Irreconcilable?

UD’s “performance installation” explores faith and reason

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: [l-r] Alexandra Damiani, Michelle Hayford, Jenn Freitag, Luke Frazier and Ohana Garcia-Isgut [center] rehearse for “(ir)reconcilable: A New Devised Play Exploring Faith and Reason”

University of Dayton’s (UD) upcoming “(ir)reconcilable: A New Devised Play Exploring Faith and Reason” is not just a play. It’s more than dance, more than song, more than sculpture. The media used to tell of the link between faith and reason and humanity’s spiritual journey is referred to as a “performance installation” or “devised play” – and is the first of its kind in this area.

“The audience will engage with the performers in an unconventional way,” director, writer and actress Michelle Hayford explained.

Hayford started in the fall as an associate professor of theatre and the new director of the theatre program at UD. Hayford wanted to combine what she does with the unique aspects of Dayton’s culture and UD’s physical performance space. And what she does – or one of the things she does – is write staged narratives based off of original interviews on a particular subject.

Most recently, Hayford scripted and directed “Dog Wish,” a multimedia play about how humans relate to canines, in a show commissioned by the Humane Society of the United States. As an assistant professor of theatre at Florida Gulf Coast University, Hayford had her students help conduct the interviews with animal handlers and lovers. The show used monologue, film, dance and movement to tell the theme.

This time, Hayford chose a theme to coincide with UD’s annual “Rites. Rights. Writes.” series, a campus-wide initiative that includes musical performances, art exhibitions, lectures, colloquia and conferences. The university states the series’ focus this year is “how we all balance faith and reason in our lives … we will focus our community discussion on how arts shape perceptions of social issues and how they create cultural, political and personal change through the dual, but complementary, lenses of faith and reason.”

For Hayford, the writing process started with six separate story circles with students and faculty. Hayford said it was a diverse group, with almost equal numbers of students and faculty representing many faiths, including Catholicism, agnosticism, atheism, Islam and Quakerism. Hayford would pose an idea and ask the circle members to reflect on that.

Among these conversations, four themes emerged. Now, they are reflected in separate sections of the show.

First, the parallel journeys of intellect and spirit, one of the topics Hayford specifically raised in the circles.

Second, a section titled “love never dies,” taken from a direct quote by one of the circle members. This section is about death, but more so the ways in which love survives, how the spirit and soul of a person persist beyond their death.

Third, “Ohana means family,” a section dealing with parents and children. One of the ensemble actresses is Ohana Garcia-Isgut, and during a portion of this section she will dance while communication lecturer Jenn Freitag sings the spiritual, “Motherless Child.”

The final theme is “nature cathedral.” This section concerns finding a connection to the divine in, or through, nature.

The sections do not purport one particular viewpoint, but endeavor to show many relations to these different topics.

“What I’ve found from this is that I appreciate hearing other opposing views quite a bit,” said Luke Frazier, ensemble cast member and UD freshman. “There were some beautiful thoughts from people of quite an array of beliefs, and each one I could relate to myself. I essentially came to the conclusion that faith and reason are the two sides of the same coin. As we utilize both, we find ourselves more aware and internally powerful than ever before.”

The four sections will all be in the main stage, or home space, of UD’s Black Box Theatre. But that’s only a portion of the show. What will follow is something Hayford has always dreamed of, but never been able to pull off – four different sections of the theatre itself, including the wings and the dressing rooms, will have their own art components for the audience to view and interact with.

“I’ve always wanted to do this, but never had a space that allowed it,” Hayford said. “It was one of my conceptual ideas going into the process.”

The four different sections coincide with the four different elements: earth, air, fire and water. “Earth” will be held in the dressing room, which has seven mirrors. Each mirror will be a soundscape for the different chakras, which, according to Eastern beliefs, are energy centers of the body and crucial to overall wellness. It’s a full sensory experience for the audience, as they hear sound, see color and even try on masks representing the chakras.

The “air” room will recreate a feeling of being in outer space, and is meant to inspire the audience to think about the unknown. “Fire” brings up dangerous knowledge – ideas that people can be persecuted for or coerced into.

The “water” room takes its theme from the quote by John A. Shedd: “A ship in harbor is safe – but that is not what ships are built for.” The water room sees our soul as a ship and the journey that it takes.

Each room has three separate narratives associated with it. Some have film and some have kinetic sculpture as well. Since the audience chooses what order they will see the sections in, each member may have a completely different experience.

“Each actor in the room will deliver different monologues at different times in the performance within each room,” Frazier said, “so the range of experiences available to the audience within the play will be pretty large. That’s the human experience though, isn’t it? Although unlike the standard human experience, this one you can come back another night and follow a wholly different path. It’s a beautiful idea really.”

Although the concept and written material is all Hayford’s, she has had massive help from a team of students, faculty and community members.

“I have a wonderful creative team and lots of support,” she noted. “There’s always room in the process for everything to be open to real collaboration. I don’t get too fixated on the design concepts from the start.”

Frazier agreed, “The creative team for this production was really every member. From outfits to lines to organization, everyone has had influence and contribution.”

One of the members of the team is Tristan Cupp, artistic director of the Zoot Theatre Company. Zoot is creating the masks, puppets and kinetic, or mvoing, sculpture for the show. Hayford connected with Cupp after she was “blown away” by Zoot’s performance of “Alice in Wonderland” this summer.

“We are embarking on an exciting partnership (between Zoot and UD Theatre),” Hayford said.

Another member of the local theatre scene, David Brush, has served as dramaturg, doing research and much of the transcribing of the interviews. David Sievers is the music director; Richard Mosley is in charge of choreography; and Jess Urban is the stage manager. Matt Evans and Donna Beran, Lecturers in the UD theatre program, serve as technical director and costumer, respectively. The final ensemble cast member is Alexandra Damiani.

“(ir)reconcilable: A New Devised Play Exploring Faith and Reason” will be performeJan. 30-31, Feb. 1, and Feb. 5-7 at the Black Box Theatre in Raymond L. Fitz Hall, 1520 Brown St. Performances begin at 8 p.m. for all nights except Sunday, Feb. 1, which will begin at 7 p.m. Only 35 tickets are available for each performance. Tickets are $7-12. For tickets or more information, please call 937.229.2545, visit udayton.edu, or “like” University of Dayton Theatre Program on Facebook.

Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at JoyellNevins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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