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Oscar Wilde on trial, then two puppets get married

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Bart Everson:  The bosses had their table. The supervisors, where they would sit, and they had a picture of Elvis taped up on the wall above their table. So Christie and I had our table where we sat with, you know, a couple of other people and we had taped up above our table a picture of a moose that had stumbled into a swimming pool in Canada and had to be lifted out with a crane. But in order to do this, they had to sedate the moose and blindfold it. That's what we had taped above our table.

Christie Paxon:  So ours was really gross and, like, nasty looking. So we loved it, because they hated us and we're, like, okay, game on, you know?

Alex Chambers:  You can see where this is going. They fall in love, decided to get married using puppets as you do. Puppet weddings and more on this week's Innerstates after this.

Alex Chambers: Let’s start this one in Leipzig in the summer of 1790. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the son of a ribbon-weaver, decided to read himself some Immanuel Kant, whose philosophical writing had swept northern Europe a few decades earlier. He picked up the Critique of Practical Reason. He devoured it. Wrote notes all over his book. Later, he said that after encountering the book, he was living in a new world. Individual perception mattered like it never had before. The “self” became “creative and free.”

Alex Chambers: Pretty soon after that, Fichte ended up in Jena, a smaller city to the southwest of Leipzig. He wasn’t the only one there who was taken with this new idea of self-expression. There was a whole crew of younger writers and thinkers. Most of them were named Friedrich. Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel, Fredrich von Hardenberg. Fichte probably felt left out, so he wrote under the name Novalis. And it was probably because so many of them were named Friedrich that their mission was to fight for individuality and free will. Because they did. They were prolific, writing in essays and treatises and reviews that the way to find authenticity was by listening to your own inner voice. It’s become a pretty central idea in modern society, especially for anyone who doesn’t fit in with the society around them. That’s what this week’s show is about, by the way. People who follow their inner voices. Their true selves. Whether they can help it or not.

Alex Chambers: But before we get into it, I want to note a bit of a problem – not with the people on this episode, but with this idea that, to know yourself, all you have to do is look inward. Because the thing is, we can’t fully know ourselves that way. Our sense of our selves comes from the people around us. There’s the obvious example of countercultures that spring up to challenge social norms, but then end up conforming pretty strictly to their own group norms. Like, I looked up counterculture on Wikipedia, and there was a picture of a quote “member of the punk subculture,” who looked, you know, punk. Tattoos, black t-shirt, hair dyed black and sticking out all over the place. You know the look.

Alex Chambers: What’s tricky for the counterculture is that it still has norms and expectations. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like I said, we know ourselves by the people around us. And, if we’re among the people who think there’s something wrong with the society around us, we find the counterculture we need. Or we make it for ourselves. Or we try. If we’re queer in Victorian England, with laws that make our activities illegal, we might end up on trial for what was then called gross indecency. If we live in the Clinton-era Midwest and don’t believe in traditional marriage but still want the health insurance, we might make our wedding a puppet show. This is Inner States, by the way, from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana.

So let’s get into it. We started in Enlightenment Germany. We're headed to Victorian England. But let's spend a minute in contemporary Bloomington, Indiana, first, with a poem from Lsa Kwong about fitting in - or not - as an Asian from Appalachia.

Lisa Kwong:  I call myself an AppalAsian, an Asian from Appalachia. I rock leopard print and black stilettos, write protest emails to Victoria's Secret, red rocks and flat foot proof orthonics. After 5K brunch is a French stickler, a ham and cream cheese crepe, mimosa with cherry. I victory dance in the basement stairwell of Ballantyne, breaking into song upon hearing the word lonely. I travel to Greece and Taiwan vicariously through the men I liked. I am from letting go of the man who left for Florida. I push up in bird-dog, lemon squeeze and triceptip. As sweat hisses every breath a billing kite left in my body higher and sourer. I keep a flashlight in the bathroom, just in case I have to hunker down in the bathtub while a tornado blasts through the parking lot.

Lisa Kwong:  I am from tea parties and Scrabble, pink moscato and politeers, exploding tacos, chicken and dumplings. I AppalAsian of this Midwest college town eat chicken feet, mac and cheese, celebrate butts and ancestors. I am from a fridge covered in babies, none of them mine, postcards and handwritten poems, received via snail mail. I ponder the mirror, study the woman before me, see the tear stained tub of lard, see the runner's legs, see the glittering, Cinderella, float your heart.

