Wesleyan students have a history of pushing theatrical boundaries. In the past, performances have incorporated flowing rivers, abandoned houses, and the occasional accidental stabbing. This weekend viewers are in for another unique treat: “Stories Better Never Told, or, The Library Project,” will be performed in Olin Memorial Library this Saturday, Nov. 2 at the stroke of midnight. I got a chance to sit down with some of the creators of The Library Project, or, as they call themselves, the students of ENGL 000, to discuss what has been going on in the stacks.
The Argus: So, what is The Library Project?
Emilie Pass: What isn’t The Library Project? But actually, it is an immersive theater piece.
Margaret Curtis: An experience!
EP: With singing, dancing, acting, reading, mics, sounds, props, sounds, colors…
Gabe Gordon: It is an adaptation of the Odyssey in which the characters are removed from the world of Homer and placed inside the Olin Library, where they speak and appear through parallel characters from more contemporary literature.
Ben Zucker: More contemporary than Homer, which is pretty easy to be.
GG: In a lot of ways, it was written for Olin. Before we knew it was going to be an adaptation of the Odyssey, we knew we wanted to do a play in Olin. The stacks are such a familiar and simultaneously mysterious and exciting space that are just asking to be performed in. There’s something so theatrical about them.
A: How did you go about getting a performance in Olin?
EP: The library from the start has been very excited about the idea of having a play done there.
GG: Patricia Tully is the absolute homie. She is director of the library, and we reached out to her at the very beginning of last semester to make sure that this was even possible, and thankfully they loved the idea and have been huge supporters of it the whole way through.
EP: Yeah, they couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.
GG: They’re going to come see it, and hopefully they like it!
MC: I’m sure that they will.
A: And how do you think that being in Olin has influenced your project artistically?
EP: It’s influenced a lot of the organizational logistics of it because we’re always aware of the space; we had to hold a lot of rehearsals outside of the space but just thinking about what we wanted it to look like in the space.
And there were a lot of scenes we were working on where we were like, “Oh, this would be great in this part of the stacks!” or, “Oh, this would be great in the basement!” Everyone had the library in mind when they were writing.
GG: Even before we knew specifically where things were happening, we knew from the very beginning that we were using the library as a template for not only the set but also the script.
A: So you’re really all over the library, huh?
GG: Oh, yeah.
EP: It was a big question when we were rehearsing, like, ‘Why does this scene need to be in a library?’ ‘What about the library’… ‘Why can’t it be anywhere else?’ We tried to ask ourselves that with pretty much everything.
A: Why did you choose the Odyssey?
MC: We had a really difficult time choosing a story to adapt at first.
GG: The Odyssey was a very early, initial idea that came to us very easily, but we threw out a lot of other ideas before we settled on it. I know, for me, the Odyssey is something I’ve read a bunch of times and loved. I’m very into epics and mythology.
EP: I always loved the really corny idea that learning is an epic journey, and literature is a journey, and that was something that we really wanted to explore. I think that’s why we’re all doing this project, because we think that academic work is exciting.
MC: It also gave us a lot of creative license because it has a lot of different characters within it that we could use and give to our actors to create.
GG: So much literature has been inspired from this one foundational text, so it just seemed like a really great way to give us a framework to work within that would also allow us to go in so many different places.
BZ: It’s not exactly what you would call a straightforward and direct adaptation of the Odyssey. It’s more the ideas and the universal qualities of it.
A: How’s the creative process been for you? What do you think has been most challenging, most unexpected?
MC: It’s been a lot of fun!
GG: It’s been the most fun project I’ve ever worked on.
MC: We also did it in a really systematic way. We figured out pretty early on that we needed to create; it was going to be a really creative project with a lot of different directions, but we needed to have some sort of very structured beginning in order to make it successful. So we started by making a grid. It was almost mathematical in its genesis, and then it kind of became more creative as we gave ourselves more license to fill in that structure.
EP: The beginning was a lot of very general conversations with the whole cast and crew, just about what we wanted to see in the play, what we wanted to happen, what our concerns were. That kind of became writing workshops, where whoever wanted to could come and write scenes with us.
GG: And then as they were rehearsed, they’d be refined and edited.
MC: You can’t really tell when you’re watching it, but there’s a lot of structure behind what’s going on at any given time.
GG: And with everything we’re saying, we’re like “We chose to do this,” “We wrote this part because….” While everyone had their individual ideas, every single part of this has been so collaborative, which is really exciting. It’s so much fun to work with other people who are excited about the projects you’re working on, especially when they’re talented and fun to be around. But it’s also really exciting to see how your ideas can only be enhanced by other people’s ideas, and they come together in this fully realized project that none of us would have been able to do on our own.
