Erika Chong Shuch watches intently as the four artist/collaborators she works with in the Erika Shuch Performance Project rehearse a section of her upcoming piece 51802. One performer stands surrounded by the three others, each holding pairs of small wooden silhouettes of men. This diminutive, faceless legion alternately becomes the confining walls of a deep well, wing-like extensions of the central performer’s body, a gauntlet he is forced to punch through and a row of dominoes easily toppled. As the group moves through these transformations, Erika offers a thought to the actor encircled by the little men, “Remember, at times you have control over them, and sometimes you don’t.”
Control and lack of it are all part of the charged emotional landscape of 51802, a piece Shuch is developing as part of Intersection for the Arts’ Prison Project, a year-long series of events and programs exploring the California prison system through visual art, theatre, dance, poetry and jazz music. The title 51802 is a reference to the anonymity of inmates who are assigned numbers as they enter the system.
Shuch acknowledges that this controversial subject was daunting at first. “We were afraid we would say or do the wrong things,” she says. “There is an enormous sense of right and wrong around it, but that sense of responsibility was a weight, and it wasn’t inspiring great art. We had to get really honest about what a small group of artists could do with it, so we decided we could really only talk about what we know.”
For Shuch and several of the other performers who have all been separated from friends and family members sentenced to prison, this meant tackling the effects of incarceration on those left outside. “You enter your own period of waiting and imprisonment even though you are free,” she says. “Having a relationship with someone in prison is like having a relationship with a ghost. They are a presence without a body.”
Ghosts are some of the many metaphorical spirits and creatures that populate the world of 51802. The evening-length work is organized as a series of interconnected stories. In one of these, a character desperately wishes to be haunted and, through séances, attempts to communicate with somebody who is simply not present. In another, an individual has intentionally trapped himself at the bottom of a well and struggles between panic and the desire to be imprisoned as he is visited by a mouse and his own memories. Another character speaks of guilt and relief from under an umbrella, as letters from an incarcerated loved one rain down from the sky.
Throughout these vignettes that blend dance and theater, Shuch and her collaborators join together in moments of explosive and cathartic song. Shuch has made this multidisciplinary approach an important component of her signature style, and with 51802, she takes the storytelling aspect up a notch. Shuch credits her heightened interest in narrative through line and character development to her now three-year residency at Intersections for the Arts where she has been able to collaborate regularly with actors and a CHIME mentorship with Joe Goode in 2004-2005. “In the past, my work was more like a collage,” she says. “But now I’m looking to create an arc of experiences and to show how they progress.” She pauses and adds with a laugh, “I guess I want people to understand me. I want my grandmother to see my show and get it.”
For Shuch, this means that every element must have intention from the choreography to the props. “Movement for the sake of pure movement isn’t working for me anymore,” she says. “I don’t want it to be just pretty. It needs to communicate and connect to the overall arc.”
Ultimately, Shuch hopes that the arc of 51802 is accessible to everyone, regardless of their views on the prison system or relationship to it. “This is about feelings. I’m not trying to provide answers for people or to get involved in politics and agendas. But I do think that everyone can find a way into stories of separation. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?”
51802 takes place Thursdays through Saturdays from September 13-29, 2007 at 8pm at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. Tickets are $9-25 sliding scale. Every Thursday is pay-what-you- can. For tickets or more information visit theintersection.org or call (415) 626-3311.
Other upcoming events taking place as part of The Prison Project include the World Premiere of Howard Wiley and The Angola Prison Project’s Twelve Gates to the City and The Prison Project exhibition in the gallery of Intersection for the Arts. For more information about The Prison Project, visit theintersection.org/prisonproject.