When I ask award-winning master puppeteer Faye Dupras what she thinks of art's responsibility to society, she quotes a Baha'i leader: "The stage is the pulpit of the future."
The pulpit — a seat of sermonic storytelling — conjures up images of powerful preachers who spread their good news to arm congregations with knowledge they believe will lead to a luminous life.
Currently, Dupras is working on a show with Jason Slavick, the artistic director of Boston theater company Liars & Believers (LAB), that attempts to teach lessons of its own. Slavick's work tends to consider the human condition, and he uses his seat of power to engage his team around what to do about it.
LAB's new musical fable, "A Story Beyond," informed by folklore from all over the world, premieres this month. The epic adventure begins in an enchanted village, where stories are a physical thing. “The farmers plant seeds and up sprout ideas,” says Slavick, and the weavers “spin plot threads that are woven into tapestries.” In this magical “place before place,” a dark cloud threatens to turn its inhabitants to lead. The young heroine, Maya, whose grandmother is suffering from the cloud’s effects, sets out to find the mad mountain, who just might know how to stop it.
During her quest, Maya meets extraordinary characters in the form of a bear, a rabbit, a raccoon and a condor and every encounter offers an opportunity to learn something that could inform her journey. Some of those she meets “are stuck in their ways,” says Jesse Garlick, artistic associate at LAB. "They have seen or experienced things the cloud has done to them and they say, 'You can't change it. That's the way it is, and you're foolish to … want to change these things.' " Despite their discouragement, Maya presses on to save her hamlet.
Like many fables, tension bubbles around the protagonist. A lot of the characters in the stories within the story "are strong females," says Rachel Wiese, artistic associate at LAB and lead writer for this play. “And they're not all nice and good. Some of them are broken and some of them are not kind and not perfect or not immediately empathetic.” For instance, the condor threatens Maya's life initially, but instead of fighting fire with fire, Maya chooses to be kind and listen to the condor's story of loss. In turn, Wiese shares, the condor helps Maya continue on her path.
"This tale is really about empathy and listening," Wiese explains. Maya learns that even if she disagrees with who she meets, "there's still a benefit in listening to their story, their perspective."
The concept for the story has multiple influences. After working on "Who Would Be King," which had a male protagonist, Slavick and his collaborators sought to develop a story centered on women's voices with a female lead, and to play with folklore and masks. Then the 2016 election, not the results per se, but how the process split the country, gave the group pause.
“There was this rancorous anger … closed ears with screaming, vicious mouths, and it just seemed horrendous,” Slavick explains. “This play is really our response to that, because I think the most damaging thing in our culture right now is an absence of compassion, an absence of empathy, and an inability or an unwillingness to listen to people who have a different perspective. ... That's what the dark cloud's really about.”
"A Story Beyond," with its shadow puppetry, masks and a score by Nathan Leigh, aims to shine a light in that darkness. The tale urges us to keep going even when things are grim. The only thing worse, Wiese shares, would be to "stop trying to make the world a different or better place."
That hope for a better world is a message everyone can get behind, whether that's a crowd gathered before a pulpit or fantasy-seeking audiences looking for a break from a hectic world. Whatever the case, Slavick says, LAB is "committed to making art that is meaningful."
Liars & Believers' “A Story Beyond” premieres Thursday, Dec. 6 and runs through Dec. 22 at the Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.
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