Alex Chambers:  That was Lisa Kwong reading her poem An AppalAsian Finds Home In Bloomington Indiana, produced by LuAnn Johnson for Poets Weave. All right, let's head back to Victorian England. Not too long ago, IU Theatre put on a production of Moises Kaufman's play Gross Indecency, The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Our own Violet Baron talked with director Daniel Sappington about Oscar Wilde, those trials and how the issues still feel relevant today.

Violet Baron:  I'm here in the studio with Daniel Sappington, director of the play Gross Indecency. Welcome Daniel.

Daniel Sappington:  Thank you for having me.

Violet Baron:  Thanks for being here. Could you tell us a bit about the play?

Daniel Sappington:  Oh boy, yeah. It's a lot. So a lot of people are familiar with Oscar Wilde and his plays, The Importance of Being Earnest, the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. He's also got a lot of children's stories and a lot of times they're not totally familiar with his downfall, and this play details the three court trials that ultimately led to his imprisonment and, after he was released from prison, his death just a few years later. This text really focuses on those three trials and it is created through a compilation of court transcripts, selections from biographies and autobiographies from people and about people that were involved with the trials as well as newspaper articles and headlines from the time.

Violet Baron:  It seems like part of what this play is is a product of the writer and director, Moses Kaufman. So was that sort of an important element to you as well, when you were putting it together?

Daniel Sappington:  Yes. That was extremely important. So Moses is most popular for The Laramie Project, which is also a docudrama, documentary theater-style show and he and the theater company that he works with and co-founded in New York, The Tectonic Theater Project. They employ this devising process, or a theater-creative process known as moment work and it's focused on what actors are bringing into the room, but it sets aside written text and it explores what the story telling capabilities would be for all of the theatrical forms and languages. So what story can we tell with just the lights? What story can we tell with just props, or sound? And once you have kind of deconstructed all of the theatrical languages, explored their full possibilities, you put them all back together and it was an interesting process because he and Tectonic Theater used moment work to create Gross Indecency, and so we had a really interesting task of reverse engineering the process to figure out, okay, this is what the final written text looked like, now how do we set that aside and how do we explore all of these capabilities but then re-introduce the text after we've had that time of exploration.

Violet Baron:  Right, and in the new context I'm sure too, right?

Daniel Sappington:  Yes.

Violet Baron:  And so this is your MFA thesis production, right? And can you tell us what goes into a thesis production in particular?

Daniel Sappington:  It starts months out. You receive notice from the programming committee what you'll be working on and you immediately go into research mode. So, you know, there are typically several reads of a play that a director will take. The first read is, like, just for fun. You want to make sure, it's to acquaint yourself with the play and you want to enjoy the play because it's the first time, many times, that you're encountering it and that's the closest experience you'll ever have to the audience encountering the play. And then, after that, you go through and you start to do some more careful readings. The first is to figure out what the big idea of the play is, then you move on to tracking character evolution throughout the script. So you start with all of that, but meanwhile you are investing in the dramaturgical research, the historical research. What time period is this set in? If it is based on a true event, like this play is, then you really have to invest in what were the morals and traditions of the time? What does the socio-political climate look like?

Daniel Sappington:  And especially with this script, which so heavily focuses on the socio-political and cultural values of the time. I mean Oscar Wilde's imprisoned simply for being a queer individual. So you really have to look at the context of that, and what's really interesting with this play is that it predates our understanding, or our modern understanding, of the homosexual or the gay man, or the queer person as an entity. They didn't really have a word for queer individuals at that point. The only thing that they had was a term to refer to acts of same sex passion, and that was gross indecency from which the play draws its name, and actually, was only used to describe acts between men, because Queen Victoria didn't believe that women would commit acts of same sex passion.

Daniel Sappington:  And especially with this script, which so heavily focuses on the socio-political and cultural values of the time. I mean Oscar Wilde's imprisoned simply for being a queer individual. So you really have to look at the context of that, and what's really interesting with this play is that it predates our understanding, or our modern understanding, of the homosexual or the gay man, or the queer person as an entity. They didn't really have a word for queer individuals at that point. The only thing that they had was a term to refer to acts of same sex passion, and that was gross indecency from which the play draws its name, and actually, was only used to describe acts between men, because Queen Victoria didn't believe that women would commit acts of same sex passion.

Daniel Sappington:  So you find out all of that while you're doing this historical research, this dramaturgical research and going through these readings of the play, and then you meet with your designers and you really start to collaborate and figure out, okay, what does this play mean to you? What do you see in this play? What story telling capabilities and possibilities do you see in this play? And from that point it moves forward as a collaboration between director and designers. You ultimately settle on what all of the designs will look like, and then enter the room with the actors and, because it was my thesis production, I really wanted to focus on a specific aspect of theater making. Something that was new and was honestly scary to me, and that was this process of devising through moment work. In a lot of my previous work in store front theater in Chicago, and even projects that I've worked on here at IU, I tend to direct from a more Stanislavski based or realism based point of view, or magical realism but this script is anything but that.

