Artists of all walks of life have taken quarantine’s challenges and made them into opportunities, not limitations. But community acts can seem distant online, an echo of their pre-COVID counterparts, serving as nothing more than a solemn reminder of a year gone by in isolation. Is it possible to cultivate a sense of genuine togetherness when health guidelines keep us apart? Uncharted Waters, a three-way theatre collaboration between Cornish College of the Arts, the University of Washington, and Seattle University, aims to bring to light what social intimacy 2020’s various crises have endangered.
Uncharted Waters begins with a production of Twelfth Night, a well-known Shakespearian comedy. Directed by Cornish professor Rosa Joshi, the play follows the misadventures of Viola, a shipwrecked young lady who disguises herself as a man and throws the whole island of Illyria into cheerful chaos.
Though Shakespeare’s plays have been reinterpreted for centuries, the work done by such a large production team (their names can be found on the show’s website) pays off in the form of an enjoyable and creative experience. Video frames, so limiting through most Zoom engagements, are rearranged and given colorful backgrounds, allowing the viewer to discern a scene’s mood. Modern costumes and mannerisms make the Elizabethan play more accessible to today’s audience. For a teenager like myself, someone more concerned with the story than the historical language or context, this was part of what made the experience so pleasant.
Similarly engaging were the actors. Each character in their own right was a compelling individual; live and breathing through the screen. Though I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to forget I was watching an online production, this represented the team’s choice to adapt to their circumstances instead of ignoring them.
Bodies of Water, directed by Sheila Daniels and Porscha Shaw, was a performance devised in response to the former piece’s thoughts about the body and its role in society. It revolves around a series of short, but difficult questions used to explore individual stories and perspectives on current issues. The cast employed a diverse set of media to express their ideas, from interpretive dance sequences to monologuing phone calls. This piece had the same creativity in an online medium that drew me to Twelfth Night. Where the two differed was in their content — where the Shakespearean production included a set script, this original piece was an expression that was achingly personal. It felt reminiscent of the scribbles on post-it notes, of the half-formed words no one else is meant to see.
It was unafraid to shy away from the messy, painful parts of today’s struggles. From the pandemic of racism plaguing the nation to nurses being too afraid to continue their jobs, Bodies of Water engaged with many facets of the individual experience, and was honest in its portrayals.
Though Twelfth Night is comedic and Bodies of Water is more solemn, both have variety in their tone, expressing reassurance, inspiration, and caution throughout. The production as a whole built a sense of community between the artists and their audience. As I watched, I never felt as though I was in a theatre, lights, sets and all, but I could see the honest emotion in the actor’s faces, the way the live-stream chat bubbled with supportive messages from loved ones.
By representing togetherness, not shying away from difficult discussions while still maintaining a sense of hope, Uncharted Waters cultivated a sense of community rarely found within Zoom’s limits. Artists know there’s a part of us that longs for a certain kind of connection with others, so they explore it. If nothing else, this year has proven humanity’s ability to adapt to whatever life may bring.
Uncharted Waters, presented by Cornish College of the Arts, the University of Washington, and Seattle University ran March 11-14, 2021. For more information see here.