Sheila Bandyopadhyay brings original work, ‘In the Empty,’ to outdoor Brandeis theater
A cast of six Brandeis undergraduate students performed “In the Empty,” an original 2021 theater piece written by Sheila Bandyopadhyay, on an outside stage for a live audience, Oct. 1-3. The piece was inspired by a trip Bandyopadhyay, who also directed the show, took during the pandemic to the desert, as well as reflections on living in New York City in the spring of 2020, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I found that what really helped me was going on walks outside, and while I was going on walks, the seasons started to change. Spring came a little bit early, the flowers were in bloom, and that was a solace. It was a way to come out of the human experience, and go into the experience of the natural world,” Bandyopadhyay said in a phone interview with the Justice.
The cast consisted of Omer Barash ’25, Amber Bartlett ’22, Anika Hahn ’25, Ruth King ’24, Alaysia Penso ’23, and Kieran Whitney ’23, all of whom participated in the phone interview. Whitney said he felt a sense of renewal in returning to in-person theater.
The production falls into the category of devised theater, an art method also referred to as “reflective creation,” in which performers play a large role in the development of a piece through improvisation, collaboration, and conversation. Barash likened the devised method to sewing a tapestry and said it was an advantageous method for his experience level, as “In the Empty” marks his first theater performance.
Rehearsals began in late August, the first week of Brandeis classes.
Rehearsals were held inside Spingold Theater in early September before moving outside closer to opening night. Barash said working with a small cast helped him understand how to “accept the journey as a whole, rather than holding out for the pleasant aspects.”
“It’s crazy, it’s so exhilarating and the energy that we get from the people watching is so invigorating,” Whitney said, also mentioning feelings of refreshment and happiness.
In the paper program given to all audience members, Bandyopadhyay included a Statement of Solidarity, Land Acknowledgement, and a note on the history of jazz music. In the second note, the director wrote “the influence of jazz dance in American choreography is immense, particularly in the theatre, where jazz is frequently featured,” also mentioning that many Americans are unaware of the roots of the style and the Afro-American Jazz movement. In the Empty included live musical aspects which corresponded to movement in the show, including tambourines and a xylophone used by cast members such as Whitney.
In her program notes, Bandyopadhyay wrote that In the Empty tells the story of characters, a group named The Travelers, in a desert-like setting. “The White Lizard, a mysterious friend, and guide helps them to see how nature sustains itself, and how we, as a part of nature, may also find resilience in times of adversity,” Bandyopadhyay wrote.
In the interview, the director went into detail on her time both in an urban space during the pandemic and her trip across the country into the desert with her boyfriend.
Bandyopadhyay said the most impactful experience on the trip took place in White Sands, New Mexico. “When you are there, there is nothing but white dunes all around. And there was this moment when we were on a hike, when we turned around and saw a long tree in the distance. And it was clearly alive, and there were these white lizards on the dunes. And I said to myself ‘Even in the desert, there is life.’”
The play’s characters included fire ants, a burlesque airline crew, yucca plants, butterflies, and travelers. Several performers played different roles and had several costume changes, made possible by costumers Abby Roberts and Snow Shi.
The actors were able to offer input and material over the course of “In the Empty’s” construction. Several members of the cast added writing, choreography and music. Whitney, for example, helped to choreograph a dance scene in “Movement 5: Butterfly Garden,” while Barash composed and performed an original piece on the guitar in “Movement 4: The Yucca Trees.” Hahn contributed choreography to the second of five movement, titled “Fire Ants.”
New York-based composer Nathan Siler created “In the Empty’s” score for Bandyopadhyay. The two met through a creative workshop hosted by a shared mentor, before connecting years later in Brooklyn while Siler was dog sitting. Siler used his own feelings towards the landscape of the desert, as well as pieces he had previously written at night, whose melodies came to him in dreams.
Though the turn-around time was very fast-paced, with only a month to prepare, Siler said he knew he could not pass up the opportunity, and looks forward to continuing to work with Bandyopadhyay. Siler also said he wishes he could be in Waltham to view a performance in person.
Barash, who played Traveler 1, said that “In the Empty,” to him represents “finding your way through the journey, the idea of duality, beauty in pain, and struggle in success.”
Acting in Bandyohpadhay’s play was a formative and cathartic experience for Penso, who mentioned how pieces of her identity had been replenished through the opportunity.
“I don’t think I have the word to describe what it is like returning to in-person theatre, the closest I can get is euphoric. The feel of acting on a stage and interacting with an audience is something that never gets old, so to have gone so long without it felt like something was missing and now that it’s back I feel whole,” Penso said.
The crew also included costume designer, Mary Hurd, lighting designer, Deb Sullivan, sound designer, Kyle Olmstead and production stage manager Shelby Mariah Art.
In a reception after Friday’s opening performance, Brandeis Department of Theater Arts director Dmitry Troyanovsky gave a small speech in which he expressed gratitude for Bandyopadhay’s vision as well as the hard work of the cast and crew.
“It was absolutely magical and everything we wanted it to be. It was zany, smart, sexy, stylish, and musical,” Troyanovsky said, holding out a small potted plant as a gift and symbol of gratitude to Bandyopadhyay.
Penso says she feels equally grateful for Bandyopadhyay’s direction, especially given “In The Empty’s” devised theater framework.
“Working with Sheila was an amazing and unique experience. The first few rehearsals we played games and acted like lizards for over an hour: it was bizarre but so much fun,” Penso said.
The Brandeis Department of Theater Arts will continue their return to in-person theater with three upcoming productions. The first, Alone│Together will premiere on Nov. 18, followed by an adaptation of Orlando by Sarah Ruhl in March, and the Senior Festival in late April.