Daniel Sappington:  There are moments are realism in the first act, but it gets a little surreal at points. It becomes expressionistic at times, and so using this devising process I wanted to figure out how do you work with a group of young actors in an educational environment to reverse engineer this play and put it back together again, and it was very exciting to explore that process.

Violet Baron:  I mean the other thing of the trials themselves that people talk about is, it was sort of the beginning of the celebrity trial, right, which we're still seeing today in various forms.

Daniel Sappington:  Yes. What is interesting is I always say that Oscar Wilde's greatest creation was actually Oscar Wilde. He was a member of the aesthetic movement which was a philosophical and artistic movement that was taking place in Victorian England, and he was writing for some magazines. He was writing in self-publishing poetry and some prose and then ends up being asked to go on this speaking tour that included America, and at some point, while he's in America, he's speaking at this town in Colorado, and the miners invite him to go into a silver mine and legend has it that he out-drank all of the miners and he was able to hold his own in consuming whiskey with them, and so he cultivates this persona and takes that with him into the trials. People are bribing and bullying to try and get into these trials.

Daniel Sappington:  The father of his companion, Alfred Douglas, his father's name was The Marquis of Queensbury, so he had a title and he had actually patronized the sport of boxing, and the Queensbury Rules were a set of rules in boxing named for him, and what is interesting is the first trial is actually Oscar Wilde is the prosecutor. The Marquis of Queensbury leaves a note at the club that Oscar Wilde is a member of that says, to Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite, and he mis-spells the word sodomite, which is a source of great bemusement and amusement for Oscar Wilde, but also, it's very threatening because it could lead to his downfall which it ultimately does. And so Oscar Wilde chooses to take the Marquis of Queensbury to court for writing and leaving this message.

Daniel Sappington:  It is during this trial, this first trial, when enough evidence is brought out by the defense, that Oscar Wilde is actually guilty of this thing and, therefore, the Marquis was in the right in performing a public service by letting people know. That leads to Wilde and his attorney pulling out of the first trial, and then, immediately the crown, or the state deciding to flip the script and prosecute Oscar Wilde. That first trial I don't think would have happened if Wilde hadn't attained the level of celebrity that he had because, for as much as I adore Oscar, he did think he was a bit above it and could escape the reality of those accusations, knowing that they were authentic, and knowing that they were true.

Daniel Sappington:  So, yes, it really was all of this celebrity he had cultivated giving the momentum into that first trial, and then suddenly, you know, the higher someone is the harder they fall, and there were a lot of enemies of Oscar Wilde in the public conscious that thought that he was immoral, and he had made a lot of enemies simply through his writing of The Picture of Dorian Gray. People were so terrified that it was openly advocating and propagating same sex passion between men, that he had made a lot of enemies and they were all too eager to watch his downfall.

Violet Baron:  So many relatable themes here.

Daniel Sappington:  Truly, yes.

Violet Baron:  I'm curious also, like, your decision making process for choosing this specific play, given that it is a little bit of a different feeling, as you said, from your previous work. I'm thinking about, you know, news and the headlines. Do you think now is a good time to be thinking about these themes in Indiana, at RU?

Daniel Sappington:  Yes, I think this is the perfect time. Really interestingly I proposed this title to the programming committee last year as a title I would be interested in directing. After they considered it, they came back and approved that request and it ended up being programmed. What's interesting is, I have sat with this play for, I think, 12 or 13 years now. I first encountered it in my freshman year of undergrad and I remember thinking, oh my God, how would you ever stage this? I am just so confused as to what you would do. So it does seem fitting that my final year of grad school as my thesis is figuring out that question. But once they came back to me and confirmed that that is what I would be directing, it was within a week or two that the "Don't Say Gay Bills" in Florida were passed. The anti-trans legislation in Texas was being passed, and it was almost foreshadowing what was getting ready to happen simply by being programmed and, as that news started to roll out, and as that legislation started to be passed, and as we looked around and saw all of these anti-queer, anti-trans legislation being proposed across the country, it became really personal to all of us.

