"Rat bites and solar snafus: Missoula Oblongata’s Donna Sellinger"
A.V. Club Chicago Q&A with avant garde theater group Missoula Oblongata. First published February 2011.
Missoula Oblongata’s Donna Sellinger takes D.I.Y. super seriously. Along with Madeline Ffitch and Sarah Lowry, she makes anarchistic theater experiences by creating shadow puppets, constructing sets from burned out homes, and writing her own plays. Here, The A.V. Club caught up with Sellinger before Missoula Oblongata’s show tonight at Ball Hall (1621 N. Kedzie) to talk about performing in glass-ridden parking lots and abandoned rock quarries, among other places.
The A.V. Club: Can you give a quick run-down of what Clamlump is about?
Donna Sellinger: Clamlump is about this kid named Clamlump who lives in this boarded-up stadium and has these friends, a cassowary—this type of bird—and a traveling salesman.
Clamlump’s dream is to become a stand-up comedian. Together, they all try to escape the stadium. It’s our usual thing where there’s a lot of puppetry—an entire interactive set with a ton of junk and live music. The performers operate all the stuff on stage. It’s a good time.
AVC: Where do you find the materials for the scenery and props?
DS: We dumpster a lot of it at construction dumpsters, thrift stores, yard sales, free piles, all kinds of stuff.
One time our friend’s house burned down. No one was hurt or anything, and it was right about when we were about to make a set. Our entire set ended up being salvaged materials from the fire.
AVC: You guys write everything, perform everything, and pretty much do it all yourself, right?
DS: Yeah. Madeline Ffitch and I write the plays together. Then, Madeline, Sarah Lowry, and I get together. The three of us will design all the sets, puppets, and everything.
Travis, our musician, writes the music. Then, we all just operate everything together.
AVC: Have you ever had any weird mishaps or strange things happen while you all were on stage?
DS: One time we did this play on our first tour and were performing outside at this vacant lot, and there was all this glass on the ground. There was this one song about how all of these animals were starting to go crazy and the end of the world was coming. In the middle of the song, a real live rat actually bit somebody in the audience.
Everyone totally freaked out, and we kind of had to stop. But [our musician] worked it in, too, saying, “See that’s what I’m talking about ladies and gentleman.” Some people were kind of far away and thought it was supposed to be part of the show.
AVC: Does that qualify as the weirdest place you’ve performed, or is there somewhere else that was weirder?
DS: We perform in some pretty obscure places. We perform in peoples’ living rooms, their backyards, post offices.
One time we performed on this farm and had an outdoor stage set-up. It was really beautiful, but everything on the farm was solar powered. So, right before the show, the guy who ran the farm said, “Hey, so, I really hope we can get through your whole play because the wattage that you’re using is more power than our entire farm uses in a day.”
We were a little embarrassed, but it worked out. We also did a show at a giant rock quarry once.
AVC: Missoula Oblongata is essentially portable; you can go any place. Is that the idea? Why was that important for the performances?
DS: That is a huge part of why we do things the way we do. It’s important for us to be able to perform anywhere, because most theater in this country is really inaccessible to people with low incomes or those who don’t live in a metropolitan area.
Traditionally, in a lot of cultures, theater has been a populist medium. For whatever reason, a lot of the theater being made [today] is irrelevant or, dare I say, boring. The tickets are really expensive.
Theaters aren’t places that young or poor people feel comfortable going. For us, we want to excite people and counter the effects of mass media. We’re showing that art is an exciting, possible, and accessible thing.
A lot of people care about live music, and that’s great, but it’s not the only thing. There are many things live art can do. It can touch people.
AVC: Being able to write, being able to do the scenery, construct all of it—that takes skill to master. How did you learn all of these facets of theater?
DS: We’re always working on it. When we made our first show, we were much more limited.
Madeline and I both did sewing growing up, and we were good with small craft gear, like glue guns. In terms of carpentry, welding, or doing electrical work, that wasn’t something we had from the beginning.
It really was a matter of asking friends to teach us how to do things, asking for help, talking to the people at the hardware store. We’ve been a company for five years, and now we have these carpentry skills; we can use power tools and build things that are structurally sound.
