In a single lifetime, there is a brief period where a group of souls can be eternally connected through tragedy or through triumph. There is a moment where everything either falls together or falls apart. This is the premise of “The Awesome Dance,” a new play by State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz screenwriting professor Nick Starr.
Starr’s production follows the progress of four souls through multiple lives in an examination of how one life can bleed into another and how the consequences of a single action can create an everlasting effect.
“So much happens so quickly,” Starr said. “You laugh, you cry, you scream, you’re totally confused, you’re completely delighted – and that’s attributed to the work that the actors are doing in the play.”
Featuring the New York theatre debut of Starr’s longtime friend Dileep Rao (“Drag Me To Hell,” “Avatar,” “Inception”), “The Awesome Dance” was written under advisorship at The New School for Drama where it had its initial workshop and Starr received his Master of Fine Arts in playwriting. The production also stars Caitlin Talbot, as well as fellow New School graduates Julie Cavaliere and Rachel Cornish.
In the opening scene, the characters Julie and Heather, played by Cornish and Talbot, are introduced sitting in the waiting room of a self-help guru’s sanctuary. As the conversation builds between the two characters, Starr’s writing ranges from bits of dark humor to emotional outbursts that reveal new information about the scene and the characters’ intentions.
“You have to listen to [your characters],” Starr said. “Maybe you have an idea about where you’re going, but the first thing you need to do is listen to the people who are talking in the room… Wait for the story to reveal itself to you.”
As the scene continues and two more characters are introduced, a twist is revealed, changing everything and leading toward a karma-induced tumble through multiple generations. The three scenes that follow each represent a separate lifetime. The characters change, yet the same four souls remain.
When the production was first introduced to Rao, the actor’s instinct went beyond just supporting one of his good friends. Rao became enamored by the initial production, and pleaded Starr to be a part of it.
“The hair on the back of my neck just stood up and I thought, my friend isn’t only just my friend and a good writer, he’s an artist,” Rao said. “He has the talent and the ability to do stuff only the playwrights I’ve worked with that I respect and like the most can do, and that is to use language and thought to startle us in space, which is what theatre is about.”
Although Starr teaches students in New Paltz how to write for the screen, theatre has been a huge part of both his career and life.
As a teenager visiting his aunt in London, Starr was taken to a production of “Volpone” at the Royal National Theatre. In that instant, his life was changed.
“I don’t even know if I really followed the whole thing, but I just remember it being so hilarious,” he said. “I had never had an experience like that. That was a really big moment.”
Since then, Starr won a 2004 LA Weekly award for his play “The Songs of Forgettance” and is now in mid production of “The Awesome Dance,” which will have its final show on Sept. 25 at the Cherry Pit Theatre in New York City.
Through all of his experiences, Starr has met a lot of close friends. With their help, he has realized many of his personal projects.
“If you’re a writer, the most important thing is to just have allies,” he said. “I have a network of people that I’ve worked with through
graduate school that have really been my allies and then I have friends like Dileep. You should surround yourself with people who support your work and people whose work that you really admire.”
Besides hosting a fundraising party to finance the production, Starr and his allies used the website Kickstarter.com. From Kickstarter alone, they managed to gather $5,300 from 105 backers.
“You really have to hustle,” Starr said. “This is a play in a 99-seat theater, which is small, but it’s still expensive to do.”
For Rao, the experience of coming back to theatre after working on large-scale, blockbuster projects like “Inception” and “Avatar” has allowed him to return to the medium where he originally learned his craft.
As “The Awesome Dance” reaches its midway point this week, Rao described working with Starr and all of the cast and crew from the production as a moment in life where everything has fallen together.
“You can work with collaborators that you respect and that’s great and you can work with friends and not be sure what that’s going to be like,” Rao said. “To have both those things during this experience has been one of the great treats of this life.”
A Q&A WITH DILEEP RAO
You may know Dileep Rao from two of the biggest movies of the last decade: “Avatar” and “Inception.” Now starring in Nick Starr’s “The Awesome Dance,” we ask him a few questions.
The most honest answer is that I didn’t feel normal doing anything else. I was studying to be a doctor and I thought I would have made a pretty good one. I’m pretty scientifically oriented as a person. There was a certain part of me, though, that was not feeling expressed at all. The older I got the more it felt like there was a burden inside of me that I couldn’t deal with and I needed an art form to do that. I chose this particular art form because it is the art of self. Most people think it’s about putting on a costume. It’s really about revealing yourself and the human truth of what you know. It’s a profession but it’s also a very personal connection to who I am.
Are plays something that you’re always going to come back to no matter how many big films you make?
Definitely, I didn’t learn how to act on sets. I learned it in theaters. I need to be in front of an audience kind of regularly to tune my instrument. Theatre has been around for a very long time and I think that the literature for it is very rich. Movies are far larger enterprises and you don’t know what it’s going to be like until its shot, edited and completed. There’s this process in theatre that I couldn’t live without that goes beyond a camera.
If you could pick one reason why someone should see “The Awesome Dance,” what would it be?
A lot happens in a very short period, and the actors, the writer and the director have decided to make this play incredibly challenging. This play is like sprinting a mile and then laying down and going to sleep immediately. It’s like you have to do some things that are almost counterintuitive back to back to back. You get to see some really strong actors in very demanding work. It’s the most startling and absorptive play, minute for minute, that you’ll probably see.
For more information about “The Awesome Dance” or to purchase tickets, visit theawesomedance.com.