“eyes & ears,” a Second Stage production that went up in the ’92 Theater this past weekend, is all about what we do with those receptors: take in and perceive the stories of others. A brainchild of Anthony Dean ’17, the show is a collaborative work that explores how we tell stories and how we receive them.
The show consists of four separate “stories,” many built out of autobiographical information from the cast members. Calling them “stories,” as the cast did throughout the process of working on the show, makes sense; they don’t have much else in common besides being the communication of a tale of some kind. The creative team (consisting of Dean, Emily Butcher ’17, Jess Cummings ’17, Susana Hair ’20 and Matthew Klug ’19) played with sight, sound, and space to make the means through which these tales were told varied and eccentric.
The first story began outside with Langston Lynch ’20 dreamily building a structure out of twigs while she sang. Watching her sing under the setting sun was a beautiful start to the show. (It started at 6:30 p.m. to make use of the last bits of sunlight.) Lynch beckoned the audience to come inside, into an intimate and fragmented version of the ’92 Theater. The main stage was not used; instead, audience members sat on stools in the center of the room and turned in different directions to engage with the “stories” as they happened around the room. The show happened within a small space; there were 30 seats, and the stories were happening directly around this grouping of seats, enveloping the space in a tight circle.
The idea for the show came from Dean’s thinking about how stories might be told through the use of design.
“In theater performance, I find myself mainly as a designer, so I wanted to see how the designer mind can create a piece of storytelling,” Dean said.
He amassed a creative team that included poets, theater designers, choreographers, and musicians. The result was an incredibly collaborative process.
“Things were being changed up until opening night, [and] I wanted to make this a thing that we all made together,” Dean said.
The show intended to complicate the notion of a “true” or “untrue” story.
“The stories were based off the idea of, can you tell when it’s a personal story or if it’s not a personal story?” Dean asked. “How do you blur that line?”
The show emphasized that all stories, even the “true” ones, are mediated through one’s own perceptions. Shadows played a key role in one story, with actors performing choreography behind a layer of white sheets, making sounds and motions to accompany a story told mostly through a voiceover about a girl who carried her shadow with her everywhere she went. In another story, the characters were repeatedly shown through large square frames, be it mirrors or windows. In this story, voices were also distorted through a synthesizer, and the story was consistently punctuated by dream sequences, further blurring the line between truth and fantasy.
The final story extended this experiment even further by being entirely made up.
“I wanted to see if I could make something that felt real,” Dean said.
The final product is a gripping rendering of a child’s love of thunderstorms; sparse text was projected onto long white pieces of fabric that rustled with the appearance of wind, accompanied by dramatic, yet somehow calming, video images of downpours and storms.
“The whole show was an experiment, and Story #4 was a big part of that,” Dean said. “The question we asked through Story #4 was, what happens when you take the body out of the performance? What happens when it’s all just digitally projected?”
Dean noted that interestingly enough, this final story was the one that seemed to resonate with people most deeply. He speculated that this might be related to our living in a digital age.
“People have become so attached to the digital, and so much media is consumed that way,” Dean offered.
While Dean says that at times the process of the show drifted away from his initial focus on design-based storytelling, in the end the show looped back around to that concept. Each story was brought to life through its own particular design, and the audience was encouraged to absorb the stories in all of their physical and emotional complexity.
“Everyone who created these stories were also the designers of the show, so all the design felt very integrated,” Dean said. “It wasn’t like traditional theater where you have the text and you slap the design on it. It was, let’s create this design and this text, make it all at the same time, and use it all for the same purpose.”
Dean stressed that this collaborative process wouldn’t have been possible without his creative team.
“I think the process is way more important than the product,” he said. “I wanted this to be an enjoyable process for everyone involved.”
And it sounds like it was.
“Everyone was great to work with,” Dean said. “What I really wanted is to make this work collaborative. I wasn’t ‘the’ director. I had the initial idea and then everyone as a team helped me make this happen.”
The goal of the show was to find ways of connecting with stories.
“There was a lot of discussion about connection in storytelling and stories as a means of making a connection with other people and communicating,” Dean said.
The audience was inspired to make this connection as well, committing to engage with the stories in their unique and varied forms. In one story, a character who’s just come back from spending time in nature says, “One or two colors have come back to my nights…the space and the air to breathe in the colors, rather than hear them.”
“eyes & ears” does just this: It gives the audience the space to breathe in the many different colors of a story, and to move beyond simple, one-dimensional reception of it.