University Collaborates with New Paradise Laboratories to Bring Death to Life in 'Mort'

Three works on death, 'Mort' plays out fantasies of the afterlife

February 8, 2010

University of the Arts students are collaborating with New Paradise Laboratories (NPL) to bring to life "Mort," a show about death. NPL is an Obie Award-winning Philadelphia theatrical think-tank.

An experimental work that takes the form of three separate performances, each exploring death from a different perspective, "Mort" runs at the University's Caplan Center for the Performing Arts February 18 – 21 and 25 – 28. With different storylines, levels of natural light and seating arrangements, the twilight (4 p.m.), evening (7 or 8 p.m.) and deep night (10 p.m.) performances will each be unique experiences for the audience members, who are encouraged to see each iteration of "Mort" (one ticket is good for all three showings).

As a "devised" work, "Mort" existed only in the ether until its 12-person cast convened with NPL Artistic Director Whit MacLaughlin on January 15. The group culled fantasies about the afterlife from its collective imagination. As a result, "Mort" is an experiment that weaves contemporary stories with mythology.

"I wanted the students in the Brind School – not just the actors but also the designers, directors and media artists – to have the exhilarating and terrifying experience of making new work collaboratively," said Ira Brind School of Theater Arts Director Charles Gilbert. "At the start, there's nothing but an idea and a group of courageous, creative theater makers, but by the end, there's a ravishing and provocative experience that's been conjured into existence. Learning to make something out of nothing through collaborative ensemble work is very empowering for students."

As a metaphor for the recently deceased, the twilight performance is staged in the natural light of the late afternoon and features a green, leafy backdrop against which characters are being ferried across the River Styx – the boundary between Earth and the Underworld in Greek mythology – to a birthday party.

The evening performance is set at a New Year's Eve party against an icy blue background that represents the perpetually frozen state of Purgatory. This piece asks, What would we do if we waited for an eternity?"

The deep night performance focuses on the undead. It's set against a red, hellish-looking Christmastime backdrop, where zombie children are waiting for zombie Santa Claus.

"(Mort) is a dance for actors," said McLaughlin. "Technically, it’'s a score, a combination of movement, music and text."The show includes standard and classical songs and numbers by Lady Gaga and Ben Folds. MacLaughlin has created the sound composition.

"If you can’t experiment at a university," he adds, "where can you? We’re operating without a net – doing three pieces in a short timetable in a strange format. But it's work like this that gives the students access to an entirely new way to work. They don’t have to wait around for someone to hire them. Just go out and make something up."

NPL was founded with just such a charge – create surprising, meticulous, spiritually challenging and wholly distinctive experimental theater productions that investigate physical expression, on-stage and in life. Its productions are assembled using collaborative creative processes developed by the company.

Employing this formula, NPL recently staged “Fatebook,” a theater piece following the trials and tribulations of 13 20-somethings that occurred in cyberspace and real space. The audience was encouraged to participate in both realms. The cyberspace piece, in which characters interacted with each other and audience members through a variety of social media networks, premiered on July 8, 2009. The real-space portion of the performance opened on September 4, 2009, the momentous night of the "Fatebook" party.

"Whit is one of the most unique and talented theater artists I know, not just in Philadelphia, but anywhere," Gilbert said. "As it turns out, University of the Arts President Sean Buffington has also been a fan of New Paradise Laboratories since he came to Philadelphia. He and I attended a performance of “Prom” (another New Paradise show) and we both became excited about the possibility of bringing Whit to the University to create a new work."

Part of the Brind School's intimate, experimental Studio Series, "Mort" runs at the Caplan Center Studio Theater in the University's Terra Hall (211 S. Broad St., Philadelphia). Twilight performances: February 20 – 21, 27 – 28, 4 p.m. Evening Performances: February 20 – 21, 27 – 28, 7 p.m.; February 18 – 19 and 25 – 26, 8 p.m. Deep Night performances: February 18 – 21, 25 – 27, 10 p.m. $10/general admission, $5 senior citizens and non-University of the Arts students. Complimentary admission for children and the University of the Arts community. Tickets are available online.

The University of the Arts is the nation’s first and only university dedicated to the visual, performing and communication arts. Its 2,400 students are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs on its campus in the heart of Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts. The institution’s roots as a leader in educating creative individuals date back to 1868.

Above: Justin Gauser, Alli Kelly (left) and Allison Caw (right) star in the University - New Paradise Laboratories collaboration "Mort." (Photo: Andrew Beal)

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