The Viewing Experience of “A Period of Animate Existence”

On Thursday, the Lang Music Department housed an experimental work of fantastic theatrical imagination. Created by the composer/filmmaker Troy Herion, scenic designer Mimi Lien, and director Dan Rothenberg ’95, this play challenged the audience to envision a future of rapid change and unpredictable technology. Performers from the Crossing, Philadelphia Boys Choir/Philadelphia Girls Choir, Philomusica, and Contemporaneous took to the stage in a synthesis of collaborative arts. Provided with the “first look” of this new work, this mind-blowing experience requires several viewings to truly grasp the ambition and purpose of each movement. This work of art is recommended for all Swatties and will officially premiere at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Pennsylvania during the 2017 Fringe Festival.
The first 15 rows of seats are full of animate students, faculty, and Swarthmore community members alike. We’re all anxiously expecting the unexpected in unison. Impatiently, we wait for the curtains to open and I can feel a mysterious energy permeating the cold auditorium. I take a moment to ask a couple students around me their thoughts in anticipation of the play. To my left, my friend Danielle looks ahead, waiting for the play to start.
“I’m excited to watch it and I hope it’s not too long…It’s so cold!” whispered Danielle Rossetti ‘21.
After a couple minutes, the crowd grows still, and the silence prompts the arrival of Dan Rothenberg, director of the Iron Theatre Company, onto the stage. Addressing the audience, he announces that the play would last five movements, modeled after a symphony. For this performance, Mr. Rothenburg tells us that a number of the visuals would be incomplete, but that the music and visuals would be presented in their full form. With that, we’re instantly thrown into the disarray of human extinction.
As the lights dim, an ominous mood is cast upon us as we are lost to the darkness of the first movement. Screeching, the primal sounds of brass and dissonance of the strings fill the auditorium and near me, I hear someone whisper “I’m afraid” In front of us, nothing has changed, a sign of how crucial the visuals must be for these moments of intensity. All of the sudden, as the pitter-pattering of percussion peaks, the screech of the flute ends the calamity. The curtains open and we’re presented with an ensemble of instrumentalists in aluminum-space suits, led by their conductor. Long silver tubes slither along the stage, breathing through inanimate oddity. As the music swells to a conclusion, the movement ends abruptly.
I can’t help but feel utterly perplexed, acknowledging that what I had just seen was beyond my imagination. The crowd turn their heads towards one another, searching for an answer. A couple seats to my left, I overhear one of the students uttered a couple words.
“That was a celestial experience” proclaimed Nada Quakyi, ’21.
After a couple minutes of overwhelming conversation, two little girls walk across the stage with a hefty white sign, signaling the beginning of the second movement. A man with a cello appears alone on stage and belts out, “Humans have no advantage over animals as one dies, so does the other”. In a zombie-like trance, a flock of people walk across the stage, rocking back and forth as they sing in unison, “Keep our children safe and sound”.
In a separate segment of the act, the chorus lines up on the floor next to each other, with the exception of four women. In beautiful synchronization, the chorus continues a flowing hand choreography on the ground as the women, in the corner facing away from the audience, sing the chorus in peculiar fashion. “Something always was, something else will be”. As the floor choreography concludes, the singers on the floor stand. Looking directly at us, they hold their hands up. Their defiance to their crumbling world startles me, as the chorus has awakened from their lethargy and sprung into deep, vocal action. As the chorus concludes its final lines, it all, once again, ends abruptly.
As we await the next movement, a woman plays an exquisite melody on her harp. The delicate playing is suddenly accompanied by the entrance of a cast member, who proceeds to talk about the marshmallow test. This small sketch comes off as entirely random, but completely disarms me of any expectations. As the curtains roll, we see what appears to be a gyro cart with a neon sign displaying scrolling messages atop. When the messages begin to repeat in a cycle, unsettling static sends shivers down everyone’s spines. In white font, the cart appears to speak to us, writing “Do you think I am not my body?”.
What ensues is an interaction with an inanimate so incredibly eerie and unusual that I held my mouth open throughout the remainder of the movement. As the cart “speaks” to the audience, we’re left contemplating the position of humans in our world of evolving AI and machines. During one dramatic instance, words in green font flash on the neon sign. Oxygen. Dirt. Wood. Fire. Metal. Plastic. Waste. Magic. Night. Siblings. Generation. “Humans are the reproductive organs of machines.” As the screen turns once again to black, the cart writes to everyone once more. “Let us learn and find what every god learns the hard way. The right to immortality is no privilege”. This movement is without a doubt the most imaginative and chilling of the three so far, and it leaves an indelible mark on my psyche.
At this midway point, I once again ask for remarks regarding the theatre acts seen. To my right, my friend Cindy Serrato has been left speechless, but I wait for her reply.
“I love this. Like, I like that it makes me feel things, but I don’t know what I’m feeling,” said Serrato ’21.
The fourth movement seems to be the core of the entire play, as it is the least abstract and incorporates regular talking and discussion. At the beginning, a tiny blonde girl stands on a wooden block and speaks into the microphone, introducing herself to us. When the curtains open behind her, we see a collection of seniors and children holding models of planets in their hands, singing in harmony. This sense of peace, absent in every other part of the work, doesn’t last for long, however. As one of the children tells a horrifying tale of the world’s fate, everyone disperses in fear.
In the following sections, we see the little blond girl interview her always-working mother and fragile grandmother, each accepting the state of Earth and their position within it. Nonetheless, the children rebel the impotence of the generations before them, marching onto the stage with tiny red hats shouting “There’s no hope left, but I hope I’ll still be here”. Seeing these children so furious makes me feel weary of my own idleness and how significant preparing a better place for these kids is.
Near the end, a death occurs on stage, propelling the movement into one of grief. The effect of this scene cause everyone alarm. The little girl, anguished, communicates with nature and asks for help. Her fellow peers want to aid as well, but they simply don’t understand her emotions. The children continue to march, crying “Don’t forget my name, don’t forget my face”. Even the mother cannot contain herself, as her tears pour onto the stage. We’re reminded of how significant a single human life is, even as tragedies seem to occur almost every day.
The final performance is a reprise of the first. The seniors come out with the models of the planets seen. However, as it seems everything is continuously being passed down from, especially the burdens of the universe, we see the children take a model one by one. By far the longest movement, the performances overstay their welcome just a bit, but the grand statements remain well worth our time.
By the beginning of the final movement, my curiosity holds no bounds. Three black mats with glowing circles are placed onto the floor. In the background, several men and women clad in red and white in ritual clothing appear. These singers commence their humming and two wrestlers take the center stage to fight. As the brawling progresses, their movement becomes mechanical. Other wrestlers step onto the opposing mats and repeat the same movement.
Carefully choreographed and mystifying in its execution, we observe wrestlers enter and leave the stage as the dissonance behind them reverberates in our ears. Eventually, only a singular wrestler remains, fighting with himself. He struggles in the glowing circle with an invisible opponent, who might very well be himself, for the rest of eternity. Although so incredibly difficult to interpret, I’d like to think that humanity has settled for rote progress and has become its own worst enemy.
After the performers all bowed, I left the auditorium in a daze. Unable to really put my own feelings into words when exiting, it seems appropriate to quote Nada.
“After watching this play, my period of animate existence has changed”.

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