All Together Now
Jess K. Smith ’05 brings the ARTBARN theater residency to campus
“Please come in,” the women said. “Welcome. You’re safe now. We’ve been waiting for you.” They guided the way with flashlights and handed out Dixie cups of cool spiced tea.
The women drew the audience into a dark, steamy gym, where an industrial fan roared in the corner. There was a circle of gray metal folding chairs, and inside that circle, a circular collection of smooth black stones. There was a nylon net hanging from ceiling to floor that held what looked like hundreds of rolled-up white papers. There were three army cots, and a long table, and the darkness in between.
Set in a dystopian future, in a world destroyed by war, the story that unfolded over the next two hours followed several women survivors living in a bunker and working to create an archive of women’s stories so that they would not be forgotten. The audience trailed the women through their isolated world, where each stone in the circle represented a story that each survivor could recite by heart. Recorded narratives played on speakers as the women went through their daily routines, which gave the scene a ghostly, ethereal effect. A beautifully choreographed “training scene” and a dance between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein were wholly mesmerizing. What looked like hundreds of rolled-up white papers in a net was exactly that—with hundreds of stories written inside.
When the last scene ended and the women said goodbye, the audience filed outside, squinting at the light. It was a blue June evening, and the air smelled of freshly cut grass. The audience munched on pieces of fry bread while the cast and crew grinned for group pictures with Jess K Smith, the director of the production and an assistant professor at the University of Puget Sound. All 11 cast and crew members were either former or current students of hers. The show they had just enacted—still an untitled work in progress—was part of a grand experiment for ARTBARN, a site-specific, immersive theater company that Jess founded in 2013.