Take a Leap: Fifth Wall's new abstract chamber-rock opera "The Precipice" debuts at Riverside Arts in Ypsilanti
Our lives are not static.
We go through changes, we ask questions.
What does leaving home involve? What's it like to move on from relationships? What does any life change entail?
Fifth Wall Performing Arts, a multidisciplinary troupe that does experimental musical theater, tackles questions like these in Karl Ronneburg‘s The Precipice.
Karl, who uses only his first name professionally, created a collage, woven from journal entries, poems, letters to friends, music, and voice memos—his own and those of Grey Rose Grant—to create the abstract chamber-rock opera.
Audiences at Riverside Arts in Ypsilanti on April 29 and 30 will witness the world premiere of The Precipice before the company brings the piece to New York City.
Karl appears as himself, Grant as themself, in the 90-minute work that explores moments of transition. When they began looking at each other’s early writings, Karl says, “We discovered we had been going through a similar emotional journey. We were two friends, trying to figure out how to be a person and how to leave home. The whole idea of the precipice is that looming feeling of needing to make something of my life, to take a big leap and leave everything behind."
But as he poured through memories, Karl realized he had not left it all behind, and maybe leaving completely was not the answer.
“The show asks: Is making ourselves a tragic act, a leap from the precipice, a great wrenching?" Karl says. "Who or what do we leave behind when we move on from a relationship or place? Do we do this alone? Is the formation of self an individual act or a collective one?”
The text is fragmented but thematically connected.
“Nothing is really fictionalized. All of the words come from these poems and journal entries," Karl says. "Some are metaphorical—there is a weird story about monkeys and typewriters, and an Icarus parable. We did editing, but these are authentic experiences and ideas we had that we are now revisiting and dealing with.”
The set will be a precipice of sorts: “A large platform to stand on, perch on, climb on, maybe jump off," Karl says. "The set has other abstract elements, too.”
Props include the literal—journals, for instance, and costumes will be jumpsuits—but the lighting will have the flavor of fantasy.
“It may be more like rock [concert] lighting when we bring the show to New York," Karl says. "Because this is a smaller venue, we’re going for a more intimate vibe.”
Karl and Grant spent two weeks last summer in a residence at a New Hampshire farm where they developed a language of movement to help tell their story. Corey Douglas Smith—director, choreographer, and designer of The Precipice—joined them and says the trio did “a lot of experimentation [that resulted in] a fairly solid skeleton of what the piece looks like.”
Smith believes “if there are two people on stage, the performance is about the relationship between them,” even if the piece is built on the experiences of two individuals before they met.
The Precipice "is something like a portrait of their relationship, and that has all sorts of things built into it: love between friends, tensions of two people discovering themselves," Smith says. "This is something of a kaleidoscope; present, past, and future collide on stage. In my experience, that’s how memory works—it’s a slippery thing and a strange thing.”
Smith created moments of “pure choreography, informed by contemporary and modern dance gesture” as well as tableaus. “All three of us and all of the pit [orchestra] and band are alums of U-Mich,” says Karl, who sees this event as a kind of homecoming.
Daniel Johnson conducts Alison Prost (soprano), Eric Schweizer (clarinet), Melissa Coppola (piano), Chris Sies (percussion), Jeremy Esquer (guitar), Taylor Tookes (violin), Julia Knowles (cello), and Ben Willis (bass). The audio engineer is Peter Littlejohn, with engraving by Brian Morales, additional orchestrations by Grey Grant and Brian Morales, and guitar arrangements by Jeremy Esquer.
The Precipice was commissioned by Contemporaneous and supported in part through the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance Eileen Weiser EXCEL Fund.
Karl, based in New York, is a composer, percussionist, dramaturg, and performance artist who currently serves as the assistant for dramaturgy and commissioning programs at the Metropolitan Opera. A winner of the 2017 Brehm Prize in Instrumental Composition, he completed a master's degree in music composition at the Mannes School of Music in New York after graduating from Michigan.
Grant is a composer, theater-maker, librettist, folksinger, and arts administrator, currently at Riverside Arts. They are also trained in theater movement.
Smith, a composer, writer, and performer based in Chicago, did an MFA in performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago after graduating from Michigan in music in 2010.
Karl and Grant co-founded Fifth Wall Performing Arts with Maya Johnson, another U-M grad. Their first project was an adaptation of Phillip Glass and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach in Karl’s living room; they called it Einstein in the HOUSE.
“It's so incredibly beautiful to be part of a community of people who, when you have an idea as insane as ‘Let's put on a full, free, student production of Einstein on the Beach—in my house,’ have no qualms about diving in and hopping right on the crazy train, bus, spaceship ride that is this show," Karl says.
Smith, who wasn’t part of the company initially, says seeing Einstein made him want to participate.
Other previous Fifth Wall productions include Grant's folk-opera, Michigan Trees, and Johnson's storytelling audio series, Black Hearts, Black Voices. “We work against systems of oppression by actively engaging artists from marginalized identities,” it says on the Fifth Wall website.
In some theaters, spectators are asked to suspend disbelief and accept that they are peering through an imaginary fourth wall, seeing into the private lives of others. In others, audiences and artists acknowledge that they are in a theater, that actors are acting, and there is no fourth wall. Fifth Wall aims to open another wall, “acknowledging the existence of the performers themselves as human beings, vulnerable and in need of connection.”
"This is a bold experiment," Smith says, "putting your own words and your own body on the line. As a director, it’s been a really enjoyable exercise to talk to both of them and get them thinking about what were those beats from their past moments and from other performances that we might steal or reference.”
Davi Napoleon is an alum of U-Michigan, where she won two Hopwood Awards for playwriting; she holds a doctorate in theater history, theory, and criticism from NYU. Napoleon taught at Albion College and Eastern Michigan University and has written for newspapers, magazines, and journals, local and national.
"The Precipice runs at 8 pm on April 29 and at 2 pm on April 30 at Riverside Arts Center Theater, 76 North Huron Street, Ypsilanti. For tickets and further information, visit riversidearts.org.