Natalie Casagran Lopez
Hooverville: an Immersive Experience is a space where American-ness usurps godliness. It sits on a tract of land in Irwindale, California, four miles south of the MillerCoors Brewery, which you can smell driving down the 210 East freeway through the San Gabriel Valley. The stink of beer enters through the car vents as you pass: warm, dank. Billboards flanking six lanes show accident lawyers and “creamy avocado-ranch” specials at local drive-thrus. Drive further down the 210 and you’ll find sparsely populated desert scenes of tract housing and outdoor malls, further still and there’s always some B-list country singer with a Thursday night steakhouse slot at San Manuel Casino.
For three weeks, Hooverville has held its place among the constant blur of car-world spectacle. Conceived by the London-based design firm responsible for pop-up “experiences” like the “Jelly Belly Escape Room” and “Hollywood Madam” (an all-ages exhibit of Heidi Fleiss’s personal archive), Hooverville landed in the California chaparral with an immediacy that could only equal Much Overflow of Wealth.
Yesterday was a typical day at Hooverville. I shelled twenty pounds of peanuts, the ground around me turning beige. Flakes of nut swirled through the air as I scooped the naked meat into a bowl. Shells piled up like knuckles shaved mid-crack. Even my eyelashes were dipped in flake, crusts on the already crusted divot between my eyeballs and the bridge of my nose.
All the nut dust got me high-thinking about hollowness… cracking peanuts in half and tossing a husk, this vacuous shell-of-a-thing, excavating the—
I sneezed for the hundredth time.
The thick peanut air suspended time as three German tourists walked up to my porch, one trailed by a non-native tumbleweed stuck to a loose thread on his acid-washed jeggings.
“Was macht sie denn?“ the tanned teenage boy of the trio asked the others. A fleck of whiteness shot out the corner of his mouth and lost itself in a mound of beige powder.
I blew dust off my apron and reached behind me, dragging a twelve-quart enamel pot in front of them. I began to slowly stir its ladle, frowning into the broth.
“I’m stuck in this mess, like so many other Americans. Moved west from the plains so the whole family might find for-ch-une, working the land”—My accent was composed and placeless. I meandered as I spoke, lilting my R’s, drawing out my vowels. —“St-oh-ry was an oh-range arr-ah-ived in the Midwest by train, a celebrity passenger. Unblemished, spitsh-ah-ined”—I brushed a stray hair from my forehead and noted the Germans standing still, their arms crossed, hips popped.—“It heralded sunshine and free–”—I paused, stared into the pot—“-dom.” One of them took a lozenge out of his fanny pack and slowly unwrapped it. Menthol peeked through the musty peanut air. I looked at his tongue rolling around in his mouth, and then we locked eyes.—“We arr-ah-ived in California, bones aching from the ride.”
I took a knobby object the size of a baby’s forearm out of my apron, spat three times on it, and wiped it on my sleeve. Ruddy amber appeared through the grime: a carrot.
“Dirty as the devil’s heel,” I said out loud with a wink to my company. I took a bite and continued, “I’m making Mulligan’s stew for dinner, anything we got goes in. Mama jokes that soon we’ll have to stew our boots.”
I swallowed the carrot and gazed at the oldest boy in his lime-green polo, fiddling with the leather fanny pack slung around his shoulder.
“Would you believe I’m only 15?”
When I started working at Hooverville, I was living with my mom and her boyfriend in their two-bedroom townhouse in Azusa, where pomegranate trees grow next to gravel driveways and Christians in cargo shorts and sunglasses tucked behind their heads are around every corner. I had white highlights from a hair modeling job, which Mom tried to fix with a box of henna dye she’d picked up from the 99 Cents Only Store. It turned my hair pumpkin-orange and made me worry—whenever I took a shower—that our pipes were seeping rust.
