UB architecture students break out of their comfort zone for upcoming Torn Space Theater productions

University at Buffalo architecture students scour a Western New York quarry in search of large rocks.

University at Buffalo architecture students scour a Western New York quarry in search of large rocks for an installation as part of Torn Space Theater's performance "Light/Station." Photo: Christopher Romano

Release Date: November 15, 2018

High school students rehearsing a theatrical performance.

Students from Buffalo's Lafayette High School worked with UB architecture students and Brooklyn-based 600 Highwaymen for this weekend's performance of "Manmade Earth," for which the Lafayette students will serve as actors. Photo courtesy of 600 Highwaymen

“It’s been unlike anything else I’ve worked on in architecture school. ”
Morgan Mansfield, senior architecture student
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The materials were simple. A few large pieces of cardboard, rocks and sand, some string and ropes, sheets of fabric.

The task given to a dozen University at Buffalo architecture students working with two avant-garde theater companies was not so simple: work as a team, using little to no verbal communication, to build installations that will be incorporated into two limited-run theatrical performances being staged in Buffalo this weekend.

“It’s been unlike anything else I’ve worked on in architecture school,” says Morgan Mansfield, a senior in the School of Architecture and Planning who served as an architectural consultant for “Manmade Earth,” the show-in-development being created by Brooklyn-based 600 Highwaymen in collaboration with Buffalo’s Torn Space Theater. “Manmade Earth” will run in Buffalo Nov. 16-18, along with “Light/Station,” another performance that drew heavily from the creative contributions of UB architecture students.

Both projects are centered around the idea of reconfiguring what performance space means while investigating how the audience engages with performance in different ways. Tickets for both are available on the Torn Space website.

Both also draw heavily from the creative contributions of UB students, who worked under the direction of Christopher Romano, clinical associate professor of architecture, and Torn Space co-founders Dan Shanahan and Melissa Meola.

Their latest collaboration with Torn Space is an outgrowth of one that took place last year when Romano engaged several students in the design of the façade for Torn Space’s new green room, design studio and conference space on Buffalo’s East Side. Romano designed the façade of the structure, which opened last fall, wrapping the former gas mart in deep-textured, perforated sheet-metal panels.

This fall, Romano and a handful of his students played a key role in the creative components of “Light/Station,” an original Torn Space walk-through experience, and “Manmade Earth,” a new show in development by critically acclaimed 600 Highwaymen, comprised of theater artists Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone.

The projects received lead funding from UB’s Creative Arts Initiative, which also supported Torn Space’s first-ever residency grant, enabling 600 Highwaymen to spend three weeks in Buffalo.

“The students’ work is really amazing,” Romano says. “The students have been working collaboratively with artists and performance theater producers, which is exposing them to an entirely new way of thinking about space.”

‘Light/Station,’ a public ritual

Since 2012, Torn Space has used Silo City for site-specific performances. Now, the theater company is bringing the drama to its backyard with “Light/Station,” which incorporates the building Romano designed.

The performance features a sort of public ritual. There’s a curated walking tour beginning at the historic Adam Mickiewicz Library, where Torn Space stages many of its works, and continuing through Buffalo’s historic Polonia neighborhood to St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Roman Catholic Church, where audience members will hear a private selection of Bach’s music played on the church’s grand pipe organ. The performance ends with dinner in the Mickiewicz speakeasy.

“With ‘Light/Station,’ there’s this inversion where the architectural piece becomes an artistic piece folded into the experience of the building, and then the building into the city,” Romano says. “It fuses art, architecture and city in what I think will be a very provocative way.”

“Light/Station” utilizes the talents of UB architecture students, who designed and built a stone and light sculpture in the lot adjacent to Torn Space’s headquarters. Working as a design consultant, Mikayla Elliott, a senior dual major in architecture and psychology, says she developed a variety of new skills from the project.

“But the biggest thing I’ve learned is the way we can design using nature without designing the nature itself. By this I mean, we speculated many design iterations involving the materials used without knowing specifically how this altar would come together,” she says.

Using natural material like gray limestone rocks plucked directly from a quarry made any design the students developed more of a theory or speculation as opposed to a direct design, Elliott adds. “This allows for the rocks themselves to design ‘Light/Station’ rather than us.”

Elliott and her classmates are looking forward to seeing the finished product this weekend. “I can’t wait to see the whole pilgrimage and performance,” she says. “The night as a whole will give a sense of eeriness, as well as a transcendental feeling while walking through the dark and proceeding to the church while being surrounded by light and sound and people.”

UB architecture students Anya Batista, Derek Chan, Rossella Giangreco-Marotta, Jenna Herbert and Timothy Zeng also worked on “Light/Station.”

‘Manmade Earth’ explores structures that join, separate people

For “Manmade Earth,” UB architecture students worked with 600 Highwaymen this fall in a series of brainstorming workshops that explored scenic design and materials research for the production. “We weren’t given a lot of information about what to expect. We were just told to come to the first meeting with an open mind,” says Mansfield.

After a few workshops that involved building the installations with several other UB students, Mansfield and architecture classmate Stanicka Mathurin continued working with 600 Highwaymen, serving as architectural consultants to the eight Lafayette High School students who will be the actors in the performance.

“We taught the students what we had learned while making structures with the same materials they were starting to experiment with in the performance,” Mansfield says. “The most challenging part, but also the most rewarding, was working with the performers to build the spaces we had imagined. Seeing everything come together, and watching pieces of the show take shape was definitely one of the most exciting moments.”

“Manmade Earth” is the product of the three-week residency by 600 Highwaymen. It’s also the culminating piece in Torn Space’s RESPONSE Performance Festival, which featured a series of productions that began in late July.

The piece examines society’s evolution and how people come together to create what they could not on their own. It explores how the structures people make either bring them together or push them apart.

“The working environment was so experimental. There was a constant ‘there-are-no-wrong-answers’ type of atmosphere where curiosity was welcomed in constructing each design, even when failure might have been inevitable,” says Mathurin, a senior architecture major.

“These designs explored how people can interact with each other and the structure with little to no verbal communication,” she says. Through this process, Mathurin says she’s learned a valuable lesson. “There is no limit to how much one can design with these materials. No matter what had already been imagined and executed, there was always more that could be explored.”

“Manmade Earth” will be performed by students from Lafayette High School, who hail from countries such as Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Myanmar. Mathurin and four other UB architecture students — Haley Davis, Holly Raesly, Matthew Straub and Nicholas Wheeler — trained the younger pupils on how to interact with each other, and the materials, for the performance.

“I appreciated these moments as they were opportunities to show the students how fun architecture can be and possibly provoke interest in the field,” Mathurin says.

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