Of Goddesses and Monsters

Helen Shaw on Sibyl Kempson/7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co.

Sibyl Kempson/7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co. Sasquatch Rituals. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York City, 2018. Linda Mancini, Laurena Alan, Sibyl Kempson, Jessica Weinstein, Eleanor Hutchins, Maurina Lioce, Lindsay Hockaday, Sarah Willis. Photo: Paula Court.

AT THE MOMENT OF THE SPRING EQUINOX on March 21st, I was standing in the basement coat check room of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The place was closed—it was 12:15pm on a Tuesday—so there weren’t any coats, but there was a little line of toaster-sized “dirt” clod sculptures sitting on the counter. A crowd of vernal worshippers and theater-fans had followed a team of celebrants here from the massive glass-and-concrete lobby upstairs, where a gaggle of women dressed like Russian space peasants had oriented us according to civil time, nautical time, and astronomical time. We had been admonished to rest, to refrain from cutting things, to think slow thoughts. We were reminded that spring was the time to “bring into being.”

So, naturally, there was a 12-foot-tall papier-mâché penis sitting in one corner of the coat check. “If only we could find some seeds!” cried our chief priestess, the playwright Sibyl Kempson, who wore a sheaf of wheat on her head. Our guides erupted: “Could we coax some seeds from it?” “But we’re not supposed to touch the art!” Yet coax they did. As a few Whitney guards stood placidly by, the company rubbed and rubbed the giant phallus till it ejaculated silly-string jism that contained some sort of plant germ. (I should mention here that I brought my parents). Game attendees spat on the seeds to moisten them; the celebrants placed each one reverently inside an earth lump-receptacle; and a be-robed and be-ribboned goddess Oceana (Oceana James) read a bit of sacred prophecy over them. “Thirteen thousand years from now, forests will cover this island!”

Sibyl Kempson/7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co., 12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens. Performance view. The Whitney Museum of American Art, March 2016–December 2018. Photo: Paula Court.

Whenever the Earth marks a turn in her long journey around the sun, Sibyl Kempson’s 7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co. celebrate the day with ritual, libation, playfulness and song. 12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens is a commission from the Whitney Museum that operates as a kind of new, limited-time-only, DIY series of pagan rituals, in which Kempson’s not-quite-troupe-not-quite-cult observes equinoxes and solstices, remixing old traditions into gloriously messy new ones. In truth, 12 Shouts is a three-year performance, with months-long intermissions. One ritual often plows the ground for the next: the seeds sowed in March will be harvested at the fall equinox.

Of course, events of astronomical significance don’t always fall between 10 AM and 6 PM. The Whitney must wonder what in holy blazes they’ve signed up for, as viewers go crawling through their cafés and conference rooms, sometimes in the middle of the night, making a mockery of the museum’s opening hours and codes of conduct. To usher in grace and plenty, Kempson’s audiences have broken china, burned tobacco leaves, committed purified water to the Hudson river, received presents, awakened the corn king (Robert M. Johanson), met wry Shamhat (Tanya Selveratnam) and furious Lilith (Anne Gridley), clambered into tents, and watched the setting sun, the rising sun, and sometimes the very late, blue dark. The Whitney is tucked at the end of the elevated ex-train-track High Line park, and the celebrations have occasionally climbed up into its railroad reaches. Attending the 12 Shouts, I’ve watched tourists dodge dancers dressed as deer; I’ve waved a glittery potato votive at a person I thought was part of the show but who was almost certainly not. I’ve seen the greatest minds of my generation dress up like fur-covered Animal Goddesses and scuttle behind a construction hoarding.

Sibyl Kempson/7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co., 12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens. Performance view. The Whitney Museum of American Art, March 2016–December 2018. Photo: Paula Court.

Kempson’s gig as a Jungian druidess is a relatively new hustle. She’s primarily known as a playwright, whose gonzo Crime, or Emergency! (2009) mashed up absurdist storytelling and Bruce Springsteen songs, and whose loopy Fondly, Collette Richland (2015), written for the experimental group Elevator Repair Service, tied Jane Bowles and the Krampus myth together with a delicate strand of Buñuel. Her theater company, 7 Daughters of Eve, takes its name from Brian Sykes's book, which traces modern Europeans back to seven “clan mothers” whose DNA can be followed back to Mitochondrial Eve. Since Kempson founded it in 2015, she has focused her attention on making baroque, multilayered performances involving Feminist eldress-creators, little-s sibyls, and sacred witches. The only thing all 7 Daughters work must include is the participation of its Mitochondrial Sibyl, but she does return to some key collaborators. Chief among them is her frequent costume designer, the artist Suzanne Bocanegra, whose creations for the 12 Shouts are like a wandering gallery exhibit of top-notch fabric art. Found aprons loom large, as does a mix of heavily embroidered and thrift-rag textures. Indeed, recycling and repurposing are right at the center of the 12 Shouts, since the shows scramble together all kinds of shamanistic practices, from ancient pythonesses to Greek mourning rituals. Every element from the hats to the dramaturgy feels well-worn and lovingly handled—everything old is old again.

Sibyl Kempson/7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co. Sasquatch Rituals. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York City, 2018. Linda Mancini, Jessica Weinstein, Sarah Willis, Sibyl Kempson, Lindsay Hockaday, Maurina Lioce, Eleanor Hutchins, Laurena Alan. Photo: Paula Court.

This spring at The Kitchen, the 7 Daughters, which there numbered eight, performed Sasquatch Rituals, a play that draws on Kempson’s years of wilderness training, Bigfoot research, and, obviously, her cyclical program at the Whitney. It stands alone, but it also feels in some ways like the enlarged central panel in the 12 Shouts altarpiece. Occasionally Sasquatch Rituals recreated moments from a solstice celebration, and vague whisperings I’d once heard at the Whitney would suddenly reappear. “Kempsonism” requires you to look at every moment of her work in the light of her own extended attention; simply knowing she’s arcing a single show over three years changes the way you understand each of her seemingly “separate” details.

