Beth Corning says we don’t talk enough about death.
The choreographer and performer calls life’s cessation the ubiquitous “elephant in the room.”
“We are in complete denial that we're going to die,” she said. “We laugh about it. We are surprised by it, constantly surprised by it.”
But Corning herself is drawn to death. Enough that her latest dance-theater work was inspired by a public-radio story about how different cultures deal with it. One custom that stuck with her was the ancient Jewish tradition that holds that when someone dies, the body must have company continuously until it is buried. This guard duty is performed by a person called a shomer, who sits with the body overnight. And alone.
“Oh, my god, what an extraordinary thing that there is some guy, maybe some woman, who sits with a casket, a closed casket for maybe 12 hours a night alone in a building, oftentimes not even knowing the deceased,” she said. “What do you do? Sitting in a room all alone in complete quiet?”
The Waiting Room is the new one from Corningworks’ long-running and critically acclaimed The Glue Factory Project. The hour-long piece depicts a shomer named Samuel who’s forgotten his overnight bag—and with it the book of prayers he meant to pray from, not to mention his cell phone. In the middle of the room there's a wooden coffin on a platform, but Samuel knows nothing about the person inside the box, not even a name.
“This is gonna be a long night,” he predicts.
What follows is partly a monologue—childhood memories, the story of how he came out to his parents, reminiscences about his mother’s cooking, and ruminations on mortality. But The Waiting Room also expands into dream-like territory, employing dance, and projected animations that complement the action and dialogue.
Samuel is played by Jacob Goodman, a Pittsburgh-based actor who has toured internationally in a one-man show based on Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz’s Holocaust novel Kaddish for an Unborn Child. Three other performers accompany Samuel on a journey through his own life and mind: Corning, Cleveland-based dancer and choreographer Catherine Meredith, and John Carson, a Carnegie Mellon University art professor with a performance-art background.
Goodman is also executive director of The Opportunity Fund, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit foundation that has funded CorningWorks in the past. However, the Opportunity Fund did not help fund The Waiting Room, and Goodman will be recused from any funding requests from the troupe for the next two years.
The cast are all seasoned; this is, after all, an installment of CorningWorks’ Glue Factory Project, which showcases dance theater by performers over age 40.
Goodman said that Samuel is a kind of everyman.
“He’s just a guy,” said Goodman. “And like all of us, we’re waiting. ‘In the waiting room’ was certainly a metaphor.” Samuel, he said, is "in some ways passing time, sometimes making meaning. Sometimes pointlessly and sometimes profoundly.”
As a choreographer, Corning is known for her deep dives into idiosyncracies of relationships and daily life. Meredith says this show’s themes are universal.
“The themes that everybody deal with, loneliness, depression, thinking about life and death and what does it all mean,” she said. “Why are we here? What do we do with that time on earth? You know, how are we spending it? Just everyday struggles.”
The show's set is by Stephanie Meyer Staley, with video design by Jakob Marsico and Jessica Medenbach, and lighting design by Iain Court.
The Waiting Room runs for five performance Wednesday through Sunday, at The New Hazlett Theater, located at 6 Allegheny Square East, on the North Side.
Tickets are $25-30, with Sunday’s admission price being pay-what-you-can. Tickets and more info are available at the CorningWorks web page.
WESA is a media sponsor of The Waiting Room.