“Why We Have The Body,” a show written in the ’90s by Claire Chafee, has a cast full of characters hailing from all kinds of professional fields. There’s a paleontologist, a private investigator, a bedraggled mother — and each and every one of them are uncomfortable in their bodies.
“Why We Have A Body” is Pitt Stages’ first mainstage production of the spring semester and will run every day from Friday, April 1 to April 10. Showings are at 8 pm every day except Sundays, which will be held at 2 pm The show centers chiefly on women and the journey its characters, Renee, Lili, Mary and Eleanor, face coming to terms with their identities.
Julia Kreutzer, the director of the show, said she found the script as a part of an undergraduate research project and was excited to bring a play from the Queer Theater movement — a period in the ’90s that saw an increase in LGBTQ+ centered stories on stage—to Pitt.
“I found this script through a research project that I did through the Office of Undergraduate Research,” Kreutzer said. “I looked a lot at the Queer Theater movement that took place in the latter half of the 20th century, and the ways that particularly lesbians were barred from really actively participating in that movement.”
The show features a queer relationship between two of its stars — Renee, the paleontologist, and Lili, the private investigator. Lucy Neimera, a sophomore writing and psychology major who plays Lili, said she embodies the role by emphasizing how Ella’s body reacts to being around her sister and her partner.
“One way that I’ve been using the theme of the body is that, as the show progresses, and as her relationship with her sister gets better, she gets closer to her romantic partner,” Neimera said. “There’s a lot more physical touch that happens, or there’s more reciprocation of physical touch, which I think is something that’s really important for the character. To finally open up and be like ‘Yes, I am going to finally let myself be open to being loved.’”
The play, as indicated by the title, focuses a lot on the body. Kreutzer said one of her favorite lines of her from the show — “The body holds grudges, the body is old, maybe that’s why we have one. It’s the only thing we take anywhere. And it tells us what we can’t remember,” — resonates with her because of how she feels we all look at our bodies after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“[The play] is really focused on the ways that we can find answers and resolution in ourselves, which I think is a really interesting message after we’ve spent two years spending maybe more time with ourselves than we ever anticipated,” Kreutzer said.
This theme is even reflected in the show’s set design. Gianni Downs, a lecturer of scenic design and scenic art in the theater department and the scene designer and charge artist for this production, was a part of the team that constructed the special “Why We Have A Body” set pieces.
Downs said the typical way to design shows like this is to make the set a sort of “white box.” But Downs wanted to go in a completely different direction from the norm.
“In the ’90s, this type of show was super popular. And what we all would do is we put them in a white box. There’d be a white floor and a white wall behind and [the actors] would just do the show,” Downs said. “Even doing research on this show, that’s what was done even in the most recent productions because that’s just the style of it. So I knew I didn’t want to do that.”
Besides docking the “white box” method for the play, Downs was also a part of the team that conceptualized and constructed a sort of “ice sculpture” made out of foam, that serves as a kind of blank canvas to project images on to convey scene changes.
But making a pseudo-ice sculpture wasn’t the hardest part of set design for this production. Downs said the play needed airplane seats for a scene on an airplane, and the production decided to track some down in the area. But after a strange interaction with a man who claimed to have some of him in his storage unit, they decided to modify some office chairs to look like the real thing.
“I would have thought that given our airport nearby that someone would have some in a storage room, but we have not been able to find them. And then I did find one guy was like ‘Oh, yeah, I have a couple of seats in a storage locker and you can have them for like 200 bucks,’” Downs said. “But then he said you’d have to help me unbury them [out of the locker] and that will cost us $2,000. We dropped that very quickly.”
Molly Twigg, a junior communications major who’s playing Renee, said the cast and crew all faced special challenges. For the cast, she said it was particularly hard getting lines down because “Why We Have A Body” is made up almost completely of monologues.
“The memorization took weeks. I started trying to get some of the monologues down over Christmas break,” Twigg said. “There’s one character Eleanor, who doesn’t interact with anyone at all. It’s just monologues. So I think the biggest struggle was probably just getting the words in our bones.”
But as hard as it might have been to memorize so many lines, Twigg said the monologues allow the characters to get deep into their occupations and their insecurities.
“Each of the characters’ occupations has something to do with finding something within themselves. Lili’s a private investigator who tracks down husbands who cheat on their wives. I’m a paleontologist, I’m searching for dinosaur bones,” Twigg said. “So every character is searching for something that’s missing in their life. And it has really cool parallels to each of the characters’ individual traits, and how they feel about themselves.”
For Neimera, she said audience members should keep an eye out for the small movements in the actors’ bodies that convey this journey of insecurities. It’s a play that focuses not just on the big upheavals in one’s life, but little changes in your body that say what you never could out loud.
“It’s important to understand that this show lives in the details. It lives in the little moments, and the eye contact and where people’s eyes are,” Neimera said. “And it lives in the body language… but it lives in a lot of the little moments.”
Editor’s Note: Julia Kreutzer is a staff columnist at The Pitt News