Sunday, June 20, 2021

Un(re)solved at Tribeca Film Festival

Tucked behind the Netherland Monument at one of the entrances to Battery Park in Manhattan, you will find Un(re)solved, a temporary monument to a different page in American history; a more humane and ephemeral one.

Un(re)solved is an interactive installation that can be activated with a custom app. A brief audio introduction, prompted by the “Start” QR code on the pavement, invites you to step into the delicate structure on a slightly raised (but accessible) platform. Thirteen plexiglass panels of various heights form two concentric circles. Each panel contains a quilt with a drawing of a tree facing the circle and lists of names on the outside: 151 in total. Each of those people was murdered during the Civil Rights Movement-era, often simply because of their race. The murderers were not found or not punished. These cold cases were reopened by the Department of Justice in 2008 under the Emmet Till Unresolved Civil Rights Crime Act, but, for a lack of effort, resources, or evidence, most of them remain unsolved. 

This touring installation provides a physical space to engage with the stories of political activists and humble workers, children, and adults--both named and anonymous--all lost to racial violence. The process feels like modern spiritual science. First, one needs to scan a QR code next to a name and, when prompted, say that name three times. Upon each call, augmented reality leaves appear on the phone screen and intensify their swirling until one of them comes forth, bearing a photo of the person summoned. More often than not, there is just a silhouette representing the deceased. The Un(re)solved app shows a short dossier consisting of their name and age, the circumstances in which the victim died, and the date and the place of their killing. The “read more” button leads to a longer description of the fatal events, the details of the initial investigation, and the current status of the case.    

Some of the entries contain fragments of audio interviews with members of the family and the community of the deceased; some of the open cases are also featured in an interactive documentary. (I came across a couple of the audio interviews but didn’t watch any video fragments.) Simply reading these dossiers already felt like a visceral experience. The physical discomfort of squinting at my phone under a blazing sun, trying to shield myself in the shade of one of the taller panels seemed appropriate. For those who wish to take a break, however, there are two rows of park benches running on either side of the installation.      

The capacity of this multimedia project to grow as investigations progress in the future is remarkable. The combination of an expanding digital archive and a beautiful physical portal at the entrance of a park illustrates the ambivalent nature of time and history. The Civil Rights Movement-era belongs to the past, yet anti-Black violence continues to be a real threat in the United States. One can stay in the Un(re)solved installation as long as they need or want to. I couldn’t help but want to hear more people’s stories, yet I was also feeling completely overwhelmed at the same time. Eventually, I made it to the outro of the piece (an audio message activated by another QR code in the center of the circles). On my screen, overlaid with scenes from a summer day in the park, ghostly presences were summoned; they flooded the air in the form of the names of the 151 people unjustly killed. And I am horrified to think of how many more there might be.

(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on June 17th, 2020)

CURRENT at Tribeca Film Festival

The Financial District of Manhattan is an ever busy part of town, crowded with tourists and workers; it’s also surrounded by water on three sides. Annie Saunders and Andrew Schneider, the two narrators and the co-creators of CURRENT, invite the audience to join them for an hour-long soundwalk through its streets: all you need is a charged phone and a pair of headphones. The tour starts in Zuccotti Park every half hour. The one-and-a-half-mile-long route takes the listeners down Broadway, past the New York Stock Exchange, and through a labyrinth of winding streets and alleys, some of which are so narrow you could easily miss them otherwise. 


‘CURRENT’


Obscure historical facts are intertwined with the authors’ peculiar and poetic observations about the surroundings. Just like the city blocks we are strolling through, the narrative reveals multiple layers of local and personal histories. Did you know that multiple burial grounds of free and enslaved Africans are found here, where skyscrapers are built? Or that Pearl Street once was the natural edge of Manhattan Island? CURRENT starts out as an unconventional city-centered audio tour and gradually builds up to be a philosophical reflection on urban development and the precariousness of human biology.


