“The play was about breath before we all started losing ours.”
This week, the Barnard theater department will premiere “On Loop” by playwright Charly Evon Simpson. The show will live-stream out of the Glicker-Milstein Theatre from Feb. 18 to 20 and feature both in-person and remote performances. Between the hybrid production and the play’s gorgeous poetry, “On Loop” promises an otherworldly audio-visual experience—and a return to our familiar black box theater.
For the past 11 years, the New Plays at Barnard initiative has sought to commission new works by young female playwrights in and around New York City. Each play undergoes a two-year process from selection to performance, with the writer intimately involved with rehearsals. Professor Alice Reagan, who spearheads this initiative, also directed its fourth commission, “On Loop.”
“One of the greatest things about Barnard being in New York City is that we’re in the theater capital of the world,” Reagan said. “We walk down the street, and you trip over a playwright. … Many of them are interested in writing a large-cast play and seeing it produced, and that, I think, is one of the draws to the program for playwrights. Large-cast plays are not always welcome in the professional world because of the cost.”
In this way, the commission opens up Barnard’s resources to the wider theater community while also allowing students to work closely with professional playwrights. Last October, students read through and blocked an early draft of “On Loop” after long conversations with Simpson over the phone. The material of the play unfolded from there: Simpson finished the script and the informal cast reassembled for spring auditions.
For the first time this season, this department show will feature seven in-person actors and one remote actor. Reagan explained that while the hybrid-style production of “On Loop” ensured access for off-campus students, there were simply fewer remote auditions this semester. As a result, the small company has been able to rehearse together since January with its off-campus co-star, Asha Futterman, BC ’21, projected onto a large screen in the room.
“As soon as Barnard said, ‘Let’s have in-person classes if you’re willing’ to the faculty, we said, ‘OK, so we’re doing an in-person show.’ It was just hands down, no question. Because our department shows are curricular, … it fell under that umbrella,” Reagan said.
After the December announcement of in-person instruction, scenic designer Lex Liang and lighting designer Stacey Derosier could dream up a physical set for the black box theater. They built an ethereal, forested space with thin drapes hanging in coils from the ceiling. Swaying back and forth in time and location—between rhythms of breath and memory—Simpson’s play evokes a vast, cosmic atmosphere.
“I’m really drawn to poetic writing and to nonlinear storytelling,” Reagan said. “And I think it is a strength of the actors who are drawn to department shows. I think that they are hungry for avant-garde work. They’re hungry for work that pushes traditional storytelling boundaries.”
Throughout the play, we follow Jo, a young Black woman, as she travels through a wooded landscape of historical memory and grief. Her search for breath takes on new meaning within the context of the pandemic. Just outside the theater walls, a severe respiratory disease is ravaging the country, disproportionately harming communities of color.
“For a play that was seeded before COVID-19, it is interesting to see how COVID-19 has infiltrated the play,” Reagan said. “The play was about breath before we all started losing ours, and the fact that so much loss and so much grieving has happened through the course of writing the play and making the play—I think gives it a depth and a resonance that it wouldn’t have at any other time.”
The play’s symbolic exploration of breath also unfolds amid mass-organization for the Black Lives Matter movement. After George Floyd was suffocated by a Minneapolis police officer, his breath stolen from him, BIPOC artists penned the open letter, “We See You, White American Theater,” to demand an end to anti-Blackness within the community. In early 2019, the Barnard theater department decided to solicit proposals for this round of New Plays at Barnard solely from women on color.
“There’s been a soul-searching and a call to action—and hopefully actual change coming up on the other side of this to try to dismantle the white supremacy upon which American theater is built,” Reagan said.