The rehearsal studio in the Power Center for the Performing Arts for We the PROUD’s “What Was + May Be” is strikingly simple. Several black stage blocks dot the gleaming polished floor, a rope rests coiled on the ground and four students sit chatting in a circle. Two people are dressed in minimal costume pieces and two have laptops balanced on their laps.
They are Music, Theatre & Dance junior Alyxandra Ciale Charfouros and Rackham student Michael Yuchen Tong. In addition to conceiving “What Was + May Be,” Charfourous and Tong star as well in the story depicting their own relationship. While they met in high school, the pair have been apart for five years, and are just now reuniting. The show will include their own experiences, as well as stories from other couples in long distance relationships they have interviewed. Also present in the rehearsal room are Music, Theatre & Dance senior Amanda Kuo as the director and Music, Theatre & Dance and Art & Design sophomore Nicole (Niki) Denise White as the art designer.
Charfouros explained a bit of the plot of the show.
“This is our story of being in a long distance relationship and now coming together after five years,” Charfouros said. “It’s kind of a memory play and it’s a devised piece.”
She described the challenges of both writing and performing, detailing how the creation of this show has required her to trust both her “expression and story.”
“I wrote this story, and I’m performing in it so it’s really new and challenging to trust it from a bunch of different perspectives: as a playwright, as a performer, and as a producer,” Charfouros said. “We talk about wearing a lot of hats … I want to be able to just wear my expression throughout different roles and responsibilities.”
Another aspect of “What Was + May Be” is the fact that it showcases only Asian American performers. Charfouros mentioned how she questioned whether this fact causes this show to be an Asian American play, or if maybe it is a part of a larger genre of Asian American theatre. There seems to be a greater question of what it means to represent an identity in an art form such as this.
“There are two Asian Americans onstage and that in and of itself is breaking the boundaries of what is mainstream,” Charfouros said.
Not only is this an original show, but it’s also the first piece of theatre from the new student production company, We the People Representing our Unifying Diversity (or We the PROUD) Polycultural Productions. The reasoning behind the creation of this organization was to “make space for marginalized voices,” said director Amanda Kuo.
“We have all these amazing resources and tools and training from the University of Michigan, but we were kind of not really loving the stories that we were given to be told,” Kuo said.
Kuo echoed Charfouros’ sentiments that this show is an example of how representation can be as simple as featuring people with different racial or ethnic identities. She also added that diversity in the theatrical world does not have to stop at performers.
“It’s one of the few places I’ve been where some days only Asian-Americans are in the room creating theatre,” Kuo said. “It feels really safe and it’s all original.”
“I would just encourage people to make their own stuff,” Kuo said. “As artists, sometimes we get told ‘you have to make a piece like this’…and ‘you have to get trained by all these white men,’ but there’s so much money and resources here to just carve your own path.”
This production is also innovative in its use of a mix of film and theatre techniques on stage. The show — to be performed in the Duderstadt Video Studio — will incorporate livestream, the insertion of video clips, creative camera angles as well as movement live acting. “Making live theatre for the screen” was one of Kuo’s objectives with this piece. She described how the use of “machines and screens that could never be human uplift a very human story — a love story.”
“In one scene we have a bird’s eye view of a camera on my face while a poem that I wrote is playing in the background and it’s just this really intimate scene,” Tong said.
As one of the two writer-actors, Tong is very much at the heart of this show’s creative process. However, he is the only one of the four-person team not studying theatre. A first-year graduate student getting his PhD in material science and engineering, he brings an entirely different perspective to the project.
“Coming at it from the side of an undergrad in physics and a material science background, I’m noticing a lot of connections between the art of connection and this idea of phase diagrams, and stability, and free energy and minimized energy,” Tong said.
“Just to come witness some love.” What Was + May Be will premiere on Friday, Feb. 14 at 7:30 pm at the Duderstadt Video Studio.