AVC: Usually, when there’s any type of creative thing, you have one group of people that does one set of tasks, one that does another…
DS: People can get intimidated by learning technical things like [what we do]. We started the company as young women, and, a lot of times, you have to ask your friends who are guys or whatever, because they happen to have those skills, or the people at the hardware store. And they’ll ask, “Why do you want to build a six-foot-high bed that’s not to standard size?”
It’s empowering to learn how to even do one or two things. Skills beget other skills. It’s pretty simple stuff, it’s just a matter of empowering yourself to do it. It’s not impossible or inaccessible. It’s actually pretty fun.
AVC: Your troupe name is pretty fun as well. Is there some kind of back-story to where it came from, aside from just living in Missoula?
DS: It’s not really very exciting. We were living in Missoula. Madeline had been living there, and I moved there to start the company. I wanted to put on this little production of Macbeth. So, I was like, who’s putting this on? I just said, “I want to call it the Missoula Oblongata.”
I just thought it was a really funny pun. It was really meaningful for Madeline, because she had been living there a long time. Especially since we were living in Missoula, it felt nice to go into the outside world that way. Other people have no idea where it is or what it’s like.
AVC: You all moved from Missoula to the East Coast. Do you think moving around and touring so often has informed any of what you’re doing?
DS: Maybe. I’m from the East Coast originally. We’ve gotten close to the communities out here. It’s had an influence on us in terms of artists and activists we’ve aligned with. Being on the East Coast, things are a lot closer together.
It’s easier to know more people doing more things. In Missoula, you pretty much know similar things others are doing within a 400-mile radius.
AVC: It’s definitely a different density. Most of your plays have strange intersections with characters, time, and place. Where do these seemingly unlikely overlapping scenarios come from?
DS: Sometimes people might say, “Whoa, how did you put those things together?” When we start a show, we come up with a list of ideas that we’re excited about putting in a show, things we might think are impossible.
They don’t really have anything to do with one another. One person might put a tunnel in a play that people crawl through. Another one of us might be reading about conceal and carry laws, or say “Oh I want to put a cassowary in a play!”
We start out with things that are totally unrelated, and from there, we write the play, integrating as many as possible.
AVC: How long does it take from coming up with the idea to touring the play?
DS: We have a formula at this point: We spend a month writing the script, then we spend about a month making everything and rehearsing the play. After that, we tour.
AVC: That’s pretty amazing to have that kind of turn-around.
DS: There’s something useful to us about being accountable to the company, to this other people. Also, being accountable to a tour means we have to have a thing ready before the deadline. The month of writing is done separately.
The month of practice and assembling is basically 12-hour days every single day. It’s a very focused month of work.
AVC: Does that concentrated time make the projects better?
DS: Definitely. Two shows we made weren’t like that because we had jobs and other things going at the time. We could make it like that because we lived in the same place. Now, we all live in different states, so we have to make the time to get together.
AVC: You’re posted up in Baltimore now?
DS: Yeah, I live in Baltimore. Madeline’s in Southeast Ohio, and Sarah lives in Philly.
AVC: How long do you have left on this tour?
DS: We have the show in Chicago, then one in Bloomington, and that’s it.
AVC: What comes next?
DS: After this tour, we have another tour in April. After April, we have a really big Shakespeare project in Philly in June. We’re going to do a crazy production of Antony And Cleopatra. Then, we’re a little unsure.
We’re looking to get a building for our headquarters. We’ll probably make another big show in the fall.
AVC: You’re keeping busy. It’s hard to keep creative and make consistent work. What keeps that going?
DS: When we made our first show, we just knew we were making a play to take on tour. Once we saw the response, it was evident that that’s what we were going to do from then on. We’re all really great friends. It’s an important part of all our lives.
For all of us, it’s a grounding force creatively, personally, and economically. It’s reassuring to be in an artistic collaboration. We’re constantly discussing how bands or whatever break up. It can be challenging.
We have a really good combination of personalities. It’s like a relationship or marriage, and there’s constant upkeep. We do whatever it takes to keep things sustainable.