Entertainment » Theatre

Choosing Hope and Healing :: Liars and Believers on Their Brand New Fairy Tale

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Dec 3, 2018
The cast of 'A Story Beyond at work... and play
The cast of 'A Story Beyond at work... and play  (Source:Liars and Believers)

"Change your story, change your world." That's the tag for Liars and Believers' newest theatrical work, "A Story Beyond," a modern fairy tale that combines dance, puppetry, music, and more to tell the story of a young woman who undertakes the task of standing against impending darkness — a darkness that threatens to swallow her entire community.

In a post-truth world of "fake news" and so-called "facts" that reflect momentarily convenient narratives rather than objective reality, the idea of "choosing" one's worldview might seem a double-edged blade. On the other hand, nothing could exemplify freedom of choice, individual will, and the exercise of morality and conscience more dramatically than building a framework for perspective and interpretation that makes sense of the world around us and moves us toward our desired goals. But an interesting question arises in the process: If those frameworks are built on solid foundations — say, values of solidarity, compassion, empathy, consensus, and respect — then will they hold up more successfully, especially over the long term, than frameworks founded on selfishness, malice, scapegoating, rage, and hatred? Are there objective and truthful reasons to choose hope and love over force and fear — and is good truly more apt than evil to triumph?

Such questions are the very essence of fairy tales, and of today's heated national debates. LAB tackles big questions on a regular basis and has demonstrated a talent for adapting myth to contemporary stagecraft along with a knack for blending different types of performance arts into coherent, powerful shows. EDGE took the opportunity to approach the entire cast and crew with a list of questions in order to find out more about the two-year development process the company invested in the new show, and the perspectives of the talents behind it. Artistic Director Jason Slavick, who also directs this production, lighting designer PJ Strachman, composer and lyricist Nathan Leigh, cellist Bri Tagliaferro, and actors Jesse Garlick, Rosie McInnes, Rachel Wiese, Aislinn Brophy all contributed their comments.


Musician Jeff Butcher and Composer/Lyricist Nathan Leigh  (Source:Liars and Believers)

EDGE: In this new "musical fable for our time," a young woman's village is threatened by a dark cloud. I think it's fair to say that's exactly the feeling many of us have had for the last couple of years. What does this show mean to you personally?

Nathan Leigh, composer, lyricist: I'm the grandchild and great-grandchild of Eastern European refugees escaping anti-Semitic violence, so writing music for a piece that leans heavily on Eastern European storytelling traditions has been a way for me to reconnect with my roots.

Part of that fog so many of us feel right now is rooted in a sense of not knowing where to start with fighting the bigotry and xenophobia and nationalist fervor haunting our country right now. Reconnecting with the stories of my ancestors who were struggling with a lot of the same issues has helped me personally feel like there's a way forward. That I'm not the first generation to deal with these problems, and though I probably won't be the last either, at least we have the opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

Jesse Garlick LAB company, actor: To me, this story is really about Maya and her journey, and I find it really exciting to be telling a story about a young girl finding her strength and power. We have so many incredible women in this company, who have all added so much to this story, and I just feel very lucky to be a part of their vision.

Jason Slavick, LAB company, director: I'm feeling similar to Nathan. I have a sense of dread, hanging like a fog over me. It's a dark heavy feeling from not knowing where we're headed or what to do. This play is, for me, an effort to clear the air. The only way to heal our nation is to start communicating - listening with compassion and telling each other our stories. I truly believe that sharing stories is how to heal our society.

PJ Strachman, lighting designer: For me, as a woman in this time period and this society, this show has actually been very uplifting. That LAB chose to feature a female heroic protagonist - and that many of the fairy tales within the story also have strong female characters (Raven, Vasilisa, Kainda, Zamora) - who fought past (primarily male) antagonists has been a source of strength. I am not someone who is able to attend marches or stand publicly against celebrities who treat women as objects or lesser humans, but I can be a part of spreading this message of skilled women who endured in the face of adversity.

Rosie McInnes actor: As a young woman who used to be a young girl, I connect deeply with a lot of what Maya goes through in this story. Frustration with inaction from the elders in her community, confusion at the state of the world, fear to speak her mind and step into her power. I think Maya's journey throughout the story is a powerful and unique one because it shows a young girl who maybe isn't completely spunky and self-assured in the beginning, but has real struggles (as a result of sexism). I think it's important that it is her we follow throughout the story as she practices listening, empathy and compassion, conquers bold physical challenges, and in the end, puts forth the "solution" for healing our world. To me, this story is about trusting girls and women and following their lead in these often terrifying times!


Cast Member Aislinn Brophy  (Source:Liars and Believers)

EDGE: As you approach the material, are you motivated by hopefulness? Fear? A desire to educate? Some combination of these, or something very different?

Nathan Leigh: My work is primarily rooted in a desire to give hope to the people watching the play. I'm not under any delusions that making this piece in Boston for a generally progressive audience is anything other than preaching to the choir. So if we're going to preach to the choir, what can we say to them that's helpful? And to me, the most valuable thing we can say is, "Don't give up."

