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Novel, local history inspire faculty-written 'headphone play'

By: Daniel Aloi,  Cornell Chronicle
September 8, 2016

Cornell Performing and Media Arts (PMA) faculty members Nick Salvato and Aoise Stratford have co-written a new play inspired by a 1909 novel set in Ithaca, “Tess of the Storm Country.”

Their play, “Storm Country,” will open The Cherry Arts’ 2016-17 season over two weekends, Sept. 9-11 and 16-18. The production is a “headphone play,” designed to immerse audience members in a soundscape of recorded voices and music as they traverse Ithaca’s historic West End.

The theatrically enhanced 70-minute walking tour of about a mile begins at Lookout Point on Cayuga Inlet (behind The Boatyard Grill on Taughannock Boulevard) and ends on Cherry Street, at the site of the not-for-profit theater company’s new facility opening next year. Showtimes are Fridays from 4 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m.; ticket reservations can be made at 15-minute intervals during those times.

“Most of the text is in the voice of a guide, there to provide directions for the walkers as they move from place to place,” Salvato said. “Along the way, there are spots for sitting and reflecting along the inlet.”

Equipment will be provided, or playgoers can use their own MP3 players or phones.

“In the last couple decades there’s been an emphasis on alternative spaces for plays, a form of site-specific theater,” Stratford said. “How do you tell theatrical stories in unconventional places? What we’re doing is having people walk along in the real world and be in the story.”

The work layers fiction and reality, and past and present, in innovative ways, interweaving Tess’ story from Grace Miller White’s novel with narration revealing the hidden histories of the present-day neighborhood, adding new dimensions to where the story takes place.

“There’s a tension between these two ideas – a narrative and an uber-melodramatic story of a damsel in distress,” Stratford said. “It feels like a story that’s rooted here; there’s a lot about the lake and the terrain.”

Salvato chairs PMA and said he is “very interested in where media studies and performance studies come together, and translating that into art.” In “Storm Country,” he said, “the media element foregrounds the power of the piece. White’s novel provides a way to explore the class conflict between the fishing community in what was formerly known as the Rhine, and the more well-off members of the community.”

The play’s themes are local and include “the power of water, migration, dispossession and gentrification,” he said – as well as what Stratford calls “the transitory nature of Ithaca.”

“As a place that’s a temporary home, it’s very pronounced in Ithaca,” she said. “So many people have made that journey before the people that are here now.”

Salvato and Stratford added the historical and present-day context to the story of the novel by walking through its real-world setting.

“We read the novel, then we walked a path and looked at things along the way that could be interesting,” Stratford said. “We selected scenes from the novel that seemed striking; there’s a moment when a boat goes down in the middle of a big storm.”

As the playwrights continued writing and editing, they returned to the West End route and brought actors and sound engineers into the process.

“The sounds came from the process of writing and walking. We’d do multiple versions for the voices and timing, and we’d work in more and more of the things we were hearing – birds, and traffic; the sound of boats,” Salvato said.

The play features seven voices including PMA senior lecturer Carolyn Goelzer as the narrator, ambient sounds, and background music by Anna Coogan, visiting lecturer in the Department of Music.

Tickets are available online, and the minimum ticket price is $5. For more information, visit thecherry.org.

Cornell performing and media arts (PMA) faculty members Nick Salvato and Aoise Stratford have co-written a new play inspired by a 1909 novel set in Ithaca, “Tess of the Storm Country.”

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