Mom’s boyfriend worked as a medical supply salesman, a title he thought also stood for medical expert. If I had a headache, he would offer a shrink-wrapped neck brace, “to give my neck a break from holding my head up.” He’d bring food home on Friday nights, and we’d sit at the plastic table on their balcony while he talked about a guy he’d seen doing parkour.
“That shitbrain doing cartwheels off the wall,” he’d say, sucking on a chicken bone.
Mom would drink her ice water slowly and then chew the cubes. I’d touch the white paint flaking off the iron railing and think of actors in rehearsal, bodies in mechanical formation, all of that energy firing off in concealed combustion.
“You ever do stunts, Miss Actress?” Mom’s boyfriend asked me one time. “I saw that WaterWorld show at Universal Studios a few years back. Now, that’s entertainment. You don’t really have the build of a stunt woman I guess, but maybe if you got a tan, learned to hold a gun. You ever think of that?” He spat a piece of cartilage off the side of the balcony.
In Hooverville, I was a daughter in a family of six, a scrap from a Nordic shawl, stewing and sewing and kicking at rocks, my toe popping out of the shoe leather. I was a growing girl. I was American, more American than I’d ever been.
As a performer, I cross-referenced every blossoming thought against the gesture that might best serve it, but my attempts to bring in other Hooverville actors to improvise with me always ended with confusion. Our given scripts consisted of no more than bullet points and three interchangeable sayings according to our role; mine, as Young Woman: “I wonder when daddy will come home” / “I’m helping Mama make stew for dinner. I wonder if we can butcher the chicken today.” / “Days turn into long nights here in our Hooverville. I wonder if I will ever get an education.”
No one wanted to kick rocks with me during our lunch break. I chewed on sticks and plucked invisible bugs out of my coarse shirt, gnawing on a piece of biscuit I’d kept in my pocket for a day as grease-paint-dirty faces gaped at me through the cast trailer window, shoveling pasta salad into their maws while I made up a song about sagging bootstraps and time.
I started acting as a teenager in an Inland Empire magnet high school where theatre was introduced to us as a psychosexual study of ego. As an adolescent nerd and a covert aesthete, I could easily clock myself and any of my sixteen-year-old cohort as “ingenue,” “character actor,” or “forever pre-pube with a smidge of ancient psychic”—the latter, I came to understand, making up about eighty percent of high school drama departments. We were all desperate to know how we were observed.
My years in high school pushed me toward the miasmic sublimation of conservatory; I got used to recording myself whenever I cried, drinking vinegar and cayenne juice instead of eating solid food, designing personal rehearsal warm-ups involving recitations of erotic Medieval poetry spoken rapid-fire in a headstand.
As an undergraduate in the Experimental Theatre Wing of New York City’s biggest private university, daily life was regimented by theatrical drills that swung my energy so rhythmically that I flew along each day on social bursts of performer-ensemble-performer-ensemble. Performing propelled me somewhere below, alongside, and above my own body, where I could observe duration and gesture underfoot, inside of, atop the gathered mass. My eroticism was proprioception: a sensitivity to the negative space between bodies as it turned into teeming, wriggling jolts of electricity.
I worked for two weeks before I decided to move myself into Hooverville. Mom’s boyfriend’s behavior had grown increasingly uncomfortable, asking me if I needed rides even though I had my own car while always somehow sucking on a chicken bone. It wasn’t the first time one of her boyfriends had shifted from treating me like an oddity to a poster hanging on his basement wall. This time, however, his behavior aligned with my growing desire to give myself more fully to Hooverville.
After all, my philosophy has always been to uphold continuity; an actor is a vehicle of time and our ipseity an ongoing event. So, I decided I would live this rendition of the Great Depression through its unnatural course. I told my mom that a coworker had a room open, accepted the Diet Pepsi she handed me over the back of the couch, and headed to the fake shantytown.
