, using her sound-to-color synesthesia to select the musical components that best “match” the natural color palette of each location. As Ms. Bichner completed her compositions in 2016, she participated in a series of “pop-up” concerts and gave talks about her artistic process. In early 2017, her Mount Auburn compositions were professionally recorded. Ms. Bichner completed her residency with two sold-out concerts in Story Chapel. Mount Auburn: Spring & Autumn Suites, the product of her Mount Auburn residency, is now available as a free digital download. Cemetery visitors may also experience Bichner’s music in the setting that inspired it through Mount Auburn’s Visitor app.
Roberto Mighty, New Media Artist
Roberto Mighty, Mount Auburn’s inaugural artist-in-residence from 2014 through 2016, drew inspiration from the sights, sounds, and individual stories of the Cemetery to create earth.sky, an immersive meditation on life, death, ritual, history, landscape, nature, and culture. The original version of his project, designed to be screened in Mount Auburn’s Story Chapel, premiered in full in November 2016. To make the films, music, images, and storytelling of the original exhibit available to audiences worldwide, Mighty completed his residency with the release of an online version of his project.