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.