Tuesday, February 23, 2021

SistaStrings brings "The Sound" to Milwaukee Opera Theatre

New music video debuts for second Distance Commission

The Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT) continues its experiment in theater-from-a-distance with a new virtual collaboration. Together with Milwaukee-based duo SistaStrings, MOT has created their first-ever music video, featuring filming by Traveling Lemur, lighting by Encore Theatrical Lighting, puppet design (yep) by Angry Young Men, sound design by Johanna Rose, and a stellar vocal ensemble.

At the heart of the collab is, of course, SistaStrings. Chauntee and Monique Ross formed the group in 2014. Their music truly can’t be pigeonholed. Their site says the SistaStrings sound “combines their classical background with R&B with a touch of gospel influence that culminates in a vibey, lush sound.” With soulful voices and gorgeous harmonies between violin and cello, this duo is unlike any other. 

So how did this collaboration come about? Director Jill Anna Ponasik reached out to Chauntee and Monique and asked, “What’s something Milwaukee Opera Theatre could help you make that you wouldn’t produce on your own?” Swiftly, they gave Ponasik their wishlist: a music video about imposter syndrome — with puppets and a choir. 

And that’s exactly what Ponasik and company delivered at this weekend’s Zoirée (Zoom soirée). The hour-long virtual event followed a four-part format: a pre-recorded interview with Chauntee and Monique, a viewing of their music video The Sound, a Q&A talk-back, and finally a live performance.

During the interview, we learn how Monique (cello) and Chauntee (violin) first fell in love with their respective strings. It was love at first listen for Monique and the cello: “It was so beautiful,” she says, the memory a clear and wistful one. Asked what exactly the sound is in The Sound, the sisters touch on that aforementioned imposter syndrome: the irritating noise of others in their heads as they grew up. Those voices told them to “tone it down” or be other than what they are, which is out-loud in love with their instruments and their music. 

Now for the puppets. Chauntee and Monique reference a film they saw that used puppets to represent the “other.” It’s the idea that you can send a serious message, but sending it with puppets makes it easier to digest and even draws some laughter along the way. As was mentioned during the talk-back, “puppets can say and do things we as humans cannot.” In The Sound, each sister is represented by a puppet. It’s a chance, they say, to exist free from stereotypes. 

On the sisters’ desire for a choir: “Just a dream, just a dream.” It’s a dream that Milwaukee Opera Theatre helped bring to life. The music video for The Sound opens with footage of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. The chants of the protests mingle with the strings warming up. “The sound drives me crazy,” the refrain repeats. Harmonious voices and strings, sparkling face masks, shades of purple and blue in braids, puppets, lighting — this is a striking collaboration, and it’s one that is better seen and heard, not read about. 

Chauntee and Monique closed this Zoirée with "Amazing Grace," played from two separate locations. Even the limitations of Zoom couldn’t muddy their glorious music. I walked away from this experience eager to see SistaStrings live. I hope that day is sooner than later. 

In the end, what resonated most with me was the joy worn on the sleeve of each and every artist involved in The Sound. After a year of a lot of nothingness and uncertainty on the Arts front, this group of creators and performers voiced during the talk-back how genuinely pleased they were just to get a call from Ponasik asking them to flex their creative muscles once more. As a review-writer, I can relate to that thirst for involvement. Enormous thanks to Ponasik and MOT for involving us all. 

Catch The Sound at three more Zoirées: February 26th & 27th at 7:30pm, and February 28th at 2pm. Info and tickets at milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Short & Sweet "In The Cloud"

MOT's successful experiment in virtual theater 

As the pandemic roars on, what are the performing arts to do? “We’re going to make art because that’s what we do,” said Director Catie O’Donnell during the first Zoirée (that is, Zoom-soirée) of Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s "The Distance Commissions" series

This first commission by Matt Zembrowski is called In The Cloud: A Story in Five Songs. Zembrowski wrote the show just last month, and this in-the-moment creation allows for some seriously of-the-moment theater. His mini musical is set right now — in our isolating, anxious-making, loss-ridden time of pandemic. 

In The Cloud’s five songs follow a small family. In the cast: MOT alum Rae Pare as the grown daughter, Milwaukee native Marilyn White as the mother, and “local boy” (his words) Normal Moses as the father. Tremendously beloved in Milwaukee, Moses has been “yanked” (also his words) from retirement to lend this character a touching voice. 

While I don’t want to say too much, I will say there are echoes of all of us in Zembrowski’s story-songs. In the past year, we’ve likely either felt similar feelings (“when will it end?”) or encountered similar characters and attitudes. Though the story is, as Moses said during this first Zoirée, “not exactly happy,” we’re left with a reminder that “all we have is time, and no one knows how much.” Do with that what you will — literally.

What the brilliant Jill Anna Ponasik and her Milwaukee Opera Theatre team have chosen to do with their time is to find a way to keep creating. With "The Distance Commissions" Zoirées, the hope is to strike a balance, delivering the sense of community we’re all craving while avoiding the streaming of a full-length piece of theater. 

As Director Catie O’Donnell pointed out in the post-show discussion, not only is the content of In The Cloud a reflection of the moment we’re in, but so is the way this piece has been put together and shared. The format for MOT’s Zoirées goes like this: Start by logging into the intimate 18-person Zoom (a link is sent to your inbox beforehand to make it super easy). You’re then greeted by Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik, who tells you a bit about the show and introduces the key players. Yes, you get to bump virtual elbows with the actors, director, and playwright!

In The Cloud has been pre-recorded, so together the Zoirée attendees watch the 20-minute film. Short and sweet. It was filmed at the actors' homes using phone cameras, then edited together seamlessly — a testament to making-do in these tough times. After the show, the audience is invited to ask questions and share comments. Ponasik ends by asking what people miss most about live theater.

At least, that's how it went on night one. It’s possible some tweaks will be made over the course of In The Cloud’s six performances. One thing that I imagine will remain the same is MOT’s openness to both introverts and extroverts — that is, you can choose whether or not you turn your camera on and participate in the talk-back.

As one who prefers to be a wallflower in virtual hangouts, I can attest that there is zero pressure to go out of your comfort zone here. However, upon reflection, I would turn my camera on from the start next time — for the sense of community and as a tribute to the creatives who so bravely put themselves out there for us. Showing them the smiles on our faces and muted applause is the least we can do. 

To answer Ponasik’s question: What do I miss most about live theater? That sense of awe. I miss marveling at the talented actors, the production design, the mood-making lighting, the rush of movement, the glorious voices. And of course I miss the alive-ness. Not just seeing scripted (and unscripted) moments come and go, but also the physical coming together of a community of theater lovers. As one woman noted at last night’s Zoirée, I too miss being part of a crowd of applause.

Someday we’ll get back there. For now, take heart in works like Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s "The Distance Commissions."