I went camping this summer. It was the first time in a long time that I slept in a tent, built a fire every night and swam in a lake every day. It has been a hard summer, a stressful one, and even though I lost my job of 15 years at Performance Network, and funds are tight, my wise husband put his foot down in early August and insisted that we get away for a while. Even if it was just tent camping at the Warren Dunes State Park, two hours west on the shores of Lake Michigan, we were going to take some time to relax. It was nice. I needed it. Even more than I knew. My husband gets a lot of things right.
It’s easy to forget how tricky building a fire can be. All the little ins and outs get taken for granted when you’re thinking about it in the theoretical sense. You’re packing up your tent, and you think, “Oh, we’ll get some wood and build a fire. No big deal.” Then you get to the campsite, get unpacked, get the tent up, get the marshmallows out of the cooler, find the matches, unwrap the bundle of wood you bought at the camp store, and stand, in awe, next to the gigantic ring of concrete and corrugated steel that state parks call a fire pit.
You realize you’re missing a few things. First of all, you’re going to need some paper. Straight up lighting a piece of wood ain’t going to do it. You’re going to need to scrunch up some balls (a lot of balls) of paper into the center of that pit to get the whole thing started. Some things that won’t work are: paper plates, cut up cardboard, paper towels, and the wrapper from a Skylanders toy you found under the seat of the car. On the second day I discovered that the pages of a Blue Cross members services booklet, if it’s not too damp with humidity, will work quite nicely.
Then, of course, there is the kindling, the dry, small to mid-sized wood, leaves, sticks, and wood chips that you put on top of your scrunched up papers. Always work small to big. A log on a pile of newspaper turns into a smoldering heap pretty fast. Bark works great, dry grass works great, if you put some smaller twigs on top of it. This is the time you really have to tend to your fire, adding each successively larger sized piece at just the right time, until you’re ready to carefully place your big burners in a precarious kind of tepee formation, and then sit back and bask in the glory of your blazing, crackling fire. Feelin’ like a cavewoman. Oh yeah.
Now, in addition to being a sucker for a good s’more, I’m also a sucker for a warm and gooey metaphor, and over the course of the three days and nights we camped, I began developing my “building a fire as a metaphor for the creative process” theory. Think about it. Making art always seems easy before you start but gets harder once you begin the work. The right materials are essential. The “kindling” phase is the most tricky, and most important, and there’s never, ever, enough firewood. But my favorite discovery of all in my journey as a fire (and metaphor) crafter was what I like to call “the bellows.”
It began on our second night, as the novelty of just burning stuff began to fade and we started to settle in and enjoy the nuances of the fire. We’d gotten through the first phases successfully, made and enjoyed our s’mores, let the fire burn down for a while, and were now at the point where, beginning to run out of wood, it basically just becomes about keeping the fire going for as long as you possibly can. Logs get rearranged and flipped to finish burning, embers get stirred, and dozy thoughts begin to turn to the process of combustion, the synergy of cellulose, oxygen, and flame. In caveman times, I reckon that this was when most of the babies were made.
It was on this second night, at just this point as the fire started to fade, that my husband leaned into the pit, drew a huge breath, and blew, with all his might, into the fire. For a second I just sat staring at him. Who does he think he is, Pa Ingalls? Blowing on the fire to make it… Pop! From the glowing piles of embers burst licking, consuming, actual, flames. It worked like magic. One minute, no flames, just glowing coals, simmering on low. Then, with one gigantic puff from “the bellows” (my husband’s lovingly coined nickname for the rest of that evening) and the next minute – Poof! Flames from the embers, resurgent energy, consumption, reinvigoration, and the fire roared forth again.
