Ahead of ‘Focus,’ Shaelee Comettant reflects on how the pandemic has shaped her art
This is the third installment in a new Cadenza series, Under the Spotlight, that will highlight the musicians, artists and other creators of the Washington University community. If you have suggestions for people we should interview in the future, fill out this form.
Junior Shaelee Comettant always thinks like an artist. Studying studio art and American culture studies with a minor in Latin American studies, her on campus activities showcase a myriad of interests. An active member of Leaders in Interpersonal Violence Education (LIVE), dance team WUFuego and experimental theater group Thyrsus, her appreciation for theater is where her artistic passions currently reside. While her artistic journey didn’t begin on the stage, she found her niche for theater in reflecting on the different artistic values that go into making up a show. Through theater, she has been able to incorporate her love of studio art, musical performance and experimental theater to actualize “Focus,” her first self-written filmed theater production.
Student Life: How did you become a writer? Where did your passion for art begin?
Shaelee Comettant: I didn’t ever get too involved in theater in high school—I was more involved in the band, so I didn’t have that on-stage experience. I played in the pit, but that was about the extent of my experience in theater. That being said, I have a strong appreciation for the elements that go into building the production for more than just the acting, and that’s what I based my production “Focus” on.
SL: What is “Focus”?
SC: “Focus” started out as an open-ended final project for Paige McGinley’s Contemporary American Theater class. I could do whatever I wanted, so I decided to write a play in two weeks! I had this idea of repetition and slowly building up because I really liked the process of creating a production, like I mentioned earlier. So, “Focus” is a multi-layered show that repeats seven times, adding a new production to each scene. For example, one layer may only have voice acting, the next only motion action, and so on. The final scene is all of the layers together, revealing all of the components together.
SL: Where did the name “Focus” come from?
SC: I had no idea what I actually wanted to write about, and it was the night before it was due, and I could not focus on the project. I had songs stuck in my head, I kept Googling random stuff and simply couldn’t pay attention to the project. So, I decided to write down all the thoughts that came to my head. That kind of led me to this mental image of a person sitting in class unable to focus on what they are doing, which goes along really well with this buildup because when I struggle to focus, it is usually from a lack of focus in a certain sense or a hyperfocus. Honing in on a certain sense brought me to the idea of going element by element.
SL: How has Wash. U. impacted your art?
SC: When I came to Wash. U., I knew I wanted to get involved with theater in a low-commitment way. I auditioned for the student theater productions because they aren’t so directed towards drama majors but more towards people who just enjoy theater. Thyrsus was really the most important for me in branching between my past art experience to what it is now. This group really encourages exploration and experimentation, so it has greatly impacted my outlook on theater. It asks the question: What is theater? Studio art is still very important, and I’ve learned that I can merge my diverse passions in art at Wash. U.
SL: How has COVID-19 affected your art?
SC: When I wrote [“Focus”], we were about a month and a half into the pandemic, and we thought it would be over soon. I talked to my professor and she agreed with me that it was so theatrical and must be performed on the stage—it was made for a really immersive setting. I was nervous that it was going to lose a lot because of this, and although they are still working on the final product, seeing it with the masks and socially distanced reassured me that it was coming together perfectly. It is a really hard play to understand by just reading it. Like, there is one scene that is just background noise. I don’t think the pandemic affected the final outcome as much as I thought it would.
SL: Do you have any other artistic plans?
SC: I’m currently working with Thyrsus to experiment with sound theater and guerrilla theater, which is a spontaneous public performance. The question at hand here is: Is an audience an audience if they don’t consent or don’t want to be in a public space? In addition, I have been trying to incorporate the idea of performance in my studio art. I’m really interested in the idea of time in a captured moment, so I’m working on a project in the style of trace-mono-printing which maps the motion of my everyday life.
Commettant’s “Focus” is expected to be accessible to the public in the next few weeks. While she is proud of what her theater experience has provided for her, she is excited to continue her experimental art as a studio artist. She is also running a program through Thyrsus called ThyReads where the group focuses on the reading of plays, not the performance. She would like to thank a few of the people who helped make this production happen: Alexander Hewlett, Cameron Thompson, Dakotah Jennifer, Dani Sas, Dylan McKenna, Gavi Weitzman, Sophie Dinitz, Sparkle Whitaker and Thomas Westbrook.
Editor’s Note: Senior Cadenza Editor Sabrina Spence served as the stage manager for “Focus.” She had no involvement with this article.
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