Stories of Dislocation, the new theatrical work by University of South Carolina professor Robyn Hunt, is not a traditional play in any sense of the term.
It takes place in two movements: In the first section, seven actors, all Hunt’s students, recreate and interpret interviews with seven real-life immigrants to the U.S.
The actors, who conducted the interviews themselves, will painstakingly reenact their subjects’ every correction, every change in tone, every cough and every pause as they tell their stories of leaving their homes and learning a new language, a new culture and a new way of life.
In the second section, that same group of actors will work in complete silence, moving at an achingly slow pace across the stage in one direction, then another, embodying a search for the unknown that many immigrants embark on.
The first section of Stories of Dislocation, which opens at the Center For Performance Experiment on Thursday, was inspired by actress, professor and playwright Anna Deveare Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fire in the Mirror, a one-woman show in which Smith recreated interviews with people directly involved with the 1991 race riot in Crown Heights, New York.
“She did interviews and then performed the interview exactly as that person uttered it,” Hunt says. “Without her commenting on that person, just uttering the words exactly how they spoke to her. So I thought, ‘What if we begin with interviews, and we have seven people who migrated to this country?’ The actors interviewed three Russians, someone from Indonesia, someone from Ghana, someone from Mongolia and someone from Guatemala.”
The second movement is based on the concept of slow tempo, a style of performance developed in Japanese theater by director and playwright Shogo Ohta. The idea is to explore every moment without adornment, in order to study the human condition in acute detail.
Hunt spent years in Kyoto studying with Ohta and explains that many of his works centered on the experiences of migrants and refugees.
“Shogo Ohta made several pieces looking at human beings in extremity,” Hunt tells Free Times. “He would use slow tempo to explore people in circumstances of difficulty. I think of it as a form of naturalism, in the sense that you have time as an audience and a performer to experience all of the thoughts that led up to the action. You see the before, during and after.”
Hunt readily acknowledges that slow tempo is not for every theater audience, but that when it connects with an audience, the effect can be startling.
“Our sense of time changes because of what they’re doing onstage,” she says, “and because of the specificity of what they’re doing. You’re transported to this other world where you observe differently, and you experience differently. I’ve had people say that for weeks after they’ve seen [a slow tempo performance], they feel that their perception of daily life has changed.”
Stories of Dislocation was also inspired, at least partially, by the current debate over immigration in the U.S. But Hunt is quick to say that the piece isn’t blatantly political in any way.
“There’s not very much that people will find controversial,” she contends. “It’s a non-partisan way to look at some human beings. I was interested in doing this piece that prevented us all from thinking about ‘these people’ as a non-descriptive group. We hear so much that lumps them all together as ‘these people,’ ‘these people who are suffering,’ ‘these people who have left their homes.’”
Hunt’s idea was to break down that homogenous view of those immigrating to this country.
“I was interested in a piece where you would have to see individuals,” she says. “The unifying idea was to invent something together with the actors to experience ‘these people’ as a individuals who have gone through this thing.”
Ultimately, though, Stories of Dislocation is a piece of theater, not a piece of propaganda, and Hunt says she hopes that audiences will give this somewhat abstract work a chance.
“I would love for people to feel like they don’t have to understand the narrative,” she offers. “It’s almost more like a dance poem than something with a clear narrative. Some people don’t want to slow down, and I appreciate that. But I would hope that the audience could flow with it and see how they’re affected, and if it changes how they watch.”
What: Stories of Dislocation
Where: Center For Performance Experiment, 718 Devine St.
When: Sept. 26-Oct. 6
Price: $5 (no pre-sales)