Viewpoints and Aerial Work

Elephant’s Graveyard focuses on the story of Mary, an elephant that performed in the Sparks Circus and was famously lynched in Erwin, Tennessee, in 1916. While the story revolves around the life and death of Mary, we never see a literal elephant depicted on stage during this production. Instead, a combination of gesture and aerial performances are used to illustrate the presence of this beautifully tragic character.

Throughout this production process a technique called Viewpoints has been used to portray internal emotions in a physical form. With this technique, the actors and the director collaborate to create a series of gestures inspired by a given song, word, or feeling. These movements are then integrated into the play and presented by a single person or a group of people. In Loyola’s production, this technique is used multiple times and plays a variety of roles. One important moment it depicts is the parade of elephants that march through the town of Erwin. These specific gestures are performed by a group of women walking in single-file around the stage. These movements cause the actresses to fully extend their limbs and maintain an elegance that seems so inherent in the majestic animals they represent. The combination of the dialogue describing the parade and the viewpoints that poetically and physically depict this dialogue guides the audience’s depth of understanding. Through the viewpoints, the audience has insight into the internal essence of the elephant, while through the dialogue they experience the thoughts and feelings of all who watched the elephants in the parade.

Another way the elephant is depicted on stage is through aerial performance. In Loyola’s production the Ballet Girl, played by Audrey Anderson, is the character that serves as an artistic visual aid for the sweeping and suspenseful movements of Mary. Throughout the play, Anderson is placed on a Lyra, which is a sort of steel hoop that hangs from the ceiling. The elevation and fluid movement of the equipment relate to the height and lively behavior of the elephant. The risky and awe-inspiring choreography performed on the Lyra evokes the danger and beauty that exists in Mary the elephant.

While the aerial stunts are complex and could be dangerous if performed incorrectly, the audience should have no fear for the actress performing the tricks: The Ballet Girl herself choreographed everything presented on the aerials in this performance! Anderson has been studying and training in aerial arts since she was seven years old at Xelia’s Aerial Arts in Minneapolis. In a recent conversation I asked her about her preparation for this role in the rehearsal process. Weeks before rehearsals with the entire cast began, Anderson was working on the equipment to prepare for the role. She also stressed the importance of keeping fit as a part of her preparation. “The goal of aerials is to make everything look effortless. You can’t do this if you aren’t fit. . . Being physically prepared is also a safety thing. If you aren’t fit, strong, and in control, you put yourself at risk doing aerials.” When I asked what she was most excited about with this experience she said, “Everything about this excites me! . . . I am so excited that this ensemble is getting to present something new and fresh to our audiences, and I am so excited that aerial work is a part of this.”

An actual elephant never steps foot on the stage during the production. However, the movement demonstrated on stage through the aerial work by Anderson and through the Viewpoints technique used by the entire ensemble represents Mary in a beautifully poetic way that invites you to feel the elephant’s presence and elegance in the room.

Posted on by Sophie Hamm in General Comments Off on Viewpoints and Aerial Work

Elephant’s Graveyard: The Wonderful World of Steam Locomotives

Hello and welcome to the third post in the Elephant’s Graveyard dramaturg blog series! It’s me again, Anna Martin, and today I’ll be donning my engineer’s cap to tell you all about the wonders of trains. This is the third and final post concerning the historical context of the play and will reveal some insight into the modern world of steam travel. So put on your best Belle Epoch travel garb and don’t forget your ticket because we’re going on a train ride!

North Carolina Steam Locomotive, 1916

North Carolina Steam Locomotive, 1916

The first steam-powered locomotive was invented in 1804 by a man named Richard Trevithick. Known as “the Puffing Devil,” this train was the first to utilize the steam-based technology pioneered by Scottish inventor James Watt. But unlike Watt, Trevithick’s engine operated with the use of “strong steam” or steam that has been compressed to a very high pressure (145 psi compared to Watt’s 1 psi). While Trevithick’s experiment was successful in that he got a locomotive with multiple cars to cruise faster than a person could walk, his engines were extremely dangerous and highly combustible. The trains he built were too heavy for the tracks and they eventually buckled under the weight. Trevithick also made a train for passenger travel called the “Catch-me-who-can” that ran until it broke the track as well.

Rail travel did not come to the United States until 1830, after the steam engine had become a bit more developed. These trains were chartered for both passengers and freight and were so light that not only were they easily derailed; they were also just as easily re-railed if all the passengers got out and replaced them on the tracks. On May 10, 1869, the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed. This development blazed a trail to U.S. economic abundance and drastically altered the environment both geographically and socially. Brothers Jack and John Casement devised a system for constructing the Western half of the Transcontinental Railroad in which track could be laid as fast as a man could walk. By the turn of the century, trains were considered the main mode of transportation and flourished under minimal regulation and the introduction of steel rails instead of iron. In 1916, the year the events in our play occur, national rail mileage reached its all-time peak at 254,000 miles.