Before entering the theater, Kempson and the performance artist Linda Mancini prepare the audience with some key concepts. Kempson talks about “DNA as cordage” that ties us to one another; she references “forest vision,” which encourages careful looking and a widening of one’s peripheral awareness. Mancini rolls an apple, a reference to that old Trojan War–triggering Apple of Discord, and asks us to reject vanity. Inside the theater, as people find their seats, the ensemble of women in bright hunters’ stocking caps, insulated vests, aprons and headlamps chant quasi-liturgical questions about foods they can remember from childhood. “Does anyone remember the snack ‘Niblets’? I swear I ate them as a kid.” It’s dark, and even after several video screens start to flicker, the impression is of a space lit by firelight.

Sibyl Kempson/7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co. Sasquatch Rituals. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York City, 2018. Sarah Willis, Jessica Weinstein, Eleanor Hutchins, Lindsay Hockaday, Sibyl Kempson, Maurina Lioce, Laurena Alan. Photo: Paula Court.

This may seem like scattershot wackiness, but the show is pieced together as tightly as a quilt. Writing about Sasquatch Rituals, Kempson said, “Sometimes a witness will bring me to the place where her experience happened…Whatever has happened to them, it is always one of the most intense and profound and often most deeply disturbing experiences of their lives. I'm trying to think of what else there is in our current day and age in ‘regular life’ that will have that same kind of effect on people.” 12 Shouts is her attempt to create that effect. In a little over an hour, Kempson presents a collage-portrait of contemporary Bigfoot hunting. The all-female cast play various experts from the online community, who rig cameras that mysteriously cut out right before the beasts’ big reveal, contact the creatures psychically (“I’m laughing because they’re watching us right now”), or reminisce about the encounters that have changed their lives. These scenes are intercut with a reenactment of the 7 Daughters gang on a fraught arts retreat, trying to come up with a play about yeti. The manic energy derived from ping-ponging between these elements and wild musical numbers eventually builds into its own religious fever.

Kempson gives us both hilarious slapstick (like a brilliant scene in which middle school girls flip out over a Sasquatch sighting), and deeply charged rhapsodic fantasy (like a monologue by a woman who mates with—and then ecstatically bears the children of—a yeti-creature). Kempson also invites her ensemble, a rogue’s gallery of downtown performers (including Mancini, Lindsay Hockaday, Laurena Allan, Eleanor Hutchins and Jessica Weinstein) to contribute its own sweet goofiness. My favorite bit was Allan’s melodramatic presentation of the painting she made during the group’s retreat. For some reason, she does this while sobbing. “We did a lot of interpretive actor work!” She walks up and down the stairs in the audience, a blobby landscape held high over her head. “IT’S MY MEDITATION??! ON THE COLOR PURPLE?!?”

Sibyl Kempson/7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co., 12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens. Performance view. The Whitney Museum of American Art, March 2016–December 2018. Photo: Paula Court.

What’s serious and what’s silly are exactly the same thing for Kempson. Her writing voice is invariably comic; her dialogue feels as invigorating as being whacked with birch branches in a sauna. But her intentions burrow down to the root of humanity. In a long-ago email interview I did with Kempson when she was still deep in preparation for Sasquatch Rituals, she wrote about her interest in Bigfoot. “If it turns out there are big hairy beings watching us as we walk through the woods and on occasion revealing themselves and their presence to us—great. Or if it turns out we are making it all up—that it's a big mass hallucination that has gone on for hundreds and thousands of years as a collective and trackable pattern of imagined experience? Even better.” This “both-and” attitude towards reality stems from the way she’s simultaneously investigating perceptions and trying to help us widen our own; every 7 Daughters show is a lesson in peripheral vision. Kempson is one of the few experimental playwrights who uses non-linear structures and absurdist nutter-buttery to do concrete tasks. First, she wants to better understand our mental processes. Second, she wants to use that knowledge to break down the less useful human habits we’ve built up over the last many thousand years. Third, she demonstrates through contagious example the kind of wild maenad productivity that comes from abandoning so-called “dignity.”

Sibyl Kempson/7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co., 12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens. Performance view. The Whitney Museum of American Art, March 2016–December 2018. Photo: Paula Court.

Throughout her work, Kempson considers how and when we can hear the ancient voices, the pre-Christian, pre-anthropocentric, pre-patriarchal ones that tied us to the planet. Despite their many differences, her shows all emphasize the proper use of these goddess-given gifts. In the winter solstice, one celebrant defined grace as “using less strength than one has at one’s disposal.” In spring, a guide chanted the theme of the day: “A ship in harbor is safe, but it is not what she was built for.” Taken as a whole, the 12 Shouts and Sasquatch Rituals form a new mythology that warns against prodigality: don’t throw away what has been given to you, and treat the earth like a holy treasure. And there’s so much beauty we waste every day! In the final moment of Sasquatch Rituals, a giant beast comes striding out of the woods, but the women are busy dancing for the audience and don’t notice. The bit is hilarious, but I honestly can’t think of anything sadder. Imagine if you knew there was something magical happening but you didn’t go see. It would be like choosing not to open the best present under the tree.

Sibyl Kempson/7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co.’s Sasquatch Rituals was performed from April 24th to the 28th at The Kitchen in New York City. The most recent installment of 12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens took place on June 21st at 5:30 AM on a Harbor Lights Cruise Ship that sailed around the island of Manhattan.