By Kelly Pyzik
Small, dark, and surreal, Hand to Mouth is a poignant, site-specific piece of contemporary theater taking place in Faulconer Gallery. The show will be staged in a newly-created, temporary space designed by Craig Quintero, Theatre. Playing with a different way of telling stories, Hand to Mouth allows the audience to create their own meaning and holds many unexpected and hidden elements that change throughout the show.
“I think it’s very much a dreamscape, things you might see in dreams and nightmares. We are delving into the unconscious,” said cast member Zoe Rodriguez ’13.
The space was the driving force behind the entire development of the show. The show was created based on the stories that the space seemed best suited to tell.
“I was interested in developing a theatrical environment staged in the Faulconer Gallery and collaborating with the Faulconer,” said Quintero, director of Hand to Mouth.
“We’re staging it in a context in which we can also invite gallery goers to inhabit the space, take their own pictures,” Quintero said. “If you go through the space, you can see the back wall has photos that people have taken.”
Hand to Mouth did not exist before auditions began. Once a cast was chosen, Quintero spent the first few weeks of rehearsal working on improvisation exercises with the actors, helping them learn to move and think with one mind and without verbal cues.
“It certainly felt really silly at times, but it was also very cool like closing our eyes and trying to move at the same time everyone else was,” Rodriguez said. “Onstage, during the show, we often cannot hear or see anyone else and we have to move together using some other sense we don’t realize we have.”
After the space was built, actors spent more rehearsals feeling the energy of the space, moving around to music while Quintero gave minimal directions. Major parts of the show were developed from actions the actors improvised that Quintero felt fit well.
“There is a moment in the show when I take my clothes off, and that actually came from something I did that was funny, but had to be re-structured to fit the show,” Rodriguez said.
Quintero previously experimented with site-specific performance at a theater festival a few years ago. He created a set design and gave it to four different directors.
“Each developed a different performance based on the set. It was really kind of fantastic,” Quintero said. “As an audience member, you get to see what ways different kinds of people inhabit an environment. I was interested in doing that process here at Grinnell and seeing how Grinnellians would inhabit that space.”
After many vignettes were created from the cast’s improvisations, the show moved to further developments, adding contrasting elements where the piece became too similar or monotonous. Because much of the performance takes place in very low lighting with neutral-colored clothing against a dark-colored set, there had to be moments of intense, colorful brightness, and this is done deftly, at just the right moments. Equally, with movement, there is sudden speed and unexpected actions after minutes of slow, silent walking around the stage.
Quintero and the cast have developed a work of theatre that is, at times, almost overwhelmingly unpredictable and emotional. In some moments, the characters are incredibly sad, evoking unexpected sadness in the audience as well. The acting is impressive, provocative and consistent—actors spend entire minutes staring into the audience, conveying a whole range of emotions with just their faces.
As an audience member, it’s important to enter the theater knowing that Hand to Mouth is an experience, rather than a play. There is no linear narrative, and almost no first-person, direct dialogue. The show is composed of short vignettes that create feelings more than they tell a story. The pieces stir emotions and memories in the audience.
The show is not about devising an intended meaning from each piece, but rather experiencing the personal meaning it creates for you.
“Often when we think of plays we think of a problem, conflict resolution, neat compartments—in an hour and a half, we’ll see a person face a crisis and overcome it. That’s what we’ve been told is American Realism, but it’s far from reality, life is not simple,” Quintero said. “You can ask the people in New York who were living their lives calmly a week ago and suddenly have waters pour into the city and a hundred people die. What’s the logic behind that? What’s the linear narrative? We tend to want a clear cut story, but I think Realism is far from the truth.”