Dreams, deep feelings and the phases of the moon are channeled by Stanford University Department of Theater and Performance Studies' (TAPS) new production, "Beyond the Wound is a Portal," which creators describe as an "immersive musical ritual."
The show, presented via Zoom Nov. 12-14, will be the first full-scale, live production for TAPS since COVID-19 restrictions struck the theater world earlier this year.
Director Haruna Lee and around 40 collaborators (including the seven-student cast) have developed the show together, based on a line by author/activist adrienne maree brown: "dream beyond the wound." This prompt "tells us to use the medicine of our imagination and bring that to the wounded parts of our community," the Brooklyn-based Lee (TAPS' Moher Visiting Artist for 2020-21) explained.
"From there, we really started looking at our own wounds and dreams to mine for content -- there was a lot of deep excavation." What emerged, Lee said, is a fusion of "auto-fictional stories from the cast about the tender ways that wounds and dreams are in conversation with each other," set to an original soundtrack.
According to Lee, though it deals with some dark themes, it's also "a celebration; a time to slow down and check in with yourself," full of playfulness and healing.
The play also takes inspiration from a part of nature that has fascinated artists for millenia: the moon.
"In my experience, one of the trickiest parts (of devised theater) is figuring out a structure together," Lee said. "After much conversation, the students arrived at the eight phases of the moon as a structure for the piece itself." The show is organized into eight parts, starting with waxing crescent and ending with the new moon.
"A big motif for the students was thinking about the full moon -- the brightest moment -- connected to a feeling of darkness and transgression," they said. "The most violent moment of the show happens when there is the most light, while the new moon -- the moment of the most darkness and mystery -- is when we are reclaiming ourselves."
Live theater in the COVID-19 era is full of challenges, both logistically and artistically. Music director Sheela Ramesh, who's currently based in Scotland, said that while technology is constantly improving, it's still pretty difficult to achieve synchronization of musical elements over Zoom. For "Beyond the Wound is a Portal," she and her team are utilizing a hybrid model, with instrumental orchestration and some vocals recorded and mixed in advance and other vocals performed live.
"All of the leads will be singing live over Zoom through at least three or four different pieces of software -- some of which is being created in this moment for this moment -- that we're all knocking on wood will work the way we want them to," she said. Putting all the pieces together has been trickier than anticipated, she acknowledged. "We're excited to be inventing this new form of digital music and it's also a bit scary," she said. The result "respects the limits of our format but also pushes the limits of them."
As for the music itself, it's a blend of pieces composed by students during the devising process. "Part of piecing together the show has been working with the students and other musicians to weave the music they created (independently) into something cohesive that can work in a single show," she said.
A low-string trio of double bass, cello and viola gives the score a slightly off-kilter sound, she said, without a soprano violin leading a melody as it would in a traditional string quartet. Djembe drums and other percussion, a bit of piano, acoustic steel-string guitar and vocals round out the sound, which encompasses ballads, spirituals, love songs and folk numbers, representing the diverse inspirations and backgrounds of the student composers and mixing ethereal and earthly textures.
"My goal was to create a sonic style that respected individual voices but worked together," she said.
Choreographer Sarah Ashkin has also been challenged to figure out the best ways to translate live group movement to Zoom. "It's been a trip to figure out how to dance together … to figure out, how can we all lift our right hands and left hands at the same time, because we're dealing with mirroring. How do we do set design? How do we show that we're in a car, a club, together?" she said. Despite the limits of the virtual format, "I am still searching for that piece of connection that dance brings us."
Costume designer and TAPS lecturer Becky Bodurtha, representing the show's large design and technology team, has had to transcend the physical boundaries as well, helping the actors find ways to best embody their characters and create set design in their own spaces, while also creating digital and animated elements to enhance the visual experience.
With creators spread out across the globe, "We have rehearsals in different time zones; all our eating and sleeping patterns are based around the show," Ashkin said with a laugh.
The show will perform Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m., with access at taps.stanford.edu. Admission is free, with a hope that attendees will make a donation to nonprofit organizations selected by the student cast (listed online).
For audiences, the creators hope the show will also be a time to "be with each other and tap into our aliveness as humans together," Lee said. "We're doing that through song and humor, and lots of wild dream logic and storytelling."
More information is available at taps.stanford.edu.