A madwoman runs wildly across the University Union (UU) Plaza after dark. A firefighter appears for 15 seconds before disappearing without a word as a beauty in mirrored clothing glances through a hole in a leaf. Couples come together and break up, random strangers become friends and enemies plot against one another — all without speaking.
While this may seem like the plot of the latest Tim Burton movie, it is in fact the plot of the Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department’s latest show, “The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other,” which opens today at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and include a pair of wireless headphones and a seat cushion for audience members to sit on anywhere in the plaza.
In the play by Austrian playwright Peter Handke, approximately 400 different characters are played by a cast of between 10 and 25 actors. These characters all converge on a town square over the course of two hours, going about their daily lives with varying degrees of interaction.
Handke wrote the play in the early ‘90s, after an afternoon spent in a small Italian café with a glass of wine observing all of the passers-by. In an interview for Austrian magazine, Profil, Handke said his inspiration came after watching a hearse pull up to a nearby house and collect a coffin. After it drove away, Handke said he felt the hearse and the coffin colored all of the following events on the street, even though the rest of the people there had no clue it had been there.
Flash forward 10 years later, and the play inspired by a coffin and a glass of wine is now being performed by Cal Poly theatre students. In the Cal Poly production, the town square is the UU Plaza and the 400-plus characters are played by 17 students.
According to director and theatre professor Josh Machamer, the play fits well in a Cal Poly setting because it echoes how students themselves go about their lives in college.
“When I walk across campus, I see people put in their earbuds in their very one-track minded, ‘I’m going to class, I’m going to this particular destination,’ without really having the sense of awareness to what are the other things going on that are surrounding us,” Machamer said. “I think this play allows us to see, over an hour, the many dreamlike stories that each one of us has.”
A major factor in telling untold stories, though, was actually adding an element of the unknown into the play by performing in an open space, which opens up the opportunity for random passers-by to literally become a part of the production.
“I think it’s kind of giving people a chance to tell their own particular story based on what they are getting,” Machamer said.
Though some students just walk by without noticing the production, or try to circumvent the performers, others take the chance to do some performing of their own, Machamer said. There was even one student who realized what was going on mid-stride, did a back-flip and walked in the opposite direction, Machamer said.
Performing in the plaza also forced the cast to face logistical concerns, Machamer said. One of these was how to make people want to pay to see the play, if in theory they could just walk into the plaza and sit down.
To remedy this, Machamer decided to add a soundtrack to the performance, available only through wireless headphones, he said. The 135 headphones, provided by Silent Events — a company that specializes in “silent discos” — will broadcast music that helps provide the mood for the multiple scenes of the play.
Machamer said the headphones give an entirely new feeling to the performance.
“They’ll be able to hear the stories, as well as see them,” Machamer said. “It’s really beautiful.”
Another concern when performing outside is the lack of offstage space. To combat this, the stage crew will set up four tents in the corners of the UU, each with a different prop and costume master, so the performers can run in to change costumes or grab a prop, Machamer said.
Stage manager and theatre junior Gabrielle Koizumi is in charge of organizing all of the backstage efforts.
“There are over 300 props and costumes in the show, and my assistant stage manager and I were charged with the task of tracking all of them,” Koizumi said.
For Koizumi, the biggest challenge wasn’t organizing all the props and costumes, though — it was writing down the staging so it remained constant without a traditional script.
“For this particular show, I started with a blank word document and simply wrote what I saw,” Koizumi said. “Writing what I saw was difficult, as so many stories were happening at once that each rehearsal I would be adding more notes to my blocking script.”
As one of the actors Koizumi was watching, theatre freshman Brigitte Losey said she has enjoyed the experience of working on “The Hour.”
“Our director, Josh, uses every opportunity as a teaching device,” Losey said. “We play a lot of games to help us use our bodies and be specific with our actions. I’ve learned a lot of valuable things on an acting and personal level. Overall, I think the most valuable is … the message of the show.”
And for Losey, the silence of the play is the deciding factor in expressing Handke’s idea of events and interactions unknowingly coloring everything coming after them.
“The silence is key to the plot because it is a reflection of how we pass one another everyday, each person with their own story, but we don’t say anything to one another,” Losey said. “I think that the play has a lot to do with silent interactions and how we don’t recognize how powerful movement and silence is.”
Machamer echoes these statements.
“It gives me (a) new perspective every time I walk through the square now,” Machamer said. “I become aware of the different people around, and in this day and age, I think the more we can become aware versus isolated, I think that’s a good thing.”
“The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other” opens today at 8 p.m. and runs until May 19. Tickets are $15 and will be sold at the Performing Arts Center Ticket Office.