Probably the most traditional segment of my fieldwork for Beyond Counterculture, my ethnographic study of the culture of what I now call the Land of Shum was the three months I spent following around the improvisational drama group, Pure Shmint. With their permission and great tolerance, I literally pitched my tent in the field adjoining the house on Briceland Road then occupied by the director of the play then being developed (directors varied from play to play) and attended every discussion, rehearsal, road trip, conversation and work party I could.
I was, for that summer, a sort of a script person, a role I had to convince the players they had any use for, given that every rehearsal was improvisational and the lines and plot changed constantly in response to whatever popped out of the players’ mouths at any given time. My argument was that really good lines could be lost because nobody could remember exactly what was said last time. If I taped the rehearsals and worked up a script with alternate lines after each rehearsal, the good lines could be preserved without the improvisational method being impeded. It was a hard argument and some people resisted it firmly, not wanting the spontaneity of the process to be compromised, but I convinced them in the end.
As any good anthropologist in the field would, I found a niche for myself, “established rapport” as it were (all these people were dear friends of mine, so establishing rapport consisted of getting them to ignore me) and taped, took notes, interviewed and photographed. Unfortunately, many of my photos from that summer were lost when my car was vandalized some years later, but enough have survived that one can get an idea of what the play might have looked like. My intention here is to post the entire play a segment at a time, with the remaining photos. This post is only the beginning.
The point of it all, ethnographically, is that Pure Shmint being an integral part of the culture and the process coming so directly from the players’ experience as members of the culture and being so widely accepted by their audiences as such, any Pure Shmint play can be viewed in the same way as the re-enactment of a myth in a more traditional culture. Values and attitudes are distilled and displayed and how much they reflect the values and attitudes of the culture at large can be accurately gauged by noting the audience responses to particular lines or scenes.
This I did carefully and lines from the following play appear throughout my book in their appropriate contexts. Using the group’s productions to make my anthropological points about the culture had the added attraction that I was able to quote lines from plays much more freely than I could quote lines from interviews, knowing that I would not inadvertently invade anyone’s privacy, a major concern I had to deal with in my work in Shum.
The play was entitled “Vibram Soul”, that being a pun on the kind of sole that would be found on the kind of boots best suited to stomping around in the backwoods, though for many people, if you arrived wearing hiking boots with vibram soles, you might be unable financially to replace them when they wore out, which would be pretty soon. I had such boots, already worn from all the backpacking I did as a Berkeley student. Boy, they went fast.
I have a story about the origin of the name Pure Shmint, but I have it from someone who was never a member of Pure Shmint. This person, now deceased, was a sort of an in-law of Pure Shmint, being the husband of one of the member’s exes as well as a good friend of mine. Here is the story he told me. He and his wife’s ex were discussing the formation of the group early on, all present being greatly into drama, late at night and I’m guessing full of beer and other intoxicants.
They were looking for slangy words that would imply perfection, along the lines of “cherry” as applied to a car, when one of them came up with “mint”, as in “mint condition”, and the other said “Awww, Mint!?! Mint Shmint!” as in the Yiddish linguistic procedure for belittling something by putting the sound “sh” in front of it. They both said simultaneously Shmint!! and then one said, “its Shmint, its Pure Shmint.” I have no way of verifying that story and members of Pure Shmint might have a different story, but this is the one I have and I know both of the participants well and it surely rings true to me in view of their personalities. So, its not really my story, but I’m sticking to it.
The sound man checks out equipment, the whole arrangement of board, table and ladder modeling the pragmatism and expertise in making-do that used to typify the Land of Shum before anyone had any money. This attitude is discussed at length in my book, under the heading of “funky.”
Players stretch and mill about, preparing for the dress rehearsal. There is, indeed, a basketball net in this picture because the rehearsal was taking place in the now-long-gone Fireman’s Hall, which served at different times as basketball court, roller skating rink, community meeting hall, boogie hall, dance studio, pretty much whatever, before it burned down and was replaced by the Mateel Community Center in Redway.
The Land of Shum has always been crawling with musicians of every variety. Here, the band warms up for dress rehearsal. It consists of guitar, bass, trombone, marimba and sitar, demonstrating the “every variety” part of my claim.
The dancer who is to play “Death” is given last minute makeup adjustments. On his forehead is a deer pelvis, something that would be instantly recognizable to the audience, as they are found all over Shum. This particular dancer, now deceased, was one of the earliest Shummers to arrive in the community, had been a professional dancer in San Francisco and, as he informed me to my great astonishment when I saw him roller skating during the brief time Garberville had a roller rink (the old Fireman’s Hall, now also deceased) a figure skater. He taught dance in the community for years and had many devoted students and co-performers. His performance as “Death” in this play was riveting.
The dancer we all called “Big Don” strikes a pose prior to the start of the dress rehearsal. On his feet are paper bags to protect make-up on his feet from coming off before the rehearsal begins.