Daniel Sappington:  Something I think that's really beautiful about this production is that it is a show that centers queer voices and it is largely created by queer voices, and, with exceptional care taken for our queer audience members. Yes, so I do think that it's really important. I think it's also effective to stage these stories that happened, what we like to think of as so far in the past, because oftentimes we will look at the Victorian era and we think oh, we've come so far since then. But the laws that Oscar Wilde was being tried under, I mean, we have laws now that really similarly echo those, and especially these new bills that are being proposed really closely resemble those. I think that it helps to remove that distance a bit, and it also allows us to confront the fact that we haven't changed as much as we like to think we have.

Violet Baron:  Do you feel like there's something new in your production? Like every time someone re-imagines a piece of art, a little bit of you I'm sure comes out in it. Do you see that?

Daniel Sappington:  Yes, I do. Something interesting that we've done for this production, the original production only cast nine individuals, and there are over 25 characters in the play. So a lot of people were, in the original cast, playing multiple characters. There is also a convention introduced where they are eight narrators who introduce sources, or they cite texts, or they give some context to what's going on on stage. As we were working on the show, we wanted to incorporate as many of the actors at IU as possible. So rather than sticking with that nine, the playwright opens it up to casting whatever number, whatever cast composition you feel tells the story right. So we have 19 individuals in the cast, as well as an additional understudy, and that gave us the opportunity to really explore, rather than nine characters in general based costumes that were going to be playing six to nine characters each, instead, we were able to really clearly delineate different worlds on the stage.

Daniel Sappington:  So our course of narrators has been condensed down to four, with each of those individuals being cast in two of the narrator tracks and they are very modern, queer, Indiana University students. Then you move up onto the stage and you start to see these traditionally Victorian outfits, costumes, that replicate the silhouettes and really bring in a lot of that dramaturgical research that our costume designer performed. Then, as you're moving even further up the stage, our scenic designer, Spencer Donovan, had this brilliant idea to create a space, a dream-like space, where we see what is going on in Oscar Wilde's head. I think that that third space is really what sets this production apart and activates the production because so much of it is quoting or educating from sources that already exist and many times sources that were never really intended to be spoken out loud: novels, autobiographies, newspaper, headlines and articles.

Daniel Sappington:  They're all written in a very specific voice that often doesn't lend itself to being performed dramatically. So having this third space in which we can physicalize what's going on, suddenly the whole piece becomes very activated and it becomes, at times, a little disorienting, just like Oscar Wilde is becoming disoriented as these trails go on, because things start to spin out of control and his own internal passions start to take over.

Violet Baron:  Sounds amazing. I'm curious if there's anything that surprised you during the process? You maybe knew what to expect but you were not expecting, or it came out in a different way than you thought?

Daniel Sappington:  Yes, there's one really touching scene that had never hit me the way it did until we read it out loud, and it's near the end of the play and this individual, who has been by Oscar Wilde's side for the entire play, has consistently been on his side in the trials, and outside of the trials, the night before the third trial they meet at Oscar Wilde's mother's house. Moses Kaufman has written this very beautiful, lovely scene in which we see Oscar Wilde come out to his friend. I think it's really impactful because it wasn't until it was spoken aloud that I realized that that's what queer people really don't ever get from Oscar Wilde. Because he was being so careful in his answers, in his replies to the court. I mean there's a lot of writing, personal writing that he performed, but he never explicitly has a coming out moment.

Daniel Sappington:  The play dramatizes that moment, and I think that it's really extremely cathartic for everyone involved to see that moment of connection and to see his friend accept that part of Oscar Wilde, and to find that in rehearsals was a major discovery and it really pointed out that that's the emotional heart that the entire play is driving to. It's after that we get into the third trial and things go from bad to worse for Oscar. I think that was the revelatory moment.

Violet Baron:  It sounds like he didn't really ever recover from the trial, right?

Daniel Sappington:  No, he didn't. He spent two years in jail, and I think that sometimes, these days, we're desensitized to prison and jail time and the effects that that has on someone, and two years in the Victorian era was quite substantial. In addition to that, his sentence included the performing of hard labor, which consisted of completely pointless and meaningless tasks. Being on a mill for 12 to 16 hours a day as it grinds away, and it's not really actually producing anything. If you're too weak to do that, you are put in handcuffs and ankle shackles and forced to walk in circles in the prison courtyard for 16 hours a day, and you're not allowed to speak or look at anyone else. When all else fails, if you're too weak to even get out of bed, you are brought a roll of really coarse, fibrous rope and you're given a certain amount of baskets, and you spend all day unraveling all of the individual fibers of this rope and you have to fill a certain amount of baskets, right?