There is no one single map that someone can follow during CURRENT as all the directions are given verbally, which presents some challenges at a couple of pivotal points. Occasionally, I exchange questioning glances with a stranger who was clearly also listening to CURRENT in tandem, and we are able to navigate as a collective. This act doesn’t feel burdensome or annoying, however; if anything, it felt a bit like a treasure hunt. “Find a ‘no parking sign’ and stand next to it,” says Annie’s friendly voice. And soon I’m scanning the environment with intensity and attention to the minute details of the cityscape. It’s a focus I can rarely afford when running errands in this part of town. 


CURRENT’s listeners are encouraged to follow the pace of Annie’s footsteps in order to not to fall behind during the experience. Normally, I consider myself a fast walker but this time I wasn't able to always keep up to the narration. Luckily, there are a few rest stops along the way, during which we get to hear fragments of interactions and interviews with the inhabitants and visitors of Manhattan. But I wished the pauses that followed the dialogue fragments weren't completely dead. Hearing nothing but silence for a few seconds after a conversational moment made me compulsively check my phone to make sure that I was still connected to the experience. I have a similar thought around the ending of the experience. The audio track unfortunately stops rather abruptly, right after we complete our loop and arrive back at Zuccotti Park; it’s a choice that leaves the listeners of CURRENT feeling somewhat adrift.


(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on June 18th, 2020)

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

‘Zoetrope’ Brings Live Theatre Back to New York City (Review)

Exquisite Corpse Company presents a kaleidoscope of familiar, absurd scenes from life in self-isolation

The vacant lot on the intersection of Myrtle and Vanderbilt Avenues in Brooklyn wouldn’t normally catch my attention. A huge faded poster on the firewall says “Achtung, baby, here comes the Next Great Depression,” and underneath it a white wooden trailer covered with a blue tarp. Yet, I enter through the gate in the wire mesh fence holding my breath in anticipation. This inconspicuous lot with cracked asphalt, two porta-potties, and a canopy with a couple of chairs for a vestibule is the site of Zoetrope, the first in-person live theatre show that I am seeing this year! 

photo by Jess Dalene

Zoetrope, produced by Exquisite Corpse Company (producer Liz Frost) is an accessible and COVID-19 safe “portable living diorama of 2020”. The slick white trailer mentioned in the beginning is where the theatre magic happens. The name of the show refers to an optical toy of the 19th-century, pre-film era. By rotating the cylinder with drawings on its inner surface (like phases of a horse’s gallop) and looking at it from the slits on the outside, one could create the illusion of movement. ECC’s Zoetrope doesn’t rotate, but it has the slits. And once the show is brought to motion, we can observe various phases of the early days of COVID-19 era, chasing each other. Up to eight audience members can be safely seated around four openings into the trailer and observe the life of a couple in self-isolation in their tiny studio apartment. Painfully familiar and delightfully strange, Zoetrope is an attempt to distance ourselves from the challenging and tragic past year in order to start processing what happened. 

I nervously take my seat under the black muslin on the other side of the apartment’s TV screen. Other audience members get comfortable in front of the fish tank, a calendar, or a portrait. The sound of a disembodied voice and music come in through the headphones connected to an MP3 player. The curtains are pulled open and we can see Angel (Starr Kirkland, alternating with Vanessa Lynah for some of the shows) and Bae (Leana Gardella, alternatively Jules Forsberg-Lary) cozied up on the couch, each of them staring either at a laptop or a phone. A peaceful diorama of the “before” moment.      

Suddenly, notifications pop in on Angel and Bae’s devices. “Looks like it’ll be just you and me for a while,” - and so starts the long period of hibernation, dealing with panic attacks, procrastinating, taking care of each other, fighting, and making space for each other in the suffocating shoebox of a city apartment. Some of us have been down that road, some of us are still in the middle of it. And although I had a strong, repelling reaction towards COVID-themed shows in the past, Zoetrope seems to strike the right cord and at the right moment. 

