Suspended on top of a metal ladder breaching into the ceiling of the Newman Studio at the Walgreen Drama Center, was Theatre and Drama professor, Tzveta Kassabova. “Can I just drop this tire first? Before the interview?” she called down to me. “Of course! Absolutely!” I exclaimed in response, excited to be witness to a bit of theatrical magic as a large tire fell from the darkness of the ceiling with a simple flick of a rope. Tzveta cheered in admiration at the contraption having worked, and went to hug her set designer Niki White. With less than a week left until the opening of the devised show “Murakami by the Sea,” the entire studio was buzzing with hands busy at work.
“And then I realized that the deep darkness inside me had vanished. Suddenly. As suddenly as it had come. I raised myself from the sand and, without bothering either to take off my shoes or roll up my cuffs, walked into the surf to let the waves lap at my ankles,” are the brilliant words of Haruki Murakami, a Japanese writer, whose short stories and novels have influenced people across the world. His writings are the foundation of the devised show “Murakami by the Sea.” Tzveta Kassabova, the director of the piece, speaks of the visceral feelings that can be found in specific moments such as the ones Murakami addresses in the above passage. “I find it beautiful that sometimes things happen in one moment. You don’t even necessarily know how it happened but you understand that singular moment, made everything very different.” In the rehearsal process, Kassabova has been working with the actors to create life-altering moments like these, on the stage. “A lot of it is setting circumstances so that something can happen,” she began, “It’s a blank slate starting from scratch. We all (the cast and crew) read the short stories and researched images that we then can create with. We started to play improvisational games, that set the structure for certain moments to occur. Nothing is forced in this, it just happens.”
A devised piece of theatre is a process of theatre creation in which the whole team: Actors, directors, designers, etc. are partaking in the development of the show. Sam Dubin, Sophomore BFA Acting major and an actor in “Murakami by the Sea,” explained what the rehearsal process was like for him: “We met a month before we started rehearsals and the entire cast and crew had dinner together and talked about our relationship to the text to begin with and our expectations with the text moving forward,” he explained. The rehearsal process of a devised piece is not the same rehearsal process of a scripted play. There are no lines given to actors to memorize at the beginning, no character objectives to configure. Actors create the story with the rest of the ensemble in the room, during the rehearsals.
While this can be creatively exciting, it can also be difficult. Dubin explains the difficulties he found during the process: “It’s no joke that this can be frustrating and most of the time things don’t make sense in our head,” says Dubin. “One thing our dramaturge (Teresa Kovacs) would say is that there’s a human need to want the questions to be answered. She told us that we should enjoy the questions we have and allow them to push us forward. Maybe we will find the answers, but in away our goal is to end this process with more questions. If you give an audience answers and you make it easier for them, it’s more likely that they’ll forget about it. Even if someone sees ‘Murakami by the Sea’ and they don’t understand what’s going on, it’s more valuable to let an audience go and be able to confidently say that they’re questioning.”
Audience members are encouraged to enter into this show not expecting to find answers, but rather new ideas and queries about life to ruminate upon. “It becomes a part of you,” Dubin says of devising theatre. “You care about it, and you put so much of yourself into it, sometimes it can hurt you, in a way. Seeing it leave so quickly like that. It can hurt you.” After this February weekend, the actors will have left the stage. The set will be taken down, falling tire and all. The stage managers notes will be tucked away. But one thing will always remain: what was felt along the way. Moments found on the stage that provoke new emotions, new connections, new questions, provide the audience and creative team alike, an opportunity to leave the experience changed.