Come unprepared: Thyrsus brings surprise pop-up performances to campus

| Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: Junior Jaden Satenstein is a senior multimedia editor for Student Life. She was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.

You’re walking around campus after your biweekly surveillance testing, trying to find a quiet outdoor space to study, when you can’t help but notice two people having a very intense conversation that’s definitely—or so you think—not meant for your ears. What do you do? Will you ignore them and get on with your life? Or will you stop to listen, and perhaps even intervene?

Chances are, you may be watching a performance, one that’s meant to simulate realistic scenarios. Over the next two weeks, Wash. U.’s experimental theatre group, Thyrsus Student Theatre, will be putting on four surprise performances as part of their Pop-up Theatre Project. Each will be a ten-minute scene about a couple, played by actors Christian Alexander and Eliza Rocks, experiencing a big milestone in their relationship. No specific locations or dates will be disclosed, though we do know that performances will be “in places where there are a lot of people and traffic,” says junior Jaden Satenstein, who co-wrote the show with junior Shaelee Comettant.

“One of our goals in writing the show is making it not feel like a performance,” says Comettant, “but rather an everyday interaction between two people that’s not scripted.” Because the show is intended to be hyper-realistic, writers Comettant and Satenstein and director sophomore Aviva Bergman anticipate that audience reactions will be split; some may catch on, while others may have no idea that they’re watching a performance. 

What makes this project refreshing and exciting is precisely this unpredictability, even for the creators themselves. “I’m really interested in what that balance is going to be like [between those who know and those who don’t],” says Satenstein, “and how that’s going to change the way people interact with the content.” Those who do catch on may behave more like a traditional theatre audience and freely laugh at the comedic elements in the dialogue, while the unknowing group may react strongly to the extreme intensity and vulnerability on display. 

For the creators, audience reactions are as much part of the show as the actors’ performance, which is why they have decided to videotape it. “We want to capture how audience reactions change from performance to performance, and then produce the final product that we can share with the world,” says Satenstein.

Uncertainty about audience reactions makes Bergman’s experience directing the show distinctly different from others she’s done. “When you’re an audience watching live theatre, you feel the need to react more. Here, [the unknowing audience] may feel like they’re witnessing something but they’re also not a part of it, so maybe it’s not their place to give more outward reactions,” says Bergman. Because audience reactions will be more inward rather than outward, Bergman suspects that the exchange of energy between actors and spectators will be radically different than traditional theatre—the former will shoulder most of the burden, while the latter likely give little to none. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic adds additional concerns for Bergman. For one, actors will perform fully masked, which means they must rely on vocal delivery rather than facial expressions to convey emotions. Actors’ masks will also place further constraints on their volume, which Bergman takes into account in giving directions and feedback. In the story itself, Satenstein and Comettant included references to COVID-19 as a way to ground the story in the present moment, showcasing how the pandemic has and continues to affect intimate relationships. 

For longtime Thyrsus member Shaelee Comettant, pop-up theatre presents an exciting new direction for the experimental theatre group, one that pushes the boundaries of what a performance can be and questions the roles of different members within a theatre space. “Can an audience be an audience if they don’t voluntarily become an audience?” asks Comettant. “Can a theatre space be a random space where you decide to put on a performance?”

What, then, could be the impact of this radically unconventional and unpredictable piece? Bergman, Comettant and Satenstein share insights on what they want audiences to come away with:

Aviva Bergman: I want the audience to come away thinking about it. To feel confused, in a sense. And I want it to stick in their head for the rest of the day. 

Shaelee Comettant: Sometimes when you witness things, it just sticks with you. I want audiences to leave feeling a sense of empathy for the characters, because as far as they know, these are people experiencing real emotions. 

Jaden Satenstein: It’s this reminder that you don’t always know what’s going on in other people’s lives. If this is what’s happening between these two people you happen to pass by, what’s happening with every other person who might be around you at that time?

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