Meryl Sands ’13 and Sam Swift Shuker-Haines ‘14 debuted their play XY Scheherezade, a production by their new theater company Unstuck Theater, in the Philly Fringe Festival that ran from the 19 to the 22 of September. The play, written and performed by Shuker-Haines and directed and produced by Sands, looks at the nuances of the end of the world through the lens of the story of Scheherezade from the Arabian Nights.
Unstuck Theater was founded by Sands and Shuker-Haines in Swarthmore last year. It explores the moment in storytelling where fiction and reality blend and create “collaboratively created pieces of nonlinear, socially conscious theater.” (www.unstucktheater.com/#!about/c10fk) Their inaugural production was Unstuck, Sand’s senior thesis that was performed last spring in the Freer theater. Madeline Charne ’14, also a part of Unstuck Theater, served as dramaturge and a producer for XY Scheherazade.
XY Scheherazade, the company’s second production, was conceived by Shuker-Haines after the two lost the rights to the piece they had planned to showcase at the Fringe Festival, which was An Illiad by Dennis O’Hare. The troupe had to quickly come up with an alternative.
“We had literally one day to give them a title and a fifty word description and go,” Swift said. “So we did. I wanted to do a story and a play about the Arabian nights. I thought about the Scheherezade story, and the structure of 1000 stories, a different one each night. We also knew we wanted to be using my own life. Which is where XY came from – I’m gender queer and we were talking about the end of the world, and thinking about myself at the end of the world, and what it means to be trans at the end of the world.”
The protagonist of the play, Grace, is a trans woman, but Sands explained that this play treats Grace differently than other portrayals of trans characters.
“The play isn’t about her being a trans woman—she is a trans women,” she said. “She’s a fully developed person, and the play is very much about her in a room with a bunch of other people—the audience—as an attempt to have them see each other as people. Unfortunately it is revolutionary—to have a character who is a trans woman and to have a play that isn’t about that. It’s about other things,” Shuker-Haines gave a solo performance, playing all three characters; Grace, her friend Sam, and the Rat, an embodiment of evil.
The play begins with Shuker-Haines washing each audience member’s hands with dirt, a welcoming process with a whole slew of symbolic meaning. “It can mean so many different things,” said Sands, “And it’s not for me to say what that means—that’s not my job. As an artist, I present the question.”
The interactive, intimate moment that literally dirties the hands of each audience member sets the tone for a show—and a theater company—that examine where storytelling and reality meet and what happens between people when they are both audience and performers.
Shuker-Haines and Sands blend their themes—the apocalypse and Arabian Nights—by weaving together different stories–many of which are autobiographical for Swift–and look at different interpretations of the world ending. The central story is one of sexual assault.
“We start with an end of the world which is beautiful, judgment free, there is no one to get in my way, no one to tell me what to do—this infinite freedom,” said Shuker-Haines. “Then the beauty gets corrupted and destroyed by the reality of the end of the world—what the reality would actually be like. It would end, or go towards a place where I was kidnapped.”
In the play, Grace is kidnapped by a band of roving marauders and must tell stories to stay alive. “It ends in this cascade of stories,” they said, “stories within stories within stories.”
For both collaborators, the connection between a sexual assault story and the end of the world is significant. “The inherent violence of acquaintance rape is hard to understand because often the assailant is a very nice person,” Sands said. “Our protagonist Grace really deals with that because it just doesn’t make sense that someone so nice could do something so terrible. It’s very difficult to process and you think that the world must be ending.”
While in art the world can end, in reality, the world keeps turning in the face of suffering and trauma.
“The world has a terrible habit of failing to end when it just ought to,” Sands said. “It can be hard to realize that the world does not care about the huge amount of pain—it just keeps going in the face of all of it. Which is in some ways terrible, but in other ways is really beautiful: that in spite of all the pain that we as humans have to deal with in our lives and that the world still suffers. People still love, people still create, there is still joy, there are still connections, intimacy is still possible—and that’s what we get to at the end of the play—that there is still beauty, regardless of the fact that things can be really awful.”
Performing the intensely personal show eight times in a four-day period was both emotionally exhausting and exhilarating for Swift. “Once the show got started, it had a life of its own,” they said. “The play was happening through me—I wasn’t really doing it.” And the audience responded to this passion: “At the end I tried to get the entire audience yelling things and they did,” they said. “The response was really touching and I felt like I had done something.”
Of course, Shuker-Haines and Sands are no strangers to bold, innovative theater: as theater majors at Swarthmore, each has acted, written, and directed shows that push the boundaries of story telling and audience-actor connection. For Swift, this audience-actor relationship is what makes theater their art form of choice.
“One of the major artistic ideas that I am interested in is the intimate interaction between audience and artist,” they said. “I think that theater performance as a medium has a really beautiful possibility for connection because it is a person in front of you doing something, and what you are watching –which is different than music—is the thing that is being created. You are watching the person themselves, in their vulnerability with all of their idiosyncrasies, the tiny accidental things that make them human –that’s the art. By watching it, you allow it to exist.”
For Meryl, it took a long time to decide on a theater major and in the end it was her future collaborator Swift who helped her make the decision. After starting at Haverford College, which does not have a theater department, Sands took a theater class at Swarthmore and eventually transferred. “I still wasn’t sure, until I met Swift. I met Swift in an acting class in my first semester at Swarthmore—which was also their first semester at Swarthmore.”
The two first collaborated when Swift cast Meryl as one of the leads in the play The Body You See in the Mirror. “Something about that play and the community we formed—we were really making art and it was so personal and so important,” Meryl said. “That experience solidified my feeling that that was what I needed to do.”
Neither Sands nor Shuker-Hanies knows for sure what is next for Unstuck Theater, but would potentially restage the show if they find the funding. For now, Sands is working at Green Mountain Energy, selling renewable energy for peoples’ homes, and exploring the Philly Theater Scene and other theatrical opportunities.
She compared her current life to the chance involved in creating theater: “I’m leaping into life and hoping it catches me.”
Meanwhile, Shuker-Haines has their senior company show and directing thesis at Swarthmore. It is possible that Unstuck Theater will stage Shuker-Haines’ composition at the next Philly Fringe Festival. In the words of Sands, “It would be nice to see the future, but I think that would ruin the surprise.”