“Wes Out-Loud: Stories of Place” is not your average—well, it’s not your average anything. It’s difficult to articulate precisely what “Wes Out-Loud” is, in fact. Its website calls it a “site-specific auditory tour,” which is probably the best way to describe it, although it doesn’t quite do justice to the inventiveness of the piece.
“Wes Out-Loud” begins in the Center For Arts (CFA), where viewers are given headphones and instructed to follow the walking tour guides, who lead the audience around campus in bright blue hats to various locations while the audience listens to audio through the headphones. The audio is a soundtrack that combines voices and music to tell various narratives, all written by the seven student collaborators who put the piece together.
Two of the stories are told simultaneously, alternating sentences and indicating the change in story via music; one was told over upbeat, vivacious strains and the other over a more adagio tune. These two are narrated in intervals between the other collaborators’ stories, which play as tour guides show the audience to various installations around campus that accompany the stories being told. The other stories’ topics are predominantly personal and include (but are absolutely not limited to) mental illness, body image, sexual abuse, divorce, and identity. While some vividly recount specific experiences, others are more abstract and meditative.
“Wes Out-Loud” is the brainchild of Assistant Professor of Theater Marcela Oteíza, who brings an extensive background as an audience member in performances much like these. After teaching “Space and Materiality: Performing Place” last semester, a course that student collaborators Ali Jamali ’17 and Jess Cummings ’17 both took, Oteíza decided to put on a production of her own that made site its primary subject. Jamali expressed interest in the piece, and Oteíza took him on as assistant director; Jamali also ended up contributing a story to the collection.
“[Oteíza] is very into street performance and using space, so this was her way of breaking the norm of having the Theater Department show inside in the CFA theater,” Cummings said. “By bringing the show to a new place, she puts a different twist on what you’d think of as a Theater Department show.”
Students were asked to submit stories and articulate in their application how their idea might be performed as a site-specific, transitory piece. Oteíza and Jamali looked over each proposal and accepted all of them, which, along with the piece that Jamali contributed, culminated in a seven-story tour.
Putting the performance together was a more collaborative process than rehearsal is for most shows, as all the writers worked together to decide how they wanted to tell the collection of stories. At first, each story was chopped up into sentences and spliced together, but the group soon realized that this model made it nearly impossible to follow the separate narratives. Instead, they settled on editing only two stories into each other, which also are completed in their own sections toward the end of the performance.
“Most of our rehearsals, for probably over half of the time…were just discussions of how we wanted it to work and revisions of the stories, but also bringing in visual research about the kind of things we were trying to convey,” said collaborator Ceci Cereijido-Bloche ’16.
The writers first worked together to form a coherent narrative that linked the stories together without obscuring each author’s individual voice. They then built installations to go with each story, assisting each other throughout the entire process.
“It’s nice that we’re not solely focused on our own piece,” said collaborator Uma Dieffenbach ’17. “Everybody contributed to everybody else’s piece in some way, whether through building objects or making suggestions, and it’s nice to not just focus on yourself and what you’re doing.”
The balance between collaboration and individual voices is what stands out the most in the performance of “Wes Out-Loud;” while the pieces flow together nicely during the hour-long trip around campus that begins and ends at the CFA, each writer’s piece is highly personal and unique.
The opening stories are written and voiced by Nick Byers ’19 and Key Session ’17. One focuses on a campus-wide search for a VIP guest (echoing the way that audiences are physically traveling all around campus), and the other is more meditative and told in the future tense, offering a particularly gory yet intricately artistic description of splitting one’s knee open in a fall from a bike.
Since each story is so distinct, the mediums and forms that the installations take vary greatly. Some incorporate performance art: During a piece that recounts the author’s experience as a child of divorce, performers ran up and down the stairs outside PAC, dropping red T-shirts into a giant bird cage constructed at the bottom of a staircase. Other pieces rely more on visual art: Tour guides led audience members through Olin Library and indicated certain books to be opened, which are bookmarked to pages on which words are embroidered with yarn. The phrases stitched onto the pages repeat lines from the audio story, linking the narrative with the concurrent installation.
Although the content of the stories is always directly related to the installations, the former doesn’t necessarily correspond to the audience’s location. Sometimes, however, these two elements match up: One story discusses walking down a path, while tour guides lead audiences along the walkway that feeds into Usdan. Another section features the sounds of an out-of-breath person as the audience walks upstairs. The physical aspects of each story are strengthened by the various sites, as the format of the walking tour makes audience members deeply aware of their own bodies’ motion and the space that they occupy.
The other thing that distinguishes “Wes Out-Loud” from any other sort of performance is that it denies constant visual stimulation. While the installations do add an essential visual aspect to the show, the tour focuses more on spatial awareness and auditory elements. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself unsure of where to look sometimes; it’s primarily not a visual presentation, and in many ways it propels audience members into a bizarre, somewhat uncomfortable realm, where entertainment isn’t being provided constantly in front of their eyes.
“Wes Out-Loud” will be running shows Friday at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m., and 5 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. Its inventive, immersive format resembles nothing I have ever seen on or off campus, and it is a unique and unmissable experience.