Actor and show co-creator Larissa Marten in I Killed the Cow.
Browse the list of shows for the 2018 Minnesota Fringe and you’ll find a show called I Killed the Cow. Unlike last year’s Queen of Delicious Animals, however, this animal-titled show is not about complicated relationships with animals that you raise, show, and ultimately eat. Rather, it delves into the subject of sexual assault in solo storytelling format.
Actor Larissa Marten is the star of I Killed the Cow, a show that she co-created and developed with the collective The Herd. Marten spoke with Basil Considine from the Arts Reader about the genesis of her solo show.
One woman kowtows and keeps her head down. Until Mother Cheetah struts in and thrusts her into the hip-grinding, cheetah-loving, animalistic wilderness of sexual reckoning. Will she be eaten alive? Will you?
I Killed the Cow is a devised piece credited to the NYC-based collective The Herd. Ensemble-performed devised pieces are not uncommon, but I don’t see solo devised pieces very often. What was the development/devising process like for this show? Were you the planned performer/interpreter from the beginning?
The devising process for I Killed the Cow began 3 years ago with a set of my own journal entries. In these entries, and what can be said for the original thesis for I Killed the Cow, I wanted to do two things: work through my own sexual assault and prove my hypothesis of how people are shaped by their past partners. Those journal entries took various forms; drawings, bits of dialogue, articles I found. I taped the various pages to the walls of my apartment in Berlin, Germany, where I was living at the time, and formed the scene structure for the first version of I Killed the Cow.
I read through those journal entries recently, and hardly any of the original is still in there. The essence remains, but the content has become far more about the audience than the performer – which brings me to where the process went next, to its collaborators!
At this point, I knew the show needed collaborators, but was unsure where to start – it was still far too personal for me to entirely let it go. So I turned to a writing mentor of mine, who helped me shape the script. Once I felt comfortable with the script for the time being, on one fateful night in a bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I courted a director who would later become the other half of The Herd’s core team. Her name is Leia Squillace, and she’s directed the piece since its first inception.
I Killed the Cow premiered in March/April of 2017, after a largely traditional rehearsal process. I’ll be honest, those performances didn’t do as well as we hoped, as we weren’t focusing on the audience…but they were an instrumental step in the devising process, because they taught us that in order for the show to have legs, it needed to focus on the audience’s needs. It became clear that we needed to go back a step and [re-]devise the piece in order to find what the audience needed. And ultimately, [we had to] let it go where it needed to go. Now the piece is no longer for us, but it’s for you.
In August of 2017, we had a week-long workshop of the piece where we dissected exactly what we wanted out of the piece and found what we needed to do to get there. We learned that we wanted I Killed the Cow to help open up the conversation about sex in a way that is more digestible. We did so by adding/subtracting scenes as found from our devising process, injecting humor and physical storytelling into the dialogue, interacting with the audience more, and clarifying that I am playing a character.
It is no longer my story, but our story. In doing so, our character is then able to meet many more other characters. Suddenly, the piece felt alive.
You went on to showcase this piece at the United Solo Festival in NYC last year. What was that experience like? Where did it lead?
Performing at the United Solo Festival was great, because it was a stellar community of artists with commonality. Similarly to how I expect the Minnesota Fringe Festival to be, and what excites me in being a part of it, is the community that’s formed. Supporting other performers and being a part of their audiences as they become a part of ours.
The performance at the United Solo Festival in New York City was in October of 2017. After receiving rave feedback from our audiences we knew we were getting closer, but still had some refining to do. We continued to workshop and devise the piece, taking out crude language/references so that it is appropriate for middle school ages or older, and focusing on how the character is able to move forward in her life, with the assault having happened to her.
We performed it again for a select audience in Sarasota, FL in February 2018. After that performance, we knew we had a piece on our hands with the potential to change organizational culture. So we decided to organize a summer tour to premiere the finished show to regional pockets in the US – of which the Minnesota Fringe Festival is the first.
The Minnesota Fringe Festival is just one of five stops on a larger tour. Where are else are you taking this show?
After Minnesota Fringe, I Killed the Cow will be performed at the Boulder International Fringe Festival in Boulder, CO, the Chicago Fringe Festival in Chicago, IL, the Scranton Fringe Festival in Scranton, PA, and the Sarasolo Festival in Sarasota, FL.
The larger goal of the tour is to bring the show to the communities that need it. By touring to fringe festivals, we hope to get to know local schools and businesses where the show can go next. To do so, we have created packages of I Killed the Cow that include the show and a talkback, or the show and a detailed workshop. These packages are suited for schools and businesses to bring to their institutions in order for them to recognize their community and move beyond beliefs rooted in traditional power structures. This increases engagement and allows for more inclusivity, leading to higher profit margins and a more advantageous learning environment. (More information on how to bring the show to an organization near you can be found on the show website.)