Zoetrope, created by three playwrights, Elinor T Vanderburg, Leah Barker, and Emily Krause, is a realistic play with lively dialogue, poetically silent soliloquies, and generously peppered with humor. But because it is about the life of two young, hip, Brooklynites in quarantine in 2020, it is tragic and hilarious at the same time. The scenes from the life of an interracial couple rotate in front of our eyes like in a kaleidoscope: Bae brings home a fish from the supermarket because she wants a pet; a fight over an absurd amount of beans bought in a frenzy because there was nothing else in the store; Angel finds out the news of the police assaulting black citizens; the couple watches an election debate together. 

You might not witness the same exact scenes. Zoetrope has a choose-your-own-adventure structure, where audience members are responsible for the twists of the plot. Three out of four seats in the house (or would it be more accurate to say “around the house”) have panels equipped with three switches. Once a panel lights up, the viewer in front of it can make a scene selection, based on the single image on the buttons. Mine were: a VHS tape, a mascot of Goldfish crackers, and a bottle of Absolut vodka. Not wishing self-destruction on the characters I pressed a button corresponding to a VHS tape image. The scene that followed featured Bae talking to a TV, while watching what appeared to be an interior design competition show, and loading up on Goldfish. 

I am not sure if the selection misfired or if crackers were destined to appear regardless; the fact that I made a choice felt inconsequential at that moment. It was a minor disappointment because the scene was funny and endearing. Under the direction of Porcia Lewis and Tess Howsam, and intimacy direction by Daniella Caggiano, the performances of Kirkland and Gardella were beautiful and made me tear up a couple of times over the 35 minutes that the show runs.      

Perhaps the effect was strengthened by the fact that I was watching two humans performing in real life for the first time in months, only separated from them by plexiglass. Watching a live show from the other side of a TV felt uncanny and meta in some sense. Although studying every single detail in a slick, entirely black-and-white apartment (decorated by visual artists Emily Addison, Dominica Montoya) felt very familiar because of the hours spent on Zoom. 

Over the past year, all of us who frequently participate in video calls simultaneously turned into voyeurs and performers in a peep-show. Zoetrope feels similar with one exception: you can’t “turn off the self-view” or dissolve into the sea of participants with their video turned off. The show stares at you, literally (through the eyes of the actors) and figuratively (I recognized myself in a lot of it). There is nothing like live theatre when it comes to holding a mirror up to the world.             

(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on May 18)

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

‘Icons/Idols: in the Purple Room’ (Review)

Entering the New Ohio Theatre to see a show seems strange and exciting. And although Icons/Idols: in the Purple Room is a political drama set in the eighth century Byzantium, it is difficult to separate the past from the present. The historical events overlaid with the design of the experience, largely prompted by COVID-19 safety protocols, create an eerie atmosphere and make you revise “theatre” as a concept. 

Photo courtesy of Byzantine Choral Project

This production combines a 40-minute soundtrack (book and lyrics by Helen Banner, music by Grace Oberhofer), and an immersive installation (design by Afsoon Pajoufar). Upon receiving the timed entry ticket confirmation, I also get a link to download the audio file to my cell phone. Using my headphones, I can listen to the choral drama, prompted to move from one part of the installation to the other (for those who wish, mp3 players and headphones are available at the door). There are no live performers in the space (save for a single “stagehand” who helps to navigate the space if anybody is confused). The entries are staggered, so at any given moment, there are only a handful of audience members wandering in the labyrinths of history.        


The story that unfolds is of the Byzantine empress Irene, and her life journey from a young orphan to the height of political power. Irene was brought to Constantinople by Constantine V to marry his son, Leo IV. This is where I, as an audience member, enter the story, descending the staircase leading to what normally would be the backstage but now is a hallway of a palace (there is also an accessible entrance). Floor-to-ceiling silk prints feature the black-and-white image of some ancient hall. The columns on the photograph rhyme visually with the columns in the theater. The craft paper runner leads to the towering “throne”, a red plastic chair atop a metal ladder, reminiscent of a lifeguard seat at the poolside. The eclecticism of the installation design is certainly stimulating but puzzling at times. 