Jesse Garlick: The need to tell stories is why I became an actor in the first place, so to have a show that really embraces that need and acknowledges it as a truly human trait I find very motivating.

Jason Slavick: In general, I think theatre is best when it traffics in hope. It's worth asking, how is the world a better place for this work of art? Now more than ever, I think we've got to make a positive difference in the world. I don't really want to "educate" people. But I hope we can open hearts, and maybe help people listen with more compassion.

Rosie McInnes: I hope especially that younger audiences see this piece and find hope. It is extremely difficult to be trying to envision the world we want to live in right now when things are such a mess, and I hope young people can see this story, take a breath, and feel like they're not alone. I also hope it is fun for people! Fun and play are total antidotes to the fear and hopelessness that stop us from taking creative action.

Rachel Wiese LAB company, actor: I agree with the sentiments shared by my colleagues about the reasons that we made this show for our (hopeful) audience. And in general, I take an audience-first approach to art, thinking about the audience's perspective, joy, delight, comfort, and benefit with each new work. But I'd like to add that in this case there was a clear need among the company, myself included, to create a piece that was healing and encouraging for the artists as well — that allowed us to respond against the wrongs and inequalities we see in our lives and culture.

Aislinn Brophy, actor: I love theater and storytelling in general because they inspire a sense of wonder in me. With this show, I hope that audiences are able to find that sense of wonder and magic for themselves while also coming away with some food for thought about the world and how they interact with it.


Director Jason Slavick  (Source:Liars and Believers)

EDGE: The press release for this show tells us that "the stories we tell create the reality we live." Does that explain the current state of affairs in our nation and our world, in which polarization is so extreme that there are disagreements over fundamental issues like what truth is, what constitutes facts versus fantasy, and what we need to do about the problems we face?

Nathan Leigh:: I think it's the opposite, actually. We see enough examples every day of that pernicious notion that if you repeat a lie often enough, eventually it becomes true. I think in the piece we're exploring the converse of that; what are the core truths that can be gleaned from fiction and from fables? What can a made up story tell us about our reality that a true story can't?

Jason Slavick: I want to bounce off the first part of what Nathan said. "If you repeat a lie enough times it becomes true." There's power in that. The way we think about — and talk about — the world is what it becomes. But if we change the ways we talk about the world and each other, we can change how the world really is.

Jesse Garlick: I think it does, but I would also say that our show is trying to speak to the need for listening, which we are missing so badly in our daily discourse. I feel like we are living in a world where everyone is trying to talk over one another, and that only the loudest and most brazen opinions are the ones that get heard. Over the course of the show, those who come to see the play will be treated to a lot of characters that are in direct conflict with one another, and only through truly listening and hearing one another are they able to move forward.

PJ Strachman: We are definitely shaped by the stories we hear — otherwise, we wouldn't bother telling stories or family histories to children, or encourage our friends to see a movie/play/TV show/YouTube video that "meant something" to us. What we're seeing in today's world are all the ways that can be misused. In this atmosphere of radically different versions in the media of "truth," I think it's important to realize the positive ways stories can make a change in the world, the ways we can spread a "truth" through fiction. I'd say a lot of us probably got into theater because of the desire to have an impact on people with the stories we're telling; this play is just self-aware of that urge.

Rosie McInnes: I think that growing in a capitalist, white supremacist society, we get told "stories" all the time in the ways we are socialized. We are told stories, overtly and covertly, about whose life is valuable and whose isn't, about what "success" looks like, about the amount of stuff we need, about who is "dangerous"... I think that statement in the press release does explain the current state of our world because, overall, we have been hopelessly deceived and confused about the nature of humanity, how interconnected and dependent on each other we are, about the value of every living thing. I think if we start telling both truthful stories about our human natures, as well as listening to and telling about the harmful effects of how we have been hurt, we can start to heal.


The cast work with puppets  (Source:Liars and Believers)

EDGE: In looking at fables from around the world and from different eras, what ongoing and recurrent trends do you see at work that are affecting our world today and need to be addressed?

Nathan Leigh:: Fables tend to deal with issues of truth and fairness. There's a running theme in many stories the world over about what you have to sacrifice to get what you want most, and what do you really deserve? I think a lot of the social, economic, ecological, racial, and gender-based ills we're seeing in the world will all require some sacrifice to address. I don't think any of the stories we explored hold the answers, but I do think they contextualize the questions.

Jason Slavick: In fables, there's a lot of fear of the stranger — the other. Think of meeting a mysterious figure in the woods. And there's a lot of loss and victimization — think of all the dead mothers and fathers. But there are also a lot of happy surprises found — when the roaring lion is revealed to be suffering from a splinter, or when a frightening or ugly creature turns out to be a prince who is the victim of a spell. Behind strangers and others, behind angry nasty creatures, there is often a hurt person with a real story. There is usually someone in need of compassion. I hope that inclination has made it into our play. Certainly, our world could use more compassion.

