A few months ago, while standing in her kitchen, Kate Morris decided to duct tape herself to a chair. She sat down, unrolled the tape into long sticky strips and wrapped them around herself until she could barely move.
"I got done and was like, 'Okay, that was faster than I anticipated. I'm really good at taping myself to the chair,'" she says. "And then I looked over and my cat was watching me like, 'What the hell are you doing?' I could not stop laughing."
Actions of a mad woman? Not quite. Morris, 30, is a Missoula playwright who's been working on her latest piece, Fake Your Death in 6 (Lonesome) Steps, which opens for Missoula's Fringe Festival this week. It's a one-woman show about shedding aspects of yourself that you dislike. Unlike other plays she's written, which involve sitting down at her computer and typing, Morris is creating Fake Your Death through an avant-garde process called devised theater. For Morris, it meant resisting the urge to write anything down. She took a concept and then built the story in increments through spontaneous action and dialogue.
"It's kind of like how you grow brain cells," Morris says. "You create pathways, [with different] concepts. But if a concept doesn't end up working ... you have to prune it. And so I didn't allow myself to sit at my computer and type. I had to do things in my apartment and then figure out why I was doing them." Hence the duct tape and the chair.
Morris has created a handful of spectacular, well-received plays in Missoula, including Venn Diagrams, which explores indecision, time travel and beekeeping, and Qyou aRe Here, which is about aliens procreating. Another, Some Girls Let it Bleed, is about drinking oneself through a breakup. Still, none of her plays are ever about one thingthey leave you with complex feelings about the what-ifs in life and they dig into the most raw, uncomfortable parts of our secret thoughts.
Fake Your Death is the same way, but it was written with more urgency because it stems from a particularly dark period in Morris' life. Last November she had a serious bout of depression.
"I was scared," she says. "It came out of nowhere. I hadn't felt this horrible since a time in my early 20s where I was abusing drugs quite a bit and I had lost myself somewhere. So I thought, 'I don't know what to do about the fact that I don't really want to live anymore.' But one way to deal with these things was by making them into art pieces. I figured visual artists get away with this shit all the time. I'm just going to do it."
The result is a show that looks at suicide from a metaphorical perspective. You could kill yourself by faking your own death, Morris offers, facetiously. And the way you can actually do that is by killing off the characteristics that you don't like about yourself.
"It seems like the optimal plan, theoretically, would be to fake your own death whenever you wanted to," she says. "You could stop being the person you hate and stop living the life you don't want to live anymore. And you can start all over again. And so I had to figure out how to metaphorically kill myself on stage so that I could then be reborn."
As with all devised theater, Fake Your Own Death in 6 (Lonesome) Steps had to grow over time. Morris has been working on it for credit in her graduate studies and in an early iteration she ended up throwing a mid-rehearsal tantrum to the chagrin of her classmates. And then she left the room.
"I never let myself indulge in things like that ever, in life," she says. "It felt really awful doing it. But that was the way I was coming to terms with the ultimate indulgence of self-loathingand loathing for everythingthat is at the root of suicidal tendencies. When I came back in everyone was subdued. I apologized."
Over time, that over-the-top emotion has been cut away and honed. Fake Your Own Death is not emotional therapy in the way one-person shows about serious subjects tend to be. Morris has taken a weighty subject and found a way to keep it from being what she calls "self-indulgent masturbation." There are fleeting moments where Morris' humor comes through, but during its 45 minutes, even in its most serious stages, it's still about telling a good story.
"Certain theater artists set out to do something that really means something to them but they don't understand the various filters that we need to put it through for other people," she says. "It's like being in a relationship. You can't just expect someone to understand your extreme emotional upheavals all the time and still come along with you on the journey. If everybody did that it would be gross."
In the play Morris puts on lipstick, yells, talks to her childhood stuffed animal (in place of her live cat) and, of course, duct tapes herself to a chair.
It's been a terrifying process, she admits, to put herself out there when she is almost always the one behind the scenes letting other actors voice her words. One way of getting around the terror is that, although she plays Kate Morris, the character you see on the stage will not be her, per sejust a version of her. And to make it visually interesting, she dances.
"It's intentionally not polished," she says, sheepishly. "I don't want to pretend I've had several years of dance training and I know what I'm doing. I just need to be a girl trying to dance herself out of a chair."
In her own life, it's also had an impact, which was kind of the point.
"There's no more room for self-loathing as a functional adult who has a lot to live for," she says. "I could spout off some Buddhist shit about why I'm really on this planet, but none of that has practical application except to me and how I use it."
Kate Morris performs Fake Your Own Death in 6 (Lonesome) Steps at the Downtown Dance Collective Fri., Aug. 16, at 7 PM as part of the Missoula Fringe Festival. $1–$9 donation.