By Elizabeth Gracen:
How does an immersive theatre event like Matter of Time emerge from a simple kernel of an idea? This kind of creative journey happens on the regular at the Lineage Performing Arts Center (LPAC)—where original plays, musicals, and dance and multi-media productions are created, workshopped, and brought to life each season.
Hilary Thomas, the artistic director and choreographer for LPAC and the Lineage Dance Company, mounts productions, both large-scale and small, conceived from the fertile soil of her imagination and innate curiosity about the world and its people. Thomas never shies away from the hard topics addressed in productions such as Arc of Evolution, Ceiling in the Floor, After Roe . . . but her devotion to musical theatre casts a wide net into the creative ether to reel in and include ideas from the many performers, dancers, artists, and writers who travel through the vibrant creative portal she has constructed at Lineage.
Having worked with Thomas on myriad productions over the years, I know first-hand what it’s like to be swept up in her enthusiasm, often finding myself in the midst of a show, marveling at my good fortune. Our association has expanded my creative muscles and taught me the many valuable lessons learned only from the art of collaboration.
From last week’s article, you learned a bit about the immersive time-travel experience of Matter of Time. This week, we delve deeper into the inner workings of the show and talk to Thomas and some of the performers about how the creative "sausage" gets made.
The idea for the show originated during the pandemic, when Thomas, along with her daughter, friends, and long-time collaborators Will Bellaimey and Ericalynn Priolo, attended an immersive 70s roller-skating experience in Inglewood, CA. “It was beautiful. There were people dancing on cars—a total immersive experience. I immediately knew that we had do to something like that at LPAC.”
That’s the kernel, the spark that sets it off, but what happens next? Yes, Thomas is surrounded by talented professionals who are more than willing to jump onboard when she invites them to play, but what are the next steps after that spark ignites?
“Honestly, what I can remember is that all of last year, it was all I thought about. Everywhere I went, or everything I watched, every experience I had, every song that I heard, I wanted to use in the production,” said Thomas. She met with Bellaimey and began the process of bringing her ideas to fruition. “We knew that we wanted every room at LPAC to be a different decade, and we wanted an open museum vibe where the audience could go wherever they wanted. It seemed like a great idea, but when we considered what an actual audience would feel like in that scenario, we decided that there would be too much FOMO going on because people would miss really cool things and wouldn't know when to be where—that just felt challenging.”
“When Hilary and I initially met and recorded our discussion about the project, I didn't realize that what I said was going to end up in the text of the show, because I was just talking off the top of my head,” said Bellaimey. "I listed, out loud, the themes that I felt were important to understanding that time period, both politically and culturally.”
To say that Bellaimey, a high school history teacher in Southern California, is passionate about history would be an understatement. If you’ve ever heard his podcast, “All the Presidents, Man,” or followed his regular series, Historically Speaking, here at Flapper Press, you’d know that Bellaimey possess the natural ease of a storyteller with an in-depth insight into the historical machinations of our country.
“As a teacher I have much more time to explore different ideas when I talk about history. As a writer and performer in Matter of Time, the most challenging aspect was condensing those ideas down to approximately three minutes per decade.”
What the Lineage team eventually came up with is a novel night of theatre where audience members are invited to travel forward or backward through time from the 50s to the 90s, eventually meeting in the middle in the 70s before splitting the timeline again, with two tracks of time occurring concurrently. A logistical conundrum, launching the production initially involved workshopping, or what Thomas calls a “creative playground.”
During the workshop process, the performers distilled the script down to the most essential highlights of each decade, trying to predict what would resonate most with audience members. Diana Leon, one of the performer “guides” of the show and long-time Lineage family member, described the same familiar LPAC collaborative rehearsal process that goes into most of the original productions she's participated in; but as a performer, it was unfamiliar territory. “I've never done anything like this—ever. We weren’t sure if the audience was going to participate as much as we thought they would, or if we’d have to guide them and keep them from roaming around.”
And then there was the timeline . . .
“With the 50s and 90s happening at the same time in real time, most of the performers are running back and forth,” said Thomas. “The 60s and the 80s happen at the same time as well, so the performers are running back and forth again. And then in the 70s, everybody comes together, and that's such a great relaxation moment for us, but then everybody has to do the show completely again.”
Jana Souza, powerhouse performer and Lineage favorite, describes this time travel sleight of hand as a “madhouse of running around and putting yourself in each decade’s timeframe. It’s a lot of fun—the slides, the set decorations, and the music for each decade really put you in that time period and in the emotional space that you need to be in for what’s going on.”
As the audience is ushered through the history of America, with all the highlights and horrors of the times, one constant appears as a calming guide through the decades, his familiar lilting voice and cardigan sweater a reminder of a gentler take on time—Mr. Rogers. Played with finesse in all decades, Paul Siemens is an accomplished singer and actor who has worked in Lineage productions since 2013.
“When Hilary came to me and said that she wanted me to play Mr. Rogers, my immediate reaction was it was not a role that I ever thought somebody would ask me to play. I wasn't especially excited about it, but you always say yes when Hillary asks you to do something.” Siemens researched the role by screening YouTube videos of Rogers, which eventually led to his entire family watching the episodes. "That was magical because all of a sudden I was seeing Mr. Rogers through my young daughters' eyes, and they just fell in love with him. They kept wanting to watch more.”
How do you crack the code to play Mr. Rogers, certainly one of the most recognizable, beloved of American personalities?
“There were really three aspects of my research that I thought were pretty interesting. The first is the pace at which he speaks is so insanely slow. I am a fast talker, so it almost hurts me to speak as slowly as Mr. Rogers speaks. The second is the intensity with which he looks at the viewer. He's looking directly at the camera. His gaze is unflinching. There's nothing creepy or crazy about it. It's just that he is fully present and there for you, which is incredibly comforting. And the third thing is his voice. I mean, his voice, his accent, is unmistakable, but it also defies description.”
This visceral evening of theatre pulses with music and the always-outstanding cast and musicians found at Lineage—Teya Wolvington, Ericalynn Priolo, Brittany Daniels, Caterina Mercante, Molly Mattei, and Meghann Zenor, Austin Roy, Angie Vaughn, Toni Lorene Baker, Keila Fisher, Marco Tacandon, and Alan Geier. . . . And as with all good theatre grounded in the truth of human experience, the lessons learned are varied and always enlightening.
Diana Leon: “I think that it's really fun for a lot of people who don't go to theater often or who expect to just sit back and watch. With this they get to be a part of it. And it's also a walk down memory lane for a lot of people, which makes it exciting for them.”
Will Bellaimey: “I think immersive theater in a really cool way to learn about history, and it’s a great opportunity to see how a community comes together. Like so many Lineage shows, it involves so many people bringing different talents in a sort of potluck kind of way to see what comes together. It's a fun show. I think people will have a great time.”
Paul Siemens: “I’m so excited that I get to do it again because there were some nights when I'd walk out on stage and start to sing the welcome song and people would just immediately start to cry, because Mr. Rogers plays such an important role, emotionally speaking, in people's childhoods.”
Jana Souza: "It’s emotional, it's funny. You laugh, you cry. It's immersive. You get to walk through the space. I think that Hillary has just done such an amazing job putting this together. And to be honest, I have no idea how her brain works like this. This was her brainchild, and I was just very happy to be a part of it and telling these stories, singing these songs, and bringing people back to these times."
Hilary Thomas: "I think that a lot of people find this to be an incredibly soul-filling experience. It’s an emotional trip down memory lane, but for every person who sees the show, it depends on their age as to what kind of trip it is. Of course, I hope it’s a good one!"
It's a great night of theatre in southern California!