Students explore definitions of “home” in mainstage production

Betsy Barthelemy

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This weekend and next, the new Theater and Dance Building will inaugurate its new mainstage, the Macalester Theater, with “Letters|Home,” a student and staff-developed dance theater piece that makes use of every aspect of the new, flexible performance space. The show explores the idea of “home” by drawing upon St. Paul’s history as well as stories students wrote about their own lives or their ancestors’ lives, particularly focusing on immigration, displacement and spirituality.

“This is our new home,” said Claudia Tatinge Nascimento, the chair of the theater department, about the new main stage. “There are also all of these other conversations about home happening around: with the wall, the homeless encampment, Native land where people were taken out of their homes, and here with Rondo, where the people were taken out of their homes to build the highway. So this piece explores the students’ experiences of home. They wrote it—devised from scratch.”

The theater and dance department usually hosts one theater and one dance production per semester. Nascimento and Wynn Fricke, chair of the dance department, decided to collaborate on a new work this year, with the Macalester Theater being completed later than the rest of the new building. The result, which they titled “Letters|Home,” features 13 cast members and also utilizes four theater students as dramaturgs. One of the dramaturgs is Kira Schukar ’22.

Never having worked as a dramaturg before, Schukar explained her role as “doing research on documents for the show, and now kind of editing, or writing, specific scenes within the show.”

“I’ve also never worked in derived theater before,” Schukar added. “Seeing everything come together, all the initial movements that the actors came up with, and all the initial documents that Claudia and Wynn found for us to read to make one cohesive show has been really amazing.”

In addition to the students’ testimonies,“Letters|Home” utilizes what Nascimento calls “found texts,” which are documents and recordings. For example, one scene features recordings of past residents of Rondo, the St. Paul neighborhood demolished to make way for I-94, talking about their time as a part of that community. Supplementing the narratives are projections across several screens throughout the theater, sometimes across the stage. Narration and clips from an old documentary present Macalester’s founder Edward Duffield Neill’s relationship to the Dakota people, on whose land Macalester was founded. Videos, photographs, animated drawings, maps and text following the actors’ voices adds to the impact of every story. All of the technical elements, led by THDA staff Tom Barrett and Eliot Gray Fisher, are stunning, yet never distract from the stories at hand.

The Macalester Theater is built to be configured to the needs of any production. It includes a balcony level, which “Letters|Home” uses as an additional playing space for the actors. The audience sits on two sides of the stage — neither side’s view is better than the other, stage manager Max Danielewicz ’20 assured me — making the production all the more intimate. Often, between actors’ voices and various sound effects, the audience is made to feel completely engulfed in the piece. Above each section of audience is a screen, level with the balcony, that is also used for projections.

To further bring to light the various “homes” that the production depicts, the department is hosting four talk-backs on topics covered in the show: one after each Thursday and Saturday performance. Each will have a different theme and be moderated by Macalester professors and guest speakers. Thursday’s was on Native land and treaties and included author Martin Case; this Saturday’s will cover Rondo and host St. Paul’s first female police officer, Debbie Montgomery; next Thursday’s will center on gay bars as a safe space in the 1940s with author Stewart Van Cleve as the guest; and finally, the closing performance’s talk-back will talk about homelessness in the Twin Cities, welcoming Rinal Ray, the associate executive director of People Serving People, a Minneapolis shelter for homeless families, to provide insight.

“It’s a way of extending the conversation beyond just coming and seeing the show,” explained Nascimento. “With that, we’re asking people to donate non-perishable food items instead of paying for a ticket, so we can donate them to Second Harvest Heartland food pantry. But if you want to donate money instead, that’s fine.” Either way, the point stands: this production is meant to both challenge and go beyond Macalester’s campus boundaries.

All members of the hard-working ensemble rise to the occasion of dancing, acting and singing. “It’s been a really long process, and this show has been through so many iterations. We’ve gone through a lot of trial and error to get where we are,” said Katia Sievert ’21, who is part of the cast. “This cast is full of people who are both talented and absolutely lovely to be around, and the ways that everyone has been able to work together to bring these stories to life has been really rich and rewarding.”

The resulting performance piece fits in at Macalester, especially today, like a glove. Just as the final mainstage theater production in the old building, Anton Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” was about the end of an era, “Letters|Home” encourages a breath of new life for the refreshed department. Deeply personal and definitely relevant, the Macalester Theater’s first premiere production is not one to miss. If you didn’t have the chance to see “Letters|Home” on Thursday, you have six more chances: evening performances on April 26, 27 and May 2-4 at 7:30 p.m., and an ASL-interpreted matinee on April 28 at 2:00 p.m. More information can be found at https://www.macalester.edu/theater-and-dance/performanceseason/current-season/lettershome/