The site of the next scene is a large bed covered with white sheets stained with blood (the childbirth of Constantine VI, the next in line for the throne, just took place here). There are two remote controls prominently placed on the bed. It is unclear whether they are put there intentionally or were left there by mistake after two TVs featuring a single, slowly blinking eye were turned on. Either way, this minor detail was quite noticeable in the minimalistic and carefully put together set and took me out of the moment. The stakes dropped once I was visually cued that it all might just be a TV melodrama. 


The historical events themselves are highly dramatic. The conflict between Irene and the male members of the royal family (first her father-in-law and her husband, then her son) revolves around the rivalry between iconophiles and iconoclasts. Irene, who is deeply connected to icons, first tries to pass this passion onto her younger son. However, she is discovered and punished by her husband by being separated from her child and practically imprisoned. Despite the personal trauma and the hostile atmosphere towards iconography in Byzantium, Irene continues her pursuit and will soon challenge the empire. She is not stopping even when her own son gets in the way of her vision.         

               

Icons/Idols, the first part of the Byzantine Choral Project, is full of blood-chilling horrors and passion crushing everything in its way. The emotional turmoils are conveyed beautifully in acapella choral singing by the voices of ten female and non-binary performers. The installation component, on the other hand, slows down the dynamic narrative, and I am still not sure whether it benefits the vocal performance. 


While the singing conveys raw passions, the installation looks like a cadaver of the past, held together by brown scotch tape. Some components of the visual design are stunning: for example, the large-scale fabric prints of the palace and the church, which looked triumphant and haunting, moving slightly as the few audience members were moving between them. So did the heavy velvet backdrop of the “purple room”. And even the bed, as a site of birth and death reads as an important visual dominant (minus the remote controls). But the brown tape generously used throughout the space made me cringe. Conceptually, it was probably referring to holding the Byzantine empire together. In reality, it looked messy and degraded the overall design concept. Thankfully, the bold and colorful lighting brought some edge to the visual design and held it together.                     


Execution aside, there is something haunting in the incongruity between the narrative unfolding chronologically in “real-time” and the non-linear trajectory of the movement through space, half-ruin, held together by inadequate means. It was also incredibly uncanny to see the familiar theater space transformed and to get disoriented. The entire experience, starting from entering New Ohio from where the actors normally would, and ending the show on the bleachers made me think of the future of the theatre-going: will it ever be the same? Most importantly, do we want it to be “the same”? Or should we follow the example of passionate Irene, who was able to seize the moment, changing the course of the entire Western civilization?       

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Haunting Tales of ‘Someone Else’s House’ (Review)

A ghost story by the fire in the age of the virtual theatre 














Photo courtesy of Geffen Playhouse.


It requires a lot of willpower to not open a slick wooden box with a single letter “J” burned into its top. 


Just a thin string separates me from the secrets of Someone Else's House, a new virtual experience from Geffen Playhouse’s Stayhouse series. But I was instructed not to open the “haunting kit” until I am prompted to do so in the show. Lights are dimmed, curtains pulled down, and the Zoom update is installed: the spooky atmosphere is set. When Jared Mazzochi, the writer and performer for the evening joins the audience (up to 40 households), we all squirm in our seats in anticipation. 


What Jared is about to tell us is a true story that happened to his family before he was born. In the 80’s, his parents moved into a mansion that was over 200 years old in Enfield, New Hampshire, with their three little kids. What seemed like a great bargain for a large property ended up costing the family much more in psychological damage. Jered’s brother, eight at the time of the move, was scared for his life by the horrifying events that unfolded at the house during the short time the Mazzochis occupied it. Wanting to get to the bottom of it, and hoping to heal the scars of the past, Jared decided to investigate the history of the house and its original dwellers, the Johnson family.    


(Minor spoilers ahead)


Jered conducted impressive research, recreating the family tree of the Johnsons, which he proudly presented to us, complete with the old black and white photographs of its members. Each of our boxes contains a copy of the family tree so we can follow along with the story. Indeed, it would be difficult to do so without the visual reference - the matriarch and the patriarch, Joseph and Polly, had nine children alone! 


