The Harker Conservatory’s 2013-14 fall play, “Anon(ymous),” is loaded. It features an original score created by students, original choreography by students, Balinese shadow puppetry, a Bollywood dance, fog, smoke, lights, and an all-new audience configuration.
Then there is the content. “Anon(ymous)” is a new, gritty, mythic exploration into cutting-edge, modern-day political challenges. The piece blends Homer’s “The Odyssey,” the epic read by all Harker freshmen, with the diaspora story of an undocumented immigrant finding his way across America, searching for his identity and his family.
“’Anon(ymous)‘ is a celebration of tradition and culture,” writes the director, Jeff Draper. “The epic adventure story is based on Homer’s “The Odyssey,” but this retelling reveals universal themes about our own contemporary world. This play is about the love and connection infused in the family, a love that is found in every culture, all around the world.”
While the themes of “Anon(ymous)” may be ancient and universal, there is a lot that is new and mold-breaking for The Harker Conservatory. The play is a new one, written in the last few years — there is no Shakespeare here. The audience is arranged on either side of a runway, a configuration never before seen at Harker. A handful of student directors are assisting Draper and rehearsing an alternate cast. A whole host of students are composing new music and choreographing new routines. There are more hands on deck and more moving parts than ever before, all to create a play that is not only epic but also searingly contemporary. Here are a few of the innovations taking center stage at Harker this fall:
A NEW CONFIGURATION
“Metamorphoses” featured a pool. “A Christmas Carol” had a live pre-show Dickens Faire. “Anon(ymous)” will split its audience into two and face them against each other across the stage, like fans on two sides of a football field, in a configuration known in the theater world as tennis court-style.
“I always like to mix it up,” says Draper. Because Harker lacks a theater, the performing arts directors flex their creativity every year, reinventing the Blackford auditorium when they can. Until Harker has a real performance space, he says, “I’m going to keep taking advantage of it.”
Draper named The National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch” and Cirque du Soleil’s “Corteo” as his influences for the new design. In “Black Watch,” which toured the world before finally reaching San Francisco in May of this year, a partitioned audience watched a dozen soldiers race up and down a central runway connecting two structures resembling army bases at either end, acting out the Iraq War and their lives afterward. In “Corteo,” the audience wrapped circularly around a central disk, with exits and entrances also proceeding from two opposing poles. Both productions created immersive experiences that Draper was keen to emulate.
The year’s new setup is filled with exciting challenges for the actors, who now face an audience on all sides. “It makes you act three-sixty,” says Draper. “There’s no hiding,” shared one student at the cast’s retreat this month. “You feel like you always have eyes on you.” Draper, for his part, has enjoyed the new challenge. “We’re learning a lot,” he says. “It’s very different.”
A PIECE OF THE ZEITGEIST
“Anon(ymous)‘” treatment of contemporary material is startlingly new to Harker’s drama wing of the Conservatory; for a program that has made its name on classics like last year’s “Hamlet,” a freshly-written epic ripped from the headlines is a bold departure. When the actors were asked at their retreat whether this was the first time any of them had ever embarked on a project this much in the zeitgeist, the team responded with an almost-choral “yes.” “It’s not anything in the past,” one student chimed in. “It’s happening now. It’s part of our job to make people aware.”
On how they found their research for the play, the students were clear: rather than head to the library and search the catalog for critical essays as they might with a classic, they took to Google News and YouTube to develop deeper understandings of the predicaments and lifestyles of their characters.
For Draper, it was critical that the students examine their own lives and ancestries as well. So the director asked his actors to research their own lineages. He also gave each student a piece of foam core, and asked them to place information about what they uncovered on one side and their family trees on the other. That art, accompanied by the students’ personal stories, will hang in the lobby when the audience comes to view “Anon(ymous).”
The actors looked into their family histories with immigration and political and personal turmoil. One, whose character in “Anon(ymous)” must be the “man of the family,” told of an ancestor whose father was felled by an earthquake in Japan, leaving him to become that “man of the family.” Another told of a divide in the older generations of his family over allegiances with British prior to the partition of India. Those stories became a pretext to learn about the refugee camps spurred on by the political turmoil.
The exercise succeeded in casting the play as a piece of very personal reality for the actors, allowing them to see their characters in the context of their own lives. One student confessed that his heart was not in the play until he sought out his family and heard tales of their past. That made the play personal for him. “The play is resonating with students as I’d hoped it would,” says Draper.
Indeed, that “Anon(ymous)” is a tale of a diaspora journey was one more reason Draper chose the play for Harker. “It’s about home. It’s about immigration. It’s about leaving one place and going to another,” he says. “I think a lot of Harker families, within a generation or two, have left home and made a new home in Silicon Valley, in California, in the U.S.A.”
In many ways, “Anon(ymous)” is more than just a play, it’s a multidisciplinary theater event. In one love scene, two characters tread water in a sea of fabric. In another moment, moving hoops cascade down the runway to conjure up images of the characters dashing through tunnels. A shadow dance, in the style of Balinese wayang kulit shadow puppetry, tells the story of Anon and his mother.
The characters are outsized as well. “It’s not naturalistic or realistic,” says Draper. “One of the characters from “The Odyssey,” the cyclops, is, in this story, a demented butcher who eats people. He’s trying to kill our protagonist with a big butcher knife.”
“Anon(ymous)” is larger than life, in order to take the audience on a journey that is ripped from real life and even their own lives. With the actors being stretched in so many new ways, and with so many taking on extra responsibilities like choreography and puppeteering, it’s been a made dash to the finish, and an incredibly rewarding one for the collaborators. “You never know what’s going to happen next,” one student says. Another chimes in, “none of us knows exactly what we’re doing, but we know it’s going to be amazing.”
“Anon(ymous),” by Naomi Iizuka, plays Thurs., Oct. 31 through Sat., Nov. 2 at the Blackford Theater.