On Wednesday, April 19 students and faculty were treated by UCR’s Department of Dance to a fantastic opening night showing of “in knowing laughter” — choreographed and directed by M.F.A. candidate Maggie Sniffen. The performance was held in Arts Building 166 at 7 p.m., with the show taking a serious yet lighthearted look at the complicated connection between comedy and shame.
Upon entering the small theater, there was a lone microphone in the center of the stage with a single bright spotlight shining directly on it from above. Audience members in attendance ranged from friends and parents to students and faculty. The sound of crowded seats filled with warm laughter and conversation echoed as I took my seat.
The lights flashed three times and then dimmed, leaving the room in total darkness. I found myself holding my breath as the sound of heavy footsteps broke the quiet atmosphere. Lights shined on a girl in a bright pink windbreaker, a big smile on her face, as she stood loving the spotlight in an upright and graceful pose. Some audience members laughed at this reveal. The lights blacked out again, this time a different performer was illuminated only by a cell phone’s light, and she was breathing heavily as if in a panic. The stress was palpable in the room almost immediately. The lights turned off and the panicked breathing stopped. The lights beamed on again and a third performer walked out in semi-formal attire, complete with high heels, to the lone microphone in the center of the stage. She introduced herself as Maggie (the show’s creator). After an almost-too-long pause of her drinking juice boxes one after another, she engaged the audience about what stand-up really means.
The audience cracked up after she lamented about embarrassing stories from her sex life and humiliating drunken escapades. Then she added a piano rendition of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself,” injected with sarcastic quips about the difficult middle class life she lived, which had the audience in stitches.
Shame: The last word uttered as the spotlight on Maggie shrank in size. It returned to reveal her and the panicked performer from earlier linking hands. The audience was dead silent once again. Both girls started to dance and writhe on the ground. Maggie confidently leapt to the floor, as the other girl followed suit. Both started to loudly breathe in a panicked manner as Maggie curled up and slowly ripped her shirt off, and stared, horrified, at her hands. The other girl got up from the floor and moved over to Maggie and they huddled close as the lights dimmed to darkness again.
Two other dancers moved in to renewed brightness and executed wild choreography with frequent pauses and silence, interrupted only by the thumping of their bodies as they moved themselves around and flopped on top of each other.
Then all five performers began to dance, then pose in silence, while the lone male performer talked about his life with a hint of sass. In the midst of talking and audience giggling, the performer stripped down to his underwear and put on high heels and a yellow apron. The performers then jumped into a frantic, messy tap dancing number.
This performance was followed by a prolonged exchange between Maggie and another performer uttering ambiguous phrases like, “You don’t know,” and “Oh, I know.” This led to a lone girl in a penguin suit dancing in the spotlight of a single cell phone. The audience laughed hysterically until their laughter stopped completely when the dancer started to act anxiously. Maggie played “All By Myself” on the piano again, which cut through the silence in the room.
At the end, I was almost blinded by the power of the lights and was surprised at the sudden shift in tone. The performers leapt into a fun final dance to the sound of “Be My Lover” by La Bouche, which had the performers using every inch of stage with smiles on their faces. The audience roared with applause as the performers took a bow, and I was swept up in the tide of enthusiasm as the audience began to walk on stage to greet them.
I had the opportunity to talk to Maggie and ask her what she wanted the audience to take away from the show. With a bouquet of flowers in her hands, she replied, “I wanted to explore what the price of our laughter was, and what do we feel first that later turns into laughter. And for audiences to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.”
I left the venue with a smile on my face and deep thoughts in my heart, as I’m sure many others did too.