Students of theater, music, and art at the University of Southern Maine may share similar areas of creative interest, but they tend to focus on their own media. In the past few months, that’s changed.
The students have been collaborating on a theater production that explores how Maine’s waterways have shaped its history. The show, “Molded by the Flow,” opens Friday in Lewiston.
The name not only reflects the content of the show, it’s also a metaphor for how it was created. It’s what’s called devised theatre, where producers toss aside the typical predetermined script and instead form a show from improvisation and collaboration.
It’s an approach that senior Cameron Prescott, a major in music performance, was not used to.
“I was very, uh, apprehensive about the whole thing. As a performer, I like everything under control and prepared. It took me time to realize that this isn’t that,” he says.
Two visiting artists, Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert, guided the students in creating the show, which is described as a “poetic, visual, and musical narrative” that explores the relationship between Maine’s waterways and its history. Eckert says it’s about how streams shaped the landscape and formed rivers, the power of which was harnessed by mills, and how that water flowed out to the ocean, which has its own power, and created centers of culture and community through its ports.
“So it’s this issue of power that’s controlled and power that’s not controlled. Which is a very interesting thing, aesthetically,” he says.
Theater students wrote poetry and dialogue, then handed it to music students who composed songs around those writings. Art students, meanwhile, created instruments to incorporate into the show.
During a recent rehearsal, freshman jazz guitar performance major Anthony Branca bends a large plastic sheet.
“We use it in one particular piece as an effect for a big wave washing away a boat, but other various sounds too. If you bend it on the ground, it makes this kind of whooping sound,” he says.
There’s also an instrument made of chalices that hang by strings from a wooden frame. Junior Hunter McKay, a major in jazz performance, demonstrates.
“They all have a pitch when you hit them. And another thing that it does, there’s a ladder right here. So I’m climbing up on this ladder right here, and you can dump metal filings into the top of it, and they fall all over the chalices.”
There’s also what freshman composition major Noah Franklin refers to as a vertical harp, or bass tree. It’s a tall wooden post with a round top and square base, with 12 strings anchored between the two.
“And the idea of this is to emulate a stringed instrument, like a violin, or cello, or a bass,” he says, using a bow to play it. “This mostly just adds an effect and an atmosphere to this, because this isn’t an instrument that’s going to play any lead melodies.”
There’s a certain amount of chaos in creating a collaborative production like this. In the final weeks before the show, students are busily altering music, changing sets, and the script.
Sophomore Saigelyn Green, a music ed and composition major, says the chaos has allowed her to see new possibilities, from what others have produced as well as herself.
“This changed how I write. I never wrote a jazz piece before this, and there’s a jazz piece that is probably going to be in the show. It expanded my own personal composing,” she says.
The students say the collaboration has opened up a world right in front of them that they never explored till now. Eckert says he hopes the audience will have a similar experience.
“I like to say that I’d like the audience to be lost, but not so lost that they panic. And by this I mean, if you step off the path and don’t panic, you’re likely to get a view of forest that you didn’t have staying on the path,” he says.
Molded By The Flow will open this weekend in Lewiston, and runs the following two weekends on USM’s Gorham campus.