Invisible Cities

By Forest Purnell '13

“What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt, clay packs the rooms to the ceiling, on every stair another stairway is set in negative, over the roofs of the houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds,” reads one passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The work of experimental fiction, which sweeps the reader through urban fantasies described in 55 such short prose poems, is the basis for an upcoming devised theater performance coming soon to the Vermont Arts Exchange

In much the way that Calvino’s work rejects a traditional narrative trajectory in favor of a structure that fragments and recomposes stories in collaboration with the reader, this stage “adaptation” has no script, no predefined set, or even a linear story. Currently being developed by three Bennington College performers, one sculptor and one stage manager, Invisible Cities is unusual even among recent student drama productions. Its form and content will be mostly the result of a collaborative process of learning, experimentation and group decision-making. 

The production has been almost a year in development since it was first conceived. Rehearsals began immediately at the beginning of this term. “I read the book after coming back from a lot of traveling myself and it really struck a chord,” explains the work’s director, Sarah Matusek ’13. The cast includes Matusek, Sean-Patrick O’Brien ’14, and Maria Jacobson ’14. Their team also includes Caitlin Brzezinski ’13 as stage manager, and the final work will include a special sculptural set by Sarah Fetterman ’14.

“I’m interested in the concept of cities as containers of experience, and how cities are designed and continue to be constructed and deconstructed based upon desires, fears and memories,” Matusek says of the performance’s overarching theme. At the time of our interview, the performers were developing a storyline around the characters of three royal siblings, who each construct a city within their shared space.

Matusek, who has studied in some “devised theater” hotspots including the Odin Teatret in Denmark and Dah Teatar in Serbia, explains how this practice emphasizes the actor can also be a creative artist. This notion, in itself, is at least as old as Stanislavski’s groundbreaking naturalistic acting methods developed over a century ago. Whether devised theater’s approach stems from more recent innovations or this deeper legacy, it’s clear the field makes collective participation the prime motor of artistic work. Here at Bennington, Matusek notes, performing arts students frequently explore different roles within collaborations, fluidly switching between writing, designing and performing.

Working toward fixed performance dates at the Vermont Arts Exchange of May 17th and 19th, the cast and crew have to trust the process as each rehearsal nudges closer to opening day. Despite the fragmented and often difficult nature of the source material, cast member Sean-Patrick O’Brien mentions, “we wanted [the performance] to be accessible... to people who don’t go to the theater a lot.” With high hopes and higher ambitions, Invisible Cities the performance, like the book, promises to defy certain laws of gravity.

Malia Guyer-Stevens