If the point of a project is to experiment, then "Everyman" is taking full advantage: a contemporary adaptation of a medieval morality play, presented with interactive digital backdrops. The lead actor also happens to be a choreographer-dancer who will perform at the Kennedy Center in the nation's capital this summer.
The University of Montana's drama calendar's Studio Series productions have minimal budgets for design and production elements, and are staged in the smaller Masquer Theatre in the PAR/TV Building.
For this particular play, the School of Theatre & Dance partnered with the Media Arts school to bring some technical innovations into the fold.
"These are becoming very much a part of the industry, so it's a great opportunity for us to be able to do this at the U of M, and offer both the theater and media students a place to experiment in this way," said Bernadette Sweeney, a UM associate professor of theater.
The spareness of the script helps create room for those experiments.
"Everyman" is a morality play dating back to the early 1500s, Sweeney said. The version she teaches in theater history, considered to be anonymous, carries a heavy moral message that made it popular just before the Elizabethan period, she said.
The version UM is producing was adapted by Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy, Britain's first female poet laureate. Sweeney said it's contemporary and funny, with a slight shifting of the religious elements toward a more spiritual-environmental message. It's profane in some spots and not appropriate for children.
The basic journey remains the same. The title character, Everyman, is "called to account by God" on his 40th birthday. In Duffy's telling, it's a debauched party no less.
Death comes to retrieve Everyman and he must "account for his good deeds in the world. He has to make a reckoning," she said.
Along this journey, other actors embody his Senses and Qualities, such as Good Deeds and Knowledge. Others embody qualities that can lead to the seven deadly sins: Beauty can lead to Lust, etc.
Michael Murphy said it's best to think of the digital aspects under the umbrella of "video design."
"The video design affects all different parts of the evening at different times. Sometimes it's lighting design, sometimes it's set design. It's sometimes interactive media work with the performance," he said.
Murphy is a professor in the School of Media Arts who helped found the program. Besides his digital know-how, he has experience as an actor and director in live theater and film.
The interactive video and media design team includes Murphy and two students. Kurtis Hassinger is pursuing a master of the arts in theater and an MFA in interactive media in live performance. He's designing software patches that work to interpret the actors' movements into digital media projects. Drew Arnes is a media arts senior, working on different looks, such as Everyman's high-end apartment, cityscapes and more.
Tsiambwom Akuchu is leading the cast as Everyman as his thesis project for his master of fine arts degree.
In addition to acting, he's heavily involved in hip-hop dance. Late last month, he traveled to the American College Dance Association's Northwest Regional Conference in Denver. His solo piece "Every^Man (Alright)" was picked to represent the region in a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in June.
At UM, he's been studying ways of using dance as a tool to create characters on stage: how someone moves or behaves, he said.
He's also been studying the history of hip-hop to fill in any gaps he may have, he said. "Retooling it for the stage brings the question of, 'How do I approach the history that's attached to it?' You can't see hip-hop and not think about everything that comes with it," he said. Even if it's used subtly, it's still "a minority form of dance created by people of color. You see hip-hop, you think about the communities who created the styles and forms."
For this play, he choreographed many pieces, some set to tracks by Lupe Fiasco that mirror the themes: "What does it mean to be a person on this planet?" he said.
He helped develop movements for the play's characters, which are a challenge as the characters are exactly what they are supposed to represent.
"There's no subtext. All the subtext is what you're doing. Death is a character. God is a character. I am 'Everyman,' right?'" he said.
And so he developed ways to interpret their qualities in movement, whether the character is Beauty or Strength.
"How does somebody physicalize Strength? What do you do on stage to make that a person, but also this grand concept of Strength?" he said.
"That's been part of my choreographic process. I've been really intrigued by condensing these heady ideas into simple movements that still carry the same weight and connotations," he said.