“Past theater at Vassar has been different,” said Pat Dunning ‘18. He was referring to In Light Of, CAAD’s devised play that centers on stories collected from Hospice patients . “This works like a service activity that reaches outside of Vassar…This show breaks the theater bubble and brings people into the space. It’s an interesting form of non-fiction theater,” he continued. The show, which has already sold out 3 of its 4 showings, tackles death and illness head on in the hopes of healing. Preparations have been under way since late last year, when staff and student researchers set out collecting stories. “‘In Light Of’ is a part of the Healing Narratives multi-arts collective project, and it’s a devised play that is written, choreographed and then will be performed by members of that grant-supported research group,” explained Pacio.
Kelsey Greenway ‘16, Alex Raz ‘16, Aran Savory ‘16 and Joe DeGrand ’17 worked all summer collecting stories from patients at Hudson Valley Hospice and turning those stories into a play. “What they’ve done is they’ve highlighted three of the individuals they interviewed this summer and they’ve written this piece that honors them and also tells their story in a way unique to what this project is,” said Pacio.
Greenway, Raz, and Savory will perform the piece alongside seven ensemble members (DeGrand is abroad). “We wanted to focus on listening,” said Raz, referencing CAAD’s theme for the year. “We talked about it a lot and found oral-storytelling to be very compelling.. A main [focus] was on trauma and illness. But as the summer progressed, our conversations focused on memorialization. We questioned how storytelling functions in contrast to and in combination with memorialization.”
Pacio was quick to point out the difficult balancing-act required of the team: feeling compelled to tell a particular story while also trying to respect the storyteller’s freedom. He explained, “[There is a] balance of feeling really the responsibility to honor their stories but also the freedom to tell the story they want to tell because it is a device piece…[and] it is not a bionarrative of these three people…I love the way that they talk about this idea of agency in the stories that we tell—that has been a big word in conversations that happen.”
Two faculty members helped them strike this balance and offered support throughout the project. One of them, Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian, Sangeeta Biagi, explained, “We talked about some ways to go about it, how to be in the space, how to listen, how to respect other people’s space, privacy and timing, but, overall, they chose their own approach with beautiful results.”
She was approached last spring about the project and immediately got on board. Her experience fit nicely with the aims of the project. She explained in an emailed statement, “I shared with the group my interest in sound healing. As a musician, a language professor and a yoga teacher, I am well aware of the role that sound plays in our everyday life. I am very interested in healing modalities and in storytelling and this project brought them together beautifully.”
Professor of English Michael Joyce also helped the team. According to Joyce, “Sangeeta, Ariel Nereson (Tom’s predecessor) and I took great care in making sure the students were psychically, intellectually and artistically prepared, though in truth we only reinforced qualities they already brought to the project.”
The group was extensively trained before they conducted their research. Joyce explained, “the group had already talked to practiced storytellers who had worked in this area. Also the Hospice training was careful and caring both and the social workers and therapists generously shared their own experiences [with the group], including stories of vulnerabilities, mixed feelings, and occasional regrets. However the real training came from the patients themselves who responded to the group’s questions with joy, wit, intelligence,sensitivity, grace and generosity, taking the students into their lives in a profoundly human way.”
Joyces’s experience with the team was life-changing. He continued, “Working with this amazing group this summer has quite literally made my life more meaningful…they have woven a complex and delicate web of physical, verbal and musical connections which offer an audience a perhaps unanticipated, and utterly generative experience of enduring life force and presence.”
The students were profoundly impacted as well. According to Pacio, the students conducting the research had strong connections to the stories and their tellers. “What’s really great is Aran, Alex and Kelsey…chose to highlight these three people [because] they each kind of felt the pull towards these three characters of Eric, Rose and Carol that are in the play…”
The process of gathering these stories was difficult for the Healing Narratives group. Their aim was to try to use storytelling as a path to understand more sensitive topics. “We had a lot of questions from the beginning, and we also had a lot of doubts and curiosities. How do you even begin to ;de-stigmitze’ illness?,” questioned Raz. “And from there we wanted to work toward healing; this sentiment took on a variety of meanings throughout the interview process. After several meetings we were invited into the patients’ homes. The patients’ and the staff’s energies and kindness re-assured us through each conversation ”
Pacio shares the hope that these stories will start the healing process. “To make death and dying and even illness part of the conversation that can happen…I think that these four Vassar students were highly impacted and changed quite a bit during this experience, and I think that that would be an important story to share with the Vassar community and the larger community.”
Raz also noted the importance of sharing the stories publicly—not just to honor the storytellers but to impact the viewer as well. “We wanted to open up this conversation just a bit. We want people to pay attention to the time they have and the stories they’re shaping.”
According to Biagi, the students did an excellent job handling such intense subjects. She explained. “The topics are sensitive but real. Life, illness, death are real, all around us. The students were very sensitive to balancing their enthusiasm and interest with a very good capacity to listen deeply, to be aware of their own presence in the patients’ spaces.”
On stage, these stories will be told largely through sound. According to Biagi, “A lot in the piece comes from vocal interactions that students had with patients and staff at the Hudson Valley Hospice, but silence played an important part in the students’ process, too. Learning when to speak, when to pause, when to wait is a set of humane skills. The stories were collected orally but the piece is multidisciplinary. It’s not just a collection of recordings. The sounds are embodied, danced, spoken, listened to.”
Joyce added that sound and the multiple dimensions of listening give the play new meaning. He explained, “…listening is active, physical, musical, poetical, philosophical and finally deeply engaging and intimate. In forming the performance piece the group has sought to encompass all these aspects, indeed offering multiple perspectives upon the full human encounter that listening to another’s life story involves and the result is a kind of dance of engagement and celebration.”
Listening, to Joyce, is the make-or-break part of the show. “This morning I thought of a quote from Samuel Beckett which encapsulates what I think was the group’s experience as well as what the production seeks to repeat for its audiences: ‘At first I heard nothing, then the voice again, but only just, so faintly did it carry. First I didn’t hear it, then I did, I must therefore have begun hearing it , at a certain point, but no,there was no beginning, the sound emerged so softly from the silence and resembled it.’”
For the cast, these showings are closure to nearly a year’s worth of work. Making it even more exciting, some of the storytellers will be in the audience. After working for nine months on the project, Raz is excited to see some of the interviewees’ reactions to their stories. “We had a lot of material to work through so we hope they enjoy how we imagined and reimagined their stories,” said Raz.