Danse Macabre: Opening of the theatrical season with ‘Everybody’
On this fateful day when we face death, who or what will stand by our side?
The central question of human existence is the beating heart of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Everybody, which opens Spring 2021 at Binghamton University theater season with performances broadcast live from March 18-21.
A modernized adaptation of the 15th century moral play Each man, Everybody is highly allegorical and contemplative but also comical and addresses contemporary issues such as racism and social justice. Written by an African-American playwright based in Brooklyn, the play was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for theater.
Directed by Associate Professor Elizabeth Mozer, the show features non-human characters, as well as the titular Everybody, who seeks a companion to accompany them on their date with death.
“Everybody is the artistic embodiment of the three essential questions of philosophy: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going to go?“ said Yangzhou Bian, a first-year master’s student in theater.
“This play tackles these questions head-on, and if no one has all the answers, our approach to these questions can teach us a lot about our relationships with others, the world around us and ourselves,” added Patrick. Saint Angel, second year student. English and sociology major playing the title character.
The mechanics of an online show
A year after the onset of the pandemic, the theater program continues to adapt to circumstances most playwrights never envisioned: an all-digital theatrical experience.
Like last season Macbeth, the actors will perform safely in separate spaces with sets, costumes and props made and managed by the students. Currently on the table is a plan to designate theatrical spaces on campus where students can perform solo, a benefit for actors who must share living space with roommates or family, Mozer said.
This past semester marked the first time the University has hosted virtual theater productions, and the backstage team learned a lot about the process. On the crew side, preparations can take longer than a typical production, especially with musicals like last semester. Reinette applesaid Einat Beygelman, a senior specializing in technical theater design.
Identical webcams and microphones give virtual productions a consistent sound and image from actor to actor, Beygelman explained. The sound designers also perform sound checks before the final recording of the scenes and ensure that the computer system properly shares the audio during the live performance, as they would on the audio console during a traditional show.
However, even with cutting-edge technical magic, online performances cannot recreate one of the essential components of live theater: the shared experience of an audience physically watching a performance together, Mozer acknowledged.
But the theater finds other ways to speak to the public, to connect them to stories and art in a time of great collective upheaval.
“I think this piece lends itself to an online format because of its abstractness and, in fact, I think this new format allows us to experiment with new and interesting ways of telling the story,” Saint Angel said, who participated in several online performances last semester. “The camera can pick up a lot of subtle performances that I think audiences may react to differently from what they might have seen on stage.”
Mozer agreed. The screen changes the directionality of a scene: the actors can for example move for a close-up.
Actors and theater audiences cannot rely on physical staging as they usually do. Instead, they can experience a renewed listening relationship and discover more subtle behaviors that might otherwise be lost on a stage, she said.
Everybody also includes an additional treat: “La Danse Macabre”, a performance choreographed by new faculty member Neva Kenny. The visiting professor came to Binghamton in August from Bogota, Colombia, where she chaired the performing arts program at Pontifical University Javeriana.
Unlike the rest of the performance, the three-minute dance will be pre-recorded at the Watters Theater; dancers Derek Kunz and Jessica Mei will perform masked and socially distanced. Kenny also worked with cinematographer Arleigh Wasserman and student assistant choreographer RJ Fox to create the piece.
Teaching a highly physical art form during a pandemic presented its own set of challenges. Kenny taught many of his classes in person last semester, with students dividing their time between in-person and online classes to meet social distancing needs. They danced together on the grass and worked on projects in pairs. The choreography often involved a simple setup, like a lonely chair, allowing students to dance wherever they were.
“La Danse Macabre” will be the first time that the dancers will work with the camera.
“Human adaptability never ceases to amaze me. I hope to create opportunities for Binghamton University students to nurture their creativity, vulnerability and confidence to better understand each other and, in turn, contribute to a more authentic world, ”said Kenny.
An unusual feature about Everybody: It is written so that anyone can play any role, the cast being determined by lot. This is at the heart of the ultimate meaning of the vagaries of fate; just like life, you never know if you’ll be in a lead or a supporting role, Bian said.
The actors play multiple characters, which is a welcome challenge for both the performers and the director.
Everybody’s role is literally that, explained Saint Angelo: a single mother from Queens, a billionaire real estate mogul, a rock star, a janitor – anyone facing death is all of us.
“Death is the great equalizer and we all face it together,” he said.
This is a particularly relevant message during a pandemic, when many people have lost their families and friends, Saint Angel said.
The same is true of fateful fate during the COVID era: while most of us take precautions to avoid catching the virus, you never really know what’s going to happen or how you are doing. come out of it, Mozer said. These circumstances would have been familiar to the unknown authors of the original. Each man, written at a time when the plague was flogging Europe.
“Art has been so essential during this pandemic. I feel like we’re learning how much we value art, how much we miss it around this time – going to museums, going to concerts, going to the theater, ”Mozer said. “We face incredible obstacles in having live theater, which tells me that this is something very basic for humanity.”