On a recent Saturday afternoon, 17 young theater artists from Blood Ensemble converged on a century-old barn outside Marysville, roughly 35 miles north of Seattle. They were there to rehearse their Barn Show, a five-act fantasia set between 1905 and 2014, inspired by the barn itself, the surrounding acreage, and the families who've lived on that land since it was first cleared and homesteaded in the late 1800s.
A few ensemble members had arrived earlier to help clear trails with machetes and lawn mowers, as well as do their "moments" homework—wandering around the property and finding actions or gestures, which might or might not make it into the show, to share with the rest of the group. On the car ride up to the barn, director Emily Harvey explained that some members of the company had studied this "moment work" in a monthlong intensive with Moisés Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Project—best known for The Laramie Project—a few years ago. Using this method, Blood Ensemble builds its shows on a constellation of moments, then writes the plot to connect the dots between those images. "It's a horizontal structure," Harvey said from the backseat of the car driving up Interstate 5. "Ideally, words, images, sound, design, and even the program all have the same importance." But for this show, the barn itself—built of cedar boards and framed with the alder saplings that sprung up after the land was logged for the first time—is clearly the dominant element.
Blood Ensemble is used to making shows in nontheatrical spaces. Two years ago, they performed Nevermore, a macabre riff on the life and imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, in a small basement room on Capitol Hill with the audience sitting around its perimeter, just an arm's length from the dark—and dimly lit—action. The show had a youthful and occasionally over-the-top energy, but was genuinely frightening, saturating the claustrophobic space with sex, neurosis, and death. "We all have other theatrical projects," Harvey said, "but Blood Ensemble is for the work we feel like we have to make. And I guess a lot of us have an interest in horror."
Once Harvey and codirector Zack Hewell arrived, the company went through a brief warm-up and got to work sharing their moments. One actor walked up a mown pathway to what would be the family graveyard, prostrated herself with a vaguely sorrowful expression, and put her ear to the ground, as if listening for transmissions from the dead. Another actor whistled cheerfully as he picked up a plastic watering can and tended to a desiccated sunflower stalk that was probably 10 feet tall. ("I'd like to see him dump an obscene amount of water on it," one company member said after he'd finished. Someone else noticed that it echoed another moment in which a character pours out a watering can full of sand: "It's like 'nothing grows here.'") A third actor reclined in a deep but narrow ditch, hidden from view, until she lifted a Nalgene water bottle as if it were a lantern, stood slowly, and drifted toward the barn like an oblivious ghost.
The innocence of youth and the dread of loss seemed to be the centers of gravity around which Barn Show was congealing: giggling kids sneaking cigarettes in an alder grove, young lovers conspiring behind a blackberry patch, and adults—including a turn-of-the-century preacher—anguished by the deaths and disappearances of their loved ones.
There is some regional lore for Blood Ensemble to draw on: The area is called Whiskey Ridge because it was favored by moonshiners, artifacts including Chinese porcelain and a case that once held an opium scale have been dug up nearby, and Gail Johnson (who has lived on the property all his life) says he and his wife, Terry, have a resident ghost in their old house, just a few steps from the barn. But, Gail emphasizes, the chaotic and self-immolating characters in Barn Show are not directly based on his family. "I don't think a play about us raising chickens and weeding the garden would be that interesting for the audiences these kids usually draw," he said. "They're just inspired by the barn's rustic-ness, I guess."
Harvey said Blood Ensemble found the Johnsons after posting an ad on Craigslist—"Crazy art kids need barn," as she described it—and the family invited the company to visit the property. The setting was gorgeous, in that haunted and gothic way peculiar to many Northwest landscapes, and the ensemble envisioned an evening-length show during which they'd bus up audiences from Seattle, feed them, and guide them around the property, showing them glimpses from a tumultuous family mythology stretching across 109 years.
Barn Show, like the land itself, has its paranormal moments. After running a few short scenes in different sites around the property—including one next to a large fallen tree featuring present-day cousins, who share a subtle sexual charge, talking about feathers growing out of their skin—Blood Ensemble rehearsed the opening scene. It begins in the barn with a trickster character named Calvin making love to a young woman named Ada (who is destined to become a ghost) before addressing the audience. "Welcome to my haunt," he says. "All you people are curious creatures. You are so set on gaining things, acquiring possessions, and yet, what do you have to show for it? Nothing of consequence. Nothing that you build lasts. This barn will stand for over a hundred years, and you think this an accomplishment? When it stands next to trees that are so much older? For you, I suppose, maybe it is. But you should ask yourself—why?"
After breaking into smaller groups to work on scenes, the company reassembled in the barn to rehearse act three, a complicated moment in which the audience walks through three parties (one in 1905, one in 1952, and one in 2014) happening simultaneously. There was some dancing, some music, a marriage proposal, a forlorn sermon, and a few climatic fights. The actors ran back and forth across the floorboards, which bent and rebounded under their footfalls.
Afterward, Gail Johnson said the barn floor was holding up well despite seeing more traffic than it has in many years. "It's all handmade, hand-split timber with granite rocks—the glacier stopped here, so there's granite all over the property," he said. "In one of their acts, they have 16 people in there, raising hell and dancing, so we have to go in there and refasten the boards from time to time. I don't think it's going to break. I guess the only reason that barn is still there after 100 years is because it has some holes and gaps in it, so it's flexible—it just moves around a lot. It's alive, you might say."
The Johnsons are in the process of selling the property and hope to move to Hawaii before long. Barn Show may be a last hurrah for a structure that, as Gail put it, has seen "a lot of history."
"My mother, Vera, would've loved to see all the life in the barn right now, to see those kids," he said. "She would've loved to see the show."
Barn Show runs July 11–Aug 2. For details, see bloodensemble.org.