Monday, August 29, 2016

Unity (1918)

Written by Kevin Kerr
Directed by KJ Sanchez
Produced by Project: Theater

Nominated for: Outstanding Sound Design, Joe Jung & KJ Sanchez; Outstanding Ensemble: Wendy Bagger, Alicia Dawn Bullen, Jessi Blue Gormezano, Doug Harris, Beth Ann Hopkins, Joshua Everett Johnson, Joe Jung, Alexandra Perlwitz, Melanie Rey; & Outstanding Revival of a Play

Photo by Russ Rowland

About the Production

Project: Theater focuses on new or forgotten works that nurtures the audience/performer relationship and helps build community. Kevin Kerr’s play Unity (1918) tells the story of a Canadian town “blindsided by a mysterious and deadly plague known now as The Spanish Flu.” Illuminates how the strength of community can help individuals face even seemingly insurmountable challenges. 

Creative team members: Alexandra Perlwitz, Beth Ann Hopkins, Doug Harris, Jessi Blue Gormezano, Joe Jung, Joshua Everett Johnson, KJ Sanchez, Melanie Rey, and Wendy Bagger give us some insight about working on this dark, but up-lifing work.


What attracted you to this production?

Doug: I was attracted most by the incredibly relevant content. Unity (1918) spoke to what it means to be a community in crisis. It is stories from moments of such darkness as this that are truly honest and inspiring. It spoke to my humanity in a way that truly touched and broke my heart.

Jessi: The script. It is a stunning fictionalized account of the folks in a small Canadian town during The Great War. Playwright Kevin Kerr's effortless fusion of historical accuracy and the imagined comedies and tragedies of the young people and a few adults in the rural town of Unity blew me away. The short scenes and theatrical fluidity of the storytelling were captivating and let much to be filled in by the cast and creative team.

Joe: First off, the script is incredible. It was brought to us by the director KJ Sanchez after she saw one of our previous productions. She said Unity (1918) was a passion project she had been pitching to companies for years but had never been picked up. Upon the first read we were floored by the play's heart, humor and humanity. It is beautiful and poetic and magical, yet completely grounded in the human experience. It's a story of love in a brutal time. It's full of hope in the midst of what might be the deadliest plague in human history. We had no idea how it could be staged but were thrilled by the sense of adventure that the play inspired and the fearlessness of KJ to dare to tackle such an epic, and at the same time, intimate play.

Second, the chance to work with KJ Sanchez and the rest of this marvelous cast and crew was impossible to resist. It is rare to have this amount of creativity working in complete conjunction. We all worked together in the spirit of artistic collaboration to create this complete world with the limited resources we had at our disposal.

KJ: This is a play that I have loved and carried with me for years. I was dying to direct it.

Melanie: The Director: KJ Sanchez. She is a dynamo...a tsunami...a perfect Actor's Director. And the chance to perform comedy always excites me. And most of all, to be working in an ensemble means: everyone is an equal part of it all: from lights to sound and music...scenic changes and prop changes...its a group effort from the moment it begins to the moment it ends.

Alexandra: I have always enjoyed working with Project: Theater and I trust Joe Jung with all my being.

Beth Ann: Joe Jung, has never let me down. When he contacted me to work on the piece there was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to work with such a creative and interesting mind.

The character of Sunna also really compelled me to work on the piece.

Joshua: I was attracted to the show because of the quality of the team and the script. The producers, designers and director are all impressive talents and amazing humans and the script is a wonderful combination of well written human perseverance and comic relief. It's also a story about one of the most devastating tragedies of our time that has for so long been shrouded in mystery and half truths - a story that really needed to be told.

Wendy: First, the theatre company putting the show on: Project Theatre. I'd seen many of their productions and I knew they were working on interesting stories and with interesting artists. And then reading the script I fell in love with how relevant this story is to us today: How we handle fear, and love in a time of crisis.
Photo by Russ Rowland  


What did you want the audience to come away with after watching Unity (1918)?

Joe: We wanted the audience to come out of the theater feeling that they were part of a community. We wanted the audience to feel as though they were as much a part of the world of the play as the actors. We tried to immerse them in sound, at times plunged them into darkness, seated them so they would always see each other, utilize the space so the actors could be as close as possible and still tell the story. We wanted them to still feel the show the next day.

What was your favorite part of working on this production?

Alexandra: The ensemble work.

Beth Ann: Working with KJ and the rest of the cast was just extraordinary. They were some of the most generous and caring actors and staff I've ever worked with. We all fell in love with each other.