In essence, the development process was a large lesson in trust. Trusting others with your ideas, and trusting yourself that your ideas have potential. Just because you didn’t score your first time up at bat doesn’t mean you don’t have the potential to be Jeter. (I don’t know much about baseball, but if my comparing I Killed the Cow to Derek Jeter makes you want to see the show, then my work here is done.)
Is the show that we’ll see in Minnesota substantially or incrementally different from what NYC audiences saw?
I Killed the Cow has changed quite a bit from the version performed at the United Solo Festival. While performing at the United Solo Festival, we were still developing the piece, and were actively looking for the audience’s feedback to shape the piece.
What’s exciting about working on a piece like this is that the performances during the developmental process have shaped the piece just as much as the workshops and rehearsals have. Meaning that the audience has been our collaborator all along.
Female sexuality was also a theme in your earlier solo show Lost. Shared. Taken. Are there any other similarities or connections between them? How have the creation and staging of these two works overlapped?
Lost. Shared. Taken. is a short show that I developed before I Killed the Cow. It focuses on the question of our virginity, specifically the phrase we use to describe it. The moment we lose our virginity. The show asks the question if it was rather shared, taken, or another verb entirely.
Creating Lost. Shared. Taken. largely informed the creation of I Killed the Cow because it taught me how audiences crave humor in shows that talk about sex. Through humor and through lightness, audiences are able to delve to their own depths. And that humor is the real catalyst for change.
Lost. Shared. Taken. is also where I developed my personal voice. The Herd has its own voice that Leia and I have created with our team and the pieces we create. Next, we’re devising a TYA play that uses plants to introduce the concept of personal privilege. For now, we’re calling it Plant Play, and we hope to tour it to the communities that need it, similarly to I Killed the Cow. But my own voice is still sprinkled in all. As with any relationship, I think it’s important to develop your own voice before you start collaborating. And I’m glad I had that opportunity with Lost. Shared. Taken.
Who’s with you on this tour? Is this a bonafide solo trip once you hit the road, or do you have a traveling team or “Fringe spouse”?
Because my director, Leia Squillace, is a rockstar, she’s in a contract for part of this leg of the tour. She’s assistant directing Aaron Posner for the American Players Theater’s production of Heartbreak House, and won’t be able to join me until the end of our time at Minnesota Fringe. But for the rest of the tour, we will be touring together. We’re also working with local stage managers and marketing representatives in each city of the tour who have been helping us with some of the “on the ground” work.
For the time that Leia is with me on tour, she will be helping with the technical rehearsals and logistics of putting up a show on tour. Additionally, Leia will be offering insight into the workshop that pairs with I Killed the Cow and how it might be able to further the ideas presented in the show for organizations who wish to partner with us to bring the show and workshop to them. Additionally, Leia and I will be working together on the tour to expand upon The Herd’s Plant Play, the previously mentioned TYA play we currently have in process. It’s thrilling to develop our next piece while I Killed the Cow is moving on to the next step of continual performance because it allows us to stay fresh and focused.
Your news pitch mentions a paired Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response workshop – is this something that you are taking on the road as well?
My partner in The Herd, Leia Squillace, has previously worked as a sexual health educator and applied theatre facilitator. The workshop was born out of these experiences and knowledge and links to themes, scenes, and lines in the play as a launch point for teaching information, discussing, and practicing tactics for preventing sexual assault and harassment. It also provides options and resources for responding to such instances not just for those who have experienced sexual misconduct but also for bystanders, peers, and confidants. While we are not presenting the workshop on tour, Leia facilitates it on her own and is capable of offering a workshop should the opportunity arise while we travel. Additionally, the workshop is a part of the package we are offering to schools and businesses who choose to bring the show to their institution.
Your resume lists that you’re available for local hire in NYC, DC, and…Minneapolis. An NYC-DC pairing isn’t uncommon; how does Minneapolis end up on the list as well?
On a professional level, Minneapolis is on the list because I admire the city as a fantastic artistic hub and want to further my work here. But on a personal level, Minneapolis is on the list because my brother moved to the city about 2 years ago.
I spent a lot of time in Minneapolis at the end of 2017, as he had a traumatic brain injury that put him in a coma for a month. I was splitting my time between Minneapolis and New York, and continue to do so in his recovery. He’s on his way to a full recovery, and at this point looks entirely like he did before. (His recovery can be credited to the fantastic doctors at the Regions Hospital in St. Paul, and his own luck and determination.) Nonetheless, I’m still often in the city. I began to realize that not only am I a local hire, but I want to work as a local hire in the Twin Cities for the sake of my brother.