Collaboration Meets Conservation in Water Ways

Abby Hawkins, Arts Editor

After working ceaselessly from September to January, the 16 student participants of the Oberlin ArtS Intensive Semester, along with Cleveland Public Theatre’s Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan and Education Director Chris Seibert, presented Water Ways (Part One of the Elements Cycle) at CPT from Jan. 24 to Feb. 4. The performance was the culmination of an intensive collaboration program in creative writing, dance, music and film, the first of its kind in the Oberlin arts curriculum.

An OASIS of Artistic Collaboration

OASIS has established a unique partnership between Oberlin and CPT. During the first two weeks of the semester, Bobgan and Seibert held sessions in which the Oberlin students participated in theatrical, musical and writing exercises centered on the theme of water — how it is controlled, used, sold and experienced. As the students transitioned into generating work together during the semester in small groups, Bobgan and Seibert viewed the work biweekly and took extensive notes. During this process, students were instructed and mentored in classes exclusive to OASIS, taught by Associate Professors of Cinema Studies Rian Brown-Orso and Geoff Pingree, Professors of Dance Carter McAdams and Nusha Martynuk and Associate Professor of Computer Music and Digital Arts Tom Lopez.

Bobgan and Seibert viewed students’ pieces again at the end of the semester, writing the Water Waysscript with the goal of integrating students’ writings and small-group vignette scenes into a cohesive narrative. OASIS members were then reunited with the duo over Winter Term, working eight-hour days at CPT while living in Cleveland. At this time, Oberlin faculty relinquished control, allowing the students to immerse themselves completely in a professional artistic environment.

“In the end, the artistic directorship fell strongly to Raymond and Chris to make the piece with the students,” said Martynuk. “It’s all about trust — I’m not kidding. Raymond and Chris had to trust us to work with the students to generate stuff that was usable. We had to trust them to take all that and do something that we consider to be valuable work, and that was great.”

Water Ways Makes Waves

At the sold-out premiere of Water Ways, it quickly became clear that Bobgan had found ideal spaces within CPT for each of the show’s six scenes: the show opens with hyperreal, unsteady projections of water on the main stage, an expansive ground-level surface flanked on two sides by audience seats and backed by a staticky and haunting electronic track. After several seconds, the lights go up on the balcony, revealing the cast of characters and the motives that keep them at odds with one another throughout the performance.

Water Ways takes place in the not-so-distant future, when pollution and corruption have completely desiccated Lake Erie and water is a highly prized commodity. The mayor (Conservatory senior Sam Fisher) has decided to drill for water beneath the surface of the now-parched lake, thanks to the research of a team of white-coated scientists. Contesting the drilling is College junior Charlotte Istel’s Ashley, an environmental lawyer and professor who sees right through the mayor’s claims of “free water for everyone!” A group of water spirits swirls around the bickering professionals, eliciting childhood memories of the lake in one disillusioned adult after another (played with spry grace by College seniors Nona Brown and Sam Bergman, College junior Val Perczek, Conservatory juniors Charles Glanders and Rachel Iba and Conservatory sophomore Kaeli Mogg).

After this introductory scene, the audience is split into four groups and led by ushers through five small-group vignette scenes, each group in a different order, that provide often bone-chilling backstories to the characters we have met.

In “Spirits’ Home,” Brown, Bergman, Glanders and Mogg rise and fall from tubs of water in an arrestingly sensual piece of choreography, one that also elicits a dark unease in the viewer. Conservatory sophomore Noah Chevan, Conservatory junior Nate Mendelsohn and College junior Regina Larre Campuzano crank up the edginess to full blast in “Scientists,” in which wires running into an enormous water-filled tub create ear-shattering sonic distortions that drive Chevan’s character to madness.

Fisher and double-degree fifth-year Lisa Yanofsky struck a radically different tone in “Vaudeville,” performing a slapstick schtick to advertise water-saving home products that might do their users more harm than good. Each group then passed through an installation of video projections titled “Museum,” each screen staggered so that audience members wove their way through a fractured landscape of streams and waterfalls. At the end of the room, Conservatory senior Sam Rosenberg sat watching an infomercial made by the mayor’s company, Water Ways, guzzling bottled water.

