Trap Door Theatre’s current production, “And Away We Stared” is haunting and compelling. A summary is as follows, “In the absence of humans, the stage has gained the ability to put on mechanized performances to please only itself. Using text from the works of Chuck Mee, Gertrude Stein, and Matei Vişniec, in a series of theatrical dares, the actors of Trap Door Theatre will attempt to retake the stage, confronting notions of live performance, automation, and the cycles we perpetuate.”
I was struck by the way in which this play fulfills the mission of Trap Door which is “to seeking out challenging and obscure works. Whether a forgotten European classic, an international project rarely seen in the United States, or an untarnished piece of American literature, Trap Door seeks diverse voices and presents them through innovative expression. We mix established and imaginative techniques to illustrate the absurdities of living in today’s society.”
Founded in 1990, Trap Door began as a nomadic troupe, thrilling the European theaters of Stockholm, Berlin, Zakopane, and Paris with its grass-roots, avant-garde expressionism. On these stages, the trademark style of myth, ritual, and revolution first crystallized. In the current play, the stand outs were the sounds effects, the choreography, the acting, and the sense of unreality.
Cast included: Maryam Abdi, Dennis Bisto, Holly Cerney, Miguel Long, David Lovejoy, Emily Nichelson, Keith Surney, and Bob Wilson.
Crew included: Set/Props Designer – Kellie Wyatt, Costume Designer-Rachel Sypniewski, Lighting Designer- Richard Norwood, Makeup Designer- Zsofia Otvos, Stage Manager- Natalia Kliszczyk and Caitlyn Birmingham, Graphic Designer- Michal Janicki, Sound Designer- Mike Steele, Composer- Emily Nichelson, Assistant Audio Engineer- Danny Rockett, Live Streamer- Jimmy Marco, Camera Operator- Skye Fort
Texts by Charles Mee, Gertrude Stein, and Matei Vişniec (with translations by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu)
Both directors, Skye Fort and Mike Steele, generously agreed to answer questions about this production as follows:
What was the inspiration for this work?
Skye & Mike: We were originally going to do a more traditionally scripted play, but then we realized that what we were most excited about was being in a room creating together again, so then we started thinking about ways we could embrace and explore that experience. Through our work and development with the ensemble, we became interested in exploring what it means to be returning to something after a year and a half. What has changed, what has stayed the same? What is important, and what do we cling to out of pure nostalgia? As artists, how do we engage with, and create, new worlds? The show was created largely with the ensemble, so it became a very personal exploration of returning to something that is at once familiar and alien.
Can you speak to why this production was chosen to complete the season’s virtual shows?
Skye & Mike: We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to do the first virtual Trap Door show with performers live in the theatre together. It felt like such a gift that we really wanted to make it a special experience for all involved, including the audience. Everyone is experiencing lots of tiny collisions right now as things open up and we renegotiate the terms of daily life. It felt right to make a show exploring these themes as we navigated them ourselves.
The sound production was very important in this show. What was its role?
Mike: For me, composing the sound became a way of offering a direction for the piece without using language. Bringing in a soundscape or piece of music could offer a tone to ground a particular scene. I also had the option to collage and rearrange the texts we were using when recording voiceover, which became a way of “scripting” certain sections to intersect with the movement we had created together. Overall, I hoped to create a sense of immersion for the audience through sound. There is a feeling of being surrounded by the action when you visit the theatre. With the visual elements flattened onto a screen, I wanted to surround the audience constantly with sounds that were visceral and evocative of what each section felt like in the room.
How did COVID impact the production?
Skye: Not being able to have a live audience really changed the creation process. From day one we knew that we were creating something that would be experienced from home. The way we built the show around the camera was entirely different than how you would stage a “normal” play. If you watched this show from the house it would look like complete and utter chaos.
Mike: We also prioritized creating an atmosphere where we were excited to perform for one another. In the absence of a traditional audience, we knew we’d have to feed off of each other’s energy more than normal to create a spirit of liveness. In addition to the technical elements, COVID also influenced the themes of the play. At the outset of the pandemic we were suddenly thrust into a world that looked the same, but could no longer be trusted. Air became clouds of contaminants, surfaces became petri dishes, and our neighbors became vectors to be avoided at all costs. Although the show never addresses it by name, I think these themes of panic, distrust, and loss of identity are constantly bubbling beneath the surface of the performance.
There were many pluses in the minuses of virtual presentations during the year. Can you
speak to this in regard to Trap Door?
Skye: My experience with directing virtually at Trap Door has definitely been a mixed bag. It’s been great that lots of different people all over the world have been able to engage with the work in a way they never would have if it was live. It has also pushed me personally as an artist to think and create in new ways. On the other hand, I desperately miss the experience of having a live audience. The energy exchange that happens betweens performers and an audience is electric, and something that can never be replicated virtually.
Mike: The biggest plus I think has been accessibility. Seeing art, especially experimental art, become more available and easier to access has been really amazing. I think it can feel intimidating to show up and try something new in-person. I hope this allows more people to discover new varieties of art that inspire them. At Trap Door there’s also an incredible community of artists spread out all over the world and this last year has allowed us all to collaborate internationally in ways we never thought possible.
Photos: Courtesy of Trap Door Theatre
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