Creators of ‘STAY’ Express Their Emotions in Multimedia Production

Posted: November 16, 2011 at 1:29 pm, Last Updated: February 28, 2012 at 1:05 pm

By Catherine Probst Ferraro

Heather McDonald. Photo by Todd Messegee

The opportunity to create inspirational art from a painful experience is what brought together Mason professors Heather McDonald and Susan Shields for their first collaborative performance — one that merges dance, theater, multimedia and music.

The piece, called “STAY,” is an abstract work of art that wrestles with impermanence, shifting relationships and all the ways one longs for things, people and life to simply stay. “STAY” is currently being performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre in Washington, D.C., through Nov. 27.

McDonald, an award-winning playwright and director, and accomplished dancer and choreographer Shields joined forces in early 2010 after receiving a $35,000 grant from Mason’s Center for Consciousness and Transformation, as well as support from the Theater of the First Amendment (TFA), Mason’s professional theater company.

Learning to Let Go

At the time, they were both striving to overcome personal challenges and spent a lot of time talking about how to balance life, work and motherhood. “STAY,” they both agree, is a reflection on their lives and how they learned to let go.

Susan Shields. Creative Services photo

“The process of creating a piece from beginning to end was very therapeutic and inspiring for both of us,” says McDonald. “In addition, Susan and I were able to seamlessly blend our individual artistic creativity into an emotionally compelling performance that speaks to audiences on all levels.”

According to Shields, developing the production was very different from any other piece either of them had created before. “I felt more vulnerable as an artist than I ever have before, and we both had to figure out how to separate what was happening in the performance from our own emotions.”

There was no script or written lines to learn and no choreography or music to fit. Instead, the pair spent hours in a room together looking at pictures, listening to music and talking about themes. These elements represent the various parts of their lives melding together.

In addition, McDonald and Shields worked closely with professional designers on sets, lighting, costumes and sound to make sure all of the pieces blended together effortlessly.

Throughout the next several months, a series of rehearsals and workshops at TFA and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company were held with an experienced cast of five actors and five dancers — all artists with whom McDonald and Shields have worked before. During the rehearsals, the cast would improvise and brainstorm about the connections of certain images, objects and ideas.

‘Having Our Lives on Display’

Eventually, the piece morphed into a story about multigenerational family relationships and how they change and shift over time. While the piece progresses in a fluid journey, it does not follow a linear storyline, as each scene focuses on recurring echoes, themes and characters, as well as emotional resonance.

“‘STAY’ presents the world like it would appear in a dream and evokes a watery subconscious feeling,” says Shields, who teaches in the School of Dance. “By keeping the storylines very loose, ‘STAY’ does not tell audiences what to think. Instead, an audience brings their own experiences to the piece, and ‘STAY’ allows them to delve into their emotions.”

The performance takes place on a very abstract landscape, reminiscent of a deserted island, perhaps in Scotland. Some of the recurring objects in the piece — stones, glass, shells and suitcases — look as if they have washed ashore. Eight different pieces of music, ranging from modern classical to rock to techno, take audiences on a journey through their own souls.

The climax of the piece focuses on a young girl in pain and uses a technique called SLAM (slide animation movies) multimedia, which brings motion to still photography. With the help of Greg Crane, who created SLAM, a series of photographs were set to music, and through the trickery of lighting, appear to have movement.

“The entire experience of creating this production was strangely freeing and liberating, but could also be terrifying at times,” says McDonald, who is teaches in the Department of Theater.

They both agree that they have a healthy fear of presenting this piece to a public audience.

“It’s like having our lives on display for everyone to judge,” says Shields. “I’m not sure how we’ll emerge from this as individual artists, but I think it’s safe to say that the collaborative process and the raw vulnerability of this piece have shaped us and allowed us to share a gift that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to share if we were working alone.”




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