The Journey to The Other Shore

Each morning during the month of January, a group of Gustavus Adolphus College students gathered in the dance studio. While some members of the campus rested warmly in their beds, this group promptly got to work. They started with group exercises, stretching a rope between partners to pull, twirl and dance around one another. This was a typical start to the day for the ensemble of The Other Shore, presented by the Gustavus Adolphus College Department of Theatre and Dance.

This unconventional morning routine was just one of many steps in preparation for opening night of The Other Shore. For Professor of Theatre and Dance Amy Seham, the director of the play, artistic collaboration is the prevailing word to describe this play. “It’s a huge collaborative project,” Seham said.

A diverse group of students, faculty, and staff came together for the production that will open in Anderson Theater on Thursday, February 19 at 8:00 p.m. In addition to the standard group of on-stage actors, set designers and technicians, this play includes many distinctive elements, among them shadow puppets created and performed by Gustavus students.

For those involved, January was a grueling month, with a schedule of rehearsals spanning morning, noon and night. “I’m exhausted,” said Junior Theatre Major Andrea Gullixson. “[But] I think it will be worth it.”

Later in the day, the students gathered with Seham to rehearse a scene. As one student rose from the floor and another traced her way around him, other students joined in a slow motion of leap-frog, holding at the highest point to form “trees;” part of the scenery for the play.

“We talked about the creation of physical landscapes through movement and the body, so there are times when the actors become trees in a forest,” Seham said. The choreographic style, designed by Professor of Theatre and Dance Melissa Rolnick, is just one element creating the avant-garde, expressionist style defining the entire production.

“Another unique factor with this production is that, as actors, we’ve been able to explore techniques of improvisation to lead us through the development of our show,” Senior Communication Studies Major Dave Christians said. “During the larger crowd scenes, the ensemble creates so much energy, and through the freedom to use improvisation we are able to exchange this energy between actors and build off of each other.”

Christians plays the role of Father in the play. “Through experimentation and adaptation within a given scene, we as performers are able to create our own representation and story of The Other Shore. Because of this freedom, every performance is going to be different and the audience will see something new every time,” Christians said.

Written by Chinese playwright Gao Xingjian, the play demonstrates the unique style of a unique playwright. Xingjian was the first Chinese recipient of a Nobel Prize in Literature and incorporates concepts of Nirvana and Buddhist philosophy throughout the story.

The plot focuses on the Man, played by Sophomore Management and Theatre Major Christian DeMarais, who interacts with a crowd trying to cross a river. As he encounters various members of the crowd, independent personalities emerge, but each eventually merges back into the crowd. “It’s a really fascinating allegory about the relationship between the individual and community, or between self and society,” Seham said.

“The show is a metaphorical and emotional journey that follows the progression through Man’s life, which can also be viewed as the progression of humanity and civilization. It portrays representations of the effects, consequences and relations of individualism and collectivism,” Christians said.

Senior English Major Nicole DuCane, who plays Man’s alter ego, Shadow, said, “the very ensembleness of the show, the prose used, the breaking away from traditional drama and its structure, along with this questioning of everything a person can experience in life, makes this play a very distinctive one.”

Xingjian wrote the play for a Chinese audience in 1986. However, it angered government  officials, who banned the play from being performed in Communist China. In 1987, Xingjian left China for France. After his publication of Fugitives, which mentions the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Xingjian and his works were banned from China. “The play was stopped in the middle of rehearsal and banned by the Chinese government,” Seham said.

The Other Shore was chosen as part of the Global Insight Program, which was created to encourage exploration of a foreign culture or region through a variety of events throughout the year. This year’s focus is on China and will delve into all aspects of the country through invited speakers, fine arts events like this play, special presentations, service-learning opportunities and classes.

“[I chose] this play this year because of the Global focus on China,” Seham said. “It’s interesting in the context of Chinese history … but it’s also of a universal interest. It can be really appreciated and understood in the context of Chinese history but it also talks to us all,” Seham said.

The shadow puppetry in the show is the result of a January Interim Experience course on how to perform the ancient Chinese art form in addition to insight into its history. Artist Ann Sawyer-Aitch, of the Minneapolis Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, was in residence for the month of January, working intensively with students. These elaborately designed puppets now play an integral role in the play. “The use of the shadow puppets has certainly added that extra layer of artistry and insight into the show for the audience to visually absorb,” DuCane said. “They’re just stunning,” Seham said. “[There are] key magical moments that are created through the shadow puppets.

The performance will take place in the Anderson Theater on February 19, 20 and 21 at 8:00 p.m. and February 22 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are free for Gustavus staff and students, $7 for adults and $5 for other students and seniors.

Seham is confident that all who come will enjoy the play. “It can be enjoyed on many levels,” she said. “It can be enjoyed purely for its action and incredible imagery. It can be enjoyed as an allegory on universal issues. It can be enjoyed as a comment on Chinese politics. It can be enjoyed just in watching the skill and dynamic of the ensemble.”