The MSU Department of Theatre set the stage for its fall season, which will be experimental in nature. Performances and projects have topics revolving around the pandemic, social justice, voting information, neurodiversity and more.
Theatre department chairperson Stephen Di Benedetto is the producer for this season. He said because of the changes, his role was to organize conversation and planning while meeting the required safety measures.
“Since we were forced to cancel our normal production season which takes place within the theater with audiences live, we decided to take advantage of what theater can do best, which is quickly respond to the world around us,” Di Benedetto said. “The students and faculty were challenged to develop a range of performative interactions with the world around us to do with diversity, inclusion, social justice and politics.”
The experiments will take place over a short time frame and can be viewed online or in person, depending on the location. They range from public projections on the side of an art museum to online interactive shows to intricate costume design.
Inspiration for the themes comes from historic, influential events.
“It’s sort of a renegade, experimental-type engagement like you would’ve gotten in the 1960s with protest theater or social justice theater during that period, or earlier in the century when cabaret artists were off working, creating new forms of art that reflected their times and their own struggles,” Di Benedetto said.
Rose Legge, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of Theatre, created her own project called “Vote Your Voice,” which is a series of projection mappings that were broadcasted on the side of the Broad Art Museum on Oct. 24-30 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Projection mapping is a media design process where artists put projectors on an uneven surface, then tailor the projections to create designs and illusions in the space. Legge’s project projected voting information for pedestrians to see from Grand River Avenue.
“I’ve tried to give it a visual graphic style that brings community together and reminds us that we are voting as a community for our community,” Legge said. “I’ve noticed that so much of voting information these days is stars and bars, hyper-nationalism, anxiety-inducing — and voting doesn’t need to be that stressful.”
Legge and a few other members of the theatre department started by creating a small-scale model of the Broad and projecting onto it. After compensations and calculations, they made the projections fit the actual building.
She wanted to make the graphics informative yet give them a calming atmosphere so people wouldn’t feel overwhelmed.
“I wanted to focus on images that made people feel better and that had a fall aesthetic and had a bit of nostalgia to them,” Legge said. “I’m hoping that, first, people will be drawn in by all the flashy animation and the interesting color that’s being put on the road, (and say) ‘what’s happening, it’s an event, it’s something we can go to again!’ And it’s safe for the public.”
Grace Foiles, a theatre department graduate student also designed a project geared toward safe public engagement. The “Distance Series” is a collection of costumes designed to keep the wearer at least 6 feet apart from others.
“I wanted something singular that a single person could wear and then interact with the public because we can’t really do large scale productions right now,” Foiles said. “I was interested in the relationship between design and performance art.”
They designed about 30 thumbnail sketches, 15 of which will be fully developed on paper and three will be built and finalized with a few other members so Foiles can wear them out in public.
The first design is a 12-foot hoop skirt decorated with biohazard symbols. The second is a contained house unit based on a mausoleum and the third is a 6-foot long plague doctor mask with a 6-foot train trailing behind the outfit.
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“I’m really interested in using unconventional materials and a lot of recycled materials,” Foiles said. “A lot of it is being built out of recycled PVC and plastic that was used as part of the packaging, like plastic bags, that are being repurposed for this project.”
Their goal is to use the standalone art pieces to evoke reactions from people after they’re finalized.
“I wanted to just specifically think about public interaction and audience participation in a different way than we generally do for productions,” Foiles said. “So the idea of going out into public wearing these and seeing how people respond to it was kind of the performance aspect that was incorporated.”
Di Benedetto is looking forward to seeing the finished product of all the projects.
“What I’m most excited by is the passion of the students and the faculty coming together to work together to create something unique under very tight circumstances,” Di Benedetto said. “There’s a piece of collaboration, this piece of making something out of nothing and finding a meeting space together to find a voice to what we’re going through in the isolation of Zoom, in this cauldron of social, political, racial upheaval.”
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