BWW Feature: Crafting a Revelation - Behind THE TAROT READING
Two years ago, lying on a couch in the #9 Lounge at the Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria, VA, I was eulogized. I had watched other audience members receive secret family recipes, help rehearse a marriage proposal, even destroy a speed limit sign with a hammer. But the card I drew was Death. So, naturally, I was eulogized in front of the rest of the audience. Some lovely words were spoken. The thing my funeral had in common with all these other short vignettes was the sense that, without my involvement, none of this could happen. I mattered. When it was done, I opened my eyes, took the flower offered to me, and found my seat. The oration was by Quill Nebeker, my Medium for the evening.
Co-founded by Nebeker and Alan Katz in 2016, The Tarot Reading is now in its fifth iteration, opening at Anacostia Arts Center on May 9th. It's a variety show with a series of acts - 21, to be precise, called Revelations - each inspired by a card from the Tarot deck. Each card is drawn at random by our master of ceremonies, the Fool. These Revelations are personal in nature, designed to be performed for and with one consenting audience member. (That "with" is crucial.) The deviser and performer of the piece is called the Medium, the audience member the Seeker. There are several other pieces to the Tarot puzzle, but it boils down to 21 public yet intimate exchanges between a Seeker and a Medium. It's entertaining for the rest of the audience, the Witnesses, but for the Seeker and the Medium, a Revelation is a chance to forge a connection no two people will ever have again in exactly the same way.
I received a unique opportunity to experience something similar to what the Mediums go through on their first day rehearsing The Tarot Reading, called The Draft. Over video chat, Nebeker initiated me into the fold, and I was able to learn first-hand what goes into crafting a Revelation. The first step is to bring eight people together - one Fool, seven Mediums - a mixture of old and new, with a varying degree of disciplines and backgrounds. They're joined by the Summoners, in charge of overseeing and helping things come together - ostensibly the directors, though fundamentally different. The Summoners help guide them towards the final product by way of a multi-tiered rehearsal process. Ultimately, though, Revelations belong to the Mediums.
So what exactly is a Revelation? There are two answers to this question, one theoretical and one functional - we'll start with the former. A Revelation is a three-minute piece of entertainment, partially rehearsed, partially improvised. It's made specifically for the Seeker - a gift. A Revelation has to be entertaining to watch. And, of course, it must relate in some way to the Medium's assigned Tarot card - for example, Death. There are "rules" for what Revelations should offer, which Nebeker tells me is designed to evolve over time with each iteration of The Tarot Reading. However it evolves, one thing is constant: the Mediums must always tell the truth. Though based on the Tarot cards, each with their own facets, no one is really playing a character. These cards - Strength, The Magician, Justice, to name a few - are gateways for two people, and those witnessing, to learn about each other. Whether it takes the form of a Nerf gun battle or a chariot ride or an improvised blues song or something else entirely is up to the Medium.
Putting all this together is a remarkable challenge, one the Summoning team has perfected over time. At The Draft, the Tarot deck is set up snake-style, seeded randomly, for Mediums to draft from. After their cards are finalized, there's a two-week pitch session, where initial ideas are bounced around. Then there are three types of rehearsals:
Alpha rehearsals are first, which take the form of workshops where Mediums refine their ideas with the help of the Summoners, culminating in a runthrough where they see one another's work for the first time. They play Seeker for one another, making discoveries and giving feedback.
Beta rehearsals start the following week; Mediums take their findings and start to build their Revelations' muscles, and start to integrate help from their collaborators as needed. There's a Beta runthrough where outside participants are brought in to act as Seekers.
Finally, Launch rehearsals. Beta feedback is integrated along with tech elements. Then there's tech, final dress rehearsals, load-in and performances.
Nebeker is open about the way The Tarot Reading and its Revelations have changed. When I we talked about his Revelation for Death, he said he would do it differently now: "The Seeker was largely passive and it was too much about me. Maybe the roles would be reversed, or we'd together build a eulogy for [someone else]. It might be more about trying to, in the moment, figure out what was important to the Seeker to memorialize and together find a way to express that to the Witnesses."
Many are dismayed by the notion of "audience interaction," Nebeker included. Not being given the chance to provide your consent can result in moments of misjudged theatricality; they become more about the performer than the audience. With The Tarot Reading, Nebeker and the co-summoners seek to nurture an environment where a performance is a place for understanding and exchange. Part of this is a series of Caveats, disclaimers for Revelations that range from physical to mental to emotional. They are designed to keep audience members safe and help make this environment one where everybody and their stories and truths matter.
Since the beginning, there has been the Sacrifice. Every audience member who enters must give something up that they can't return - it can be money or an object of personal value. Nebeker has been storing Sacrifices from every iteration of Tarot, and now, they will be on display in the lobby of Anacostia Arts Center for Tarot V. When you come, I cannot more highly recommend taking the time to look at the Collection before you enter. The Tarot Reading may have a young history, but it is the culmination of several years and performances' worth of relationship building and trust.
The Tarot Reading performs at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road SE, Washington DC 20020 from May 9th through 26th. The 21 revelations run 3 minutes each. The Summoners are always seeking new ways for audiences to experience Tarot; if this is your first time, you might consider getting tickets for a shorter nine-card draw show, in which Seekers are drawn at random. Learn more, and purchase tickets for both the full show and the nine-card draw, here.
Tarot V features Mediums Gwen Grastorf, David S Kessler, Rachel Menyuk, Toni Rae Salmi, Rebecca Speas, Shaq Stewart, and Yasmin Tuazon. JoAn Cummins is your host, The Fool. It is produced by The Arcanists, Inc., with support from ARCH Development Corporation.
Header image: Justin J Bell performing The Dancer, from Tarot IV