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Reviewed by:
  • Tornado Season
  • Lori Lee Wallace
Tornado Season. By Emily K. Harrison. Directed by Charlotte Brecht Munn. square product theatre, ATLAS Center for the Performing Arts, Boulder, CO. 20 March 2009.

Increasingly, solo performance and other live productions use media as a kind of “fifth wall.” Tornado Season, a solo piece written and performed by Emily Harrison, is a multimedia memoir that parallels the internal tornados of her adult life with the very real and terrifying tornados that frequent the place of her birth: the pine trees and oil fields of East Texas. Through the use of innovative streaming video, live sound design, and a moving script, the piece transported the audience to a place of striking contradictions, where the West meets the South, the Bible Belt meets tornado alley, frightening snakes fill the beautiful Red River, an abundance of crystal meth pollutes the endless blue sky, and debutantes mingle with cowboys. The protagonist is trapped in a world where death and destruction are looming, either from floods from the south, fires from the west, or the unpredictable and indiscriminate course of tornados. She illustrates her fears from her own perspective as a young girl through that of an adult when she escaped from East Texas.

While the personal tornados of Harrison’s life first appear to her as prominent and terrifying as those in her hometown, it is after she leaves home that the most destructive emotional tornado finds her: a lover whose incessant infidelity leaves irreparable destruction in his wake. Harrison realizes that even with the miles and years that are between her and East Texas, it is really never possible to leave home; no matter where she goes, she can never truly escape emotional turmoil or destructive forces, but like all of us, there is a time when she has to learn how to recover from the devastation, pick up the pieces, and rebuild her life.

Although the script is touching, the uniqueness of Tornado Season, however, lies in how it uses multimedia, which was improvised for each performance, allowing for the roles of the sound and video stream to function as other characters in the play, and giving Harrison something to react and respond to each time she performed, a twenty-first-century version of Svoboda’s work. The live sound score, designed and improvised nightly by Toby Sinkinson, involved the use of Pure Data (an open-source, real-time, graphical programming environment for audio, video, and graphical processing). Sinkinson built a device, as an interface, using an Arduino micro-controller. For the sections of the play in which the media was improvised he worked within certain parameters, but used the random-object feature in Pure Data in order to trigger sound events within those parameters (such as the sound simulations of tornados that he found and created). Harrison reacted onstage to the unpredictable sounds, obviously aware that the sounds that were to come would be big though unsure in what direction they would move. Sinkinson used a broad spectrum of sound: just as the thunderous arrival of a tornado jolted the audience and Harrison, the opposite reaction was generated by the calming, almost imperceptibly quiet sound of a cricket.

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Emily K. Harrison in Tornado Season. (Photo: Marcin Mroz.)

The video did not distract, as can sometimes be the case with media in the theatre, but rather embodied a poetic presence; realistic footage became abstract by the use of Isadora video technology. Charlotte Brecht Munn and Harrison created a video stream that was constant throughout the play, yet many of the streams were repetitive. This guided the audience to focus on the footage projected only when it was pertinent to the plot or when Harrison interacted with it. The screens, which were set at the back of the stage and also stage right, projected footage that juxtaposed images of Harrison as a child as well as clips from The Wizard of Oz and other pertinent films. The predominant videos, however, were of the foreboding skies of a tornado and the destruction left behind. The only other set pieces were a child’s school desk and a swing center...