Nestled in the University of Denver's Black Box is 2¢ Lion Theatre Company's production of Off the Gradient, a theatrical staging of stories told by trauma survivors that was created, directed and written by Hannah Routon. Based on four interviews she conducted for a school project, Routon created an experiential, interactive way for audience members to hear survivors' stories of resiliency.
“I want to say it’s similar to theater in the round, but it's not quite that," says Routon, referring to when theater audiences are seated in a circle with the performers. "It’s more like theater in the round reversed, because the audience is on the stage. It's immersive doughnut theater about trauma and healing."
The impetus for the play came about in spring last year, when Routon enrolled in two courses at DU: interview-based theater and child psychopathology. For her theater course, Routon was required to pick a topic, conduct an interview and then develop it into a script. Inspired by conversations about healing from trauma in her child psychopathology course, she decided to explore how childhood challenges impact people later in life.
Stephanie Dees), Davey (Haley Barth) and Shirley (Moriah Fine) as they recount their journey to recovery.
“The style of the show is the reason I auditioned," says Fine. "This is a very different style of acting. With most theater acting, you are putting on a character that is a little larger than life. However, when you are performing as a real person, you have to tone it down, but not in a way that feels fake.”
The actors do not know their real-life counterparts, and for legal reasons are not allowed to listen to the interviews that Routon conducted. Instead, they developed their characters using an "interview worksheet" that Routon made for each performer, based on details she recalled about the interviewees and her transcript of their conversations.
“In that interview-based class, the play I was most intrigued by was Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror," Routon says. "I mirrored the style of writing Smith uses for this play. When I transcribed the interview, every pause or slight beat was a return on the computer. The reason the actors can make their performance so close to how it was spoken by the actual interview subjects is because I transcribed exactly what happened during the interview sessions."
Jack Nathan Award for the Arts. The play seemed to be a perfect fit for the DU program, as it was established in memory of DU student Jack Nathan, son of David Nathan and Bradi Harrison, by The Happy Jack Group LLC and the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity to support undergraduate art projects that address mental health.
"I sent the proposal in to the Jack Nathan Awards before I was even done with the script," Routon recalls. "Since knowing that I would be able to produce it, I started to fine-tune the interviews and decided to conduct two more. Knowing the people auditioning for the show, I took away one of the interviews. So it's sort of shifted from what it was at the very beginning, but the core of it is still very much the same project that I was so passionate about at the start."
While working on the script, Routon went to lunch with 2¢ Lion Theatre Company's artistic and technical director, Izzy Churn, and ended up discussing the play's production process. During their meal, Churn suggested to Routon that 2¢ Lion produce Off the Gradient; saying yes to the offer was a no-brainer for Routon.
2¢ Lion Theatre Company brought on Andrew Mitchell as the project's set designer and Ryan Thomas as the lighting designer to create the show's intimate atmosphere. The cast is excited to share the play's timely themes with audiences.
"We don’t talk about trauma and resilience around mental health enough," Barth says. "This play is our attempt to shine a light on mental health, which is an issue that you could never tell about a person by looking at them."
“You have to honor the people who said these words originally and get it as close to word-perfect as possible," Mulvihill says. "I've been really focused on getting the actual words correct. It has been a challenge, but it's also been really interesting to watch the actors grow as they learn their lines. I think each character offers people some wisdom to listen to."
The world premiere of Off the Gradient takes place on Friday, March 10, and presents a uniquely experiential outing that the production team hopes will interest local crowds.
“I think that the immersive part, specifically, appeals to Denver audiences," actor Dees says. "We just had Theater of the Mind, and that proved audiences want something new and exciting. Maybe not everyone's going to love it, but I think that the people willing to go along for the ride will get something really important out of it."
Off the Gradient, Friday, March 10, through Sunday, March 12, varying times, University of Denver Black Box, Johnson McFarlane Hall, 1901 East Iliff Avenue. Get tickets and more information here.