“There are so many different ways we respond to tragedy,” says Jenna Tamisiea. The Greenville, S.C.-based actor and director is helming the Anam Cara Theatre Company production of Pulse, an ensemble-created musical performance that deals with the Pulse nightclub terrorist attack and hate crime. The production will open at Toy Boat Community Arts Space on Friday, Feb. 24.
Last year, on June 12, a gunman opened fire inside the popular gay venue in Orlando, Fla. The assault left 49 people dead (including the gunman) and 53 wounded, in what was determined to be the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. It’s a shocking story and one that reached far beyond its Central Florida ground zero.
Tamisiea was teaching classes at Florida State University at the time, and some of her students were from Orlando. “Seeing the confusion and hurt and hope firsthand was pretty powerful,” she says. “In Pulse’s case it was not only the community of Orlando, it was also the Latinx community, it was the LGBTQ community, it was the allies community. It was such a broad spectrum of communities where the pain rippled through.”
But instead of drafting a script about the shooting and surrounding events, Anam Cara elected to create “devised” theater. “We take a scene, subject or event and gather a group of actors or performers,” Tamisiea explains. Some of the cast members, in this case, are singer-songwriters. “I ask them to bring in pieces of theater, songs, dance, whatever their medium is. We then [take their pieces] and create a full performance.”
She continues, “There’s a lot of experimenting that goes on in rehearsals. … We’ll see where the piece takes us so we can go deeper.” As a director, Tamisiea believes her job is to guide the actors and provide other possible directions or ideas. “Sometimes I’ll give people tasks that will open new meaning and deeper meaning from what they brought in,” she says.
Contributors Michael Bell and Amelia Doll have been creating new songs about the nightclub. One is in response to text Bell found from a memorial service held in Orlando. Doll “created a song that is almost a love song; perhaps the words of someone in their last minutes of life,” says Tamisiea. Other music for the production is cast-reworked numbers based on club favorites such as Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife” and Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”
“Devised theater typically begins with little more than a rehearsal space and a group of eager, committed theater practitioners,” according to the TDF Theatre Dictionary. “Through a series of improvisatory theater games or other conceptual ice-breakers, they start to tease out the kinds of stories they’d like to tell and the way they’d like to tell them. Over time, a text emerges, one covered with the fingerprints of each and every participant.” The online resource notes The Laramie Project, which formed out of interviews and news reports, as one example.
Laramie also happens to address LGBTQ issues (it was in response to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student). And while Anam Cara’s mission doesn’t implicitly vow to create LGBTQ-focused productions, the local theater company is known for its boundary-pushing work. “Anam Cara produces experimental theater that empowers artists, promotes equality, challenges thinking and transforms community,” says the collective’s website. “We provide a safe space for artists and audiences to take risks, grow and collaborate.”
That’s definitely the theater company’s approach to Pulse. Though it’s a difficult concept to explain to theatergoers (“Is it a re-enactment? Is it a musical?” the show’s director has been asked), the intent is to go deeper than simple categorizations such as a drama or a revue.
That means not taking any easy outs. Tamisiea says she wavers between terror — “We’re opening in three weeks and we’re still experimenting!” — and a sense that “it’s really wonderful to be in a room with people who are exploring this tragedy and saying something poignant.”
She continues, “It’s very personal to the actors who are within it. This whole group has something to say about Pulse. We should all have a response to Pulse that’s meaningful and that can create and promote change.”
WHAT: Anam Cara presents Pulse
WHERE: Toy Boat Community Arts Space, 101 Fairview Road
WHEN: Fridays and Saturdays, Feb. 24 and 25, March 3,4,10 and 11, at 8 p.m. $16. anamcaratheatre.org