We all could use a little (or a lot) more joy in our lives, but how and where to find it is the challenge, even in the best of times.
“There’s this perception that trying to find happiness and joy when things are upsetting or sad is a selfish act, or not the most important thing,” says Christopher Rushing, who conceived and adapted Synetic Theater’s aptly-titled 20th-anniversary season opener Joy. “But really, it’s super-important to take care of ourselves and to look out for ourselves. And finding joy is the most subversive thing you can do in a capitalistic society that’s driven by financial gain and the end result.”
Joy, the theater experience, seeks its bliss through a pair of audience-interactive solo performances by Synetic company members Vato Tsikurishvili and Marie Simpkins. In an intriguing division of duties, Tsikurishvili will be directed by his father, Synetic’s Founding Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili, while Simpkins will be guided by company member Katherine DuBois. “It’s built around what brings them joy, how have they found joy, the hardships they’ve had in their life and how they overcame them,” Rushing says.
The playwright constructed the show from a series of intensive interviews he conducted with each performer, artists from two very different backgrounds. “One is an Eastern European, Georgian immigrant who’s been with the company from the beginning, and the other is a newer company member who is a Black Latinx woman. So it was really interesting and just incredible that they were so open and giving with their life.”
While the creative process was personal and revelatory, Rushing “made it very clear that at any point and time, ‘If I touch on something that makes you uncomfortable, we can stop or change the subject.’ Because if we get down an emotional path, I’m gonna ask some prodding questions.”
Tsikurishvili and Simpkins shared intimate ideas and experiences with Rushing, and now they’ll share their stories with a live — albeit virtual — audience. But the audience won’t simply sit by as idle observers. Each ticket for Joy comes with a box of mystery items, delivered by mail for audience members to play with and peruse during the show.
All the items come from the performers’ own personal lives. “[They’re] things that have brought them joy or are connected to things that have brought them joy,” says Rushing. “And the hope is that someone will experience Vato’s or Maria’s, and then look at the other items that weren’t used and be like, ‘Well why is this in there? How is this going to be connected?’ And then they’ll sign up for the next one and we won’t have to ship the box, they’ll already have all the materials. But if not, then they’ve got stuff that they can play with. A lot of them are very fun items. Hopefully these things will bring you joy before the show starts, because you can mess around with some of the stuff in it. And then afterwards they’ll have more significant meaning when you understand the context.”
One context for Joy, which will be streamed live from Synetic’s stage, are the less than joyful circumstances that have kept most theater stages dark for months. The piece responds to a moment that’s left audiences and artists reeling. “The news is so stressful,” Rushing says. “And there was a period of time where it was like wildfires in the West, and D.C. was flooding, and the super-aggressive and upsetting political landscape, and a pandemic, and a ravaged economy.
“As someone who suffers from depression, and is pretty open about my own mental illness and my relationship to that, one of the things I’ve realized over the last few years is joy is not something that happens to you, it’s something you have to seek out. It’s an active endeavor. So the idea behind [Joy] was, how do we seek joy ourselves as human beings? And then, can we discuss the process of us trying to find joy and in doing so, help other people find joy?
“Theater oftentimes is a personal or a risk-taking endeavor that brings the people doing it joy. And hopefully it brings the audience joy, and if it does so, then you’re getting joy back tenfold. It’s this cycle of giving and receiving, that I think is just really important.”
Joy runs through Nov. 8, live via Zoom. Tickets are $39 to $69. A hand-selected prop box is included with each ticket purchase, and is mailed in time for the selected performance. Visit www.synetictheater.org.
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