I used to have a recurring dream about natural disasters. Floods, earthquakes, landslides, but most often about tornadoes. Each dream was different, had its own kaleidoscopic magnificence, but the basic narrative remained the same. I must face a band of tornadoes advancing across the prairie. I could see them coming, dropping out of the sky in the distance to wreak its havoc on the ground. Sometimes I ran, sometimes took shelter, sometimes the tornado passed without touching down. I woke up every time before my world shattered. An important part of the dream was seeing it coming, knowing what could happen, hoping the random destruction would miss me, and waiting for it to be over.
Clearly these dreams were about anxiety. I had one the night before I started the Composer-Librettist Studio, a two-week workshop of writers, composers and performers brought together to feel out the contours of collaboration and create new work. Inspired and still frightened by my latest tornado dream, I created the character of The Weatherman – a supernatural, super-hero version of myself. And why not, I was the writer, and should make good use of this anxiety.
Tornado Dreams had its genesis in this character development. The Weatherman was its first iteration, followed the next year by a living-room opera I worked on with composer Steven Houtz. I added more characters and came to love them as much as my first-born. I wrote that version knowing it would be set to music, every line sung, and a piano accompaniment. Later on, I took the music out it, re-wrote it, and now Turn-to-Flesh will usher this version out onto the prairie.
I always knew there would be a spoken-word version of my tornado dream. I’m delighted that Turn-To-Flesh recognized me as a kindred spirit and sees the same possibilities I do. The heightened language, the ensemble nature of the characters, the musicality expressed just short of song and instrumentation – I can’t wait to see what they come up with!
I haven’t had a tornado dream in a long time. And I actually have never seen a real tornado. (I want to, and I don’t want to.) I’ve studied them, voraciously read news stories of some of the big ones. I was nearby for a couple of the classics – Barneveld, Wisconsin in 1984, and St. Peter, Minnesota in 1998. One of the Claims Adjuster’s lines – “… livestock pierced by trees, by trees” – came from an eyewitness in Barneveld. The randomness of a tornado’s destruction, even more than its power, fascinates me. But the Claims Adjuster also says – “Conditions are always ripe for tornadoes.” So maybe it’s not so random after all. Preparation may be futile and Doppler radar useless. And what about all of us as the Dreamer, dreaming our own reality whether we are aware of it or not? There are so many themes to explore, and Tornado Dreams may have several more iterations ahead.
Anne Dimock is currently workshopping her spoken opera Tornado Dreams at Turn to Flesh Productions. Come see.