Crafting art from loss with Shira Leuchter and Michaela Washburn

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Shira Leuchter and Michaela Washburn in Lost Together

The loss of something precious can be profound, festering over time into deep-seated regret that hardens, scar-like, over memories.

Having to let go is one thing. Being able to move on is another.  

Shira Leuchter and Michaela Washburn can help alleviate that pain. Their live art performance Lost Together at Progress Festival transcends loss by reclaiming it through an interactive re-creation. They craft narratives of loss into therapeutic artistry. Through questioning, listening and conversing, they elicit stories from audiences about objects they have lost. During the conversation and using information from the stories, Leuchter and Washburn reimagine and recreate the lost objects, which join an evolving exhibition. While the concept is disarmingly simple, the effect can be deeply moving. This unique opportunity to speak of a loss – to confront the psychological ramifications, excavate the memories, and explore the possibility of moving past it – can comfort and heal.

Lost Together was born from a 2016 piece commissioned by the Gardiner Museum, called All The Things I’ve Lost. “After each performance of that piece, I had audience members who waited so that they could talk to me about things they had lost in their own lives,” Leuchter recalls. “It happened after every performance, and eventually we just knew that I would spend about 45 minutes informally listening to audience stories. It seemed like there was real value in sharing their stories with a stranger, especially with a stranger who had just shared so much with them. Formalizing this process was a big part of developing Lost Together.”

Prior to conceiving Lost Together, Leuchter had also been reconsidering the impact of her work: “was it really achieving the goals I had set for myself? What can my work actually do, especially in this onslaught of really terrible daily news? How did I want to meet audiences and what could I give them?” This reflection, coupled with these spontaneous audience outpourings, catalyzed her idea for a work that would “act as a kind of gift to the audience member, that would be an act of caring and collaboration”.

Leuchter co-created and co-performs Lost Together with Washburn, a friend with whom she has worked before. “When I was thinking about the traits I was looking for – someone warm and easy to talk to, strong improv skills, comfortable with crafting/making and alternative performance practices, sensitivity and empathy – Michaela was the first person that came to mind.” Leuchter elaborates: “You have to really enjoy listening and connecting with people in order to perform this piece, and you have to really embrace the chaos that comes with having 15 minutes to make something special for someone without knowing what it will be in advance.” At this point, it’s important to acknowledge Leuchter’s astonishing array of talents: in addition to being an actor and theatre creator, she illustrates and embroiders, and is the Creative Director of UnSpun Theatre . . . and almost certainly unspools still other skills during performances. Because the two are so well-matched, “it’s . . . comforting to be working with Michaela, knowing that we can support each other through the chaos and still have a lot of fun.”

Audiences have responded to both the concept and their chemistry with consistent enthusiasm. Lost Together sold out quickly at SummerWorks last year, and won the 2018 SummerWorks Festival Production Award. It is being remounted at Progress by popular demand. “It’s always surprising to welcome someone in and to get to know them better, based on what story they decide to tell us,” Leuchter observes.” I’m often surprised when it’s someone I know, and I learn about them in an entirely new way.” Nonetheless, Leuchter never approaches the performance with a specific expectation of how participants will react to the experience. At the end of the time spent together, the session “always feels like handing someone a really special gift you’ve wrapped and have had waiting for a long time,” she smiles. “It’s nerve-wracking and exciting, and I have to remind myself to take a deep breath.”

For those who missed out on attending a session at SummerWorks last year, changes at this remount are minor, consisting of a more pre-set structure rooted in what has seemed to work best. Additionally, the change in venue will “really change the feeling of the piece”. Finally, Leuchter stresses that “this is a show – or ‘live art performance’ – that requires audience participation”. This can, she well knows, sound “really unappealing” to some: ‘I often shy away from seeing work that requires my participation. But I promise you that it’s the gentlest, kindest approach to participatory performance that we could put together.” Those who are nervous about sharing a personal story need not feel exposed in a public session, and can decide ahead of time to opt for a private, closed session instead. Finally, participants can take comfort in knowing that the 30-minute experience will be all about them, whatever they choose to bring to it. “You can expect a warm and inviting space, because we really are so thrilled to meet each person that participates.”

Thanks to Lost Together, loss may remain, but it need not feel lonely . . . and it need not debilitate. “Hopefully, at its best, you can expect to feel like you’re part of a community of people who have experienced loss in some way. Maybe that will bring some comfort, if you need it.”

News You Can Use

What: Lost Together (Tkaranto); Conceived by Shira Leuchter; Produced by UnSpun Theatre; Curated and presented by SummerWorks; Sound Design by Chris Hanratty
Created and performed by Shira Leuchter and Michaela Washburn

When: Feb. 12 – 17, 2019; Run Time: 30 minutes (timed entry, one audience member at a time)

  • Afternoon sessions (12:00pm-4:00pm) are private. Evening sessions (5:30pm, onwards) are public.
  • ASL interpreted performances offered on Feb 13 at 2:40pm, 3:20pm, 5:30pm & 6:10pm. To book a slot, contact the Progress team via email [email protected] or text 647.216.3974.

Where: BMO Incubator for Live Arts, The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St West, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: progressfestival.org

© 2019 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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