Neruda's Suitcase: What we take and leave behind

Each year, the Comparative Arts department chooses a theme to explore through art. This year’s theme, which coincides with the Academy’s overall theme, is the concept of Pilgrimage.

“I usually choose an artifact, a concrete thing, as a representation of the theme,” said Nicola Conraths-Lange, director of Comparative Arts. “This year, I chose the suitcase, which is a metaphor for what to take and what to leave behind.”

The culmination of the exploration of “Pilgrimage” is the Feb. 16-17 performance of Neruda’s Suitcase, an original play created by playwright and former creative writing director AnnMarie Oomen in collaboration with comparative arts students. The play is based in an auction warehouse, where an auctioneer is selling off a number of abandoned suitcases. As each of the buyer unpacks their purchase, they learn about the life of the suitcase’s original owner.

Each comparative art student created their own fictional character and packed their own fictional suitcase for the play, pondering in the process the theme of what to take and what to leave behind. “They’re discovering that a smaller case means you have to be more thoughtful with what you put in it,” said Conraths-Lange.

For the past several months, students have been collaborating with guest artists as well as faculty and students from other departments to create other elements of their final product. Sculptor Susan Byrnes assisted in the creation of props for the show; filmmaker Terri Sarris created a 16mm film that will be embedded in the performance. The students also received coaching from theatre instructors David Montee and Robin Ellis throughout the staging process.

Music for the play derives from two sources designed to evoke an auction-house setting. “They wouldn’t have a perfect orchestra in an auction house,” Conraths-Lange said. “Instead, it’s full of broken and unfinished things.”

Part of the music is provided by “auto accompaniment,” which blends beautifully with the “broken and unfinished” aesthetic. Detroit-based artist Frank Pahl creates ambient soundscapes by creating automatic instruments out of miscellaneous parts salvaged from estate sales and Ebay auctions. Pahl’s instruments existing instruments have been combined to form two smaller automatic orchestras. Several new automatons have also joined Pahl’s collection, created to meet the needs of original compositions created by Comparative Arts students.

“It’s so good to be back in a theatre,” said Pahl during tech week rehearsals. “I’ve done a lot of theatre, but I don’t usually mix theatre with my music.”

Pahl’s orchestra, however, cannot stand alone. “I don’t want to put any musicians out of a job,” he explained. “These things only know one song. I’m not interested in making sophisticated instruments--just an ambient backdrop.”

Conraths-Lange began brainstorming a type of music that would blend well with the orchestra’s peculiar sound. “I wanted to have a different, type of music that was more energetic,” she said. “I love Latin music, and I wanted to evoke Pablo Neruda, whose poetry inspired us.”

The solution came in the form of guest artist Jeremy Cohen of Quartet San Francisco, who was invited to teach a gypsy jazz course over Inter*mester by Instructor of Cello Crispin Campbell. The gypsy jazz ensemble, which features nine Interlochen Arts Academy string musicians, will perform both alone and with the toy orchestra over the course of the play.

The students were also responsible for creating the set for the play. The minimalist set is crafted entirely from donated shipping pallets to keep costs down and to teach the students how to be resourceful with materials.

Conraths-Lange hopes that the students gained an appreciation of what goes into a production, as well as the skills they need to create their individual year-end projects. “Every week of production has a new layer,” she said. “I wanted them to experience collaboration at this level and to appreciate the work and complexity that goes into making something.”

The Comparative Arts program will be staging their final performance of Neruda’s Suitcase on Friday, Feb. 17. This performance will be webcast live beginning at 7:30 p.m. EST.

This activity is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.