Daniel Sappington:  So, at a certain point, Wilde becomes so weak that he falls in his cell. He injures his ear, and, even while he's recovering in the hospital, is forced to undergo these meaningless tasks of unraveling this twine or this rope that they have brought him. He ultimately never recovers from that. After he's released, he immediately fled to Paris, where he lived in exile with very little money for the next few years. Ultimately, he dies as a result of complications from the injury he sustained in prison. What makes it even more tragic is that he was really coming into the peak of his career when these trails started.

Daniel Sappington:  He had just opened The importance of Being Earnest on the West End, which is widely considered to be one of the most well-written comedies in the English language, and is still performed in High Schools. It's being performed over at Constellation right now. It's had a very long and healthy shelf life, and it doesn't look like it's going anywhere. So, we see this artist who has found his form, who is in his stride and he is cut down through these trails and this imprisonment, and then does go on to write some more poetry and some more prose, but never really recovers, and it is tragic to think about how many more plays, how many more novels, how many more stories he would have had to tell if he had not been sentenced simply for choosing to love someone of the same gender.


Alex Chambers:  That was Violet Baron talking with director, Daniel Sappington. When they talked last fall, Daniel was finishing up his MFA in directing here at Indiana University. Okay, it's time for a quick break. When we come back, a couple of puppets become a couple of puppets. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Innerstates. I'm Alex Chambers. It's time to go back in Bloomington history for the wedding that, as you'll hear, was called the slacker event of the year.

Alex Chambers:  Christie and Bart are not what you'd call normal people. That's actually kind of their thing. The first time Christie laid eyes on Bart, it wasn't his good looks that struck her. He looked artsy.

Christie Paxon:  And he had this really weird station wagon that said "voodoo" on it, spray painted and it looked kind of broke down, and he always wore, like, an army jacket, but like a Russian. And I was, like, what the hell? You know, he's a contradiction. How interesting?

Alex Chambers:  It's not like they couldn't have been normal if they'd tried, but they were young and they had some issues with the world they were coming into.

Christie Paxon:  I do think that we were giving society the bird, as it were.

Bart Everson:  That was very much where I was in my life at that time. We were producing a television series, which some would way was a giant middle finger to society. Basically, we saw the rampant hypocrisy all around us, and as young people who weren't quite implicated, yet, in that society, just coming of age, coming into consciousness of all that. We were angry.

Alex Chambers:  This is the story of one particular way they decided to give society the bird, and how it came about. But first, I just want to say, when you're young it seems so easy to say you're going to buck the norm and live by your principles. But, then you get older, you come to your senses, realize it was just the exuberance of youth. It's been almost 30 years since this story took place. I think Christie and Bart would do it all over again.

Alex Chambers:  So here's what happened. They were both in college here in Bloomington, and they each took a job as a proof reader for the Columbia House Record and Tape Club. If you were a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s, you'll remember getting mail that offered you this great deal. A dozen tapes or CDs for a penny. Just sign this contract that says you'll buy more at a full price later. The scheme preyed especially on the young and enthusiastic. Is there a metaphor there for weddings? But don't worry, people would scam Columbia House back, sending in the mail order forms with fake names that I can't list on public radio. Christie and Bart were supposed to screen those out, but most of the job was just deciphering people's handwriting and putting it into a form.

Bart Everson:  It was a pretty horrible job. I mean it's horribly boring, wasn't horribly difficult, and that's how Christie and I met. A stupid summer job reading album applications.

Alex Chambers:  It was a stupid job, but they had each other.

Bart Everson:  Yes, we were kind of immediately drawn to each other.

Bart Everson:  She had just broken up with her boyfriend, and her friends had told her looking good is the best revenge. And I thought she did look pretty good, and we became friends. We would, like, have lunch together and we were kind of a little bit different than the other folks that we were working with.

Christie Paxon:  I'm sure we were annoying as hell, you know, to these real people that lived and worked there.

Bart Everson:  To give you an idea, in the lunchroom the bosses had their table, the supervisors, where they would sit, and they had a picture of Elvis taped up on the wall above their table.

Bart Everson:  So Christie and I had our table where we sat with, you know, a couple of other people and we had taped up above our table a picture of a moose that had stumbled into a swimming pool in Canada, and had to be lifted out with a crane. But in order to do this, they had to sedate the moose and blindfold it. So the picture is of this blindfolded, drugged moose hanging on a crane up in the air. That's what we had taped above our table.

Christie Paxon:  So ours was really gross and, like, nasty looking, so we loved it because they hated us and we're, like, okay, game on, you know?

Christie Paxon:  We ended up getting separated because we were talking too much. So, anyway, that drove our love, you know, having someone hate us.