Jessi: The fearless ensemble and the trusting and inventive director. From the first rehearsal KJ Sanchez, the director, invited each actor and designer into the creative process and encouraged input on all aspects of the production.

Wendy: The collaborative spirit of the whole team of actors, designers and our director! Everyone was given room to create and build on each other’s work. Creating the soundscape together was haunting and thrilling.

Melanie: The Cast. Wonderful people. Ensemble work is where I got my start back at The Western Springs Children's Theater under the direction of VI Dawson. She used to snap her fingers and yell "ENSEMBLE!!" and every single one of us kids had to stop everything on stage and create a unique and theatrical "group position". We were trained to make sure every human on that stage was in a "stage picture" in those moments and that we formed a perfect integrated theatrical group AT THE DROP OF A HAT.

Doug: NY theater scene inspired me. Unity was a show all its own and we prided ourselves on that fact.

Joshua: Again the depth of talent involved in the team and the writing. We really got to dive in deep while also finding those lovely moments of comedy. And creating the live sound design together - that was amazing!

KJ: The cast and company (Project: Theater) - such great people. Good, kind people, skilled, very talented and a whole lot of fun. Every day of rehearsal was sheer pleasure.

Joe: Every day the team entered the rehearsal room with the intent to work. Each rehearsal and performance was a joy. Each moment of discovery in this process was a treasure. I can only look at this production as an entire experience because each part was integral to the whole. Every moment was precious.

Witnessing the full actualization of the piece from the page to the stage was a tremendous thrill. The script has incredibly dreamlike stage directions and the scenes move quickly from one to the next, sometimes switching locations and moods incredibly quickly. The way the director, actors, and designers worked together to seamlessly build the entire world of the play was inspiring and the amount of heart and work everyone poured into the piece was incredibly humbling

What was the most challenging part of working on this production?

Beth Ann: The Icelandic accent was a challenge, I'd never done anything like that before, but I loved learning.

Wendy: We were working in a quirky performance space so it was a challenge to make the play look like it belonged in that space. Using every inch of the place to tell the story helped.

Jessi: The space we worked in provided some interesting challenges but thanks to the director's innovative use of the space, it ended up being an asset.

Joe: As is most often the case in Off-Off-Broadway theater, the money factor was terribly challenging. We had a successful crowdfunding campaign and a few strong supporters of our work, but New York is an expensive town and we wanted to compensate our team as well as we could. In the end, the challenges we faced forced us to come up with creative solutions that only deepend the level of commitment to the play and strengthened the creativity that went into it.

However, the most challenging aspect for me was knowing we would have to let it go. Having to accept that it would eventually end. I feel like I left a part of myself on that stage and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to get it back.

Joshua: The story is dark. Real dark. So there were days when you and your team connect with the material in a personal way and it really hits hard. So you carry it with you and that can be tough. At the same time you can't give in to it, it's a story about forging ahead, so that's what we needed to do as well. Sometimes the toughest part about tragedy is the fact that you still have to keep moving, that there is still work to be done, even while trying to pay respect to the people around you that you have lost.

Alexandra: Having everyone "die" every performance.

KJ: We had a big play, a big cast and a tiny, tiny space. This forced us to be inventive and that's what led to the idea of a soundscape created by the whole company.

Melanie: Recreating the exact sound effects the director had requested in rehearsal...all throughout the performances. I had to make the water feature noises with a paint pan of water, my hands and my ability to dribble and drain water sounds through my the same level and effect as had been requested from the accompaniment to the scene. And the same went for the chain-in-can sounds I repeated whenever we were making the wheat thresher sounds. And drop everything and sing back stage at a level that carried the emotion...yet ended and began by fading in and out on cue...and still hit perfect notes beginning and ending notes without a tuning for/pitch pipe...each night. As well as begin singing on stage as background to a funeral...never allowing my vocal work to over shadow the scene but to remain integrated.
Photo by Russ Rowland

What was the weirdest part of working on this production?

Beth Ann: Staying up late and making sounds with Joe was just a blast. We'd just constantly try new things and fail and laugh and do it all over again.

Jessi: Every actor was so perfectly cast. I don't think I've ever been in a production where each person fit their role so beautifully.

The weird stuff we used to make the soundscape was bizarre and so fun! The fact that all of the actors were responsible for generating all the live sounds in the show required that even when we were offstage, we were invested in the telling of the story.

