Reinhabitory Theater

This is an improvisation guide for performing stories that come specifically from native northern California Pomo. Maidu, Karok and Pit River tribal traditions. The “coyote stories” feature human/animal characters and were told around fires during the rainy winter months for both entertainment and philosophical reference to human and planet events.

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The stories embody multi-species consciousness; human beings as such don’t have to dominate them to make a point about human behavior. Lizard, Coyote, Bluejay, Grizzly, and Mole talk, have wives and husbands, invent tools, play tricks on each other, discover  fire, go on ego trips, and make medicine. It is hardly a Disneyfied Bambi world that is described. Sexual references are common, out front, and broadly exaggerated. Mates often step out to have tumultuous affairs, usually with partners from an entirely different species. And the magic of Creation permeates every scene in every story. The planet vibrates in the Universe with all its simplicity and complexity. Characters babble inanities or proclaim heavy profundities. The stories twist to unexpected conclusions that leave you morally aware and yet absolutely free to do whatever you may choose.

Coyote stories” rank with or surpass Zen koans and Hassidic parables for stimulating illuminations into the nature of being. In the form of months-long serial epics, they present one of the richest literatures on the planet.

Judy Berg directed mime-dance-acting performances of a few of these stories around a fire in San Francisco’s Glen Canyon on the 1975 Winter Solstice and in a shellmound meadow near Buckeye Canyon on San Bruno Mountain the following Vernal Equinox.

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Performing “coyote stories” which come from an oral rather than a stage tradition, and attempting to convey their full revelatory possibilities for present-day audiences demands a different understanding and treatment of the material than Western theater employs. Aesop’s simplistic fables or Grimm’s horror stories are too limited in their  conception of both human beings and other species to serve as models. To do justice to “coyote stories”, a multi-species vision that gives implicit credence and equality for all living things has to be asserted. Audiences will have to be shown reasons to suspend whatever preconceptions they may have about a central place for humans in the biosphere, “animal tales” as kiddy-theater, or an imagined lack of sophistication in “primitive” consciousness. Presenting these stories must declare the reinstatement of human coexistence with other species.

Coyote stories” work on several simultaneous levels. First is the gut-and-grunt or visceral level; Badger farts and blows out the fire. Next is the level of individual personality expressed in a social contest; Bear becomes enraged at finding Coyote in bed with his wife. A third level involves interrelations of identity among creatures, a consciousness that floats between species; Lizard decides that humans will have hands like his. Finally, there is cosmological occurrence and the perpetual evolution of the Universe; Silver Fox and Coyote set out to make the world by singing. Performers will have to project all of these levels.

The people who originated the stories built all of those levels in and kept them working all the time. While reading them, apparently simple stories can suddenly shift to become very complex. Those with overtly deep themes are usually also laced with personal squabbles and off-hand pranks. Additional complications surrounded the original store-telling situation itself; Shining Bear might tell a Bear story to a Bear Clan member in a month when Bear was passing through the valley gathering elderberries.

The usual Western treatment of “folk material” doesn’t allow room for either the multi-species consciousness or the range of levels which exist in these stories.  Since they can invite comparison (depending on how they’re understood) with everything from Roadrunner Cartoons to the Book of Genesis, what should be the basis for projecting their simultaneous visceral, interpersonal, multi-species, and cosmological possibilities?

Karok religion gives an idea of what is in the minds of people who create “coyote stories”. Pikiawish, “fixing the world back up”, is an annual ritual observance held in autumn at the beginning of the Karok year. Underlying pikiawish is the conviction that pre-human spirits, or spirits so far back in the past that it doesn’t matter what distinct creature form they took, had once prescribed certain movements and role-identities that could be performed in tribal dances. Dancers become those Created Beings. The dances are intricate, precisely ordered, last several days, and as many as half the people (of all ages) in a village once performed them. Pikiawish is a powerful participatory event which can bring the highest resonance to Karok culture.

Original spirits. Forces from before the era of humans, and people could share their “way” and become them. Performers aren’t bound by normal historical time. They enact a history of all species.

Contemporary society goes from crisis to crisis bound in historical time with the belief that new technological solutions will keep things working. Karoks believed that the world was “fixed up” by observing the original creation of the Universe and continuing to do what had always been done. Everyone became very skilled at doing things the way they had always been done and should be done.

Reinhabitory theater performances of “coyote stories” needn’t attempt to imitate native Karok religion, but they should invoke a spirit of perpetual creation to show the interdependent relationship between humans beings and other species.

Karoks studied themselves in the same way that they observed other living things. That’s why their religion was a species history of their own and other species. Their view of themselves implicitly involved other species.

Performance of native religious dances tends to be formal and apparently repetitive. Not just repeated gestures, but whole patterns of movement that seem to go through thousand-year spaces. Cycles of endless time.

Reinhabitory theater should emulate that sense of movement.

Coyote stories” are apparently about animals with the attributes of humans, but in essence they are neither about specific animals nor people. They are about the consciousness of all living things in time. The sense of time that is revealed in tree rings, strata of rock, migrations of salmon, annual blossoming and fruiting of plants. Reinhabitory performers must create the sense of that which lives from generation to generation and is immutable.

The stories use animal characters so the attributes of each should be clearly and naturally portrayed, but they should exist in a timeless space where gestures and movements represent a nearly genetic portrayal. Each role should be a door which the actor opens to permit us to tumble back thousands of year in the history of that species. Repeated gestures, repeated postures and repeated sounds that move through thousand-year cycles. Repetitions which are supported by the story line and by the fact that the principal phenomena of life occur over and over again.

Even the Roadrunner Cartoon element in a story must be seen to have a cosmological quality.

Reinhabitory theater should present both animal realism and the history of our species looking at other species. “Coyote stories” provide the material to lead the audience onto interdependent common ground.

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Reprinted from Reinhabiting a Separate Country: a Bioregional Anthology of Northern California, Planet Drum Foundation, 1978, p. 186-191 © Peter Berg & Planet Drum Foundation

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