After three months of interviewing dozens of people from a variety of backgrounds, Jessica Miller ’15 will perform the stories they told her on stage, word for word.
Miller’s senior project in theater studies, titled “Sonder,” opens tonight at the Whitney Theater. The show consists of a series of monologues in which Miller assumes the personas of several of her interviewees and performs a theatrical rendition of the experiences they discussed. Miller said the show is a departure from the acting styles she is most familiar with, noting that she wanted to experiment with a completely different form of theater for her senior project.
“I didn’t want to do something that I felt like would go towards a product,” Miller said. “I wanted a process — a very messy, merely possible process.”
Each year, theater studies seniors stage a combination of original and already-published works as their projects. Leah Osterman ’15, whose production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” was performed at the end of last month, explained that the 2011–12 academic year saw no original productions. This year, she noted, six of the nine shows are original works.
Miller said she originally set out to explore the concept of identity in her project, but was not sure of how to approach the subject. As a result, she explained, she compiled a list of acquaintances whom she thought were excellent storytellers and then reached out to them. Miller noted that she tried to gather a diverse pool of interviewees from a variety of social, economic, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
But the interviewees, she said, frequently steered away from the question of identity and instead shared memorable stories of their past. Miller added that hearing such stories caused the focus of the piece to shift towards “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own” — the definition of the term “sonder.”
Miller said she was partly inspired to pursue an interview-based theater project by her high school’s production of Emily Mann’s play “Greensboro: A Requiem,” which focuses on the murder of North Carolina protesters by the Ku Klux Klan in 1979. She added that she also drew from the work of Anna Deavere Smith, a pioneer in the field of documentary drama. Miller noted that she is fascinated by Smith’s ability to present a variety of perspectives without favoring any particular one.
In her performance, Miller will recreate her characters’ speech patterns in order to accurately depict their personalities. Assistant writer Gian-Paul Bergeron ’17 said that he and other members of the show’s creative team helped Miller craft the script, noting that they paid close attention to preserving “all the little mess-ups that make [the piece] sound authentic.” Miller added that her performance will also feature a variety of props that she associates with her characters, including sweaters, rings, coffee mugs and baseball caps.
All four students interviewed said they believe there is a trend within the theater community at Yale toward original work. Nathaniel Dolquist ’15, whose original show titled “Liminal” incorporated the teachings of depth psychologists, monks and spiritual leaders, noted that he hopes to continue working on his show for potential future productions of it.
Miller added that she also wants to interview more people for her project by reaching out to people from outside of the East Coast. She noted that she hopes the volume of student-written work on campus continues to grow.
Performances of “Sonder” will run through tomorrow night.