Completing the dossier are the floor plan with an idyllic etching of the house in the 19th century and a scented candle which all of us light at the beginning (matches are included in the kit). A separate envelope contains five photographs, each audience member has a different set. As Jered leads us along the branches of the Johnson family tree, he calls upon people who have the photos of the certain characters to read their short bios from the back of the cards. This is the most participation required from the audience members, making Someone Else's House a suitable show for introverts. One can decline speaking by just not holding the photograph up to the screen. The Johnsons were a large family, but there are still duplicates, so the responsibility to introduce a new character is never on a single person.


It is, however, required to keep your video on, so we all could hold the space symbolically. The part where Jared shares the results of his investigation at the beginning of the show, happens in gallery mode. There is something haunting in the way the Zoom grid is continued by the row of black and white photographs of the dead people on my desk. One particular woman is staring at me intensely (the cause of death unknown). So does the 13-year-old boy who died after being stung by multiple bees. 


(Somewhat bigger spoilers ahead so I suggest you stop reading if you plan to attend the show)


After demonstrating the impressive diorama of Johnson's family tree on his wall, Jared switches locations and we can now see a bit more of this cozy interior. There is a desk with some books on it, a hallway, and an antique wooden chair mounted on the wall. Apparently, this was a practice common in the 18th and 19th century, including among the Shakers, which was a prevalent religious community in the area at the time. I never saw people storing chairs in this way and had to Google it. To me, the “floating chair” looked like a slightly surreal design element visually communicating suspense. The production design of Someone Else's House (by Sibyl Wickersheimer) is full of small and thoughtful details like this one.

As Jared shares more and more from the intertwining stories of two families who occupied the house, the Johnson’s and the Mazzochi’s, strange interference invades the transmission. A glitch in the video or a second-long shot of the overhead view of the room are unobtrusive but they gradually make me feel more and more uneasy. At some point the realization of the inevitability of danger is so tense it can be cut with a knife. But Jared is so into sharing his research with us that he doesn’t pay attention to the lights flickering in the hallway behind him.  


Without giving away any more I will just say that Someone Else's House is an interesting experiment of adapting the horror genre to the virtual theatre. The combination of tangible objects and skillful video special effects (by Virtual Design Collective aka VIDCO) unites theatre and film, the living and their ghosts. Perhaps most importantly, Jared Mazzochi, directed by Margot Bordelon, is an engaging storyteller. The faces of the audience members leaning forward, brightened by the glow of their computer screens, feels as if I am listening to a ghost story by the “fire”. 


Someone Else's House probably won’t make you lose sleep; it is not extreme by any means. Although not without some spooky moments, and a spectacular grand finale, it makes for a pleasant evening. This show was more about connecting through storytelling, than being afraid of each shadow and squeak at your own place.     


After the show is brought to an end abruptly and I blow out my candle, the peculiar aroma lingers in the air for some time. Not a candle person myself, I didn’t notice how much of the atmosphere of the experience was influenced by its complicated scent. Designed by the Uppercase Candle Company, this little candle smells of bitter herbs, antique furniture, and a campfire. I relish in the familiar yet uncanny combination of smells, letting the ghosts of the Johnson/Mazzochi residence settle and rest for the night.                          

 

(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on May 11)   

Sunday, February 21, 2021

‘Posthumous’ Reveals the Corporate Realia of the Digital Afterlife (Review)

Participatory drama by Phoenix Tears Productions brings excitement to Zoom 

As much as I am impressed with the technical and artistic advances of virtual theatre in the pandemic age, I’m tired of staring into my computer screen. Nothing beats a live show. I frankly thought I was done with Zoom theatre; that is, until I attended Posthumous, a remote interactive experience by Orlando-based Phoenix Tears Productions. It turns out that live-streamed performances can feel captivating, dramatic events can be gripping, and even the sickeningly familiar mechanics of Zoom can feel fresh.    



