When Sibyl Kempson begins her Performance Writing classes at Sarah Lawrence University, she asks her students to dig back into their lives and find the experiences from their childhood that brought them to that class with her on that day. But she only finally discovered her own. When the playwright was growing up in suburban Pequannock, New Jersey, she had a neighbor named Mr. Lonsky. Mr. Lonsky worked in special effects for film, and every Halloween he would go all-out on decorations, building structures on his front lawn from sticks and cobwebs, and answering the door, under extensive makeup, as a mummy, or a witch, or Frankenstein’s Monster, or any number of other spooky creations, performing for all the neighborhood kids.
“There was this monster that you knew from television, and suddenly there it was right in front of you,” she remembers. “It was a total transformation.” It was so exciting, she remembers, to wonder whether it actually was Mr. Lonsky under there. As a kid, it was impossible to tell. “It was my favorite thing. It was such a gift to us.” That draw, towards transcendence and transformation, awe and fear and thrill, has populated all of her work since.
This Saturday, October 14 will see the outdoor debut of Kempson’s newest work, Sasquatch Rituals, at the Mount Tremper Arts Center near Phoenicia. Eight performers, all women, will conduct rituals written by Kempson all throughout the Mount Tremper campus, singing songs composed by Julie LaMendola to choreography by Linda Mancini. “I feel like I am doing with my life what I was as a kid – plus a lot of administrative work,” she laughs.
Though Kempson says that she only fell deeply into Bigfoot lore in recent years, she connects it to experiences that have followed her throughout her life. As a child in suburban New Jersey, she recalls feeling watched while out in the woods, and she would watch Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of with her father, a science teacher, and get frightened by episodes on the Sasquatch and other cryptozoological phenomena. “There was always the sense that there’s something out there that no one’s really acknowledging,” she remembers.
As she grew up and began working in experimental theater and dance, both as a performer and a writer, she reached back to that earlier feeling for her “creative engine – that stuff that we don’t really have all that much information on.” She began to explore these liminal spaces between the material and the immaterial, the empirical and the experiential, with various theater troupes and in plays like Crime and Emergency and The Securely Conferred, Vouchsafed Keepsakes of Maery S.
The latter served both as a public blooming of her Bigfoot enthusiasm, as well as a companion piece for Sasquatch Rituals. In that play, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein’s Monster travel from Europe to America, and he takes on the role of the Sasquatch. While doing research for that play, as well as the earlier, yeti-tangential From the Pigpile: Requisite Gesture(s) of Narrow Approach, Kempson came upon the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, the BFRO, whose online forums were packed full of individual Bigfoot sightings. She ended up reading hundreds of accounts, staying up late into the night to mainline them. “I couldn’t stop reading them,” she says. “They scared the crap out of me.”
While Kempson doesn’t feel comfortable declaring the truth of Bigfoot one way or another (“I’m not going to come out in the newspaper and say it,” she laughs), she remained fascinated by how terrifying and ultimately profound these reported experiences invariably were. “People feel like they’re crazy; it defies everything they’ve ever been told. They can’t get proof and they’ve been trying for 25 or 30 years and it constantly eludes them. I love it!”
By following the patterns contained within the BFRO sightings, the almost-ritualistic form that they seem to take, she believes there is something deeply tied to the human condition in the Bigfoot phenomenon. “Whether you can’t look up and see it or touch it,” she says, “it’s there. It’s been with us for a long time.” Kempson integrated these Bigfoot testimonials into Maery S., using them to tell the story of Shelley’s relationship to her own creativity as personified in the Monster and, eventually, Bigfoot.
“I’m not a person who needs proof,” she says. “When I go into the woods I don’t bring a video camera; I don’t need a picture.” She recalls strange screams and crashes as well as what is known to BFRs as “eyeshine,” whereby eyelike points will glow in the darkness. Once, while camping, she woke up in the night to what appeared to be something grabbing her toe through the tent wall, a hazy experience that her dog slept straight through. It’s spooky, all right, but Kempson really isn’t interested in a definite conclusion. “I don’t know who or what did it,” she laughs, “but I know something grabbed my toe.”
So that’s the Sasquatch. But what about the Ritual?
“Ritual is something that we don’t have in the same way that a lot of [other] cultures do,” she says. “A lot of times it’s about opening a veil that normally hangs over our belief system and our everyday perception. A culture that lives more traditionally and closer to nature acknowledges that there are a lot of things that exist that we can’t perceive, that our human perception can only go so far.” Kempson believes that ritual removes that veil, exposing the individual and the collective to sensations and realities that, were they to do so on a daily basis, would leave us unable to function.
She references the Hopi tradition of bifurcating the world into the Manifest and the Manifesting: “what we can see and touch and prove…and that which is coming into being.” “We don’t have an opportunity to experience that,” Kempson says, “that’s acceptable within our culture.” Her art can serve as one such outlet, if those present want it to be. She wants to take experiences that might be unsettling or even terrifying and transform them into moments of joy and release.
After the debut of Maery S., Kempson used all this excess Bigfoot ephemera as the foundation for further artistic experimentation. She and other women began to meet out in the woods to work on something “shamanic,” a “reciprocal” art that “gave something back to the world around us.” Transmuting that initial fear into something more bracing but also more liberating, she took the Sasquatch as “a protective embodiment of the land and the deeper meaning of our relationship to it.”
Sasquatch Rituals is not her first piece dealing with this rending of the physical to get at the spiritual. 12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens, a collaboration with the scholar Thomas Riccio, will be held at the Whitney Museum of American Art every Solstice and Equinox until December 2018, incorporating Riccio’s knowledge of indigenous cultural traditions and art into a greater base framework of ritual. She wants to emphasize that these greater human similarities, no matter an audience’s origins, allow those watching to “go back into our own cultures, our own cellular makeup,” and “affirm our existence and give us a deeper role in our communities.”
These principles pervade Kempson’s 7 Daughters of Eve Thtr and Perf Company, a group that she founded in 2015. The company “unearths and contemplates – in contexts of live performance, ritual and installation – places in human and non-human history where science, religion and feminism intersect.” According to Kempson, there was another, simpler reason: “I had an idea for the piece, and I wanted to start bossing people around. But you can’t do that when it’s not your own company!”
But even this has begun to change. With Sasquatch Rituals, some of the other performers began to step up and contribute writing: something about which Kempson is very excited. They first met in October 2016 to work on the piece at the invitation of Mount Tremper Arts artistic director Mathew Pokoik. Kempson explained what moved the piece, and Pokoik found it irresistible.
Kempson and her performers met several more times to create a piece tailored specifically to the property and landscape – climbing up Mount Tremper itself, camping in the woods at night and visiting sites where local residents had reported Bigfoot sightings. Kempson became interested in the Catskills as a performance site after learning about its high rate of alleged Bigfoot sightings.
Ultimately, she hopes to explore how we see the world around us. That a large hairy gigantopedal ape species could be living among us is an exciting prospect for Kempson, even if she won’t cop to believing it through and through. “How exciting is that,” she enthuses, “that we still have this phenomenon out there that can’t be explained? Even if it’s a mass hallucination of some kind, it’s even better.”
As a ritual for a brief time opens a channel between the material and the immaterial, the Bigfoot phenomenon possesses both physical and psychological qualities. Between the individual and the collective, the human and the environment, these are the linkages that Kempson hopes to open up with her work. The Sasquatch is just garnish. “If there’s a larger meaning in the piece,” she says, “then this is it: that we’re far more connected to our surroundings than we think we are.”