Emilee in Wonderland: The ‘Yes’ Factor and what makes new work exciting

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Written by Emilee Dupré 

I woke up late, threw on my jeans, grabbed a cup of coffee and hopped on the train to 42nd Street on a humid August morning.  My sister Ashlee was in a workshop of Christopher Gatelli’s latest project titled In Your Arms.  Ashlee has been working on it for a long time so I was excited to finally see it.  But, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t know much about it.  I did know Ashlee had been learning Kung Fu, ballroom, flamenco, African dancing, and her muscles are always sore.  I knew that she was glowing every time I saw her after rehearsal for this project.  And I knew that the show was sort of about love, or something.

The elevator opened to the fourth floor of New 42nd Street Studios; so many friends were there in the audience and were about to perform with my sister.  The nerves and excitement were palpable.  A new piece is so interesting.  When you are in the cast, you know that you think it is good, but will the audience?  The experience is so different from doing a production of Oklahoma! or Cabaret, because you know those shows already “work.”  But with a new play there is nothing standard to compare it to.  It is the first time the story is being told.

Christopher got up in front of the room to talk to the audience of friends and family about the show.  He radiated kindness, vulnerability, and humility as he told us about what we were about to see.  While listening to him speak, an ordinary moment of seeing my sister’s show shifted into something slightly magical, like someone letting you read their diary.  Then a simple, haunting, beautiful melody began.  In that moment, I knew I was about to witness something incredible.

In Your Arms consists of several love stories that take place all over the world at different times.  The show is written by different playwrights including Carrie Fisher, Lynn Nottage, and Christopher Durang.  Each story is a short play told through music (written by Ahrens and Flaherty) and dance, occasionally some dialogue.   Different styles of dance are used in every piece.  To be a dancer in this show, you have to be so versatile.  You have to be able to honestly and clearly tell a story through movement; you must be an actor.

In Your Arms has everything. It is simple, stunningly beautiful, hilarious, and incredibly moving.  Blown away by my sister and talented friends in the workshop, by Christopher’s vision, by all the collaboration and innovation, I congratulated everyone and went back down to the West Village.

I sat down in Buvette for another coffee.  I kept thinking about the melodies.  I kept seeing the passionate flamenco dancers, remembering the old couple on the beach, remembering Kristen Faith Oei’s stunning dancing, Jeremy Davis’s scene, the male duet between the painter and the model, giggling at Jenn Harris, and my beautiful sister.  She nailed it, of course, because that’s just what she does!

Creating a new piece takes so much patience, collaboration, ingenuity, drive, focus and fearlessness.  Everyone from creatives to stage management to the cast has to cooperate.  There is no performance to copy, no previous production to take the lead from.  Together a company learns and explores the material, bringing their unique interpretation to the stage. Working on a new production takes all the effort that any other rehearsal process would, but there is something extra.  The actors that tend to work on new material seem to have a uniqueness, a specialness, a leadership factor.  When the director says, “Jump!”, the actors ask, “How high?”  I suppose you could call it the “Yes!” factor. The openness and willingness to try whatever the directors and writers and choreographers ask of them.  And if they fail, they fail, but they will always try.

In my recent experiences with Venice and Chaplin, I think of those special “yes” moments – singing Matt Sax’s music while climbing all over the theater, a whole company learning Chase Brock’s jumpstyle together, watching Leslie Odom, Jr. sing “Last Man.” I remember

Warren Carlyle and Rob McClure creating the “The Tramp Discovery,” putting together the circus number at the top of Act II, Amy Clark making quick change magic.  I remember all of the final run-throughs, the focus and effort they took, the way it felt to hear an audience react for the first time. The events of the show are all strung together in a way that only this singular group of people could have collaborated together to create.  And through blood, sweat, and tears, opening night arrives, and it is officially out there in the universe.

Whether or not a show will be received well is not really predictable, so I’m always excited to see new work.  And with no guarantee of success, there is this strength of character that every person involved seems to have – a balance of both toughness and vulnerability.   And though I love all theater, it is this special quality, this resilience that makes me a little bit more partial to an original piece.  Lucky for me, the upcoming Broadway season is full of original pieces, so it looks like my calendar will be very full.

It is an exciting moment to be in the theater world, and I look forward to all the “yes” moments that make an original piece come to life.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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