The lights fade up on the dimly lit Torp theater as director Haley Nelson rolls out a lone roll of brown paper across the stage. The cast members sit in a circle. The red headed Nelson pulls out a black sharpie and writes down the title of the play: “Museum of Life.” Over the next thirty minutes, Nelson wrote down the characters and solicited suggestions from the cast on how they should design them. The paper will hold the artistic and abstract concepts needed to produce the show. In traditional theater, everyone follows a script and listens to the director’s image for the show. However, this is devised theater, which is designed where the entire cast has an input in shaping and producing the play. With devised theater comes a sense of artistic equality where no one is above anyone else. Nelson sees herself as a facilitator rather than the director; someone that schedules the rehearsals and meetings but lets the cast take control in shaping the play. In her view, without a director, the “great and beautiful ideas” can happen “without feeling constricted.”
“Museum of Life” is a continuation of Nelson’s first production “Beyond the Wall.” The original play was inspired by a poem written by JJ Maloney who was reflecting on the beauty of life and feeling like an outsider peering into it. It centers on the intricate emotional journey of realizing how human we all are. “Museum of Life” focuses on Charlie’s journey through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The cast’s task is to paint these emotions in a way that will reflect the meaning of each stage. An in-depth understanding of what the emotion is and how to convey that to an audience is the cast’s true motives. The preliminary production meetings included the cast discussing their current ideas for the characters and sharing stories that help to connect with them on an emotional level. Nelson believes that through this method, the eventual performance will benefit from this bond.
While there will be some acting through dialogue, most of the story will be shown through movement and visual art. As Nelson puts it: “We talked a little about incorporating dialogue in some parts but personally I think dialogue is a little bit distracting.” To someone outside of theater, the concept of visual and motion art in a play is abstract. Movement is something that happens every day, but in a play with little to no dialogue, every movement is deliberate and meaningful. The intricacies of how someone carries their body and how it reacts to their environment are the core concepts of the play.
Nelson has started again from barebones in the hopes of creating something substantial enough to stand on its own. While “Beyond the Wall” relied heavily on the use of shadow, “Museum of Life” chooses to focus on the use of body paints, colors, and the scenery around the characters. Currently, people are painting each other’s arms to experiment with a slur of colors that reflect the corresponding emotion. Even though there may be only puzzle pieces of ideas now, the fact that these will eventually come together is truly astounding.
When asked about the possible turnout Nelson replied, “Honestly, if one person shows up, that’ll be awesome. If a hundred people show up, that would be great too. But I’m not really going to value how great a show did depending on who goes.” Nelson seems to focus on putting the collectives out there and having the audience interpret it, rather than have the show tell them how to feel.
With little time left until the show, the cast must come to terms with their characters, decide how they should be portrayed on the “canvas” that the characters will see, and make it a solid production. With the amount of hard work being poured in, this should be an emotional journey for the cast, that any audience will appreciate.