Last year at this time I posted an article and interview with Isey Oster, at (then) age ll our youngest Spirit Group stilter performing in All Souls Procession and the Grand Finale of 2009. Now meet Barbara Bixby, at age 58 our eldest Spirit Group stilter! Barbara has been performing in Spirit Group since 2007 and took up stilting in 2008. This year will be Barbara’s last in Tucson –she’s leaving the day following the Procession!– and we will surely miss her and wish her all the best in her new life. Keep on keeping on, Barbara. We love you!
jhon: How did you get involved in all of this? How did you get into stilting, and did you have any prior experience before Spirit Group?
Barbara: I had no performance experience at all. One year I signed on for Spirit Group; I’d gotten an email saying they needed people to be Spirit Guides, and I thought, “well I can do that”. It was an extraordinary experience! To be part of the performance –which really sort of freaked me out but was very interesting– but also the idea of carrying the small urns and taking people’s contributions, things they wanted to burn, and talking to people before and during the Procession, and sort of protecting the Urn by creating sacred space. I just got it on a sort of visceral level.
But what really turned it for me was when we went to dress rehearsal on the docks and I saw the stilters….they were so cool. And I remember standing next to Paul (Weir, technical director for Flam Chen and the Grand Finale) and looking at him and saying, “I’d really like to do that”. And he said, “get me a pair of your running shoes”. So I showed up at Epic cafe, he was there and I gave him the shoes and he said, “thanks”. So I went away, and then later he called me and said “they’re ready”, and I said “what’s ready?”, and he said “your stilts are ready”. So I went down and got fitted, and he said “okay, let’s go across the street to the park”. I said, “now?!”, and he said, “yeah!”. So we went over and he sat me down on a picnic table and showed me how to strap them on, and he hauled me up and I was terrified. Absolutely terrified. But he sort of talked me through it –I remember clinging to a chain-link fence and I wouldn’t let go. It took me most of that summer, and there were lots of stilters around; I’d stretch out with them and then I’d go off and do my own thing and hang on to this chain-link fence, sort of walking around. And then Nadia (Hagen, artistic director for Flam Chen and the Grand Finale) came over one day and she was on stilts, and said “okay, we’re going to walk around the park”, and I said “i can’t do that, Nadia”, and she said “put your hand on my shoulder”; and Paul came over and took my hand and then she said “okay, here we go”, and oh, my god! We walked around the park.
If you walk, you can walk on stilts. I mean, it’s about paying attention because you have to remember to pick your feet up, but it’s really the same thing.
And then that year (2008) we ended up being four-legged stilters, which is more stable, but it’s very demanding on your shoulders and upper body. And I loved it. The costume is such that I could be hidden –we had masks on top of our heads and we would put our heads down– so we were creatures, and you can do really different things with creatures. I remember we went to Little Angels and interacted with children, and they just loved us. And I thought, “oh, I get it, I get it.”
So last year we started training and I said to Nadia, “i’d love to be a four-legged again”. And she said, “well I have a character but it’s going to be the only four-legged this year and it’ll be a big deal; could you do it?”, and I said “sure”. And that was the Queen, the Praying Mantis. That was tough, I really trained hard for that. The individual pieces of the costume were not heavy, but combined; the wings, the head, which was very large.
But because I had done the four-legged the year before, I knew kind of how to move like an animal. It was amazing. And I got to stand in a circle of bagpipers while they played full-tilt….made my heart stop. It was beautiful.
jhon: What kind of training is involved in this type of stilting that you’re talking about and with a heavy costume like that? What kind of body conditioning?
Barbara: I run quite a bit, so I have pretty good cardio-vascular. We walked the route a number of times and that helped a lot, and I wore the wings a lot, because that was the most awkward piece after the head. And I just did real basic stuff, I did a lot of yoga, I did upper body work. It’s really about core muscles so I did a lot of abdominals. But it wasn’t horrible. I mean anybody who can walk….i feel like i’m giving away a secret, but it’s not as hard as it looks. I do think that lots of different sorts of people can do this.
jhon: So once you got into the stilts, what did that do to you? I mean how did that make you feel?
Barbara: Well, i’m a short person, and on stilts i’m not a short person, i’m head-and-shoulders above the rest! So that’s pretty fun. The four legged stilters, I think what’s so wonderful about those is that you do become a creature, you begin to realize how a creature moves because of opposite arm-opposite leg, and there’s a rhythm to it that’s really interesting. When we did the Barong and the music was the gamelan, we created these creatures and said they were herd-animals that took care of each other, and so the group of us really worked on choreography that would manifest as characteristics. We got to not only not be ourselves but to be a completely different being, and move in a way that we normally don’t. It’s really wonderful, it’s quite extraordinary.
jhon: Do you find that stilting and performing has informed your day-to-day life in any way? What kind of feedback has that provided for you?
Barbara: I’m a lot more aware of community art, and the different things that go on in Tucson, I pay a lot more attention to that. Also, all my friends come to All Souls now to see me, or sometimes they come to dress rehearsal for the Finale, or the rehearsals in the park. So they get to see what’s going on, and they get really engaged in it, and then they tell their friends. I think it’s very much a word-of-mouth thing about All Souls, what it is and what it means. And each year there’s been someone in my extended family who I’ve lost, so each year I think about the process in terms of its real meaning, loss and change, and the spiritual end of All Souls. People see it as theatre, and it is, but it’s ritual. It’s really about the intention, and I think that’s very important.
jhon: And speaking of change, you’re about to move to New England, on the day after All Souls no less, and start kind of a whole new phase of life; are you taking any of this with you, or do you have any idea?
Barbara: I certainly will pay attention to the art scene. I want to eventually land in Portland, Maine, and they have a very vibrant art community. I don’t think they have stiliters, but I don’t know yet. I’ll find out! So maybe it’ll be a way of helping start a new festival, make something else that would be similar but different from All Souls. I think each location has its own flavor –Portland isn’t Tucson, and that’s fine– but there could well be something that’s worth fostering and creating there.