Lifeblood out of balance: Serious Play returns to the stage with a meditation on climate change and water

  • Ximena Salmerón, Will Swyers, and Kermit Dunkelberg play apartment dwellers grappling with water shortages and rising seas in the stage play “Moving Water.” The live debut of Serious Play’s show is set for July 22-25 at the Northampton Arts Trust at 33 Hawley St. Image courtesy Serious Play

  • Drew, played by Will Swyers and one of the three main characters in the story, contemplates shadows of himself in “Moving Water.” Image courtesy Serious Play

  • “Moving Water,” a new production by the Northampton theatrical ensemble Serious Play, makes use of video, music, movement, a rain shower device, and more. Image courtesy Serious Play

  • Video and intricate lighting play a big part in “Moving Water,” the new production by Serious Play. Image courtesy Serious Play

  • “Moving Water” is a meditation on water shortages, rising seas and our own personal relationships with water. Image courtesy Serious Play

  • “Moving Water” is a meditation on water shortages, rising seas and our own personal relationships with water. Image courtesy Serious Play

Staff Writer
Published: 7/9/2021 11:59:58 AM

Water is the lifeblood of the planet — but in its salty form, it can also be a threat. Even as drought cripples the U.S. West and other parts of the world, rising oceans are lapping at the shores of coastal communities and islands, increasingly exposing natural ecosystems and built-up environments to flooding, storm surges and erosion.

For over two years, the Northampton theatrical ensemble Serious Play has been developing a multi-dimensional production that grapples with the threats climate change poses to water on different levels, and with it life on the planet — as well as what Director Sheryl Stoodley calls “our own relationships with water.”

Now, after the pandemic wiped out any chance for live performances last year, “Moving Water” is set for a live debut July 22-25 at the Northampton Arts Trust building at 33 Hawley St., and an online screening July 30-Aug. 1. Using sound and music, movement, drama, video, a rain shower tool and rolling scaffolding, it’s the most ambitious production Serious Play has ever mounted, Stoodley says.

“The technical stuff can make me crazy,” she said with a laugh during a recent phone interview. “But given everything we’re seeing today with drought, melting glaciers and rising seas, [the production] certainly seems timely.”

And though the pandemic has delayed the presentation of “Moving Water,” Stoodley noted, it’s also helped foster a collaborative effort with other arts organizations to get the show to the finish line. “Moving Water” is being co-produced by the Ko Festival, the long-running summer theater festival at Amherst College which this year is offering virtual workshops and performances.

In addition, Northampton Open Media will record the live performances of “Moving Water,” then edit and caption them for online viewing July 30 through Aug. 1. Those presentations will also include real-time, post-show discussions with the Serious Play ensemble and guest experts; audience members can ask questions via Vimeo’s chat function.

“I’m so grateful for the support the Ko Festival and Northampton Open Media have shown us, and for the way art organizations in general have kind of pooled their efforts during this really tough time,” Stoodley said. She hopes the videotaped performance can also be used as calling card for finding other venues for “Moving Water.”

In addition, Ko Festival Artistic Director and Co-Founder Sabrina Hamilton is handling the lighting for “Moving Water.”

Aside from delaying the play’s debut, COVID-19 also took a toll on the cast of “Moving Water,” which Serious Play members first began researching in 2018. The ensemble held a couple of live workshops in 2019 to showcase parts of the production, but a few initial members of the cast had to drop out during the pandemic for economic reasons, Stoodley said.

Now the story, by playwright Eric Henry Sanders, focuses on three characters, while the pandemic, or an unnamed one, forms a backdrop to the narrative.

In an aging apartment building in a coastal U.S. city, three residents are thrown together amid debate about climate change and a shortage of fresh water. Sergei (Kermit Dunkelberg), the building’s superintendent and a refugee from the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in Ukraine, discovers another resident and friend, Pakistani immigrant Zara, is missing. Two other residents, Luna (Ximena Salmerón) and Drew (Will Swyers), join the search for Zara.

But there are complications galore. Zara had been working with Sergei, an older man who’s been creating “da Vinci-like experiments,” as Stoodley puts it, to try and save the building from impending flooding. Meantime, Drew, the building owner’s son, dismisses climate change and is determined to maintain the status quo. And Luna, an oceanographic student from Mexico, may have very different ideas altogether on how to address water problems.

“Luna represents the next generation and how they might approach these issues,” Stoodley said. “I’m not sure our generation has the answers. That’s one of the questions [the production] asks: Are there other things we should be considering besides science and technology?”

Pulling out the stops

To tell this story on multiple levels, the stage will be backed by a screen on which Robin Doty, Stoodley’s husband, will project a number of videos he has designed (including an image of Dunkelberg, wearing a snorkel and mask, walking down a street in a coastal New Jersey town that was underwater during Hurricane Sandy in 2012).

Jonny Rodgers, a composer and multi-instrumentalist from Oregon, has created the soundtrack for the production, a combination of electronic music and sounds from tuned wine glasses, also known as the glass harp. Rodgers will play the latter live at the show, Stoodley says, after working with Serious Play both live and virtually over the last few years.

The production also includes a water tank, and characters will get rained on during the performance. Rolling scaffolding represents the structure of the apartment building. The ensemble will also make use of Playtronica, a new electronic sound sensor technology that can make sound emanate from human skin or inanimate objects.

“There are a lot of moving parts to this production,” Stoodley noted with a laugh.

“Moving Water” will be staged in the Arts Trust’s large, unfinished space (about 3,400 square feet), which provides lots of room for maneuvering but also poses additional challenges, such as rigging special lights for the play, as regular lighting is not yet part of the space.

Stoodley says the play is designed to be a “really immersive experience,” as it’s based on company members’ research and their own personal histories and memories of being in contact with water. That research, she notes, involved talking to and reading accounts of people who grew up in areas of chronic water scarcity.

“It’s really about the beauty and terror of water,” she said. “Water is a gathering point for the story … but we didn’t want to do make this just a story of disaster. We wanted it to be about empathy and about finding ways of coming together to try and deal with a crisis.”

Tickets for the live performances of “Moving Water,” which take place July 22-24 at 8 p.m. and July 25 at 4 p.m., must be purchased in advance — no walk-in sales will be available — at kofest.com. Seating will be limited to 50 people per show.

Tickets for the online version of the play, at 8 p.m. on July 30-31 and 4 p.m. on Aug. 1, can also be purchased at kofest.com. Tickets for both versions of the production range from $32 (patron price), $22 (discounted price), and $10 for those with SNAP/EBT cards, on unemployment or with income affected by COVID-19.

More information is available at seriousplay.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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