“Thoughts & Prayers” is a new performance by Danse Theatre Surreality, a multidisciplinary ensemble led by director Lauren Hlubny. Danse Theatre Surreality creates unique shows that mix acting, dance, music, and more. “Thoughts & Prayers” is described as a music-driven physical theatre show centering on political themes. It features an original score by the saxophone virtuoso Thomas Giles, a dancer, and an ensemble of classical musicians.
“Thoughts & Prayers” is a title selected to invoke the phrase that has become synonymous with complacency in the face of preventable disaster such as mass shootings. The piece explores America’s relationship with tragedy, catastrophe, and hope. The hour-long show—divided into five acts—follows a fictitious couple named Dana and Felix as they find themselves facing various cataclysms on a global, nationwide, local, and domestic level. Musicians playing the score also engage in fully-staged theatrical performance as two Greek choruses—The Congress and The Activists—and comment on the daily hum of media coverage while clashing over political failures and widening gaps of partisanship and class.
“Thoughts & Prayers” is operatic in a way but also contemporary and unlike anything else currently presented in the performing arts world. Its narrative was largely inspired by actual events that happened during the piece’s gestation period, such as the massacres at Parkland and in Las Vegas; a personal family tragedy; Hurricane Maria; and the Flint Water Crisis.
Director Lauren Hlubny recently discussed this piece and career in general via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for the arts and why do you gravitate towards multidisciplinary works?
Lauren Hlubny (LH): For me, it all started when I was still a kid, I read everything I could about Eva Peron after seeing the movie “Evita,” starring Madonna. After I learned that movie musicals existed, I started borrowing as many as I could carry from the local library and watching them as late and as many times as I could. I petitioned my high school to hire a theatre teacher, I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and stood in front of paintings, listening to stories of other museum goers about what those paintings meant to them. Between that, I took ballet classes, and played in a marching band: I was geared up for multidisciplinary work from the start. Like many kids, I made up imaginary worlds, and it is so endlessly cool that those worlds I dream up can someday end up on a stage.
Multidisciplinary work is where all the interesting projects are coming from these days. That’s the only place we can innovate. The good pieces have always been multidisciplinary—maybe it’s been branded as theatre but other investigations were happening at the same time. Interdisciplinary work is also a good way to access diverse audiences who are interested in different experiences. it also gives us the opportunity to challenge performers and audiences alike in unique ways.
MM: What experiences do you most draw your inspiration from and why are social and political messages do integral to your art?
LH: Shapes, movements, and striking images that I see in art, dreams, and everyday life stay with me and seep into the prompts I bring to rehearsals and the visuals that audiences see in my shows. I draw my inspiration from the injustices I witness, experience, and hear about through my network, both locally and abroad. It’s important to me that the art I create do something to combat these injustices. I want to give my audience an outlet to explore and participate in the conversation about positive change that can extend beyond the theatre chair. I want to take responsibility for the content of my work, and make sure it engages with our current political climate—because if artists don’t talk about it, who will? My collaborators and I want to make some noise, and we want to present it in a package that the audience will be receptive to – since they entered into an agreement to be in the theatre, we deliver on our part, and we would like them to deliver on theirs. The work that we create takes a long time to put together, since we are not only interested in making a statement in today’s climate. On the other hand, we would also like to innovate the form and push the envelope—and since it takes so much energy and commitment, it should darn well matter.
MM: How did you establish Danse Theatre Surreality and what are the challenges of keeping it afloat?
LH: In 2012, while studying art history in Paris, I met a mime on the streets. Her name was Casey and it turned out she was from Florida. Four years later, she invited me back to Paris to collaborate on a new work with a small group of dancers she had gathered—and that was it. Our first show was “Life Is A Dream,” a Spanish Golden Age play which I used as inspirational text to create a work with a new group of performers I staged it (first in Brooklyn, then in Maine, then in Paris). Using this text, which is in many ways similar to Hamlet, gave me a way to develop my skills while becoming intimate with a specific story which was already dream-driven and surrealist in nature. Working on it for three weeks in Paris in 2016 was a whirlwind and a dream in many ways, and we’ve been working together since then. The biggest challenge to keeping the company alive is the distance between our two bases, but with the marvels of technology, we are able to circumvent that. Money is always a challenge but we have been lucky to have supportive networks and continue to brainstorm ways to stay afloat financially.
MM: How many shows have you created via Danse Theatre Surreality and what were they about?
LH: “Thoughts & Prayers” will be DTS’s 10th work as a company, the shows use surrealist style as a tool to call into question the role and experience of women in society, challenging traditional preconceptions about gender, and finding ways to inspire activism for equal treatment of all peoples. My favorite show that I’ve worked on with DTS has been “sans” which was an hour-long original work that utilized the classical forms of ballet, Shakespeare, Euripides, and cello to find ways to move past the limits of gender, exploring how power deters that balance, gender, race, and politics, all while the presidential debates of 2016 were swirling around us.
