Documentary Play Performed Professionally

Senior Jason Norman acts in the devised documentary play "Refuge." Image by Shelley Barish
Senior Jason Norman is proud of helping create a documentary play about "Refuge."

By Katharine Webster

A Syrian man in a refugee camp on Cyprus, hoping to join his fiancée in Massachusetts. An immigrant from England who once found refuge in a church praise band and, after the band dissolved, in photography. A mother who lost her 14-year-old daughter.

Students working with Asst. Prof. Shelley Barish and guest director David E. Shane interviewed these people and more to create “Refuge,” an original documentary and movement show. “Refuge” was performed on campus in late April – and the students will perform it professionally later this month as part of the New Works Initiative at Bristol Valley Theater in Naples, N.Y., where Shane is associate artistic director.

The production grew out of an idea Shane and Barish, a scenic designer, had been exploring for a while: how people find refuge, whether from war, grief or loneliness. Barish got support from the English Department to make it the spring Theatre Arts production, which counts as a one-credit practicum.

It’s a double first: the first time students have been taught how to create a piece of “devised” documentary theater, and the first time a university production has been performed at a professional theater. Several members of the ensemble said it was the highlight of their college experience.

“We’re all very proud of the show,” says Jason Norman, a senior from Lowell. “We never got a script and we weren’t just sent out to memorize lines. We were out in the world, finding real things and making them artistic, while trying to remain true to the people that we were playing. It felt natural, real, and it meant something.”

Devised theater pieces are usually created by an ensemble over years, not months, Barish says – “Only crazy people set a performance date before they even know who’s going to be in the room collaborating” – but using a documentary approach helped.

“It provides a bit of structure, so you don’t have to create the words,” she says.

“Refuge” was developed by a group of 11 students – mostly English majors with a Theatre Arts concentration. They interviewed a wide range of people, then spent a marathon three-day weekend deciding whom to include and shaping their stories. The resulting monologues, some of them structured to seem like conversations, were edited almost until opening night. The final production involved 10 student actors, an assistant director, student designers for sound, music and costumes and a technical crew of five.

Annaliese Beaulieu plays a grieving mother who's lost her 14-year-old daughter. Image by Shelley Barish
Anneliese Beaulieu plays a grieving mother who has lost her 14-year-old daughter.

Shane, who had prepped the students in workshops on devised theater, documentary theater and movement, also choreographed several movement pieces that served as transitions between scenes. In both the movement and spoken pieces, the actors used umbrellas to symbolize refuge and the giving, taking and denial of shelter. In one scene, the mother whose daughter died accepts an umbrella from another character – but the umbrella dissolves in the rain.

“There is no refuge for her,” says Ryan Perry, a junior from Saugus.

Shane interviewed a university alumna in person in Burlington, then spoke via Skype with her Syrian fiancé in Cyprus. Student Tim Sheils, a senior from Stoneham, portrayed the Syrian man in “Refuge” and found himself waiting anxiously, with the rest of the ensemble, for April 22, the day the couple would find out whether the man’s U.S. visa application had been approved.

“It’s incredible when you reach out and you find out these stories about people by asking this question of refuge,” Sheils says. “Some people are still trying to find it.”

April 22 fell in the middle of the show’s run – and the alumna came that night. Afterward, she told everyone the outcome. Perry says it was his favorite moment in the whole process.

“He ended up getting approved for his visa, so the cast was brought to tears. We had been so close to this man that we had never met,” he says.

“It was living theater, literally,” Barish adds.

Stage Manager Alexa Lambert calls sound and light cues for "Refuge." Image by Shelley Barish
Stage Manager Alexa Lambert calls sound and light cues.

Many of the people the students interviewed came to see “Refuge.” Stage manager Alexa Lambert says that while she called the sound and light cues, she could see them laughing or crying as they saw themselves portrayed.

“They got to see a piece of their life,” she says.

The show was performed at Comley-Lane Theater, but to create a more intimate setting, the audience sat on two banks of risers on the stage, facing each other across a runway-style set. The audience was included in some scenes, too.

The ensemble also decided not to have a curtain call at the end. Instead, they simply picked up their suitcase-chairs, walked off the stage and through the theater, then exited out the back, echoing the experience of refugees who must leave behind nearly everything and everyone they’ve known.

“We didn’t wrap it up with a ribbon and say to the audience, `This is the end of the show. Now you can go on with your life,’” Norman says.

Some of the students are feeling their own sense of loss after the intensity of their connection to the show, each other, their subjects and the audience.

“This show was a hard one for me to leave. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this personally connected to a piece,” Perry says. “For the past three months, this show has been my refuge.”