Making Legible the Illegible: Philip Wesley Gates’s TERMINER

Looking back to the Salem witch trials

Jan 7, 2020 · 7 min read
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By David Bernabo

Recital continues our partnership with the New Hazlett Theater by publishing a preview and an editorially-independent review for the five performances in the 2019–20 CSA Performance Series season.

Throughout the season, Recital is meeting with each of the artists to bring you a brief profile of them and their work in the days before their opening performance. We will publish a considered review or a post-show discussion with the artists for each performance, developed from post-show discussions with a consistent panel of local experts in related disciplines.

“How do we make a legible experience about the illegibility of our experience?” That’s the question interdisciplinary artist Philip Wesley Gates asks of their new work TERMINER, premiering as part of New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series on February 6 and 7.

We are sitting inside a fake living room in the Detective Building in East Liberty. Technically, this room is part of Schoolhouse, the lighting and homewares company that recently planted its East Coast location in Pittsburgh. Twenty or so aesthetically-pleasing lights hang above our lived-in seats. It’s a suitably absurd setting to discuss Gates’s new theatrical work, which takes a familiar but superficially-known historical event — the Salem witch trials — and fractures it, revealing complex agendas and warped parallels to current-day politics and power dynamics.

TERMINER takes its name from “Oyer and Terminer,” the name of the court set up for the Salem witch trials. “Oyer and Terminer” translates to “to hear and determine.” TERMINER will be presented as a ritual performed in real time. The work uses collaged fragments of language ripped from historical legal documents and trial transcripts. There will be elements of movement as two of the performers are studied in Butoh. And spoiler: there is use of artificial intelligence.

Much of how the piece will look and feel will be decided in the rehearsals happening this month. “I work by creating scores or parameters and letting the performers bring themselves into those structures,” says Gates. “I’ll have clear ideas about how it unfolds, what the signposts are, and what kinds of texts go in what order. Then within that, there is wiggle room for the performers. So, I’m making a container and it’s my job to make sure that the container is as solid as possible and not leaky and full of cracks or cobbled together. Then, the performers and designers can fill the container.”

Gates’s interest in theater and performance started early. “When I was a little kid, I would put on plays and ballets with my stuffed animals. So, my parents said oh yeah, of course, you’ve always been a director even before I had a formal interest in theater.” In high school, they played clarinet, had an interest in films, and performed in high school plays. The small liberal arts environment of Bowdoin College allowed Gates to perform in theatrical productions.

“In my 20s, I was living in New York. I started a small company and started making my own work, because I didn’t really know anyone or know how to play the game to get jobs,” says Gates. “I thought, I guess I’ll just have to do it myself. I created a piece from [the work] of this poet James Tate. He was a contemporary of John Ashbery. That was the first time that I made my own thing instead of working with an established script. It felt really fulfilling.”

Gates’s writing is more collage than script writing, a result of thorough research efforts. “I’ve never been a writer in terms of writing my own plays or an original script — writing dialogue is not a strength that I have. I’ve developed more of a collage practice using found texts, taking texts from non-theatrical literary sources, poems, journals.”

One such research source unlocked the key to how Gates would structure TERMINER. “When you look at all these trial transcripts, you can see four major voices in the courtrooms: the authorities, the accused, the afflicted girls who are the accusers, and the congregation — the very vocal townspeople. So, I have three performers and three primary archetypes — the authority, the accused, and the afflicted.”

Each of the three characters will essentially act as a vessel for each of the three archetypes, emphasizing the idea of the archetype as a systemic role, as opposed to a personal role.

As for the congregation, Gates is looking to us, the audience.

“It’s important to me that the audience feels present and implicated in the work. I try to bring the audience’s attention to their embodied existence with all these other people and to think about the theater as a communal space. So, I’m interested in bringing the audience into the piece more intentionally but also respectfully.”

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Photography from Gates’s recent piece NEAREST NEIGHBORS. Photo by Beth Bardis.

The Salem witch trials are a topic that most people have a cursory knowledge of. A very simplified summary of events goes like Between February 1692 and May 1693, hearings and prosecutions were conducted in Massachusetts that resulted in 200 accusations of witchcraft and 19 executions by hanging.

“Part of what interested me about this project was getting beyond the culturally-received ideas that we have about Salem from texts like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible,” says Gates. “So I’ve been making an effort to read contemporary women’s accounts. Facilitating a second look or a different angle on a thing that we all don’t look at because we think we know it — that’s of interest to me. I’m interested in looking at systems, particularly systems of power.”

The term “witch-hunt” has had a resurgence in pop culture with aspiring war criminal Donald Trump’s daily tweeting of his alleged victimization via the impeachment trials.

“In contemporary politics, it often gets used by people who are in power to talk about ways in which they are being held to account, which is hilarious and totally historically backwards,” says Gates. ”Historically, a witch-hunt was people in power finding ways to exert that power over communities that were already marginalized. The power vector is totally upside down in the way its being used now.”

Gates found another parallel between the Salem witch trials and today’s surge of youth-driven activism. “The accusers were mostly between the ages of 10 and 20, mostly female and often servants. In terms of class and gender and age, in that time, they were not expected to make any noise at all, and then they suddenly found themselves in positions where huge consequential decisions in people’s lives were hanging on what they had to say. They seized the moment to speak up. Historically, they got a bad rap, because, obviously, [the accused] weren’t witches and they were executed in vain. But, I’m interested in doing kind of a queer, feminist reclamation of those young women. A) They are not responsible for killing anybody. It’s the judges and the legal system that actually executed people and B) there’s something amazing about this way that they made noise inside of a really oppressive society. A bunch of the men accused of witchcraft were known to beat their wives and servants. There are a lot of agendas and crosscurrents of motivation that were at work.”

“How do you talk about complexity and the inability to pinpoint clear cause and effect inside of these systems?” continues Gates. “You can’t just turn it upside down and say, actually, the young people were the heroes, because their parents were definitely using them as mouthpieces to make accusations against people that they had land disputes with. There’s no one narrative. And we’re currently in a political moment where there is an urge to simplify. But you can’t look at it, there’s too much. The only way to look at it is through systems literacy, being aware of the power dynamics at work and how they are flowing through the moment. So, that’s ultimately what this piece is trying to do. How do we make a legible experience about the illegibility of our experience?”

With a hard-to-answer central question, a script collaged from multiple sources, complicated subject matter, and a series of parallels to current day politics but all flipped out of joint, TERMINER is an ambitious experiment. I should also mention that an artificial intelligence text generator will be contributing to the complication by writing its own text about Salem. But this is exactly the type of work that the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series encourages and fosters — work that experiments with form and structure, work that finds new ways to tell stories, and work that uses ingenuity to bring the lessons on the stage into our lives outside the theater.

One more question. Will it be at all funny?

“It has the potential to be a real downer and I’ve very aware of that. Humor is a very important tool. Somehow something will be funny.”

Cast/production team: Janine Paulson (assistant director), Jules Gill-Peterson (dramaturg), Sasha Schwartz (set design), Lindsay Tejan (costume design), Ethan Hollinger (lighting design), Aaron Landgraf (sound design), Nico Zevallos (programmer), Rachel Lange (performer), Moriah Ella Mason (perfomer), Leif Sudorn (performer & facilitator), Ariel Xiu (performer), Maggie McDermott (youth chorus), Win Nunley (youth chorus)

TERMINER premieres on Thursday, February 6 with a second performance on Friday, February 7, 8PM at the New Hazlett Theater. Buy tickets here or at the door. 6 Allegheny Square E, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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