MM: How did you come up with “Thoughts & Prayers” and what was it like to get this unusual cast together?
LH: The moment “Thoughts& Prayers” was conceived, my collaborator, composer and performer Thomas Giles and I were discussing the next steps towards production for a work we had been workshopping for a good nine months or so, titled “The Strangers” which was a one-act piece for orator and solo saxophone. We were sitting at a cafe, and I confessed to him that I had decided that I succinctly only wanted to work on projects that explore social justice and activism; I was no longer happy with the project we had been developing thus far. We started brainstorming how we could investigate those with our skills, our life experiences in the bodies we’ve been living in, our backgrounds, and our interests. Something that kept surfacing was our impatience with our peer group, but especially ourselves, for our acknowledgement of catastrophes and our inefficacy in taking tangible action, our perceived over-analysis and immobilization. We wanted music to be the main mechanism through which the narrative was developed, but it was still a dance-theatre work: thus, the phrase “dance-theatre-concerto” came to be. The title “Thoughts & Prayers” immediately came to my mind, and I blurted it out. From that moment on, I started developing the structure for the work. The intensive process of breaking down the hour-long work into thirty seconds intervals took nearly two years. Musically, Thomas and I worked together consistently; visually, the images in this show came from my dreams of these disasters; theatrically and choreographically, the work was mostly shaped in guerilla-style rehearsal spaces. We began inviting musicians and dancers to rehearsals to further develop what was initially born of specific prompts to communicate an abstracted disaster. Getting a group of professional musicians, dancers, and a composer to work together in this abnormal way was a challenge even after the six years I devoted to the concept, but I am grateful for everyone, especially Thomas, for being brave enough to undertake something so immense and different than anything they’ve ever done before.
MM: What venues have your work been performed at and which have been the most memorable?
LH: I have been invited to create work in Seattle at On The Boards and Seattle Demo House, the Neuroscience Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Marigny Opera House in New Orleans, and in various museums nationwide, including the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL. In NYC, works I’ve developed have been performed at venues including Triskelion, Bushwick Starr, Shetler Studios, The Kraine, Joe’s Pub, and La MaMa. The most memorable occasion was when we toured my three-person nude piece “sans” to Florence, Italy and performed in the historic Teatro di Cestello. “sans” deconstructed gender inequality and toxic masculinity through classical art forms
MM: What’s your favorite segment in “Thoughts & Prayers” and why?
LH: It’s like you are asking me to choose a favorite child! But I am very excited for the audience to watch the Act 4 – Battle Sequence. The music that Thomas wrote for this section was daring. He asked me multiple times if I honestly wanted a musical-theatre-Bernstein-esque piece within a score so drenched with contemporary notation. Not only did I want it, but I kept gleefully pushing him further in that direction. The Battle Sequence is entertaining but it was incredibly difficult to make. It is a huge challenge to have musicians playing rhythmically complex music while executing choreography while following a narrative fight sequence. I can’t wait to see the six classical musicians playing in that section battling it out with full-fledged enthusiasm. I underestimated the capacity for humor in a show about catastrophe–but that happens every day on late night talk shows, so why not in our experimental theatre?
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
LH: I believe that audiences bring over 80 percent of the show with them. With a work like “Thoughts & Prayers,” which has abstract elements mixed with concrete ones, I am so excited to hear the audience’s stories of what happened. The single most important thing I’d like folks to take away from this work is that there is absolutely hope, even in pitch-black darkness. Just by showing up to a work that examines these difficult topics, the audience is starting a conversation, and I want that conversation to continue past the hour or so that they are watching the piece. We’re not prescribing the answer, just asking people to talk and listen. The way that we have the audience seated, facing each other with the action in between, their reactions are also a part of the performance. , With each seat’s distinct angle, each audience member has a different experience of the work. This means that they also interpret the dialogue in their own way, using their own experiences as an anchor. The conversation begins the second they enter their seats, and each of them is important.
MM: What are your ultimate career goals?
LH: To empower both my artists and my audiences. My goal is to work on projects capable of paying everyone involved the amount they deserve while not compromising our desire to innovate in the space between circus, theatre, dance, and music or our values of focusing on work which is conscious of the political climate in which it is created.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
LH: Join us for “Thoughts& Prayers” and for various panel discussions afterwards led by social justice and arts organizations September 19-29. Since the show is in tennis court style seating (audience on both sides of the stage), plan to come at least twice to catch all of the action! https://thoughtsandprayerstheshow.brownpapertickets.com/.
“Thoughts & Prayers” will be presented at the TADA! Youth Theatre (25 W 28th Street, NY, NY 10001) from September 19 till 29, playing Thursdays to Sundays. Tickets are $15, $35 and $65 and can be purchased at https://thoughtsandprayerstheshow.brownpapertickets.com/.