I’d started digging a larder on the second week we were open to the public, filling it with snacks I’d pilfered from the cast trailer. I’d discovered, too, that I could exit with the rest of the cast at dusk into the parking lot, say out loud to no one in particular that I needed a walk around the Santa Fe Dam, then scramble back through the rock quarry to slip in behind the utility buildings. Industry builders and painters had used standard theatrical methods to create the illusion of abject poverty—even the generator building was painted as a trompe l’oeil mural of clotheslines hung with dirty, droopy socks.
On the eve of my move-in, I drove out to the dairies of Chino and grabbed scrap materials: rusted tin, worm-eaten wood. One piece of siding had the word “LIVESTOCK” stenciled on it in fading white letters. I leaned this on the interior of my set-shack, hiding the raw frames to give the illusion of total construction. When I lay my head on the ground at night, my thoughts were constructed, too.
Sleeping in Hooverville, I became the moment in between the onstage choice. The moment when an actor has to pounce on the elevated present moment, to enact the fiction. The moment when an actor waits for their audience to settle before launching into monologue. Living in Hooverville, my mind became so accustomed to its environment, my thoughts sprouted in the dirt and grew. There was nothing of my previous life to contribute to the experience, only the fiction I’d outlined. I forgot my training; my only task was to react, which I did, with the dedication of an amnesic addict.
Not everyone understands that what you have to hold onto in order to act out the Great Depression is a genuine hope, or rather, a need for an alternative history. You have to perform it for the farmers who could have whiled away their golden years skipping stones across bucolic ponds instead of building junk idols of Hoover to immolate on their depleted soil. For a history of bellies grown plump with nourishment and hands left to tinker instead of petrifying while trying to match the speed of a factory’s machine. Playing the Depression means playing hope as a cliff you fall off every day.
Each day was an opportunity to struggle toward purpose. I built a throne out of cabbage leaves next to a pile of slack tires and came back every day to watch the leaves rot. I pounded my chest and sobbed for Our Heavenly Father while a fifty-year-old community theatre actor hired to play the local drunk rolled his eyes at me. He’d perfected a wet hiccup, but I’d caught him sliding his iPhone out of his hand-shredded culottes as soon as a tourist woman turned the other way, her boyfriend taking a selfie while the 1930s played out next to a freeway.
On the fourth day of living in Hooverville, a busload of ninth graders on a field trip arrived. The actors near the main entrance rolled fake cigarettes and spoke canned dialogue about the common man while the teenagers took turns trying to make them break character. Something about the way they so naturally performed for each other, pouncing on each moment with guile and precociousness, stood in contrast with the layabouts’ color-coordinated costumes, distressed at exactly the same spots on their knees and elbows.
I crouched behind a metal trashcan bearing a sign with information about Hooverville’s recycling program, spying on the vibrant youth. The intensity of this audience’s unconquerable attention burned through me, and I felt I had to prove the worth of our environment. I needed the teenagers to know that we were not just actors; we were authorities.
“I need a doctor,” I sputtered, emerging from my hiding spot, crawling on the ground towards the kids. I began clawing at my abdomen, coughing so hard that tears streaked my face. “I need a doctor but there aren’t any here!” I lunged at a small boy, separated from the rest. He smiled and pulled at the bottom of his shirt. “Are you a doctor or are you just one of them city folk come to photograph?” I released him, dug my fingernails into the dirt, and pulled myself over to a pair of floral Doc Martens on a chubby girl with green hair. “We need so much but we don’t have—we need so much, but we don’t have”—I gulped—“we don’t have anything. All I’ve been eating are stewed tomatoes, potatoes, biscuits you could break a tooth on. All the babies born in Hoovervilles won’t know water from milk. All the men in here are filled with drink. Oh, I need a doctor, my belly’s on fire!” I twisted my neck from side to side, gasping at the crowd.
