Take one large, pristine white bed. Add 11 actors. Then forgive yourself if “orgy” is the first word that comes to mind.
There is more going on in Theatre LILA’s production of The Bed than sex, however. In fact, sex is a small part of the equation as actors of varying ages and genders portray the various scenarios that occur in the mind of one woman (played by Milwaukee actor Olivia Dawson) as she lies awake in the middle of the night.
The production by Theatre LILA — a Madison-based company of theater professionals from Milwaukee, Madison and Spring Green — takes the stage at the Fredric March Play Circle, part of the Wisconsin Union Theater on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, March 10–19.
“There is something evocative and interesting about a bed,” says Theatre LILA artistic director Jessica Lanius, who sent out a call for ideas and manuscripts on the theme late last year. “It sparked people’s interests.”
The narrative came together as a composite of concepts drawn from submissions from all over the United States, as well as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, says Lanius, who is co-directing the production with American Players Theatre actor and director James DeVita. Twelve individual pieces, mostly by local authors, were chosen from more than 350 submissions.
“Jimmy took the 12 pieces and ran with them, turning them into a singular, but nonlinear narrative,” Lanius says. “It’s an odd way to write a play.”
Theatre LILA’s previous productions in the series, The Suitcase (2015) and Trash (2016), focused in the same way on a single object with distinct story potential, but those were more loosely constructed, Lanius says. The Bed is more cohesive, focusing on the thoughts, dreams and nightmares of a single character as she lay in the bed.
“That concept has allowed us to take the puzzle pieces of love, childhood fears, relationships and an African-American woman’s views about her son,” Lanius says. “She also reflects on mundane aspects of her marriage and being a teenager, when life was more frisky in bed.”
The cast includes recognized actors like Dawson and Michael Huftile and youthful newcomers like Alistair Sewell (son of Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra maestro Andrew Sewell) and Olivia de Waart (daughter of outgoing Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra maestro Edo de Waart.) The play also features original music by Erin Crabb and G.W. Rodriguez.
Lanius describes the play as a multi-disciplinary evening of music, movement and text, a style characteristic of past Theatre LILA productions. LILA is Sanskrit for “a divine sense of play.”
“Using a bed as a gymnasium seemed pretty evocative to me,” she adds.
DeVita, a seasoned writer, director and actor whose career has always been deeply steeped in the classics, was attracted to the troupe’s approach.
“I saw a play produced by Theater LILA some years ago and I was immediately struck by its style of storytelling,” says DeVita, who has long been part of APT’s core company. “Over the years I’ve developed a very clean, linear style of directing, but when I saw LILA’s work I was reminded of just how many different ways there are to tell a story, how gesture and movement can be immensely powerful in storytelling.”
DeVita and Lanius first met a few years back when LILA’s artistic director was doing some movement coaching for the actors, DeVita says. The pair expressed appreciation for each other’s styles and began to look for ways to work together. The Bed proved to be the opportunity for which the pair had been waiting.
“It’s been a tag-team relationship and has gone very smoothly,” Lanius said. “He’s so thoughtful and a thinker, and I’m so physical and see everything in terms of movement. We’re both in it to create something beautiful and it’s been a constant give and take from the start.”
Lanius also appreciates being able to stage her production in the Fredric March Play Circle, which benefited from the $52 million renovation of the UW Memorial Union in which it’s housed.
“This is the closest Madison has to a true flexible black-box space, with new lighting and audio-visual capabilities,” she explains. “Just having these advantages at our disposal for an intimate, multi-disciplinary piece is exciting.”
Lanius describes The Bed as LILA’s “most daring piece” in its blend of movement, music and text. The diverse cast also creates a layer of reality as well as opportunity for telling a variety of stories all connected at one place in the central character’s life.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone else is doing this kind of thing in Wisconsin,” Lanius says. “Theater is too much about white writers and white actors. We want to expand the concepts so that theater becomes an outlet for everyone’s expression.”
DeVita agrees, and finds the new approach both refreshing and engaging.
“When Jess asked me about The Bed, I jumped at the chance,” DeVita says. “It scared me, so I knew that I should do it.”