Ain Gordon, three-time Obie Award-winner, premieres his one-woman play, A Disaster Begins, at DiverseWorks this weekend, which chronicles the story behind the story of the 1900 Galveston flood. Gordon serves as co-director of the Pick-Up Performance Co(S.), artist-in-residence at the Center for Creative Research and a core writer of the Playwright's Center in Minneapolis. The New York-based playwright popped by for a quick chat.
29-95: What brought you to Galveston's great storm?
Ain Gordon: My interest began in the disaster book industry, which preceded silent films. The American public couldn't get these gory details any other way. I was initially thinking of doing a story about the San Francisco earthquake, but then I found a copy of Muriel Halstead's novel, The Galveston Flood, in a flea market for $3 with the cover ripped off. In Halstead I found a woman I could write about.
29-95: So what happened to the disaster book industry?
AG: It crashed.
29-95: Your work is new to Houston audiences. What kind of stories do you want to tell?
AG: Biting, forgotten and marginalized stories that America doesn't want to tell. There are complicated truths of the 1900 storm. It was the worst natural disaster in American history. It's shockingly un-present in our history.
29-95: We are a culture of amnesia.
AG: The storm is a platform for discussing America's penchant for forgetting wars and storms, then we do it all again.
29-95: Set up the scene for us.
AG: Muriel Halstead (played by Veanne Cox) finds herself in middle age and at the disaster book industry's low-end lecture circuit, where she is to deliver a talk on the Galveston flood. She sets out to give a perfectly normal lecture until she finds herself unable to accept that complacency, wanting something else, to tell all the topical tentacles, to tell the real truth of the flood, to include her personal disaster within the natural one. It's as much a story about how this story gets told and how she comes to write this book, which eventually gets downgraded with a sensationalist cover. Where does a disaster begin?
29-95: Floods wash things up. Look at Katrina, even Ike. What did the 1900 flood wash up?
AG: We were in the midst of the falsely declared Spanish American war, like Iraq, so we were busy looking at disasters somewhere else ignoring the one on our shores. She gives a personalized history of disappointed men who wanted to build in places that were unsustainable.
29-95: Tell me about it. Houston is one big and ever expanding flood plane. How did your play end up opening here to Houston, of all hurricane prone places, never mind its proximity to Galveston?
AG: Sixto Wagan (DiverseWorks co-director) came to a reading. He came up to me immediately afterwards to say he wanted to bring it to Houston.
29-95: When you lose 1/3 of a city's population like Galveston did, the disaster has an enormous longevity and defines the city. And here we are at the anniversary of Ike. What are your thoughts about the timing of your play?
AG: I have fears. There's no blame being laid out, it's an American cycle. Can we get off that cycle?
29-95: How did your path cross with Veanne Cox, who plays the lead character in your one-woman show? She was terrific in Caroline or Change on Broadway.
AG: I've encountered Veanne over the years; she did a reading of a play of mine, and I loved her in it. I always wanted to work with her, so she was at the top of my list for the part. She's an aggressively smart actress who is going to chew up the many things the character is thinking.
29-95: Since I hark from the dance world, you are not going to get out of talking about your famous father, David Gordon, one of my all-time favorite dance theater artists. How did growing up in and around dance shape your approach?
AG: Certainly there's an influence from both my parents, in that I am more interested in character and people and much less interested in story. Dancers have an emotive story, you have the narrative implication, the non-linear story. That is from the dance world.
DiverseWorks presents A Disaster Begins by Ain Gordon, A Pick Up Performance Co (S.) production co-commissioned by DiverseWorks. 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at DiverseWorks. Every performance is pay what you want.