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Dance and theater seem like natural allies, but in fact they rarely seem to share the stage. The show Stay, presented by the Theater of the First Amendment and opening tonight at the Lansburgh Theater, is an exception. The fruit of a two-year collaboration by playwright and director Heather McDonald and choreographer Susan Shields, Stay uses words and movement to tell a story about life’s impermanence and the many ways we humans try to hold onto the things we love.

McDonald and Shields both came to the project with serious pedigrees. McDonald has written a host of plays and screenplays, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and received three NEA playwriting fellowships. Shields, a former professional dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Lar Lubovich Dance Company, has created work commissioned by the Wolf Trap Foundation. Both are professors at George Mason University.

McDonald spoke briefly with Arts Desk about the tricky, expensive process of creating Stay—and how everyone involved felt sort of naked through the whole thing.

Washington City Paper: How did you and Susan Shields get the idea for this piece?

Heather McDonald: It started about two years ago, with Susan and I talking about where we were in our lives, as parents and people trying to balance a job and our creative lives. One theme [arose], the theme of impermanence—how you try to hold onto things and people, and how you manage the losses and shifts in your lives. We started out thinking more thematically, but then it became pretty clear we couldn’t go much further without dancers and actors. And that’s where it gets expensive.

WCP: What do you mean?

HM: A choreographer can’t work unless they’re in the studio; they need that time to build material. And you want people who trust you and are at a certain level, and their time is expensive. Also, there’s a visual component; we worked with a filmmaker/photographer from San Francisco who has a technique called SLAM (Slide Animation Movie) that’s very, very cool, and we brought him to the very first workshop. So it’s not a normal process of writing a play and sending it around; we had this workshop and worked all day [in the studio], then wrote for several hours every night.

WCP: It seems like that type of thing is unusual around here.

HM: There’s not much of this kind of devised, built work that’s really cross-disciplinary in this country. I think it’s largely financial; it’s an expensive process. I don’t think this would’ve happened if we weren’t in the D.C. theater community where I know a lot of people. Also, George Mason provided some space, and Theater of the First Amendment helped out.

WCP: What was it like to work with a choreographer as an equal?

HM: At first, I thought, “Theater and dance are both performing arts; they’ll have a lot in common.” But the actual process is just completely different. I think we had to learn each others’ language and each others’ process—and then let go of certain things. Everyone dances and everyone acts, so we’re all working slightly out of our comfort zones. Everyone’s said they feel sort of naked working this way.

WCP: Who are the dancers?

HM: We have Laura Urgélles from the Washington Ballet, Scott Rink from Lar Lubovich, and several people from Mark Morris. They’re people who’ve just retired; they’re at their peak, but can’t tour, and they’re still so gorgeous. You need people at that level who have respect for what each other does, so that you have this trust in the room when you hit the difficult parts.

WCP: What do you think the dance component adds to the piece?

HM: You know how in life, people say, “There’s no words to express this”? There are places where I could’ve written a scene, but how it’s expressed in movement is so much more powerful. We were very free in the [studio] to say “What’s the story we’re trying to tell, and how is it best told—with movement or theater?” So sometimes it’s a flat-out scene, and then there are some flat-out dance sections. And now and then, there are places where there’s all of that at once, and it’s really beautiful. The emotion builds and the movement comes out of that.

Stay premieres tonight and runs through November 27. Tickets are $45-$55. For more information, visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Photo by Todd Messegee