Some believe that the souls of the deceased go to heaven, but, in the world of Posthumous, people have figured out how to upload the consciousnesses of the recently deceased to the cloud. By connecting to the memories of the dead, the leaders of this new industry are able to customize “post-physical existence” and make the experience of the afterlife as pleasant as possible. But what makes the eponymously titled Posthumous corporation stand out from the competition is their environmental ethics. The company’s web site reads: “Posthumous tested and is in the process of patenting ‘Posthumous Power’ an alternative energy that can run the servers of hundreds of afterlives without the depletion of fossil fuels.” The relatives of their deceased clients can find comfort in knowing that their loved ones can spend eternity according to their preferences, all while using clean energy, energy so abundant it can power entire cities. What could possibly go wrong? 


(Very light spoilers follow.)


“Melinda Winter, one season, no ‘s,’” says our supervisor, wearing a bright fuchsia dress with matching lipstick, and laughing loudly at her own joke. I suspect she uses it every time she introduces herself. Along with five other new hires in the Recruitment department, I am sitting at an orientation session (all of the participants in the show have been split up into different corporate departments such as Investors or Recovery). I am instantly annoyed by this overly enthusiastic woman in Recruitment. But I have to pretend I am paying attention to her every word. After all, I need to get to the bottom of what this company is all about. The experience has barely started, but I am a mole: I’m on a mission by an outside agency to investigate this suspicious company. (But I won’t reveal any other details about my espionage to avoid additional spoilers.)   


As the orientation continues, we are told of the responsibilities of the Recruitment department, one of which is to choose people who will get our services pro bono. Ms. Winter introduces the three pro bono candidates with the help of a slide show. We start our discussion as Khadijah Banks, the leader of the company, joins us. In the hopes of finding some corporate secrets, Ms. Banks (Stephanie Rae) tries to persuade us to “plugin” an employee of another, competing afterlife company. Meanwhile, our group is still leaning towards selecting a child as the recipient of free afterlife. As our discussion unfolds, people from our small department conspicuously come and go, being pulled into different breakout rooms on Zoom.            


An entire layer of plot gradually emerges alongside the daily tasks that our team has to perform. Along with the Recruiters track, which I am on, there is a Recovery crew (which deals with the postmortal clients), and an Investors department. Sometimes we cross paths with people from other departments, as well as other employees of Posthumous, and other characters like clients’ family members. On top of occasionally finding myself in a room with somebody else, I am also getting all sorts of weird messages through chat.  At some point, it becomes a game: can you message someone without being noticed by Ms. Winter or your teammates? It is difficult to say who is following what agenda. Early on, I find myself enveloped in the conspiracy and enjoy the thrills of the twists and turns it takes.      


I found the interactions with all the characters and fellow participants in Posthumous deeply engaging. I was pulled aside into a small group  as an observer even before easing into the experience, which was a bit strange, but activated my “player” mindset at once. Although there is a lot going on and you can never know when you will be moved to a different room for your next encounter, the plot ends up unfolding nicely, at least from my experience. I was amazed by the precision of the technicians running the show as well as the ability of actors to perform while replying to direct messages simultaneously. Being on one of the three possible tracks, I didn’t spend much time with all twelve characters, but the ones I did interact with were truly amazing. The Recruitment Supervisor, Melinda Winter (Melanie Leon) stormed into our first meeting like a lightning bolt and was able to retain that energy throughout the 90 minute show. (I also later wished I was on a different track to witness this character’s transformation towards the end.) Stephanie Rae (Kadijah Banks) exuded ultimate strength and power, while maintaining a warm and caring facade. 


Posthumous would be perfect if only a better onboarding could be added to it. Right now, it is a little muddled. Director Mallory Vance appears first and gives us a short out-of-character forward which, to me, sets the wrong mood for the show. The production design could also be more coherent (some participants used virtual backgrounds, while others didn’t). But those are such minor details in comparison to what the show delivers on that I won’t dwell on them much.  


