Stories move in circles.
They don’t move in straight lines.
So it helps if you listen in circles.
There are stories inside stories
and stories between stories,
and finding your way through them
is as easy and as hard as finding your way home.
(Quoted by Deena Metzger in Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey and attributed to A Traveling Jewish Theatre, Coming from a Great Distance.
On the surface, The Shape She Makes (a world premiere presentation by American Repertory Theater in Cambridge) is the intimate telling of one woman’s life journey, Quincy Beth Harris. She is 11 years old when we first meet her, and already she is exceptional: She has achieved a perfect score on the Brackstone Math Test. But not all geniuses land in a family environment that nurtures their gifts, and Quincy didn’t score high on the Family Support Test. She lives with a dysfunctional mother, and her father abandoned them both when she was two. Her life is not going to be an easy one, and that path into adulthood is the subject of The Shape She Makes.
Quincy has a powerfully linear mind, but the telling of her journey does not follow a linear narrative. This is storytelling that intertwines movement, dialogue, music, pantomime. The blending of these many forms of expression feels effortless and unforced, and the rounded, full bodied nature of the narrative makes it easy to feel intimacy with a story that is so personal and also so heartbreaking.
Even the audience is a participant in this telling. When the story begins, we are asked to play the role of invited guests at a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Brackstone Math Test. (Sample questions from the test are included in the program.) Only eight individuals have ever achieved a perfect score in all those years, and honoring that achievement will be the highlight of the evening. Quincy is one. Her MIA father Bernard is another. Asked to speak on behalf of herself and her now deceased father, Quincy is forced to come to terms with the circumstances of her life and with who she has become.
Large-bodied, socially withdrawn and shy, the sole caretaker for her aged and cantankerous mother, Quincy at middle age is a believable outcome of difficult circumstances. But her razor sharp intelligence is still in tact. What would it take for her to change this trajectory? At one point Quincy says, “There are two things that are incontrovertible in life. One is that the ocean accepts all rivers. The other is that we fashion who we are.”
But do we? There are large questions at the core of this production, ones that explore how childhood determines the outcome of our lives, about how capable any of us are at changing. While that may sound like the stuff of Oprah daytime TV human interest, The Shape She Makes brings us into an intimacy that is neither maudlin nor manipulative. This is a life portrait that breeches the barriers of viewership and detachment. By using so many forms—dance, theater, music, image—all delivered up by a talented cast, we are inextricably pulled into a circle of deep caring.
Conceived over four years by Susan Misner and Jonathan Bernstein, The Shape She Makes maximizes their collective gifts. Misner is a dancer and an actor (most recently she stars in the FX series, The Americans) and Bernstein is a director who also teaches theater at NYU. Life partners for many years, Misner and Bernstein have crafted a thoughtful, intelligent, emotionally fine-tuned and memorable new hybrid storytelling form. Let’s hope there are more collaborations coming.