The teenagers were slack-jawed. A couple of girls held onto each other’s waists. A pimply boy slowly pulled a fidget spinner out of his pocket and started fingering it, his eyes darting, gauging an escape route. The other actors were visibly annoyed, jaws clenched, but they kept quiet, spitting a tobacco-free herbal blend from between their lips, biding their impoverished time.
“Um… is she okay?” someone whispered.
I turned onto my back, a supine animal, my belly rising and falling in shallow breaths. “Does Papa know his daughter is angry? Does Mama know her daughter is angry? Does Hoover know my family is hungry? This Hooverville is a crumb in the universe, and we are ants carrying the crumb’s weight.” I started grabbing clods of dirt and smashing them against my body. “Do you hear that? Do you hear that rumble? My stomach is roaring for something, anything! Anything but nothing, which is all we got. All I got. Nothing.” A clod smashed against my hip. “Nothing.” A clod smashed into my matted hair. “Nothing.” A clod thrown into the sky so the dirt fell into my eyes and mouth. “Oh, oooh… I am tired.”
For a few seconds, I lay still, blinking away dirt, spitting out small pebbles, and then, I started to cry. A slow sob building into a detonating, full-body wail. “Ooooohhhhh… damn Herbert Hoover to Hell. Damn. Herbert Hoover. To Hell.”
I held this state of roiling exhaustion to give the teenagers opportunity for reflection. Someone coughed and then I heard a whimper, which quickly became a spasmodic cry. Turning my head slightly to the right, I saw teens circling the source of the noise: the Doc Marten girl, holding her face in her hands and shuddering.
“Sara, what’s wrong?” Her friend asked.
“I… I just… It just makes me so sad. I just can’t believe this all still exists.” Sara was crying and shaking her head. “Please, just leave me alone.” Those around her patted her shoulders, whispered to each other, and looked nervously back to me.
Sara, in her willingness to mirror—in her refusal to remain my mere audience member—upstaged me. Upstaged all of Hooverville by throwing it into global relief. She repurposed my contrived misery as her own real pain and, in doing so, refused to displace history.
I had no choice but to abort the scene. I pulled myself off the ground, hunched over, and shuffled back toward my home of slanted imitation.
There is a Roman saint and chronicled actor named Genesius who, while staging a satirical play about Christian rites, experienced a visitation from angels as the mock-holy water doused his head. Genesius could not ignore the moment and broke the fourth wall in front of the pagan emperor, claiming sudden devotion to Christ. Genesius, the clown who finally clued into sublimity, lost his head before he could receive a final ovation.
When I was near the end of my schooling in New York, after what felt like a lifetime of observing and enacting, I had started to slip further and further away from having any sense of knowing who I was. Every day I desired a shock to my system that would affirm the dissonance of life and my perception of it. I thought that meant a curtain rising and dropping in front of my vulnerable body. By my twentieth birthday and a semester-long apprenticeship with an East Village commedia dell’arte troupe, I’d decided that, after graduation, I would pursue becoming a professional clown.
Then, I moved in with Lieb, an actor from my undergraduate program. We vowed, as roommates, to push our training further, even as our opportunities and breakthroughs slowed in the slump of post-undergraduate life. I worked in the box-office of a downtown theatre and during shows would analyze the scripts Lieb would drop off on his way home from working as a “manny” to a stunted seven-year-old boy in Tribeca. Mornings we’d do Tai Chi and on my late evenings off we’d sit on our stoop and run Meisner exercises. Lieb would look at me and say, “Brown eyes,” I’d repeat it and he’d repeat it back and we’d go on like that until eventually I’d say, “You’re not looking at me anymore.” Then we’d repeat that until Lieb spoke it in a whisper.
We had begun a character study of the levitating man at Tompkins Square Park and derived, in rehearsal, his counterpoint: a woman living in a tree over the park bathrooms who watched him levitate every day and yearned for him to someday reach her. One day, we were meditating in the park—imagining a beam of light shooting through our skulls, down our throats, along our intestines, and out our anuses, planting itself in the ground while our speared bodies moved upward, upward, upward—when I felt something touch my knee. I opened my eyes and saw Lieb’s hand. He told me he was in love with me. I made him repeat it three times, since it was the only impossibility I had never imagined.