Additionally, I really appreciated the space opened up post-show for the participants to discuss what happened, share their experiences, and ask questions of the actors and creators. Providing an opportunity for participants to decompress and to reflect on the consequences of their actions felt like an extra step of aftercare that is often neglected in digital productions. When there are multiple tracks and some things are unclear, being able to compare notes post-factum feels very satisfactory. Virtual theatre can feel alienating, considering you are returning to your daily life without actually leaving it. That’s why having a communal moment in the form of a post-show debrief/vent is even more valuable in a digital format.    


Between the strong performances, tech coordination, engaging story, and feeling of player agency (there are about ten different endings to the experience), Posthumous was a show that rehabilitated Zoom theatre for me. I hardly noticed how much time had passed during the show. 


(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on February 14th, 2021)


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Gentle ‘Hearts of Cranes’ invite you to heal the world


Manatsu Tanaka teaches you to fold origami and not to lose hope


When I was growing up, origami got very popular amongst my friends at some point. The Japanese art of folding paper was all the craze in my Russian middle school: frogs, boats, and flowers were spilling out of backpacks and pockets. And, of course, cranes. They represented a different side of origami art, aimed not at producing a variety of shapes but devoting oneself to a practice of making a single shape of a crane repeatedly. There is a belief that if you make 1000 cranes your wish will come true. We were told a story about a Japanese girl, Sasaki Sadako, who had leukemia in the aftermath of the radiation after the Hiroshima bombing. She started folding 1000 cranes hoping that her wish to live will be granted. Few hundred cranes in she became too weak to continue and died before her senbazuru (literally meaning “1000 cranes”) was completed.           


Manatsu Tanaka as Saki in 'Hearts of Cranes'


I haven’t folded origami since I was 12. But the memory of this practice is linked for me with the fun of communal activity and sadness of Sasaki Sadako’s story. I am reminded of both feelings at once at Hearts of Cranes, a remote performance piece, produced by You&I theatre company. Manatsu Tanaka, the author, and the actor portraying Saki, guides a single audience member through the process of folding an origami crane while sharing stories and inviting the participant to reflect on the power of wishing, hope, and healing. Landing somewhere in between an origami lesson and a friendly chat, Hearts of Cranes is a meditative performance perfect for quieting the anxieties of our trying times. 


If not for the repeated consent check-ins (which are not necessary for the most part) I would completely dissolve in this experience, relaxed by the spell of Tanaka’s soft and friendly voice. It might be difficult for a performer to read another person in the Zoom room so a constant verbal temperature check is used. “I want to tell you a story. Is this OK?” Such careful inquiries take me out of the natural flow of the conversation but at the same time make me revise my understanding of consent in immersive theatre. By buying a ticket to a show, what are we really agreeing to?


Don’t worry, Hearts of Cranes is not one of those experiences that try the participant’s limits. The most challenging part is to do all the paper folding right. Tanaka is there to guide you through the process patiently and even if you won’t produce the most elegant origami piece, it is what’s in the heart of the crane that is important (you’ll find out more at the show). There is something powerful and beautiful in the simple act of crafting together. It creates an extra plane of connectedness, aided, of course, by technology. 


Not only is Tanaka a skillful origami master and storyteller, but they are also quite inventive when it comes to manipulating the capabilities of a video call. At one point they scroll a sheet of paper in a tube and put it around the camera, so I can only see their eye. Fun and intimate and maybe a bit intimidating, I can’t believe I haven’t seen this gesture anywhere yet! The performer seamlessly navigates video transitions in simple yet effective ways. It’s easy to forget how demanding performing on Zoom is: not only do you have to maintain contact with the participant but also run your own tech. 


As much as I wish for COVID to go away, I will certainly miss the DIY, heartfelt, poetic shows like Hearts of Cranes. I guess I am off to making my 2000 cranes, one thousand for the world to heal, another for the theatre to keep the tenderness and gentle beauty of a folded paper bird.