At the end of September 2017, dog & pony dc will premiere our second sensory-centered performance, Party On. Party On is part of dog & pony dc’s Sense-Able initiative and is linked with our participation in the DeafBlind Theatre Project. Party On was created in order for us–all sighted, mixed hearing and Deaf group of artists–to chip away at our assumptions for “normal” theatre experiences while creating a translation of Shakespeare text without any visual or auditory elements in it. Tosin Olufolabi, Party On devising ensemble member, shares the following from her experience creating the show. FWIW, Tosin is sighted and hearing.

One of the first audience actions in the Party On performance is selecting a party mask. This task helps audience members direct their focus to a sense not often incorporated in theatre–touch.

Party On masks
Collection of party masks for the show.

During the devising process for Party On, making and testing the audience’s party masks helped change my way of communicating and creating.

First, the devising team decided on the concept for the party masks as a group (the team was me, Navid Azeez, and Kala Granger, led by Lorraine Ressegger-Slone) . Then the four of us split up, moved into our own area of the room, and each worked furiously, independently, in near silence. I was busy building a mask that had beads at the center of the eye holes, which made them look like pupils. At some point, I looked up to check on the others and saw what Lorraine was building. It was this monstrous mask with a million wooden popsicle sticks framing it and feathers on top that almost brushed the ceiling. Needless to say, my mind was blown. I returned to my mask and realized it looked interesting–which was not the point–and was comprised of only one texture–which meant it was boring to touch.

I accepted the challenge of making a more tactilely engaging mask.

I searched for more interesting materials to incorporate: pieces of a watch, screws, zippers, etc. At one point I constructed a human figure out of orange pipe cleaner and hot glued it to a little gold chair. (How cool might it be to wear a mask with a tiny person sitting on a throne in the center of your forehead!)

By the day’s end we had simple masks, extravagant masks, masks with themes, and masks that looked like someone literally threw a handful of random items at glue, and saw what stuck.

We began making assumptions about them. We started guessing how the audience might react, which masks might be popular. We asked ourselves: will everyday materials and objects feel drastically different out of context? Will audience prefer masks made of one material over many? Would people consider the weight of the masks before putting one on?

At Celebrate Petworth and Page-to-Stage New Play Festival, we were able to test  the masks and record “audience” reactions. Sighted persons were blindfolded or placed their hands in a covered box, touched a small selection of masks, and ultimately selected one that “felt like them.” Results were extremely varied but most decisions were made on instinct.  People couldn’t express why they pick their mask. I began to wonder, if the the reason so ingrained, so linked to a natural sense preference, that we couldn’t recognize it?

Tosin at Page-to-Stage
Audience member wears a party mask during workshop at Page-to-Stage. That’s Tosin in the hat!

This is exactly what working on Party On does, it makes you wonder. For me, it’s made me wonder “Why?” Smell, taste and touch are more intimate senses than sight or sound. They often have stronger ties to memories, especially smell.

Tosin at Celebrate Petworth
Tosin and a Petworth neighbor at Celebrate Petworth.

When I see a more traditional theatre production, most of the reflection and process of determining meaning is done after the show. (Usually with a friend over drinks.) However, reflection and making meaning is a part of the experience of Party On. It completes it.  Set at a masquerade, where identities are meant to be hidden, the play encourages exploration while maintaining a certain degree of anonymity. You are not exactly sure if you are yourself or someone else. The choice is yours, but you definitely are someone. Who is that person? How do they feel about the light touch of feathers on their hand? Does their heart quicken has they feel themselves get closer to a vibrating pulse? Why does the smell of vanilla soothe you? These are the questions I’m asking now.

Come to Party On and you might find the answers, or more questions, or make completely new discoveries. Who knows. That’s part of this celebration.