Performance

Wandering a Hollywood Film Set Destroyed by California’s Second-Largest Fire

In Fire Season, Monica Miklas invites you to the remnants of Western Town, a faux Wild West village formerly nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Fire Season by Monica Miklas, produced with Capital W (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — I stood in the remnants of a Hollywood film set that had burned down in 2018. It was sunset, but the temperature was still in the 90s, and sweat soaked through my shirt. I wore a set of headphones, sterilized and borrowed, and listened to a woman tell me about the history of Paramount Ranch. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, this was a film lot where Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich perfected their craft. Western Town, built in the 1950s as a permanent cowboy oasis, was used in television shows like The Cisco Kid and Westworld. The village was destroyed by the Woolsey Fire.

I had come to the burn area nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains for Fire Season, written and performed live by Monica Miklas for the immersive performance group Capital W. The monologue, broadcast live via an FM-transmitter while you walk freely through Paramount Ranch, encapsulates Miklas’s thoughts on climate change, mythology, her family, motherhood, and future generations in an uncertain era. During the performance (which runs through the end of the month), Miklas told us that when she finished the script in early August, she wondered how long 2018’s fires would hold their records as the largest in California’s history. Three days later, the August Complex Fire shattered them.

The chapel is one of two structures still standing in Western Town after the Woolsey Fire.

The only structures left in Western Town are the chapel and the train depot. The rest of the burn area was fenced off with orange lattice, commonly found on construction sites, and populated by a murder of crows. Beyond the set, many trails lead up to the Santa Monica Mountains. But the FM transmitter acts like an electric fence. The transmitters only have a range of about half a mile, usually less, and when I began to wander too far, Miklas’s words turned to static, crackling like fire.

But the reception was fine if I went up, and so I climbed a trail, huffing and wheezing. The Air Quality Index was 204, and according to my phone, “very unhealthy.” There were four others attending Fire Season with me, but with the large landscape and the encouragement of social distancing, it was almost like I had the park to myself.

The burn area in Western Town was fenced off with orange lattice.

I listened to Miklas guide us through geological epochs, detailing new layers of plastic stratosphere fusing into the Earth. She spoke of myths, of Achilles and Persephone, and a story of a woman who ran from a wolf, only to be saved by a red fruit that turned to flames.

Milkas also spoke about love, the home her parents had to evacuate in Ventura County. She reflected on motherhood, asking, “Do you know what it’s like to be a mother? To create a body bound for death?” 

Monica Miklas delivering her live broadcast in her performance Fire Season 

Towards the end of the broadcast, Miklas invited us to sit with her. She addressed our small circle of eager listeners like a camp counselor telling ghost stories to children. We wrote short notes to our congresspeople, urging them to take action on climate change, and dropped the postcards in a box so that Capital W could mail them for us.

At the beginning of the broadcast, Miklas asked us to look at the ground below, to lean down and grab the dry chaparral that scratches our palms — the perfect kindling. She urged us to look at the trees that still stand, trunks scorched, many choked by a bright pink ribbon signifying that they were soon to be chopped down.

But there is life emerging in the Santa Monica Mountains. New wild flowers, pink and purple, punctuate the burning orange landscape, waiting for the next lick of flames.

The pink ribbon signifies that trees will soon be chopped down.

Monica Miklas’s Fire Season takes place every Saturday and Sunday at Paramount Ranch (Agoura Hills, California) through October 25. You can purchase tickets here.

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