Alex Chambers:  Bart had a girlfriend at the time so they didn't consider each other romantic prospects, just co-conspirators in making the world a weirder place. Once the summer was over, they went their separate ways.

Christie Paxon:  I saw him on campus one time and I was having a party and I thought, ooh, this guy, Bart. Oh, I wonder if he, you know, still likes me or whatever, so, I invited him to my party. And he came to my party but his hair was dyed black and I was, like, whoa, you know, what? Then later I find out he dyed his hair black because he wanted to be cooler for me. So it's, like, yes, yes, yes!

Bart Everson:  And then I would see her around town every now and then and, you know, we went to a few parties together. This, that and the other. But, things just didn't seem to line up.

Alex Chambers:  But the attraction remained. Once Bart had a flat tire, Christie lent him a tire iron, but then she needed it back, or that's what she told herself. He was living in a dorm that was hard to access. The door was locked so she couldn't just go in and ask for her tire iron.

Christie Paxon:  But I saw this, like, bright light bulb, like bare bulb, in a room and, you know, we didn't have cell phones, and I saw some guy in a boy scout uniform, like, sounded like he was rapping and it was him, and I was, like, "Hey, I need my tire iron back." You know, I was, like, oh, yeah. So I think he was making a video or a recording or something for...I don't know what it was, but I always thought, you know, god that guy's...

Alex Chambers:  Smart? Handsome?

Christie Paxon:  ...weird, man. He's weird.

Alex Chambers:  She thought Bart might have been making a video up there, which would have made sense. They both had their own cable access TV shows. Did you catch that? They both had their own cable access TV shows. If you're single, and you have a cable access TV show, and you meet someone who's even the least bit attractive and they're also single and have a cable access TV show, I don't know, seems like the universe has a message for you, especially if both your shows are weirder than Wayne's World.

Christie Paxon:  Today we're going to go dumpster diving. Dumpster diving! You know, it's graduation. Graduation is the best time to go dumpster diving.

Alex Chambers:  So they were both making cable access shows in the basement of the public library. One day--

Bart Everson:  I was sitting out in front of the Mineral County Public Library. I showed up at the library an hour early by accident, and it was locked, so I was just waiting for the doors to open, and who should roll up but Christie in a car. She got out and she was, like, bleeding from her lip and chin. She had just been in a softball game and had gotten one right in the face.

Christie Paxon:  Bart said it looks like a bloody goatee. I took a softball to the face.

Bart Everson:  She was looking for someone to commiserate with.

Christie Paxon:  It was really, like, nasty looking. But Bart, you know, found it amusing and attractive.

Bart Everson:  So the two of us went to the village deli and had breakfast together, and that kind of reintroduced us to each other and we both realized we were both single because my girlfriend had just dumped me and so now we were both available.

Christie Paxon:  That's it, we were together from that moment on.

Alex Chambers:  They were living Bohemian artist lives, scavenging furniture leftover from college move-outs. Eventually Christie decided one of them ought to have some sort of career, and it probably wasn't going to be Bart.

Christie Paxon:  He was still telemarketing. Oh my God! And, you know, he was such a goal-oriented guy, I knew I should marry this. When he made a hundred bucks, that's when he quit for the week. Like if it was Tuesday, he was done. Like Wednesday. A bad week, it would be Thursday, you know?

Alex Chambers:  He needed time for his art. According to Christie, he also needed health insurance. The way she tells it, the decision to get married was mostly a practical consideration. Bart remembers it differently.

Bart Everson:  I still didn't, you know, think of myself as the kind of person who would ever get married, even though I'm not, I was definitely not the kind of person who would date around. I didn't know how to have a casual relationship. It was all very serious, to me. Very serious.

Alex Chambers:  He wasn't into the whole church thing. He'd had a crisis of faith in the Christian tradition he was raised in, not into that whole traditional church wedding scene.

Bart Everson:  I had only just realized, it's perfectly obvious, that a wedding could be anything you want to make it. In fact, it's kind of, really, one of your rare chances that you might have to get other people to play along with your game.

Alex Chambers:  So he proposed.

Bart Everson:  As I was doing the dishes one night, I asked Christie if she would marry me and she started freaking out and laughing like she does...but she said yes.

Christie Paxon:  And then the planning of the wedding, and I was, like, "Ooh, I don't wanna do this because I have to talk to my Mom a lot." She, like, bought me a track suit and I was, like, what, because I'm getting married I'm going to wear, like, matching shirt and pants?

Alex Chambers:  The track suit was just one of the challenges.

Christie Paxon:  And then I'm Catholic, but not really, you know, kind of recovering Catholic. He's very Protestant, but not really. That's how he's brought up, his Mom's a church secretary.

