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Our Books, Our Shelves: Master Of Poisons by Andrea Hairston

So what is it with the bugs, weeds, and wild thing characters?

My origin story as an artist, as a writer, begins in the theatre. My first role at six was a willow tree: a weeping willow who cried for joy at the play’s end for lost children who’d found their way home.

I had to be very quiet and very still for most of the play. A real challenge, but I loved trying to be an ancient tree. I fluttered feathery branches, clutched the soil with woody roots, drank sunlight and rain, and belched oxygen. Weeping willows have been in my heart ever since, and the theatre in my blood, in my spirit. Indeed, I thought I was going to be a mathematician or a physicist — but I ran away to the stage instead and became a playwright and a director.

Through writing, I get to play everybody, their sister, all manner of creatures and beings. Theatre is a rehearsal of the possible and the impossible. Acting is a bridge from self to other. When I direct, I start rehearsing every play with the performers, trying to find that bridge to the trees, bugs, dogs, monster, or robots. The acting bridge will take a person anywhere in the universe. (Do it right now! Stand up. Shake off the screen and find your animal persona, your monster mode, your bug being!) But I get on the theatre bridge to write all my characters.

The performer-body is a portal to other worlds, other times and dimensions. But to journey down that bridge and actually arrive at another world, I can’t get stuck on myself. I have to gain new sensibilities. I have to recalibrate my senses— sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste, my sense of gravity, movement, time, pain, and temperature—in order to experience the universe from the point of view, the physical perspective of the beings I want to write. Otherwise, I’ll just experience what I always experience with a slight slant or new tint.

So, it’s not just the sight, but the seeing, not just the sound, but the listening, not just the space but how we hang in it and how it occupies us, not just what we encounter but how we constitute reality! Once you’ve been a willow tree, you’re never the same again. Ants, elephants, and dogs live in a world of scents. Bees dance to magnetism. Trees make food from light. So how does all that feel?

Around the same time that I was debuting as a weeping willow, my brother and I were hanging dolls—my Christmas present—and poisoning ant-invaders with a potion I cooked up from a chemistry set—my brother’s Christmas present. The presents were gender-coded—what you might expect from the late 50’s, early 60’s. But the dead dolls and dead ants…well, my mother intervened. She rescued the few dolls we hadn’t hung, and they disappeared to a happy life with another little girl. My mother also rescued the ants. She got us an art farm with a glass window, so that we could watch the visitors from another world without torturing them with slimy goop! And thus began my love of social insects and all the aliens among us.

During rehearsals and workshops, I’ve gotten many people to be ants, bees, spiders — the thousand-leggers are a trick! Theatre is where you play with the cosmos, where you improvise with the chaos. You make meaning of the light. You find patterns in the dark. You experiment with who you mean to be. Writing is discovering the bee-person, the mountain-lady, the dog-friend. Hard work. But great fun!

ANDREA HAIRSTON is the author of Master of Poisons, as well as Will Do Magic for Small Change, a finalist for the Mythopoeic, Lamda, and Tiptree awards, and a New York Times Editors’ Pick. Other novels include Redwood and Wildfire, Tiptree and Carl Brandon Award winner, and Mindscape, winner of the Carl Brandon Award. She has published essays, plays, and short fiction and received grants from the NEA, Rockefeller, and Ford Foundation. She is the L. Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Smith College. She bikes year round, meeting bears, multi-legged creatures of night and breath, and occasional shooting star.

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