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Open-air Silk Moth Stage breaks theater's fourth wall

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Randi B. Hagi
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Katie Downing rehearses Every Brilliant Thing on the Silk Moth Stage.

A new type of theater experience has emerged in rural Rockingham County. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Nestled in between Mennonite farmland and thick woods, there sits a charming little homestead. On a recent August evening, to a chorus of birdsong and crickets and cows huffing softly in the field, a rehearsal was taking place on the porch.

KATIE DOWNING: I had never been very interested in romance. Or at least, I hadn't been – [audience chuckles] – until I noticed the only other person who was always in the library.

["At Last" by Etta James plays]

DOWNING: We would sit across from each other, not speaking.

This show is part of the inaugural season of the Silk Moth Stage – a venue for immersive theater experiences that break down the conventional separation between performers and audiences. It's the brainchild of professional director Aili Huber.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Aili Huber, center, is the founder of Silk Moth Stage.

AILI HUBER: I am really interested in things like, what does "an audience" mean? What does it mean, when you go to a play, that it matters that you're there? That's what makes it different from a movie.

The stage came into being almost by accident. Huber was initially just going to replace her 50-year-old "deathtrap" of a porch – as she puts it – when her son Silas saw the design for the new porch and asked why it looked like a Shakespeare stage. With that comment, the seed was planted.

HUBER: I did my training at the American Shakespeare Center, and I've been very influenced by their approach to theater. … So if you go see something at the Blackfriars – which everyone should; it's amazing – you'll see that there's audience on three sides of the theater, so you're looking at the stage more like a sculpture garden than a painting.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Three sides of the stage are open to the audience, so cast and crew must take into account that everything is being seen from multiple angles.

She said it's one of the illusions of modern theater that the audience sits in darkness and watches the stage as if they're looking through a window at a lit room. At a Shakespeare stage, much like being outside in natural lighting –

HUBER: Part of the experience is how it changes a play when the audience can see the actor seeing them. … If you see a character abusing another character, as an actor performing that role of an abuser, there's often a moment when you look at an audience member and you have this moment of like, "you are seeing me doing this thing and that makes you complicit in what I'm doing."

It can make for some really hilarious moments, too, like during a recent rehearsal for the one-woman-show Every Brilliant Thing. In the play, the narrator tries to come up with a numbered list of every thing that makes life worth living – against the backdrop of her mother's depression and multiple suicide attempts.

Performer Katie Downing relies on the audience to read some of the lines – in this case, her director, MaryBeth Killian, and the Huber family.

DOWNING: It was my goal to reach 1,000. So that meant that I wasn't allowed to cheat. A – no repetition. B – things have to be genuinely wonderful and life-affirming, and C – not too many material items. Uh … 761?

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Randi B. Hagi
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Downing (left) drafts Petra Huber from the audience to play one of the side characters.

MARYBETH KILLIAN: Deciding you're not too old to climb trees.

DOWNING: 823?

Here, nine-year-old Petra had the line "skinny dipping."

KILLIAN: Oh, oh we'll explain that later.

PETRA: Skinny dipping! [everyone laughs] Whatever that is!

Downing originally planned to perform Every Brilliant Thing for her capstone project at Bridgewater College in 2020.

DOWNING: I've always loved theater that sort of challenges the boundaries of what theater is. And this is a show that is created by the community that is seeing it.

During quarantine, while the performance was put on hold, she and Killian started their own list of brilliant things.

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Randi B. Hagi
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MaryBeth Killian directing Every Brilliant Thing.

KILLIAN: I think my favorite, and it's just because it holds such a near and dear part of my life, is Chaco [sandal] tan lines.

Performances are scheduled for August 6, 7, 12, and 13. On the seventh, members of the Bridgewater class of 2020 get a discount, too.

HUBER: We're inviting people to come early. You can come about an hour before the performance if you want … We're inviting people to picnic.

You can also order a dinner from the cafe Sugar & Bean ahead of time, and it'll be at the homestead when you arrive. The food and fellowship aspects of Silk Moth are another callback to an earlier time. Huber gave me a quick lesson in pre-World War II theater customs.

HUBER: You would go to a play maybe early. You would see who's here, who they're with … And as we work backward, we know that Shakespeare's plays were taking place in the middle of a city where people knew each other … and you'd go to the theater, and you'd go to hear the play, but you also would go to sit with your friend. You'd go to get information about tulip futures, because that was the beginning of the stock market. You'd go buy some oranges. You'd hook up with somebody.

Afterwards, weather permitting, Huber plans to light a campfire so people can sit and chat with one another and the performers.

After Every Brilliant Thing, a September run of Give Us Good will round out the 2022 season. For tickets and more information, visit silkmothstage.com.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Downing's character recounts a love story from the audience.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.