Contemporary American Theater Festival preview: A play about synesthesia

    Contemporary American Theater Festival preview: A play about synesthesia

    Theater can flood the senses, dousing us in sights, sounds, vibrations — and maybe a whiff of Chanel No. 5 from a perfume fancier in a nearby seat. But how does a play evoke synesthesia, a phenomenon in which the senses entwine in atypical ways, allowing for perceptions like smelling sounds or tasting colors?

    That’s a challenge facing the team behind “Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting,” a play making its world premiere this month at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. “Tornado” is written by Harmon dot aut, 55, who gave their own form of synesthesia to the play’s central character: CB, a tween turned teen filmmaker living with autism in rural Kansas.

    The playwright, who uses they/she pronouns, wants to dramatize their way of processing reality — particularly their synesthesia and sense of “the capacious quality of the world.”

    On a daily basis, they explain, “I have this onslaught of every sense, sort of on top of each other.” The sight of a stop sign feels to them like barbed wire on the skin, and a glimpse of certain roses sounds like bells.

    It’s a mode of life that caused friction when they were growing up in Kansas and their accounts of synesthesia sparked disbelief from uninformed acquaintances. But in better moments, dot aut’s world feels almost mystical. “All these colors and music and this sort of intangible, capacious, global, delicious magnification — I’ve always felt that it lifted me up and out of my body,” they say.

    “Tornado” aims to convey some of that sensory deluge, “to communicate a different way of seeing the world to people who may not see the world that way,” says director Oliver Butler, who doesn’t live regularly with synesthesia himself but has experienced it through psychedelics.

    The play is also a portrait of a family. CB’s loving parents strive to understand and encourage their child while protecting the youngster from bullies and watching for the twisters that menace the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the movie-dazzled protagonist, who has adopted the name Chantal Buñuel, or CB, in homage to directors Chantal Akerman and Luis Buñuel, films daily events. The audience sees some of CB’s home filmmaking projected on surfaces of the set.

    CB often describes sensory perceptions. “The word ‘cut’ feels cold/slick like window glass,” they say at one point. At another, they observe, “Wood hums. I can hear it: an E flat above middle C.”

    The show’s designers, who include scenic designer Britton W. Mauk and co-projections designers Caite Hevner and Paul Lieber, help evoke CB’s synesthesia. In the scene with the humming-wood line, for example, CB touches various furnishings and the audience hears what the character hears.

    The production’s sound designer, David Remedios, sought the playwright’s insight on exactly what the wood humming should sound like. The reverberation of a tuning fork — Remedios had brought one to rehearsal — seemed the right ballpark noise, but there were further details to consider.

    “I asked, ‘Will the frequency modulate if (the object is) touched?’” Remedios said in an interview before tech week. “Harmon said it doesn’t happen for them, but for dramatic purposes that might be interesting. So I might play with little shifts as Chantal physically interacts with the table or the coatrack or whatever it is.”

    And the wood sound might not end up being pure tuning fork. “Throat singing was mentioned as another possible part of the palette,” Remedios says.

    CB’s synesthesia encompasses scents, too. “The word ‘Kansas’ smells like copper,” the character says. Butler said the creative team hadn’t pursued incorporating smells in the production, although at interview time he was keeping his options open. His experience has made him cautious about olfactory theater. When he directed Michael C. Hall in a New York production of “Thom Pain (Based on Nothing),” Butler recalls, a smell consultant helped incorporate an aroma of orange and leather. The director isn’t sure the effort paid off. “Smell can be a challenging one to utilize because it is very hard to control,” he says.

    “Tornado” is just one of the plays running this month at CATF, an esteemed annual showcase of new and newish plays about 70 miles from Washington. Also on the lineup: Donja R. Love’s two-part “What Will Happen to All That Beauty?,” set against the 1980s AIDS crisis; Paloma Nozicka’s psychological thriller “Enough to Let the Light In”; and Mark St. Germain’s “The Happiest Man on Earth,” based on a Holocaust survivor’s life. A multidisciplinary production, “A Mother’s Voice,” featuring Musici Ireland, will have a limited run.

    Synesthesia has not been a frequent topic for thespians, although plays including Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s “The Valley of Astonishment,” seen internationally a decade ago, have grappled with the topic. According to “Tornado” dramaturge Craven Poole, who self-describes as neurodivergent, theater’s immersive aspects make it an apt genre for exploring the subsuming experience that is synesthesia. Theater can be “physically visceral,” Poole says.

    For dot aut, who began writing “Tornado” in 2008, figuring out how to theatricalize their perception has involved a steep learning curve. “It’s a journey to learn how to do this, but it’s exciting,” they say. “It’s exciting to finally open this part of myself up.”

    Contemporary American Theater Festival

    Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. 681-240-2283.

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