Joshua: We decided to create a sound design that was played on mostly found objects and we didn't record anything. We played the "music" of the story live together each night in the corners of the stage. Not only was that an amazing experience - the creating and performing of the sound design - but it kept us all engaged in each other's stories and the piece as a whole the entire duration of the show. It was a very challenging, rewarding and immersive experience.

Wendy: The soundscape! We used musical instruments sure. But also bags of rice and paint trays, gel frames, jars of water, violin bows against cymbals, a hurdy-gurdy. Sometimes we were creating a very specific sound (like the digging of a grave) or just underscoring the feelings of a moment. It was the texture in a very spare production.

Joe: Our sound design was completely organic. We used no recorded sound in the show but created the entire soundscape with musical instruments, found objects, and the theater itself. The fact that we were nominated for a sound design award in a world ruled by technology is a real honor.

Our brilliant lighting designer Kenton Yeager, and his assistant Maanda DeBusk, designed the entire show within an hour of being in the theater after flying up from Knoxville, TN. With a giant smile on his face, he took a look at the lighting inventory, investigated the grid, and pointed to the ceiling saying, 'That goes there, that goes there, that goes there...' while his assistant took notes and created the plot on her ipad. The entire show was hung within a few hours, then Kenton led us all in guided meditation. It was the most chill, focused tech ever.  Also I never got to see any part of it. I was blindfolded for the entire show so I was never able to visually interact with anyone onstage! Sometimes I really wanted to see my scene partner, but then, when I didn't have my eyes, I just needed to trust my other senses to lead the way.

Melanie: Working in Comedy Tandem with Wendy Bagger was a joy and challenge each night as we concentrated mightily to sustain a frantic speaking rhythm while delivering exactly choreographed comedic beats which had to deliver the laughs as a contrast to the intense sadness during the rest of the piece.

KJ: Since it was a small room, the actors had nowhere to go so we embraced this idea, that they were always tucked into a corner, watching, creating the soundscape, witnessing, and rooting each other on. Oh yes, and the play is all about death. Death, death and more death. And it's funny. And we got quite used to laughing about very dark things. And one day we got caught in a torrential downpour as we were loading in a coffin, a huge (and real) sythe and a wheel barrow used for carting bodies. We got soaked and had a ball.

Alexandra: No. Not a thing. We are all extremely normal...

What was it like working with Project: Theater?

Beth Ann:  Aside from the people, whom I love... I'd say my favorite part of working with Project: Theatre is the openness for experimentation. I really felt ready to explore and keep diving deeper into where the story and character and sounds could go.

Doug: Project: Theater is an amazing organization. They produce work that speaks to who each of us are as humans. They tell stories that matter about people we should all know. Their drive to bring valuable stories to the forefront of the artistic conversation sets the bar for how we should all view our roles in the artistic conversation.

Jessi:  I am so impressed by how much each person, from the lighting designer's assistant to the volunteers who worked front of house, shared enormous amounts of their time, talent and unique perspective to make Unity 1918 such a joyful experience.

Joshua:  The level of talent at Project:Theatre is off the charts. As is their level of compassion, fearlessness and commitment to creative story telling based on truth. And the director, KJ Sanchez, really knew how to push you forward while giving you space to create and discover on your own.


Melanie:  Their respect and camaraderie for each other. No one hesitated to come to one another's aid...often running backstage to alleviate a problem...find a missing prop and/or provide a necessary handkerchief on stage when it became lost and had to be replaced with another cast member's! Filling in a sound effect as though it was your own...since we all knew each other's sound effect "choreography" and who did what--

Wendy: Our director, KJ Sanchez was a creative powerhouse. And Jessi Blue Gormezano and Joe Jung are possibly the most generous and loving producers and artistic directors I may ever get to work with. They work from such love.

Alexandra: Joe Jung is a master creator, and Jessi Blue is a master communicator. They set the tone for absolute creation and imagination.

What was it like working with this creative team?

Joe: The team and the creativity they all brought was electrifying. Everyone worked together on nearly every part of this production, and the nominations reflect that. Everyone used his or her own strengths and fears as an ensemble, working on a fantastic play, creating beautiful sounds. For us the ensemble is the key to making good theater, and the ensemble is everyone involved in the project.
These three nominations are a strengthening of our mission of creating community through theater. 

You can follow these artists on Twitter
Project: Theater - @projecttheater
Beth Ann Hopkins -  @balouwho
Joe Jung - @fivepointscbg

Wendy Bagger - @wendybagger 


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