A son’s bedtime wish was the creative spark for Stay
A bottle of wine can lead to many things, but for playwright Heather McDonald and choreographer Susan Shields, it led to an artistic collaboration.
“Two years ago, a colleague at George Mason University thought we needed to meet, so we shared some wine and talked about our lives, our kids, what it is like being ‘a woman of a certain age,’ how to balance what was going on at home and at work with our creative lives—everything,” said Miss McDonald, who, along with Miss Shields, is a tenured professor at the university. “We hit it off right away.”
During the conversation, similar ideas and themes kept cropping up. “One of them was about how to you hold onto people and what is important after a great loss,” said Miss Shields. “We decided to explore that and we started just by sharing our work with each other and keeping the conversation going.”
Two workshops and a collaborative rehearsal process later, they came up with Stay, a merger of theater, dance, animated multimedia and music that explores the art of letting go and learning what needs to remain fixed and rooted.
Stay, which opens at the Lansburgh Theatre November 11th, is written and directed by Miss McDonald, known to audiences for her plays An Almost Holy Picture, When Grace Comes In, and Available Light, and choreographed by Miss Shields, who has created dances for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as well as performing with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, the Lar Lubocvitch Dance Company, and Mark Morris Dance.
The world premiere piece is presented by GMU’s professional theater company, Theater of the First Amendment, and features actors Andrew Hawkins, Naomi Jacobson, John Lescault, James Whalen, Michael Willis, Carolyn Swift, Garret Christian and Theo Chick, in addition to dancers Kalynn Marin, Aaron Ingley, Scott Rink and Laura Urgellés.
The work’s title came out of Miss Shields’ experience. “My son was around 8 and I was putting him to bed and I got ready to walk out of the room and he said ‘Stay.’ Not because he was scared or anything, he just wanted me to be with him a little while longer. In that moment, I felt the presence of great love and gratitude.”
Miss Shields brought that feeling with her while developing Stay, while Miss McDonald sifted through images and impressions about the things in life you wish would hold fast in the midst of life’s constant state of impermanence—that sensation of the ground always shifting beneath your feet.
“It’s that notion of wishing you—and the people in your life—were more steady,” said Miss McDonald.
This push-pull between constancy and change became Stay, the process of which took its creators and the cast way out of their comfort zones. For instance, Miss McDonald came to the first workshop with some fragments of text she had in mind, rather than a working draft of a play.
It was terrifying. “This kind of work takes a lot of trust—you’re asking a lot from actors to trust you when you haven’t written a word and they are standing there waiting for a script,” she said. “But everyone was very accepting. The goal of the first workshop was to find a common language, to start creating a story, a world, and characters. I went away after that workshop and wrote a chunk and Susan went away and worked out some dances.”
The second workshop at Woolly Mammoth was meant to build on what the co-creators had done together and apart. “This was where the difference between the way actors approach a piece and dancers approach a piece became apparent,” Miss McDonald continued. “The ways of working were so different—the actors were accustomed to a collaborative process and making suggestions and offering opinions; the dancers were more inclined to follow the adage ‘you put the dance on the dancer’ and rely on their meticulous training to bring the dance to life.”
She noted you could tell right off the bat who was who. “The theater people are more schlubby and we eat during breaks. The dancers never eat and look so ethereal and are in incredible shape.”
The process was also a huge learning curve for Miss Shields. “I never worked with actors before, and my first crack at it was pretty comical,” she said. “For me, movement is an impetus for an idea, but for actors, the character is an impetus for an idea.”
She asked cast member Michael Willis to walk in a circle. “He started hitting me with 20 questions—”Why would my character do that?”, “Who am I walking in this circle?’ Stuff like that. I was shocked. I said ‘I don’t know—could you just walk in a circle?’”
They laugh about that moment now, but Miss McDonald said it was sometimes discomfiting for the actors to express themselves purely through movement. “There is this anguished dance that Naomi Jacobson does, a gut-wrenching solo after her character’s husband tells her he doesn’t love her anymore,” she said. “Naomi is scared to death but I wish she could see how amazing she is in the piece.”
Similarly, having the dancers speak was also a new experience for them. “Now, I feel like we are working together as a company. The actors are working with the dancers and the dancers are helping with movement,” said Miss Shields. “When there is a pure theater scene, the dancers sneak out and watch and vice-versa. That, plus the fact that I have prima ballerinas willing to take off their ballet shoes and dance barefoot tells me it is working.”
The process was, at times, uncomfortable as well for Miss McDonald, but in the end she realized “I like working this way. It feels new. The story and the pieces are close to the bone—they feel very personal.”
Miss Shields believes the final piece has struck the right balance between drama and dance. “There is enough dialogue and storytelling to relax people into watching modern dance and let it wash over them—without their having to try to understand it or over-intellectualize it.
You have to be in a poetic state of mind to see Stay. As cast member James Whalen says, ‘It’s the show that makes grown men cry.”