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PUSH Physical Theatre’s one small trunk and a lot of big ideas

courtesy of PUSH Physical Theatre

As next month’s KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival recalibrates for the new reality -- the event will be presented virtually -- the performers are having to rethink what Darren Stevenson calls “the canvas on which we create.”

“I have done performances in nontraditional venues,” he says. “I have performed inside small boxes, I have performed inside a doorway, I’ve performed on a pool table. I’ve performed in very odd places, and you sort of have to honor the space that you’re in. And so, you know, we’re now performing in this letterbox-sized space that is going to be the size of a person’s laptop screen, realistically, and that then becomes the stage. So 'How do you inhabit that space?' is the question we have to answer.”

Stevenson is the co-founder of Rochester’s acclaimed PUSH Physical Theatre. And the space that the group is in now, the space that it must honor, is COVID-19.

PUSH is a not-for-profit organization. These days, pretty much every arts effort is not for profit. Some have found ways to deal with the dangers presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Museums have reopened, with limitations on capacity. Musicians are drifting back to the clubs, with varying degrees of attention paid to social distancing.

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Yet performing virtually remains the norm in these abnormal times. And dance, generally speaking, presents obstacles that not only inhibit live performance but virtual performance as well. With two or more dancers working together, you’re watching people in close contact, huffing and puffing. Medical experts will tell you those are prime conditions for the transmission of the virus. So prime that even in this year that we should be celebrating Garth Fagan’s 50th year in Rochester, Garth Fagan Dance has walked away from the season.

Financially, the arts are huffing and puffing as well. “We all have less resources, rather than more,” Stevenson says. PUSH Physical Theatre has lost almost $50,000 to performances canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. And there is nothing on the calendar, not even its usually reliable Summer Intensive sessions, for dance students interested in learning how to teach their bodies to move like pendulums or imitate living-room furniture. The kind of interpretive body movements that define PUSH Physical Theatre.

PUSH first came to national attention when it reached the finals of the TruTV reality show “Fake Off.” The group has toured nationally, and some internationally, and has collaborated with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and The Ying Quartet, and on multimedia fantasy operas with Eastman School of Music composers Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon and Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez.

Yet as the extent of the coronavirus pandemic became evident, PUSH recognized the old adage “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” and went virtual, offering a dozen free training videos on its YouTube channel">

And to keep its own artistic fires stoked, it created the PUSH Forward Project, defraying the costs of developing the concept by setting up a crowd fundraiser on Facebook.

The PUSH Forward Project is about change. The immediate change to be dealt with is the coronavirus pandemic.

“Part of the difficulty, of course, is COVID, because there really isn’t guidance from New York state about companies rehearsing yet,” Stevenson says.

“We have all assessed our risk, for both ourselves and others in our lives that we come into contact with, and that’s been different for all of us. One of the performers is actually creating a solo, so she’ll never meet with us before the show, and then others of us are creating little segments.”

Dance companies can’t survive on physical distance. At the core of PUSH Physical Theatre has always been the husband-and-wife team of Darren and Heather Stevenson, but over the course of its 20 years has also included an evolving cast of performers. Ashley Jones, who is from England, joined a few years ago. And Hassiem Muhammad, who first came to Stevenson’s attention through the Summer Intensive sessions, is a New York City performer who will join the troupe as it launches the PUSH Forward Project at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, Sept. 15 through 26.

The preparations by Stevenson, Jones and Muhammad for the debut of the PUSH Forward Project are already underway.

“What we made the decision to do,” Stevenson says, “is the three of us have been quarantining ourselves more strictly than we normally would, for the past week, and then we’ll continue that next week, so we’ll essentially be in our own homes and staying away from everybody.”

Then they’ll brainstorm the first PUSH Forward Project. In September, the trio will reconvene, rehearse and film the results for presentation during six nights of the online Rochester Fringe.

Social commentary has been a part of many of the dances PUSH has created over the years. But in trying to explain what he has in mind, Stevenson admits he’s struggling.

“I’m trying to say something, and I don’t know how to say it,” he says. “And in some ways, I also don’t even know what it is that needs to be said.

“And so I think it requires a collaborator that does understand, which is why the project is, in many ways is creatively, it is purposely vague. The last thing that I want to do is create some piece in my head that has to do with race and then try to bring in a token person of color to sort of make that happen for me. It would be just disrespect of the highest order. Instead, what I want is for all of us to learn from each other and create something that has all of our experiences mixed up in there together.”

Out of the cultural Cuisinart, it is hoped, will come the new material that Stevenson says is tentatively titled “The Trunk Show.” There is a generational aspect, as the troupe members are different ages. They dwell on how personal memories form cultural identities. And genders, and religions, and races. Muhammad is a Black Muslim; he has some ideas from that perspective. Stevenson says he “wants the piece to reflect the individuality of the group of collaborators that are together, that this is in some ways a very private work.”

All of it will be framed by an on-stage trunk.

“It’s a big trunk for luggage, it’s a very small trunk if you want to put people in it,” Stevenson says.

Which they will do. One piece already under development features Heather Stevenson and Jones. Two people in a trunk, trapped in a fractious relationship. “So we were able to get Heather and Ashley and a potted plant in there,” Stevenson says. “With the lid closed. They were pretty uncomfortable and sweaty, but it worked.”

The times are a spark for the stories that PUSH Physical Theatre will tell. "There are all these stories about couples who are in the process of getting divorced, they were in the process of breaking up, and then suddenly COVID happened,” Stevenson says. “And you’re now stuck living with somebody that you’re not getting along with.”

The times also add a theme to “The Trunk Show.”

“I think identity ends up being at the core of what COVID has done, aside from the sickness and death, obviously,” Stevenson says. “But I think one of the things that COVID has done is it’s sort of attacked who you are. How I see myself depends in large part on the kinds of things I do and the reflection of myself that I get back of myself from society and friends and, you know, people that I associate with. And when society is taken away, and friends are taken away, and you’re sort of stuck in a home with yourself, who you are can start to get lost.”

And he worries that, in these times, the essence of PUSH Physical Theatre -- and any theater performance -- will be lost. That, “instead of making really great theater, very often we are making really crappy films, because we are not filmmakers.”

The two are different mediums, with different ways of connecting with the audience. Film and theater occupy different spaces, and those spaces must be respected.

“One of the problems we come into,” Stevenson says, “is people will say things like, ‘Well, why don’t you videotape your work and put it online? That’s how we’ll enjoy it.’ And the problem is that it’s not just a visual medium, it is a live medium. And so what theater requires is that we are all in the same room together. There is some magic that happens when people come together and share stories in the same room.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.