Over the course of our three days at Warren Dunes we went through 9 bundles of firewood, one entire Blue Cross members manual, and a bucket full of kindling that our camp neighbors, in return for a small kindness on our part, generously gifted us. As we kindled, burned, stoked, raked, and gazed into the fire, “the bellows” became my obsession. I became an astute observer of the magical effect our breath had on the fire. I noticed the instant of silence before the pop of flames, the relationship between quantity of breath, force of exhalation, combustible material and size of resulting flame. And as I stared, deep into the age-old mystery that is a campfire, a question began to burn in my mind (yup. See above, re: metaphors.)
I wondered. If the wood, paper, and twigs are the raw materials of the actor’s craft, and the kindling is that beginning stage of rehearsal where the director learns how to ignite each actor’s impulses, then the blazing fire is the inspiration, the galvanizing force that engulfs us and becomes self-propelling, and self-consuming. If the care we take with the fire is the same as that which we take with the work, and the mesmerizing flames are our dance of life, which entrances and transports the audience inward, then what is that breath, that exhalation of force, that infuses the flames with renewed oxygen and vigor when it starts to die out? What is “the bellows?”
On our last night at Warren Dunes, our fire was a masterpiece. Each stage was perfect, from the lovingly kindled starter blaze, to the edifice of precisely angled slow-burners, I tended that fire with the utmost care, and when it began to fade I employed “the bellows” with skill and precision. I began to notice how when a log burned down, pressing with too much weight on the one beneath it the flames would dwindle. When this happened, a slight repositioning to create the space around the log was all it took to rekindle them. Even at the very end, when I had used the bellows numerous times, and the actual substance of the logs was running out, I noticed that if the wood was sitting too squarely in the embers, even red-hot glowing embers, that the flames would begin to die out, and it would become necessary to clear the coals away so that the oxygen from my exhalations could ignite the wood anew. The oxygen needed a space to occupy, in order to work its magic. When it had a space, a clear space into which the revitalizing oxygenated air could rush, the chemistry did its work. The log, even a tiny nub of charred, spent wood, could reignite, and burn again.
I thought about myself. My tired, spent self. 15 years of working for a theatre I felt so passionately about, long hours for modest pay, dedicated to a cause that I poured my heart, my soul, my pocketbook, my promise, and the best years of my life into, that in the end left me behind, burned me out, burned me up. Nothing left but embers, and the blackened remnants of the artistic home I once had.
What do we do when we reach this point? As artists, as people, in our relationships, in our careers? What do we do when our fire has gone out, when we are spent, tired, out of resources, suffocating from the weight of it all? What do we do in this exhausting, depleting, hell’s mistress of a business when all the traveling, the late nights, the scarce resources get to be too much and we find our flames growing small?
We need a bellows. We need a gust of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, a little chemistry. Hell, a little alchemy. We need to clear out all of the glowing embers and create a space for the air to come rushing in. And, if our creative process is a forge, then the oxygen is new ideas, new thoughts, new words. We need to clear a space, we need to write and write, and talk, and think, and laugh, and clear out, and clear out, and process, and clear out some more, and then the oxygen comes rushing in.
The bellows is this. Right here. What we are doing right now. The bellows is what happens when your fire is about to go out, when your art is stale, your genius is on hiatus, and you reach out, to community, to stir things up. It’s a step in the process we often overlook, sometimes for years. It’s the churning up and recycling of energy when you’re out of material, out of combustibles. It’s the exchange of ideas among artists; it’s the telling, and retelling of our stories. It’s getting it all down on paper, and crumpling that paper up and throwing it into the fire. It’s writing, and sharing, and challenging, and provoking each other. It’s making a space for the oxygen of our camaraderie to spark our new ideas, our new words, our new thoughts. And when we find them, or when they find us, they will burn us up, they will combust us, and we will burst into flames again.
This is the bellows. There will be more, much more. Bring a match.
The Bellows is the open blog of Theatre Nova. It is a space for playwrights, theatre artists, Nova members, and students to find new oxygen, share new ideas. To submit a piece for The Bellows, email Carla Milarch, Producing Artistic Director, and curator of The Bellows, at email@example.com