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Throw a group of grad students into a room, and tell them to make a play from scratch. Creating a cohesive work might be hard with around a dozen artists bringing their own ideas and identities to the project. But Arizona State University's School of Film, Dance and Theatre’s MFA theater cohort used that potential hurdle as an asset when devising the MainStage production “Out of Many,” which premieres Friday, Oct. 14 at the Lyceum Theatre.
“We’ve been working on this play for about two years now together,” said Phil Weaver-Stoesz, one of the play’s three directors. “It’s one of the core components of the cohort process that all of the performers, designers and directors go through.”
With the play’s run scheduled a few weeks before the election, the cohort began exploring themes of America and what it means to be American.
“As that developed over the course of the year it became more and more clear that what really mattered was the differences in the way that we all perceive what that means,” said Wyatt Kent, another one of the directors.
The final play is a one-of-a-kind production featuring various vignettes devised by members of the cohort — told from different perspectives and in different ways.
“We wanted to make show about our identity in America and what that means to each of us,” said Kyra Jackson, also a director. “Because we obviously can’t agree on one identity that we all have in this wonderful, weird country.”
Weaver-Stoesz says the autobiographical nature of the show makes it unlike other shows and impossible to reprise.
“This could only be done by this specific group of people,” he said. “This show could never be passed on and redone somewhere else with some other group of people. It feels so personal to us because it’s our own stories. It’s our own writing. It’s our own thinking.”
He said working on such personal, and at times vulnerable, issues, everyone in the group keeps each other brave.
“Through the process of this development, which has been at times both beautiful and painful, we have had to square and come to terms with each other,” said Vickie Hall, a member of the cohort. “It’s making us, I think, ultimately stronger as a group of people who are making art together.”
Pulling their disparate identities together at a time when the country seems so divided is also part of what makes the play timely, according to members of the cohort.
“I don’t think the show purports to have any clear answers as to here’s what it means to a citizen of this country or living in this country, but what it does do is shows interpretations of a wide variety of perspectives,” Kent said. “Looking into individual stories is one of the most valuable things that we can do in order to better understand the country as a whole.”
The stories range from football to food, from movement to dialogue, and from serious to funny.
“I was really inspired by two of the people in the cast; one of them comes from Louisiana and one of them comes from Mississippi,” Weaver-Stoesz said. “And they both have this experience with gumbo — the food. I was interested in them talking about what gumbo is to them. The piece also plays with movement in terms of coming to the table, leaving the table, sort of separation and unity.”
Another story, created by a stand-up comedian, uses physical comedy to make a metaphor of Facebook’s targeted advertisements.
One of the more serious pieces deals with race and was inspired by an actual conversation between members of the cohort.
“Basically it’s centered around an actual discussion between an African American and a group of Caucasian Americans,” said actor and creator Michael Alexander. “And we’re just talking. We’re hashing things out. We’re talking about stereotypes, and then it gets more serious.”
Conversation is exactly what Alexander hopes audiences get from “Out of Many.”
“No one can get anywhere if no one talks to each other,” Alexander said. “And that’s what this entire piece is about – to start conversation on these different ideas, using art.”
Catch one of the performances of “Out of Many” at the Lyceum Theatre, 901 South Forest Mall, on ASU’s Tempe campus: 7:30 p.m., Oct. 14-15, 20–22; 2 p.m., Oct. 16, 23.
Tickets are $16, general; $12, ASU faculty, staff and alumni; $12, senior; $8, student. Purchase tickets online or call the Herberger Institute Box Office at 480-965-6447.