Logo of the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railway

Logo of the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railway

The railroad mentioned in Elephant’s Graveyard is the Clinchfield and Ohio. This line hauled coal around the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina between the 19th and 20th centuries. This 300-mile track served as a bridge between the north and south. As explained in a previous blog post, the Clinchfield and Ohio was one of the largest employers in Erwin, Tennessee, having first laid tracks in the area in 1886. Now, the Clinchfield line is referred to as a fallen flag, or a North American railroad company that no longer exists, as it was absorbed into the Family Lines System in the mid-1970s.

Now we’ve familiarized ourselves with the town, the circus, and the train. But what will happen when these three vastly different worlds collide? Find out at Loyola’s production of Elephant’s Graveyard!

Posted on by Anna Martin in Blog Series, Dramaturg Post, Theatre Comments Off on Elephant’s Graveyard: The Wonderful World of Steam Locomotives

Animals in the Circus

At the beginning of Elephant’s Graveyard, the entire community of Erwin, Tennessee is buzzing with excitement because the much anticipated Spark’s Circus is coming to town. Flyers will have been posted all over, each one headlining the most important performer in the act: Mary the Elephant. Throughout the play we not only learn of the beauty of this magnificent creature, but we also learn of the danger and cruelty that occurs when animals are placed in this hectic environment. The idea of animals performing human-like tricks and behaviors has appealed to audiences for ages. In recent years, however, this attitude toward animals in the circus has changed with organizations like PETA and other animal rights activists speaking out against the poor treatment and abuse that animals experience.
Animal performances began in the circus as we know it in 1768, in Philip Astley’s trick-riding displays on horseback. These events had to take place on a circular track, which is how the circus ring that has become such a staple to the classic circus format originated. One insight into why this event appealed to the audience is that the “circus made entertainment out of those who might otherwise turn their muscular frames against their masters….” (Kwint 223).
This display and control of strong creatures would only grow as circuses began to incorporate more exotic animals into their performances. Trainers taught their bears to dance, their monkeys to do arithmetic, and displayed animals that had extra limbs or features thought of as “exaggerated” or “deformed.” In a time when less people had easy access to zoos, audiences looked forward to the menageries that traveled with the circus as their one opportunity to see the exotic animals they had only read about in books. Elephants were introduced into the circus in the 19th century. The most famous of the bunch was Barnum’s Jumbo, the largest elephant in circus history. Even after Jumbo’s death, Barnum continued to display the elephant’s remains and skeleton as part of the traveling display (Velten).
Nowadays, however, animals have been removed from the circus due to complaints of animal cruelty and potential danger to the audience. While the animals appear happy as they perform their routines, it’s what happens before and after the circus that concerns many people. In 1908 the circus groups traveled from town to town on rail cars. For example, one stock car “held 27 fully harnessed horses standing side-by-side (tail to nose) . . . The horses were packed tightly… so they could not fall during transport . . . ” (Mabert 84). While this formation managed to keep the animals from falling during the ride, it also meant that they had little to no room to move or adjust their stance, making for an uncomfortable ride. Another complaint regards the disciplinary nature of the trainers, who were known for beating the animals if a trick wasn’t performed to their satisfaction. Furthermore, the animals in the circus helped to set up the circus tents and equipment, which means their work didn’t just start in the ring. These conditions led many to believe that these animals were often overworked.
Many were also concerned with the danger of the animals themselves. As a result of harsh treatment by humans, animals have been known to break away from their trainers and run loose, where they become a great threat to the audience. In 2014, three elephants escaped from a circus show in Missouri. Years before that, an elephant named Viola scared circusgoers when she fled from her trainer in Virginia. The documentary Tyke: Elephant Outlaw tells the story of Tyke, a circus elephant in Hawaii in 1994. During a performance, Tyke went on a rampage in which he killed his trainer and became a threat to members of the community walking the streets. These recent incidents served as more motivation to get elephants out of the circus. In the US American Circus today, you can rarely find a large touring group that still includes elephants in their act.
The story of Mary the Elephant in Elephant’s Graveyard shares the beauty and excitement as well as the tragic truths behind the elephants’ historical presence in the ring.

Works Cited

Mabert, Vincent A. and Michael J. Showalter (2010), “Logistics of the American Circus:
The Golden Age,” Production & Inventory Management Journal, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 74-90.

@peta. “Circuses.” PETA. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
<http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/circuses/>.

Coxe, Antony Hippisley. A Seat at the Circus. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1980. Print.

Culhane, John. The American Circus: An Illustrated History. New York: Holt, 1990. Print.
Velten, Hannah. Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City. N.p.: Reaktion, 2013. Print.

Posted on by Sophie Hamm in General Comments Off on Animals in the Circus
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