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Phoenix spectacle expresses the grief and resilience of a transformative year

Performance filmed on the Northwestern lakefront will be streamed online June 4-20

The art of spontaneous spectacle isn’t new to associate theatre professors Jessica Thebus and Dassia Posner.

Thebus, the director of the School of Communication’s MFA Program in directing for the stage, directed large-scale puppet performances in Chicago parks throughout the pandemic. Posner, who heads the theatre department’s theatre history area, has created giant puppet parades and pageants in communities across the globe.

Their latest project, “The Flight of the Phoenix,” will be available for streaming on the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts YouTube channel June 4 to 20.

The spectacle was filmed live on the Northwestern lakefront and involved undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff from various University departments, including theater, design and art theory and practice.

Thebus and Posner, co-directors of the performance, said the myth of the phoenix is a classic image of rebirth. 

Five large birds and several smaller birds gather on the lakefill, Posner said, describing the performance. There, they meet the “fire wyrm,” a large puppet surrounded by fires. Each bird is in turn burned by the fire and transformed into brilliant colors, according to Posner.

Posner said the plot is symbolic of each person at Northwestern arriving from all over the world and, metaphorically speaking, being transformed by fire.

Thebus also said the performance gave hope to theater artists, whose job it is to create community gatherings. Artists have the hope of coming together in-person once again, she said.

“We will be transformed by this experience, but also will survive this experience and use it in a way to move forward into our future,” Thebus said about the theater community.

Posner, a theater historian specializing in world puppetry history and performance, among other areas, said she is interested in the idea of grief and loss coexisting alongside resilience and hope.

The phoenix cycle is endless, Posner said, and people experience both emotions simultaneously. She said the performance didn’t aim to imply the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice are over, but rather served to celebrate this “first moment” of reunion following a long time of physical distance.

Erin Claeys (’21) had been part of Thebus’ spontaneous spectacles from 2020 and directed the fire banner team, which surrounds the fire wyrm in “Flight of the Phoenix.”

They performed in the piece and helped to choreograph movements of the fire banners, which came from the fire wyrm and transformed the birds from their normal colors to very vibrant hues.

Claeys said the plot of the show was impactful, but she said working together in-person and collaboratively creating the piece was “even more impactful.”

“(The performance) is symbolism for Northwestern students emerging from COVID and beginning to see the light,” Claeys said. “Emerging stronger while still honoring where we've come from.” 

The directors also invited performers not in Evanston or unable to come to campus to be “remote puppeteers.” In the filmed version of the performance, they plan to have birds flying in Pittsburgh, Warsaw and Seoul.

Posner said the story was additive and included the ideas of all participants.

“The project evolved as new collaborators joined,” Posner said. “It was an additive project, so every time a new collaborator came in, the project transformed in some way as we incorporated other people.”