When Strawdog Theatre contacted Denise Yvette Serna to direct a new show during the pandemic, the company didn’t know what the thing would be. For Serna, this was a big selling point. The final production, “How Do We Navigate Space?”, streaming March 19 through April 18, is a devised performance incorporating movement, monologue, poetry, visual art and, of course, film to interpret the stories of Chicagoans living and moving through a frenetic and claustrophobic year. We spoke with Serna about the making of the “Navigate,” and the stamina asked of artists and audiences a year into the pandemic.
What interested you in directing this show?
When Strawdog approached me in the summer, they didn’t know what the piece would become, which is exciting. They knew they wanted movement, they wanted to survey residents, and work with Karissa [Murrell Meyers, playwright] to anchor the piece in monologue. They asked if this was something I wanted to do and I said I’d love to make interesting movement pieces.
Tell me a little about the devising process and how you navigated it during the pandemic.
It was different than usual because we were working from a script. Karissa had taken material from the surveys and put it into a devising text. I was thinking, how do we work from this framework we have, and not necessarily generating everything from the moment. It took a different collaboration approach since we did keep coming back to the text. Performers had options to deliver text verbatim or not.
Inclusivity and access are integral to much of your work. How did these considerations factor in to this show?
It’s important to consider ways people enter a piece. Also thinking beyond mobility and hearing or visual impairments. I’ve had the opportunity to direct a handful of other digital projects and play with audience stamina, performers’ stamina, and I knew it would be important to have sonic identity to the piece. People are watching plays differently on their computers—going from tab to tab, getting up to grab something from the kitchen. The style and spectacle of the show needed to come through in sonic aspects.
What themes emerged from the surveys and the process of interpreting them?
It’s been interesting to see in our different lives, however they’ve changed, the different manifestations of seeking connection and the emotional things it does to us when we can’t make that connection. This has been palpable in the art we make: feelings of isolation, hibernation, being underwater. Talking about how our bodies take up space, how we expand and contract to fit the space. And how we respond to things in nature. One of the performers in our ensemble had the experience of being incredibly high-risk and hasn’t really left her space. And that perspective—making that potent and poetic, that her experience in that space was a character.
How do you, as a theater director, approach that space of a home screen?
With our movement director, a lot of the creation we were doing was direct interpretation of words and moments in the text and applying to them the Laban Method of movement pedagogy. Choreographing for Zoom and making our alphabet, we played in the frame and it became more about depth. When people do alley theater, like a model runway, it’s a very difficult stage—it’s almost like that. How do we change the space of the stage to have this depth?
And what about language? Do you take any different approaches to text in a virtual setting?
The virtual setting affects rhythm of the delivery. We’ve taken different approaches, letting the tempo of the dance affect the speech and the tempo of speech affect the dance. We played with loops and layering; the elements are braided together.
What is next for you?
I’m fortunate to have an artistic process in which to grieve and understand in a different time. I understand my stamina is different. I used to be able to work on three productions at once and my CTA time was the transition between. The focus it takes to do it all virtually and with spreadsheets, along with the repeated traumas, politically, socially… It’s difficult to persist. I’ve been working with The West Side Show Room in Rockford on equity, diversity and inclusion workshops. I’m going to focus my time on executing those courses well. I have multiple international residencies that have been deferred. Until then I’m focusing on my anti-racism work.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
This project was a great opportunity to bring together different types of artists we wouldn’t have if we had done a stage show. It’s a beautiful ephemeral thing happening now. Bringing Chicago actors together with noise musicians, with movement artists, with visual artists—we’ve brought together such an interesting ensemble and it’s special because we’re not in the theater.
“How Do We Navigate Space?” at Strawdog Theatre Company, streams daily March 19-April 18. $15 or pay-what-you-can. strawdog.org.