Long before 9/11, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, The Great Storm of 1900 in Galveston, Texas destroyed the city and claimed 8000 lives. Fascinated by similar responses to the two tragedies, Matthew Earnest, artistic director of deep ellum ensemble, created Doctor Tedrows Last Breath, a multi-disciplinary piece that ran to raves in Dallas in 2003, and has its New York premiere on August 4th.
Being from Texas, I always had the mythology of The Great Storm in my coding, Earnest explains. In the aftermath of 9/11, I kept going back to this storm in my mind. I thought about the people, about their emotions and experiences. Then sometime in 2002, I saw a bestseller about the same event by Erik Larson - and things just took off from there.
Earnest, who founded deep ellum in 1995, with dual intentions of doing original work to contribute to the world canon, and touring that work internationally, wrote the text for Doctor Tedrows Last Breath after major research, which included letters, oral documents and photographs of the Galveston disaster.
There was also weather information in books regarding the storm, said. the director. Some from local weatherman Isaac Kline. Plus, there were survivor stories, which I mixed in with some 9/11 feel and texture. I dont try to link these two events themselves, but the afterward. What happens after that kind of tragedy? Whats in peoples minds? Thats what this piece is actually about.
According to Earnest, hes fictionalized everything, and structured it like a Greek tragedy, complete with a chorus (people who drowned in the storm), original music by resident composer, Joseph Troski and choreography by Tina Fehlandt of Mark Morris Dance Group.
We engage in an on-going dialogue with the weatherman, Earnest said, and the main issue of the play is, how could such a thing happen. I remember after 9/11, someone saying, How do religious leaders justify something like this? It brings up the question of order versus the sense of a chaotic world. This is definitely a drama, but surprisingly, with a lot of laughs. And since were a multi-disciplinary company, we use all kinds of elements here.
A sand-covered stage makes up the set for Dr. Tedrows Last Breath. Dr. Tedrow, the weatherman, is dead and haunting the beach, unable to reconcile his view of an ordered cosmos with the fact that he and his wife were killed by this storm that wasnt supposed to hit. The piece moves forward with text and music, but time is tangled-bending back and forth. The music is a requiem in five movements, each one plotting a storm point, and video projections enhance the action of the play.
This is the second in a trilogy were making about the reconstruction of Western civilization, said Earnest. I write for people in my company, so its much easier than writing without anyone special in mind. The challenge for us is about raising money in troubled times. But in the end, if people are moved, its all worth it. Id like them to see a celebration of courage, and if theyve had dogmatic views of how things work in the world, they might begin to entertain something else. There always will be violence, but I think reacting to the violence is what we can work on. Thats really our motif - putting it all back together.