Alex Chambers:  So Christie presented a bit of a challenge.

Christie Paxon:  Having a Catholic in the family is weird for Protestants.

Alex Chambers:  And then Christie's Mom had an idea for buying cups for cheap.

Christie Paxon:  And then Bart was, like, "Well I'm not interested in cups for cheap." And I was, like, "Oh, yeah, this is perfect. Bart and Suzie. They're planning the wedding." So then that got weird, so then we finally said screw it.

Bart Everson:  This is our chance to show society exactly what we think of social norms, and we can subvert every norm possible.

Alex Chambers:  Which is how they decided.

Christie Paxon:  Screw it, it's a puppet show. It's a puppet show. How about that?

Alex Chambers:  And we will find out how about that, right after this break. Be right back.

Alex Chambers:  Innerstates, Alex Chambers, puppet wedding. I can't help but wonder, all these years later, if Bart and Christie decided to do a puppet show because they felt like puppets.

Alex Chambers:  Puppets of religion, puppets of parents, tracksuit wearing puppets of society.

Christie Paxon:  Because we didn't know how to make it happen. How to make it ours and then fit our family into it. Because we were bizarre at this point.

Alex Chambers:  Let's do one more example in case you missed that! They were part of a more life coalition. They'd go to Planned Parenthood and demonstrate for more life than the pro-lifers.

Christie Paxon:  Like every scab you're murdering. You know, women shouldn't menstruate, wasting eggs.

Alex Chambers:  As Christie put it, bizarre. In having puppet versions of themselves get married, they were preventing themselves from being puppets. I mean for one thing they just sat there and watched, at their own wedding.

Alex Chambers:  Here's how it went down. They reserved the auditorium at the Waldron Arts Center in downtown Bloomington. They commissioned friends to make the puppets. They made sure they had their video cameras rolling because they obviously had to put this on their cable access shows. They invited their friends and families. Bart wrote a script. Friends built the stage which Christie painted black the night before. She got paint on her contact lens. They invited everyone they could think of to be in the audience.

Bart Everson:  The local press described it as the slacker event of the year.

Alex Chambers:  And then the day arrives. The audience gets comfortable on folding chairs or the floor. Puppet Bart and puppet Christie appear on the puppet stage. Puppet Bart is tall and thin, with a half-buttoned plaid shirt and a head but not much face, just glasses and a nose. Puppet Christie is short. Her face is delicate. I think it's porcelain. And she has red lipstick and big wavy hair. The puppets speak in rhyming couplets as they meet, vanquish their enemies, fall in love. When they realize they need someone to marry them, a guy in the audience stands up and says.

Brad Wilhelm:  You know, I'd be happy to do just that.

Attendees:  Brad Wilhelm.

Alex Chambers:  So, okay, so here's a question. When you have a real person marrying two puppets, does it hold legally?

Bart Everson:  That is such a good question and, in fact, we address that in the program for our wedding. We said, but is it legal? The exact question that you just asked, and I'm trying to remember my exact words. Something along the lines of, "Who is the ultimate arbiter of human relations? Is it the state, or is it the community?" Now, as a committed anarchist, I can tell you where my loyalties lie, but I wanted to put it to the people.

Alex Chambers:  The plan was to leave it with the community, in the hands of their friend, Brad Wilhelm. But when you're getting married for the health insurance, you also need the state.

Bart Everson:  You know, to be perfectly honest and forthcoming about everything, I have to admit that the day before... see we didn't have all the paperwork in order because we didn't know that it was possible for Brad to be deputized to perform the marriage. And so we went down to the Mineral County and Justice building and had Jim Fielder officiate the wedding as clerk of court the day before. So it was definitely legal, but to my mind that was not the real wedding.

Alex Chambers:  For it to be a real wedding, you need your community. How else do you confirm that no one has any objections? Brad, the guy from the audience who volunteered to officiate, he says he has to go through this formality.

Brad Wilhelm:  We have to do. It's legal. I just check. I have to ask if there's anybody here present tonight who can think of any reason why these two people should not be joined together in holy matrimony

Christy's Ex-Boyfriend:  Hey, yeah? I object.

Alex Chambers:  It's Christie's last serious boyfriend before Bart.

Christy's Ex-Boyfriend:  She was mine before she was yours!

Christie Paxon:  Honestly, I saw panicked looks on faces because we didn't tell my family this was happening.

Christy's Ex-Boyfriend:  Yeah, I know, the puppet show is all beautiful and everything. We're talking about some commitment! A year of my life I dedicated to you, Patterson. Doesn't that count for anything? Christie!

