History, imagination intersect in new work

‘Not What Happened’ recreates a fragment of time as imagined by a playwright and a photographer

BRATTLEBORO — After a year of digging into archives, exploring cemeteries and cellar holes, and immersing himself in the details of 19th century rural life through a year-long residency with Vermont Performance Lab, Ain Gordon returns to Southern Vermont with his newest theater work.

VPL presents “Not What Happened” on June 14 and 15 at 8 p.m., New England Youth Theater, 100 Flat St., Brattleboro.

This new theater work by Gordon, a three-time Obie Award-winning theater artist, features images created by rural documentary photo artist Forrest Holzapfel of Marlboro.

Moreover, in collaboration with VPL, the Catherine Dianich Gallery on Main Street in Brattleboro is presenting Holzapfel's two dozen or so photographs for the show in a one-man exhibit, “The Labors of Silence,” until July 26.

“Not What Happened” is a drama with only two characters, and those two separated by centuries: In 1804 a woman in New England bakes bread in a cookhouse as she reminisces on her life; in the present, a historical animator tries to reenact what her life would have been like.

VPL calls it “a contrapuntal duet for two people who can't meet.” The work matters as the subject is largely written out of history, Gordon says.

Gordon is a New York City-based American playwright, director, and actor whose work often deals with the interstices of history, focusing on people and events that are often overlooked or marginalized in “official” histories. His style combines elements of traditional playwriting with aspects of performance art.

Gordon began writing and directing for the stage in 1985. In 1992, he became co-director of the Pick Up Performance Company, which his father, choreographer and director David Gordon, founded in 1971 and incorporated in 1978.

The younger Gordon was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in playwriting in 1998. It was here that he gained recognition for his abiding subject: marginalized and forgotten history, and the invisible players who inhabit that space, developing a blend of historical fact, imagined truth, and complete fiction that continues to dominate his work.

A match made for art

According to Holzapfel, the collaboration came about after Sara Coffey, VPL artistic director, put the two together to develop the theater piece; Gordon had needed the expertise of a local historian.

It was in a Marlboro College seminar course, “Presence of the Past,” where Gordon and Holzapfel sifted through archival material and walked the rural landscape of Windham County. They developed not just a scholarly, but an artistic collaboration, Holzapfel says.

For “Not What Happened,” Holzapfel developed complex, historically inflected photographic images integral to the visual design of the performance work.

Holzapfel is a local historian who both resides in and centers his work on his hometown of Marlboro. A 1997 graduate of Bard College's photography program, Holzapfel has spent the past decade photographing, collecting stories, and interviewing his fellow townspeople in a tradition of small-town photography reaching back to the early 1900s.

He is a recipient of numerous grants and awards from the Vermont Humanities Council, Vermont Arts Council, and the Vermont Folklife Center.

“Ain and I spent months together going through many local historical societies in the area,” said Holzapfel. “We tried to get the feeling of what a woman in New England would have been like in 1803 or 1804, someone of whom we really have no historical documentation.”

As part of their research, Gordon and Holzapfel studied domestic artifacts at the museum of the historic village of Old Deerfield, Mass. There they took a class in hearth cooking, trying as best they could to get the rhythm and detail of the living history.

“For 'Not What Happened,' I made a series of photographs of things one would see in everyday life in 1804,” Holzapfel says. “It was an interesting task because there were no photographs at the time to guide me. For the stage production, we will blow up six or seven of these as backdrops to the drama, what we are calling 'photographic contemplations.'”

It would be misleading to contend that “Not What Happened” is a traditional historical reenactment of the past. Gordon's unique approach to developing new work is a deep investigation into “place.”

Southeastern Vermont as springboard

Gordon used the human history, natural history and present-day life of several southeastern Vermont villages as a springboard for this new evening-length work that explores the politics and ambiguities of our relationship to our past.

“Not What Happened” is a work that considers the implications of who gets written into the historical record and who gets forgotten.

As Gordon expounds, “History is the fictive engine which makes a storyline out of real life. There never is the full story, but history tells select stories to make something traceable.”

He said he felt compelled to bring to life this New England woman in “Not What Happened” because, in a lot of ways, he had never done anything like this before. Unlike much of his other historical works, this story takes place in a small rural town and in a non-documented past.

“It is a challenge because there you find find less man-made evidence for tracking the story,” he says. “I am attracted to stories which have been overlooked and have left little traceable evidence. I like the small figures on the edge of history's giant paintings.”

Yet “Not What Happened” is not abstruse intellectual theory. Rather, it is a compelling drama with a definite narrative. Gordon says, “In all my works there is a clear story. I want people drawn into the canvas I am creating.”

Gordon still considers “Not What Happened” a work in progress. An earlier version was performed at Mass MOCA in North Adams, Mass., last year to great acclaim, and the piece will have an official premiere this September at the Flynn Center in Burlington.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates