Playwright and Composer
Sharmon J. Hilfinger (playwright)
and Joan McMillen (composer)
Arctic Requiem is the fifth collaboration of playwright Sharmon J. Hilfinger and composer Joan McMillen. We met in the modern dance studio of Judith Komoroske where Sharmon danced and Joan improvised live piano music for the classes. A whimsical request by Sharmon to try piano / violin improvisations with Joan initiated what has become a long-form 16-year improvisation creating dramatic plays with music. Having met in a dance environment, it is not surprising that our style blends music, text and movement for the stage.
Our work is bound by a shared desire to uncover aspects of a feminine perspective that are buried in the American it’s-all-about-business culture; a desire to re-balance the scales heavily skewed toward the masculine (ironically compounded by strides made by the women’s movement).
Digging into this topic led us to ponder why we call our planet “mother earth.” Together, we investigated environmental issues. We questioned our cultural bias to manipulate nature. We wrote our first play with music, Imaginal Disks: A Tale of Transformation, about a motherless girl with learning disabilities. Her well-meaning father, who works for a hybrid seed company genetically engineering corn for more successful yields, wishes he could similarly manipulate his daughter for success. The plays examines questions of nature versus manipulation, tamed versus wild, creative imagination versus destructive imagination. This play premiered the week of 9/11/2001 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts.
In the face of the 2003 Iran invasion, we wrote Got Water?, a not-so-futuristic play about the scarcity of fresh water in a high school where students have to line up to get rationed water, and live with drill practices for Orange Alert threats to their safety. The play was performed with a high school cast at the San Francisco Fringe Festival.
Next we turned our attention to one of the most enigmatic female figures in American literature: Emily Dickinson. With the help of two sponsored retreats from the University of Oregon Spring Creek Project, we pored over Dickinson’s poetry and the many tomes written about her. What did Emily, secluded in her home for most of her adult life, have to teach us about being a woman dedicated to the creative process? We found a tender story about the circumstances that preceded and pushed Emily into her creative seclusion. Joan set Dickinson poetry to music and with the help of director Rachel Anderson and a fine group of actors, we created our first truly ensemble piece, Tell It Slant. This premiered in 2009 at the Pear Avenue Theater in Mountain View and was remounted in 2010 at the Southside Theater, San Francisco.
But what about a woman that is creative, sexually curious and active? What could we learn about navigating and negotiating our private lives with our artistic lives (seclusion being neither practical nor desired)? We delved into the stories of Georgia O’Keeffe, a woman who became an icon for the women’s movement when critics touted her work with baffling pronouncements about the femininity of her painting. When faced with the O’Keeffe estate’s refusal to allow reproductions of her paintings on stage, we decided to represent her painting through music and movement. With director and choreographer Jake Margolin and our ensemble of actors, we created our most successful work to date, Hanging Georgia, which premiered in a co-production with TheatreFirst at Thick House, San Francisco in 2011 and was remounted in 2013 at the Pear Avenue Theater.
Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina is an uncanny convergence of material. We return to the environmental issues of our time, and we continue to write about a (most lamentably) historical character. Luke Cole is, as Joan puts it, “a hero of the earth.” There are not many men of our time who can bear that mantle. We have entered this project with the utmost respect for the Inupiat people of Kivalina. We were lucky to spend a week in the home of Janet Mitchell in Kivalina, and we have been humbled by what we have learned of their history and their traditions. For this, we are most thankful to Luke for taking time to tell the story to Sharmon that sparked the engines for this piece.