The Lieb in front of me was merely himself and seemingly unfamiliar. I saw his glassy eyes, his whisker-ish facial hair. I saw a twenty-two-year-old with $40,000 of debt and the sufferings of an actor, not of a worker. A young, confused man in love with me, telling me he was in love with me, in a park, in New York City. And I couldn’t look at him anymore.
For one week I pleaded for distance, for a return to character. I asked that he not forego our creative contract. I told him to think about the levitating man and the woman in the tree as a model, how we knew, as their creators, that they were never going to meet. That their trajectories, their ascensions, were separate.
At the end of the week, he told me it wouldn’t work and that he’d given up on our relationship. I asked if he meant he’d just given up on a romantic relationship or if he’d given up on our performance. He asked, “What’s the difference?”
I left New York not long after, like so many do, worn down to the suburban nubs I came toddling in on.
In two weeks, Hooverville, my transient home, will be shuttered, debris carted away and its deliberately misshapen hovels trimmed to their skeletons, repurposed as stalls for the sale of ribbon garlands, corsets, and wooden swords. Time will be swallowed in a bigger gulp, the 1930s becoming the 1400s, give or take a century or two. In two weeks, this will become the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, filled with spilling cleavage and men so drunk they forget if they’re supposed to pronounce it pleasure or plea-sjzoor as they sup from tumblers of ale and pass out in droves under the bright sun. Some of the Hooverville actors have already signed their contracts to stay on, eager to move past what they collectively consider to be bummer roles, limited by the lack of showmanship that is failed American infrastructure. The Renaissance gives actors the opportunity to play big.
I’ve requested my own contract but was told by management that it is pending. They mentioned something about looking into feedback from the rest of the cast. But I know I plan to stay on regardless, using my secret entrance to join the performance if necessary. If I am playing the Great Depression now, what’s to stop me from playing the plague tomorrow?
At night, I dream up a costume of a dense black cape and an enameled beak. As a plague doctor, I could scythe through crowds letting frogs loose, warning of commingling spirits, swooping in on acne-ridden faces to douse their pustules with Four Thieves vinegar. I’ve already been living here, in the dirt. That’s the key to playing the plague: immersion in muck while believing muck’s not the problem.
When actors existed in the past, they relished the interpretation of text and offered this gift to their audience. Actors were heretical, upstaging Godly presence with their own. As an actor in the twenty-first century, I struggle to find meaning to give. Is the estrangement I feel toward myself and others what allows me to fake being? Is an immersive experience not the practice in artifice that so many New York actors train for? Is the yearning that drives character less life-giving than a real admittance of love? I ask myself these questions while I wait for Hooverville to be demolished.
But definitive answers elude me. All I know for certain is this: history is riddled with want and fiction.
Natalie Casagran Lopez
is a graduate of CalArts’ School of Art and is currently an MSW candidate at Hunter College. Her writing has appeared in Fanzine, Maudlin House, and jubilat. She resides in Brooklyn, NY and can be found at nataliecasagranlopez.com.
Art by Luda Pahl
“Blue Face in Two Parts”
Medium: Mixed media collage
Born in Russia and educated in the Republic of Georgia, Luda Pahl is an artist, dress designer, book illustrator, translator and art teacher living in New York. She received an M.A. degree in Art and Design from the Academy of Art in Tbilisi, Georgia, and attended the Parsons School of Design. She has been awarded a grant for her collages from the Queens Council on the Arts. Her work has been exhibited in numerous galleries in New York City, in Huntington, Long Island, and in Monmouth Museum, New Jersey, and her illustrations of prose and poetry have appeared in chapbooks published by New Feral Press. Find out more at http://ludart.net.