[Content warning: This article discusses abusive relationships, sexual assault and suicide.]
“It’s the story of five women who have survived an apocalyptic disaster, and the ways in which they process the suffering and loss they have endured as they hang on to life and sanity by a thread. The play answers the question: ‘What do you hold onto when you have lost everything?’” describes co-director Eleanor Magnuson ’20, her eyes glimmering as she delves into the intricacies of Unbound’s latest devised piece, “Stain.”
Heavily inspired by Sarah Kane’s one-act play “Crave,” “Stain” amplifies the broken voices of its characters as they explore trauma, yearning and pain. Taking place in the Susan Shiva Stein Theater on Dec. 1 and 2, this highly collaborative piece borrows fragments from Kane’s original script, combining them with the cast’s own personal writings, along with numerous other texts, including those by T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath and William Faulkner.
Unbound’s final piece is thus an amalgamation of eclectic creative talent, one that resembles “Crave” in its poetic and structural nature but diverges in themes explored. “Stain” takes the liberty of placing the emotionally and psychologically disintegrating characters in a post-apocalyptic landscape. “They try to hold on to something when all that can be taken is torn away from them,” underscores co-director Lily Wang ’18.
“It’s a disturbingly beautiful text,” illuminated Magnuson, as she highlighted the poetic ambiguity of “Crave.” Extremely lyrical by nature, this piece of writing boldly experiments with the relationship between form and content. It deals heavily with triggering topics such as abusive relationships, sexual assault and violence, drug abuse, mental illness and suicide and is a turbulent exploration of love and despair. In a review, The Guardian applauded Kane’s penultimate play’s departure from the theatrical norm: “Its structure is deliberately broken, as if such a fragmented approach is the only possible response to a ruined world and the damaged humans who inhabit it” (The Guardian, “Crave review,” 03.15.2015).
The playwright, Sarah Kane, committed suicide on the opening night of her final play, and was known for producing exceptionally disturbing theatrical pieces. In the past, the British dramatist had shocked audiences with unsettling images of eyes being gouged, breasts being cut off and stage directions instructing rats to carry off severed limbs.
Actor Abigail Lass ’21 [Full Disclosure: Lass is Assistant Online Editor of The Miscellany News] elaborated on her character via email, as well as her personal journey during the process of enacting her role: “Given the abstract nature of the piece, we’ve all really had to build our characters out of scraps of information, which has been incredibly complex and rewarding. Something that’s been very intriguing for me about this process is exploring why people engage in self-destructive tendencies, like staying in an abusive relationship. I think we often place a lot of judgement on people in those situations and oversimplify the issue, so it’s been important for me to understand the mechanisms of being in a situation like that and how it impacts the way one views the rest of the world.”
Lass further expanded, “This production has forced me to embrace discomfort, both physically and emotionally. I’m interested in seeing how the audience responds to certain movement pieces, dialogue, and interactions. This is an incredibly intense piece of theater, and people should come prepared to be made uncomfortable.”
The show focuses on a multitude of different dramatic aspects, blending artistic talent from all spheres of theatrical spectrum. Incorporating the ideas and aptitudes of student musicians and choreographers, alongside visual artists and actors, the production emphasizes music and movement elements as much as it concentrates on raw plot lines, poetic dialogue and complex character developments. “Stain” uses a six-person pit playing original compositions written for this particular show, and for certain sections of the text, the cast utilizes pure choreography as their primary form of communicating to the audience.
Wang elucidated how divisions between character-based aspects, aesthetic and ambient elements and musical components melded together much of the time: “Because the text was written in free-form, a lot of rehearsals have involved looping sections of the text as they improvise and devise from it, often alongside our musicians. Our music director Michael Pennington ’20, our pit members and our choreographer Oriana Catton ’18, are instrumental to this process because the poetry of the text carries through in music and dance.”
Magnuson expounded on their creative process: “Lily and I really wanted our actors to make their own choices and find their own motivations. In my opinion, this creates much more honest, nuanced performances. We allowed the performers to take risks and make bold choices without consequence.” The team, in their trademark ensemble style, would later discuss choices that the cast made during creative exercises and sometimes incorporate those ideas into their final product.
Magnuson emotionally recounted the significance of this piece to the entire cast: “I was inspired by the ways in which the actors were ready to engage with the text in a deeply personal way. Some of the monologues and anecdotes in the play were written by the actors themselves, which adds a level of honesty and vulnerability that makes the story even more beautiful and moving.”
Unbound’s dedication to creating a visceral portrayal of the issues is deeply poignant, especially in the face of such triggering topics. As Magnuson relayed, “‘Stain’ is a deeply personal piece of theatre, for me and everyone else involved. I couldn’t be prouder of the team, and I can’t wait to see how audiences interact with the art that we created together.”