Inspired by the remarkable life of a 12th Century visionary, this ambitious musical is decidedly contemporary
By Joel Beers
It took Anna Miles 20 minutes to accept an offer from the Wayward Artist to direct the musical “In the Green.” She would have responded to the email offer sooner if only she had known anything about the show, which is a 2019 play written by Grace McLean inspired by the extraordinary life of Hildegard Von Bingen, a 12th Century music composer, writer, mystic, protean eco-feminist and considered a saint long before her official canonization in 2012.
“I had no knowledge of the play before Wayward approached me about directing the production,” said Miles. “I didn’t even have a script or a score to read.”
But within 20 minutes after reading the email, Miles had found a copy of the cast recording from the 2019 Off-Broadway production online as well as a play summary online. When she got to the part where Hildegard’s character is shown being played by three actors who represent her mouth, hand and eye, symbolically underscoring how broken the character is, Miles said she was hooked.
“Normally when I receive a job offer I’ll agonize about it for a few days before accepting or declining,” Miles said. “But I knew this show would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience…(so) I replied with an enthusiastic yes.”
She hasn’t regretted it. The play, Miles said, is “a perfect culmination of my theatrical skills and passions. I’ve always gravitated toward exploring the synthesis of mythology, ritual, music, poetry and femininity in my work, telling stories through the expressive, the symbolic, and the surreal, which are all wrapped up in the experience that is ‘In the Green.’”
“In the Green” involves some very prolific people. That includes, obviously, the 12th Century woman who inspired it. Playwright Grace McLean is a hyper-talented singer, actor and teacher (and a Costa Mesa native). Miles is an LA-based director, writer, actor, and visual artist who is also founder of Beating of Wings, a feminist, creative community that supports women and other underrepresented artists in creating and producing “vital, socially conscious work,” according to its mission statement. Musical director Diane King Vann is an author, actor, award-winning music director and pianist who was South Coast Repertory 's resident composer for many years.
And Andrea Decker, the resident dramaturg for Wayward Artist and the person who submitted the play to its selection committee, has a PhD after her name!
Decker was first introduced to Hildegarde when she was an undergraduate classical music major.
“As a revolutionary composer whose manuscripts we still have, she is taught in most history of music sequences in universities,” Decker said. She had also sung some of her music as part of various music ensembles and choirs
Decker did not see the 2019 Off-Broadway production, which won the Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater and was nominated for seven Lucille Lortel Awards, but after the cast album was released, musical theater friends told her it was “must listen.” Like Miles, she was hooked instantly, and attributes some of that to the timing of its release: October 2020, which “gave it a particular resonance because many of us were under pandemic lockdown.”
The reason for the resonance? The lockdown affected people in many different ways but it’s probably not too far-fetched to presume that many of those ways were traumatic. And trauma is what this play is about, not the incredible creativity and accomplishments of Hildegarde, which came later in her life.
Miles and Decker met with McLean to talk about her vision of the play and one of the takeaways they found was that she was “inspired by the parts of Hildegard’s story we don’t know as much about,” Miles said. “Namely, the forgotten 30 years during which she was interred,” in the same room as her mentor and teacher, Jutta von Sondheim. ”So the audience gets some biographical basics, but mostly they get an imagined depiction of Hildegard’s childhood and formative experiences; or, as Grace puts it, Hildegard’s imagined “origin” story.”
McLean imagines that origin story as a clash, told mostly through the score, between two ways of dealing with a trauma-induced broken self. The older, more resigned Jutta’s “ coping mechanism is to suppress the memories, to self-blame and self-punish in a desperate attempt to always keep control,” Miles said. Hildegard’s method is to “ face the pain, walk through it, and come out the other side. Jutta is ashamed of her brokenness, which is the very reason she cannot heal. Hildegard embraces hers, and is able to emerge from the darkness of the cell and of the soul into the light and into her life. One chooses “death” and one chooses “life” in the same way we all constantly struggle to find our paths forward through painful experiences.”
Those thoughts are never explicitly stated by the characters but they are embedded in the score, which uses vocal looping and a live band to reveal character and drive the narrative as much as the spoken dialogue or lyrics.
“There is both a lyrical and ritualistic quality to much of the music, creating a haunting sense of hush, of reverence, and of serenity, and a cacophonous and disorienting element,” Miles said.” It’s in the contrast, the push and pull, between these two modes that the deepest part of the story resides.”
Just as the music sounds different from more traditional musicals, so do the words that are sung.
“Grace McLean is a vocalist deeply engaged with the anatomy and physiology of the voice,” Decker said. “She teaches voice lessons…and the score reflects that interest in the human voice, in all it can do. She has discussed being inspired by Bulgarian women’s choirs and throat singing, and she initially wanted to beatbox, but had to change the sounds to glottal sounds because of issues with the looping equipment. She uses all these techniques to play with stereotypes about feminine singing and music and to push the boundaries of vocal communication. “
If you are thinking that it sounds like there is a great deal to “In the Green” that makes it feel different than most musicals, you’re right. And that is a selling point that the cast and crew have
“People should come and see it simply because it will be unlike anything else they’ve experienced before,” Miles said. “That sounds lofty, but I believe it to be true. In our rehearsals and design conversations, we’ve talked a lot about creating a ‘unique liminal space,’ a physical and metaphysical space through which we can invite audience members into Hildegard’s subconscious, and possibly by extension, into their own. We’re incorporating immersive elements with 360 (degree) visual and sonic storytelling to transform the theater, so the play radiates out far beyond the actors on the stage.”
But as complex as the show may be in the experience of telling and viewing it, ultimately it is a show where every element is designed to lead the viewer to not only watch an intense journey from the outside but to take part in one internally as well.
“This show offers an opportunity to explore and experience a process of trauma, grief, and healing in a way that is poignant but artfully symbolic,” Miles continued. “It gives audiences a chance for catharsis, without tilting into trauma porn or shock value. It’s our intention to create a communal space and story that makes it feel safe to dive into the shadows together for 90 minutes- to leave the experience not feeling drained, but feeling a little bit lighter. A little bit less burdened. A little bit cleansed.”
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist based in Orange County.. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
“In the Green”
The Wayward Artist
125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana California, 92701
April 14 - 30, 2023
(657) 205-6273, www.thewaywardartist.org