The latest production on the Texas Woman’s University stage doesn’t come from a script.
It borrows from the real life of directors Noah Lelek and Ilana Morgan, a TWU theater class and the actors performing the play.
The Architecture of Loss began when Lelek, a theater faculty member, was on his couch and watching the news in 2018. A breaking news story reported that a duck boat capsized on Table Rock Lake in Missouri.
“Seventeen people died,” Lelek said. “One woman lost something like eight family members.”
The survivor, Tia Coleman, lost nine family members in the accident — including her husband and their three young children.
At the same time, Lelek was dealing with his own stepfather’s dire diagnosis. Congestive heart failure eventually claimed his life last December, and Lelek saw his mother’s grief, up close and personal.
“I got to thinking, ‘How can we use theater to explore loss?’” Lelek said.
Lelek and Morgan have worked together before, blending theater and movement to develop characters and tell stories. The professors decided they wanted to devise a play about loss. In devised plays, actors and directors create work without a published script.
“I interviewed my mom,” Lelek said. “The main story is my mom and my stepdad’s. But I teach a devising class, and I had students research and perform stories about loss.”
Morgan said The Architecture of Loss pulls different narratives together, stitched together with the theme of loss and grief.
“I see this show as a quilt,” she said. “Devised theater can almost become a narrative, but this show is more of a quilt. There are different pieces brought together so that when you see it as a whole, it makes sense.”
Lelek said the play has worked like a collaboration. The cast shows up for rehearsals ready for the unexpected, and primed to solve problems that can arise when you’re creating a story each day. It pushes students out of the comfort zone of preparation. They can’t memorize lines before each rehearsal because the dialogue changes. They can’t map out every move because Morgan is leading them in building dance and movement for each rehearsal.
Lelek said the show is teaching the students creativity and flexibility.
“These are all theater students,” he said. “They very much come from the perspective of ‘I need to study this, talk about it and figure this out.’ This is really a different language than they’re used to. They don’t have the typical work to fall back on. They don’t have ‘What’s my blocking?’ ‘Where’s my script?’ and ‘Where do I need to be?’ Because there’s no script. We’re creating this every day.”
Morgan said the cast members are learning to really tune into their bodies.
“I think it’s teaching them that the body is a place of knowing,” Morgan said. “What we’re seeing is that choreography is a way to find grief, loss and remembering. It’s not typical choreography. We’re using a lot of gesture and movement. And they’re creating movement from themselves, which shows you that movement doesn’t have to be something that is layered onto you from someone else. This isn’t a project where I have to walk in and do ‘5, 6, 7, 8.’”
For TWU sophomore Abel Mathew, the play has been all about pushing past his comfort zone.
“This is my first time doing anything devised,” Mathew said. “We’ve been changing things every time we rehearse. And I have no dance experience, either. You have to be flexible to do this kind of theater. It’s not easy.”
Alexander Delacruz-Nunez, a senior, wrote about his own experience of hearing loss for the play in the devising class. Delacruz-Nunez said he’s been losing his hearing since his childhood, and now he is nearly profoundly deaf.
He’s relying on cues from his castmates to get to his spot on stage — or behind one of the set pieces or moving walls — on time. But he’s also getting to share some of his writing in the show.
“Some of my stuff is in it, which is really nice,” he said. “I’ve always been open about my hearing loss. But what I never get to put out there is my doubt about the future of my ears. So getting that out there is even better. Getting to share that part of my life.”
Mathew said some of his writing made the play, too.
“I personally like getting myself out there in the open,” he said. “But my family is going to see this, and they might not like me telling our history. I’ve talked to everyone affected by it, so they know its going to be out there.”
Delacruz-Nunez said creating the play means someone has to lead in the occasionally topsy-turvy rehearsals.
“We change so many things all the time,” he said. “And finally, someone has to say, ‘No, this is what we’re doing.’ Someone has to make the final decision.”
Seniors Stephanie Jasper and Lauren Jordan said the auditions for the play weren’t typical. The actors had to tell stories in movement and they had to separate into groups and see which one could build the highest tower using paper clips, paper and rubber bands. Morgan and Lelek watched the groups figure out solutions and strategies.
“People natural form groups or pods when they work together,” Jordan said. “And part of the audition process was putting different people together in groups. So not knowing what other people were going to do in your group made everything more uncertain.”
Jasper said the actors have another challenge: Each performer will wear gray. All the set pieces are shades of gray. The lighting uses color. The actors, though, have to create a palette of color through their relationships.
“I knew it was going to be harder,” Jasper said. “I knew it was going to be harder because it’s a sober piece. It’s up to us to supply the emotional color. It’s also harder because we have to memorize something that isn’t written. We started with movements. We have a chart that starts with a word or an idea, and we went from there.”
Morgan said the students have flexed their courage to make a show that speaks in metaphors.
“The risk is having an experience that forces you to be where you don’t know,” Morgan said. “You learn the most when you don’t know. We learn in our disorientation, so I want them to get disoriented. That’s the risk.”