PJ Strachman: I agree with both Nathan's and Jason's points on this one. The other running theme in so many fairy tales — especially the ones Jason has chosen to put on stage here — is that the protagonist has to do the work. There's always a quest, or a trial, or a puzzle, or a series of tasks, or a person to be helped. The rewards in fairy tales are rarely dispensed for no reason. We want a world where all are treated fairly, where all are safe. We have to do the work.

EDGE: How do you see theater — and this show in particular — as being a healing force in the face of such polarization?

Nathan Leigh: At its best, theatre is an opportunity to share stories and lived experiences outside of our own and experience a communal catharsis with total strangers. That's a powerful healing tool. At its worst, a theatre is a good place to take a nap. Naps are healing, too.

Jesse Garlick: I think we in the theatre world have really tried to make the theatre a safe space for all. That means telling stories that speak to all of us no matter what your race, political beliefs, age or daily income is. I think this show, in particular, does this really well, not just because of the nature of the story we are telling, which is intended for all ages, but because of how we are telling it, the show being captioned for deaf audiences and told through a visual medium (shadow puppetry).

Jason Slavick: Theatre is a live medium. You're all in the room together, experiencing the event at once. You're breathing together, hearing together, feeling together. The presence of the audience actually changes the show — and not just in Improv. Every performance is different because every audience is different. When we're all in it together, we can't help but have at least some measure of shared compassion.

PJ Strachman: The purpose of theater hasn't changed in thousands of years, and no one summed it up so succinctly as Shakespeare, "[its] end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." The first step in healing is seeing clearly what the illness is. Theater excels at that.

Bri Tagliaferro, cello: I see this show as a way of reminding us how important it is to interact with each other — to try to understand each others' perspectives. It can be healing to be in such a special space together where we have the chance to see Maya's (and other) stories unfold, and consider what our own stories are (or what they can be).


A hard working bear catches a break  (Source:Liars and Believers)

EDGE: LAB has been incorporating music, dance, puppetry, and other forms of expressive art into its shows for years now. Is there a specific art that drew you to this show (dance, music, masks, etc)?

Nathan Leigh: The music drew me in, obviously, but I'm a huge fan of puppetry on stage. I think the visual imaginativeness behind the puppetry work is what keeps me inspired on this piece.

Jesse Garlick: I studied mask work in Italy in undergrad training, so to be able to return to that is a real treat. Also, getting to work on new skills like puppetry and shadow puppetry I find to be truly exciting.

Jason Slavick: I'm excited by all those things. Form, color, sound, poetry — they all thrill me. The joy is in the surprise, both as a creator and as an audience. I love not to know: How is this going to happen? What will this be? How will they do that? And so it's been a great two years of exploration. We've studied puppetry, shadow puppetry (they're really different), mask, music, poetry... I love all that stuff. That's the fun. The surprise!

Rosie McInnes: I was drawn in by the playful, physical theatre that is the base of how LAB creates. It's exciting to have a team of people who are all very skilled and game and willing to try anything!

Rachel Wiese: We began devising this piece with a desire for a female protagonist, stories that were modeled from a fairy tale, fable and myth, music, and visual beauty. Physical theatre for us is a given. In the early development of the piece, we looked at a lot of children's picture books and animated films. These really informed the choice to work with more heightened dramatic forms like mask and puppetry.

Bri Tagliaferro: Everything! I've just joined on with the show in November, and seeing how all these intricate parts come together has been so interesting and inspiring! As a cellist, I'm typically not part of the actual creation of a work (from the standpoint of the actors), so it's been really eye-opening to be at almost all of the rehearsals and see the process of that. I am especially drawn in by the shadow work being done throughout the play. Everyday objects behind the screen are transformed into something completely different, and it's stunning!

Aislinn Brophy: For me, the puppetry and mask work were a real draw, because I had no experience with either before this show. Learning about how to work through those mediums has been really rewarding, and I appreciated having the chance to develop some new skills! I also am personally fascinated by shows that utilize music in their storytelling but aren't necessarily traditional musicals. Music has such power in storytelling and it has been wonderful to work so closely with two such talented musicians throughout this process.


"A Story Beyond" runs Dec. 6 — 22 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets and more information at https://www.liarsandbelievers.com/

"A Story Beyond" Cast and Credits:

Jason Slavick, LAB company, director
Nathan Leigh, composer, lyricist
Faye Dupras, puppet designer, director
Jesse Garlick LAB company, actor
Rachel Wiese LAB company, actor
Rosie McInnes actor
Aislinn Brophy, actor
Glen Moore, LAB company (original acting ensemble)
Bri Tagliaferro, cello
Jeff Butcher, mandolin
Kendra Bell, costume designer
PJ Strachman, lighting designer
Rebecca Lehrhoff, LAB company, scenic designer (original acting ensemble)
Becca Jewett, mask designer


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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