Finally, “Memory of Water” beautifully brought home the show’s emphasis on the nourishment that memories and reflection can provide. Mixed-media films of people dipping their hands into water were projected onto the walls of a room occupied by several actors, who milled around a table laden with photo stills of the film. Perczek used a guitar, trumpet and percussion instruments to create a sound loop, imbuing the darkened room with a wistful serenity.

At the end of the performance, the audience reconvened on the main stage for a panel discussion with Kellie Rotunno, director of engineering and construction of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, and Erin Huber, director of the Cleveland nonprofit Drink Local Drink Tap. From their unique positions within environmental conservation organizations, the two discussed efforts to clean up and preserve the incredible resource that is Lake Erie — in other words, how to prevent the events of Water Ways from becoming a reality.

“People often don’t realize how wealthy we are in this region,” said Huber. “Not just money, not justthings — real wealth, real richness.”

A Standing Ovation: Reactions and Reflections on OASIS

Water Ways drew a broad spectrum of audience members, many of whom were Cleveland residents with a vested interest in Lake Erie. On opening night, said Bobgan, “There was a real visceral sense — you could really feel the tension in the air around this topic. For many people, this show was not like anything they’d ever seen before, and people responded very, very positively.”

The students involved this past semester were unanimously thrilled with the program, and many plan to continue collaborating with their OASIS peers. “OASIS has allowed me to see how easy it is to ask someone, ‘Okay, I need help with this project,’” Perczek said. “It becomes a working relationship, rather than feeling like I’m asking too much.”

Bergman echoed this sentiment. “OASIS opened my eyes and allowed me to get a small taste of the endless artistic possibilities available when different mediums and disciplines collaborate,” she explained. “I am incredibly proud of the multitude of intricate, creative works that were generated throughout the semester — those that were included in the final production as well as the many more that were not.” Indeed, only a fraction of the student-created work was presented in the final version of Water Ways.

Martynuk emphasized the Oberlin faculty’s enjoyment of OASIS as well. “It’s all about the students,” she said. “This ensemble has been a joy every day to work with. Really committed, really willing to take risks. I think a bunch of them didn’t know they’d be performing like this. … When I watch them, what I see is their openness to each other, this incredible sense of empathizing with each other onstage, with that character, with that situation.”

Even if students did not become fluent in the unfamiliar skills of their peers, Martynuk explained, they have gained an understanding of how to think about those mediums, and more importantly, what is possible in using them. They were excited by the program, and therefore excited to take risks — an invaluable ability for any aspiring professional artist.

Future Directions of OASIS

With all of its unprecedented challenges, the OASIS program was not always easy for students. “The question about this kind of project is really about how you create experiences that are deeper and can have more singular attention from a group of students over a period of time,” said Bobgan. While most other ensembles he works with at CPT collaborate over the course of years, their rehearsal periods are actually shorter than that of Water Ways. “Because this ensemble was together [in rehearsal] for a greater period of time, there’s a quality of performance that can’t be achieved any other way.”

The question then remains: Will OASIS continue in future years at Oberlin, and in what form? The structure of this past semester was extremely expensive, both for the College and for CPT, and was not intended to be replicated. However, the possibility of an Arts concentration is currently in the planning stages and would comprise at least two components of the former OASIS curriculum. One is a class entitled Collaborations: Dance, Music, and Media, which has existed at Oberlin for several years and is currently being taught by Professor of Dance Carter McAdams and Assistant Professor of Computer Music and Digital Arts Peter Swendsen. The course focuses on creating site-specific work and on adapting dance for the camera and other media.

Seeing work outside of Oberlin will also remain central to the Arts concentration. Rather than taking the form of a class, a series of trips will expose students to work that addresses the questions and possibilities of artistic collaboration in a variety of ways. Together, these components would culminate in showings of student work that serve as the new, more sustainable OASIS.