In ‘Abyss,’ an ‘Odyssey’ of sight and sound

“Abyss” seeks to enliven the audience’s experience of classical music through story- telling, dance, acting and circus performance.
“Abyss” seeks to enliven the audience’s experience of classical music through story- telling, dance, acting and circus performance. Photo by Samantha Gardner.

A new show this weekend asks audiences to imagine the end of the world as part of a journey through classical music.

Stephen Feigenbaum ’12 MUS ’13, who created the concept for “Abyss,” said he wants the show to turn classical music into a theatrical experience that excites a broad audience. While classical music on its own can be inaccessible, music with visuals can more directly communicate a message to audiences, he explained. Feigenbaum, who also founded the alternative classical music group SIC InC, said he sees “Abyss” — which blends classical music, storytelling, dance, acting and circus performance into an apocalyptic narrative — as similar to Disney’s “Fantasia,” Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil.

“Classical music is creating this entire world,” Feigenbaum said. “The music is driving this live story into something that gets you excited and is entertaining.”

“Abyss” has no dialogue and only a general plot in order to emphasize the music, Feigenbaum added. Instead of serving as accompaniment, the music advances the plot, and musicians play alongside actors and dancers on stage, he said. For example, a tuba player who represents a military figure will play the instrument at times when dialogue is expected, he said.

Matthew George ’11, who developed the show’s plot after listening to Feigenbaum’s compositions repeatedly, said he was inspired by traditional epics, including the “Aeneid” and the “Odyssey,” which he reread while brainstorming. The resulting story is heavily influenced by the idea of the archetypal hero going on a journey.

“Before the process, I thought characters always had to be super nuanced and complex. … But if you hear a soaring piece of music that sounds like something you’ve heard before, that doesn’t make it any less soaring,” George said. “With Odysseus, it’s like a motif coming up over and over again.”

“Abyss” tells the story of a young man, played by Gabe Greenspan ’14, whose wife is kidnapped, forcing him to go on a journey to retrieve her. Director Charlie Polinger ’13 said he wanted the show to have a fairly loose narrative in the same way as a ballet does — the story serves as a focal point for the music and movement.

Gracie White ’16, a dancer and choreographer for “Abyss,” said the entire cast was involved in the creative process, as Polinger often wanted the performers to interpret a general theme or scene on their own. Polinger said he approached directing differently from usual, since “Abyss” did not come directly from a script and is far less plot- and character-driven than most pieces of theater he has worked on.

“I’m the outside eye shaping it, making final decisions,” Polinger said. “It’s finding the thing that feels most right.”

Each choreographed movement tells a part of the story, White explained. In the opening scene, for example, two characters dance in a duet that includes movements like brushing teeth and turning off a light bulb.

White, who has experience as a circus performer, incorporated circus choreography into the show, including acrobatics, contortion and aerial silks performance, in which dancers wrap themselves in silks hanging from the ceiling and move through various poses.

“Abyss” received $10,000 from the University’s Arts Discretionary Fund and $15,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, Feigenbaum said. Polinger said the group also received various other arts grants. To gather local support, some musicians held a fundraising concert at 116 Crown in December and reached out to arts organizations in New Haven.

Part of the project’s goal has always been to attract more than “an insular Yale audience,” Polinger said, which influenced the decision not to stage the production in a Yale theater. While students could begin reserving tickets through the Yale Drama Coalition site beginning Sunday night, Polinger said the group had already opened ticketing separately to members of the New Haven community through a separate website.

Polinger added that he had originally hoped to create a site-specific work that could be devised entirely in the performance space, an unused storefront at 278 Park St. owned by University Properties. But producer Kathleen Addison ’14 explained that paperwork and various logistical challenges prevented the team from moving into the space until just before spring break.

Addison said the project ended up working much more closely with the University than they had originally anticipated, adding that a close relationship with Yale led to both benefits and restrictions. Since the production team was able to use the space for free, Addison said the group spent the majority of the show’s considerable budget on design and on installing elements such as lighting, as well as the equipment necessary for aerial work.

“We’re kind of walking a weird line in working a lot with [the] Undergraduate Production [office] because [“Abyss”] is getting money from Yale — and Undergraduate Production is super helpful — but also trying to be more independent than your typical Yale show,” Addison said.

Polinger said he wanted the show to have a very professional design team, so he brought in Brian Dudkiewicz DRA ’14, with whom he had previously collaborated on “Independents,” to design the set. The show features other design work by both undergraduate and School of Drama students, as well as lighting by local lighting designer Jamie Burnett of Luminous Environments LLC.

“Oftentimes design gets thrown onto a show last minute, including for shows I’ve worked on,” Polinger said. “But it was totally necessary for this show — half of the staging is interacting with the design. It’s still an evolving element.”

Polinger said that from the beginning, the show’s design has had a very “gritty, industrial” feel that is juxtaposed with both the beauty of the music and the classical storyline. Dudkiewicz said his challenge was to take the long, narrow open space of the storefront and make viewers feel “that [this space] was meant for this show, and the show was meant for this space.”

For example, Polinger said the set was designed around a giant silver pipe that cuts through the space. Dudkiewicz said he wanted to incorporate the show’s emphasis on music into the design as well, by visually differentiating the musicians from the other performers.

“I wanted the musicians to feel that they were part of the scene world and not inside the world,” Dudkiewicz said. “The actors and the performers are the people in this world, whereas the musicians are this world.”

“Abyss” will run from Thursday to Sunday with 10 performances in total.

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