A: Overseeing such a large immersive show can be tough. How do you keep all the people in different locations in sync, running on the same time line?
MC: The grid!
GG: Script-wise, there are a sequence of scenes that all time up with one another. The way that’s actually happening was just Matt’s genius.
Matt Hixon: Well, with the grid, each character has seven scenes that they move through, and they web through with other characters.
MC: So some characters might have scenes together.
MH: And so the way to have these scenes switch around at perfect timings and to help them function as this grid is sound. Sound is the cue to move from place to place. So me and Ben have made a ton of soundtracks for every floor, and that will help tell the actors when to move from space to space.
EP: Yeah, it’s really been kind of a lesson in group problem solving. A lot of the questions, you wouldn’t ask them if you were in the ’92 or any sort of conventional space. We all just kind of had to think of them together because there’s no set guidebook on, “Oh, here’s where you put your audience. Here’s how the audience watches the show.” We just all had to figure it out.
BZ: It’s really opened us up a lot and allowed us to realize how it’s possible to do theater here. Instead of falling into the same presentation over and over again, now we can take the lessons we’ve learned from working in Olin and apply it to places like the ’92, Westco Café, the CFA, Weshop, Foss Hill…
MC: “CATS” on Foss!
GG: “Angels [in America]” in the Center of American Studies!
EP: Basically, what we’re saying is that we have a lot of other immersive, site-specific projects in the works.
A: And how much do you encourage audience members to interact with the space around them, with other audience members, with the actors?
GG: The space around them, a lot! Each other, not a lot. The actors, a lot.
MH: The boundaries will sort of become relatively clear when they go in, I think. Either an actor will engage with you or they won’t. But the space is definitely… there for touching.
GG: Yeah, there’s a design to it and we’ve added stuff to it, but I know I could spend an hour on my own wandering the library just looking at the spines of books, so there’s always something to engage the audience members. Hopefully it will be the actors, but it could be something other than the actors as well.
A: So I’ve heard you’ve incorporated a lot of dance and music into the project as well.
MC: Where’d you hear that?!
EP: We’ve been really fortunate to work with Collective Motion on this project, and they have put together some amazing stuff for the show. There’s also singing; music is a huge part of the show, and that’s been a really fun thing to explore. When do you get to sing in a library, right? Not a lot.
MC: All of your senses will be stimulated.
A: How’ve you been dealing with rehearsals with so much space and so many possibilities for story lines? Do you divide up? Do you follow different characters?
GG: So, our rehearsals until last week or two weeks ago were not in the library; they were in traditional rehearsal spaces or in Art House. So we would focus on each scene individually and then once each scene was written, blocked, and talked about, then we put it into the library. Luckily since we do have a team of directors, we can work on more than one thing at a time, and actors can direct themselves at times too. But we’ve had to get all these things done before we could put them together.
EP: We would also have runs at Art House where we would do all of the scenes that were happening at the same time simultaneously, so that we could experience that, and while that was happening we could say, “Oh, I should be watching x, y, and z, and you should be watching this.”
GG: So I’ve finally seen every scene, but you won’t.
EP: That’s one of the tragedies of the show.
GG: But your story will be unique to you, and it will be exciting because of it.
MH: A huge part of it is the experience that you get from it, and then when you share that experience with all your friends after the show you sort of create your own story.
MC: Yeah, you definitely have to think of it as an experience rather than a play.
EP: If you go in there looking for a first act, a second act, a dramatic resolution, and all the usual character arcs you see in theater, you probably won’t be that happy. There are really well-developed characters who have their own dramatic arcs, but if you’re looking for a big overall story that might be frustrating.
MH: Not a comfort show. Not a popcorn show.
GG: Can I say one thing?
GG: Since it’s so collaborative, we really liked the idea of considering the whole ensemble equal members of a company, so throughout the process we came up with the name, “The Students of ENGL 000” because, for one, we’re really deeply immersed in literature. We’re reading a lot; we’re students; we’re learning. This has been such an educational experience too.
MC: It’s 000 because it doesn’t exist.
GG: But also, if, hypothetically, this team wanted to do another project next semester, we’ve already formulated a process. We know who’s good at what things. We function as a company. Maybe we’ll never do something together again. But maybe we will, and this show is really the product of an entire team’s work.
MC: There also were no normal roles. Everyone took on roles that weren’t just actor or just technical design. People worked hard to pitch in as much as they could in any way.
A: That sounds wonderful. I’m so excited to see it.