The fascinating journey of painter Agnes Martin: The Innocence of Trees premieres at Theatre Network’s new Roxy

Maralyn Ryan, The Innocence of Trees, Theatre Network. Photo by Ryan Parkeer.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I would like my pictures to represent beauty, innocence, and happiness…. I would like them all to represent that. Exaltation.” — Agnes Martin

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Theatre Network formally launches the beautiful new Roxy on 124th Street, and their 48th season with the premiere of a new Canadian play about a painter from our part of the world. As we’ll discover in Eugene Stickland’s The Innocence of Trees, the distinctively original abstract expressionist art of Agnes Martin took her on a fascinating journey from a brutal childhood on a rural farm in Saskatchewan to international prominence on the walls of the big New York galleries — from Macklin to MOMA, in a nutshell. And from there to a kind of reclusive stardom on a mesa in New Mexico 12 miles from the nearest paved highway. And her canvases (take note, in the unlikely event you should ever stumble across one) sell for double-digit millions. 

But have you heard her name? Maybe not. Probably not.  

Calgary-based Stickland, a playwright with a long and distinguished six-play history with Theatre Network, never had — not at the time he read a 2004 piece in the New Yorker. What intrigued him first, Stickland says, was exactly that. “How is this possible? I’m from Regina. And when you’re from Saskatchewan, it’s a small artistic community, and we tend to know one another across disciplines.” 

And then there was the inspiration of the late lamented New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s comment that “geography matters,” as he mused on Martin’s origins “up north on the tabletop of the Great Plains.… The god of the Plains is an orthodox minimalist. There is nothing cuddly about nature in that neck of the non-woods….”

As Stickland says, “it’s a part of the world where everything is laid out on a grid; nothing gets in the way.” And that has something to say about Martin’s artistic signature, six by six-foot canvases with airy washes melting over grids. 

Martin abruptly left her New York life and stopped painting in 1967 for a time to wander across the continent in a camper van for a couple of years (and maybe back to Canada) before alighting, in a Martin-esque irony way off the grid. Twelve miles from the nearest paved highway in New Mexico she built her own adobe house, and fired the bricks herself.

playwright Eugene Stickland in the Agnes Martin room at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos. Photo supplied.

Her story set Stickland on his own journey interruptus of discovery that led him, six years later, to the Harwood Museum in Taos, NM, the only permanently hanging collection of the artist’s work. It’s the kind of “serene and beautiful, chapel-like room, refreshing, light-filled” that, as Stickland says, invites a meditative mystical state of mind in harmony with the paintings themselves. 

The conclusion for a man of the theatre as he sat looking at the paintings: “I should write a play.”  

Further drama-inciting discoveries followed. Martin, a lesbian, emerged from terrible, isolating childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, and lived for her 92 years with schizophrenia, at crisis moments signing up for electroshock therapy. “It was the voices in her head who told her to paint grids,” says Stickland, who dove into Martin’s own writing as they tuned to Taoism and Zen Buddhism. “The voices that could be quite sarcastic, and became such a part of her life.…” 

The Innocence of Trees, a decade in the making and opening Thursday in Bradley Moss’s production, has the older Agnes meeting her 10-year-old self, locked out of the family farmhouse all day long by her mother. In a resonant connection, they’re played by Maralyn Ryan and her granddaughter Emma Ryan.   

 “I loved the idea of casting an older woman and a young girl,” says Stickland of the new play Theatre Network was able to commission with the help of the Morris Foundation. It’s the infrastructure of his play Queen Lear, an 80th birthday present to his friend actor Joyce Dolittle, where an aging actor, apprehensive about taking on the most daunting role in the repertoire, enlists a teenage girl to help her learn all those lines. 

As Stickland acknowledges, The Innocence of Trees is a departure for a playwright best known for “funny dark comedies,” A Guide To Mourning, Some Assembly Required, Excavations among them. But the TN production reunites a creative team, starting with director Moss he’s worked with before (“there’s lots going on in this little play”). 

A projection-scape by video designer Ian Jackson played a huge part in Excavations. Live music has been part of many Strickland plays. Cellist Morag Northey, with whom Stickland collaborated (as narrator) on her performance piece 17, plays live in The Innocence of Trees, on top of  underscoring. That’s the joint work of Northey and Darrin Hagen, another Stickland collaborator of yore  (“and an Edmonton treasure” as Stickland says), who’s devised a way to realize the voices in Martin’s head. 

Maralyn Ryan has been in Stickland plays before now, including A Guide To Mourning and Some Assembly Required. True, Maralyn and Emma have been onstage together before, in shows such as A Christmas Carol at the Citadel. And Maralyn has directed Emma, who’s also a director (and choreographer, filmmaker, and writer-in-progress), starting with years of Northern Light Theatre summer camp shows. Theatre, after all, is a family affair chez Ryan (Kate Ryan’s Plain Jane production of Sweeney Todd has just finished its run).  

“But we haven’t worked together in five years,” says Emma of her grandmother. And appearing onstage as different versions of the same character  in the production that launches Theatre Network’s new space is “a dream come true,” both say, in a post-rehearsal conversation.

The subject of Martin’s life as an artist living with schizophrenia is close to Emma’s heart, a recent U of A theatre grad and “an activist in mental illness and neuro-divergent myself, with role models like Brian Wilson and John Nash (A Beautiful Mind).” The stigma attached to schizophrenia is addressed in The Innocence of Trees, she thinks, by the way “it could also be helpful and inspiring for an artist.” 

Maralyn sees the play as “Agnes hoping to find a different version of herself,” and confronting childhood trauma. “Trying to heal the inner child,” as Emma puts it. The abuse young Martin, of all her siblings, endured was physical and also psychological. “Her mother gave her the silent treatment for days at a time,” says Maralyn. And Martin turned inward: “she found inspiration and independence on (a reliance) on the self, her own  thoughts and visions.” 

The mystical thrust of Martin’s thinking is, she thinks, “about feeling and not thinking, experiencing without fear or judgment…. For Agnes, beauty was life, something beyond materialism and competitiveness. And part of her creative process was a brain that wasn’t cluttered.” 

“The process of making art should be happy,” says Maralyn. And the esprit de corps at Theatre Network these days, as the theatre prepares to welcome its first full mainstage season,s is a positive demonstration. 

PREVIEW

The Innocence of Trees

Theatre: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 10708 124 St.

Written by: Eugene Stickland

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Maralyn Ryan and Emma Ryan

Running: Thursday through Dec. 11

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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