Alex Chambers:  As this point he's reached up and taken puppet Christie's hand.

Christy's Ex-Boyfriend:  What I'm trying to say, say hi. Hi.

Christie Paxon:  He kind of turns around, because his girlfriend, new real girlfriend walks by, and so then he drops my hand and he just goes off so, you know.

Alex Chambers:  Crisis averted. The wedding goes on. Brad tells them to kiss, then puppet Christie says thanks for coming to our wedding everyone. Now relax, unwind, eat, drink and have fun. And they did. There was a party, a local band called Johnny Socko played. People gathered in the parking lot to pass around a joint. The real Christie and Bart got their first fight in at the end of the night. Someone was supposed to vacuum the place, but they got through it. Overall, the public was happy with the puppet wedding. They only had one bad review.

Bart Everson:  It was reported back to us that somebody said, "I give it a year." Like it was just a stunt. Well, we got married in 1993, so, as of this conversation, we're coming up on 29 years. 29 years manacled together in this travesty of a marriage. We have one daughter. We own a home in a city that will soon be under water. So, you know, it's great.

Alex Chambers:  Has that kind of attitude of, you know, that led you to do a puppet wedding, has that played out in your relationship in other ways?

Bart Everson:  I would say so. I mean that was the beginning of my understanding of the power of ritual, and do it yourself kind of ritual. You know, we do a lot of rituals that are kind of unexamined in everyday life, and then we have the kind of big, prominent rituals that are handed down to us by society, or organized religion, or what have you. We see those for sure, but we don't realize, I think, that we can make our own rituals and be creative with it. So, for example, when my daughter was born we had our own naming ceremony, kind of like a baptism on the banks of Bayou St. John, here in New Orleans. It apparently was a very effective ritual because the name stuck.

Alex Chambers:  That one person who thought it was a stunt, I can see where they were coming from. It was weird. But Christie and Bart both insisted that, for all its buffoonery, the public wedding was part of something bigger. The world they were coming into had a lot wrong with it.

Christie Paxon:  At the time we got married, there was no legal gay marriage.

Alex Chambers:  Just as one example.

Bart Everson:  Basically, we saw the manifest injustice of society, the rampant hypocrisy all around us, and as young people who weren't quite implicated yet in that society, just kind of coming of age, coming into consciousness of all that, into an awareness of all that. We were angry and outraged, and we felt that just, you know, feeling that way wasn't enough. We had to express it. We had to speak out about it. We had to do things to try to change the world.

Alex Chambers:  When you're young, you see all the ways the world could be better. You get angry about it. You got on cable access television and make a weird show. You get married using puppets. You know you're never going to stop giving society the finger. But then you grow up a bit. You move to New Orleans, buy a house, get that teaching job you were training for, or go back to grad school and get another equally reasonable job. Bart does faculty development at Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black university. Christie teaches third grade. She chose a school where a lot of the kids come from poverty. She's got them making rap songs now that are problem solving. They didn't keep up the cable access shows, but they're still manifestly aware of the world's injustices. Now, instead of on cable access, you can find Bart every Saturday leading a meeting for earth worshipers in the New Orleans City Park. Puppet wedding or earth worshiping, he's still looking for ways to bring people together, change hearts and minds. He doesn't think he's changed.

Bart Everson:  I see it as consistent. Other people might just see me as crazy.

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to Innerstates from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or if you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at WFIUorg/innerstates. Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up but first the credits.

Alex Chambers:  Innerstates is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our executive producer is John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Lisa Kwong, whose poem you heard at the beginning, Daniel Sappington who will be directing a show called 1970s college sex comedy, The Spring, and Christie Paxon and Bart Everson. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music and Ramón Monrás Sender. Happy Birthday, Ramón. Alright, time for some unspoken sound.

Alex Chambers:  Those were the raaas of Cherry the cat, recorded by Yané Sanchez Lopez. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.

Puppets of Bart Everson and Christy Paxson

A still from the televised version of the puppet wedding (Screenshot from video by Bart Everson)

This week’s episode is about not fitting in. Or maybe it’s about pushing back against the expectations society has for us. We’ll hear about Oscar Wilde being tried for “gross indecency,” or being gay in Victorian England. We’ll also go back to the Clinton-era Midwest to hear about some folks who didn’t believe in traditional marriage but still wanted the health insurance, and why their answer was to get some puppets involved. (That puppet wedding ended up on YouTube, here.) And a poem from AppalAsian poet Lisa Kwong about finding home in Bloomington, Indiana.


Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music, and from Ramon Monras-Sender.

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