CAMBRIDGE — While the digs of Zero Church Street Performance Space are drab and dingy, the energy inside is bright and upbeat as the 10 cast members of “The Shape She Makes” rehearse for the work’s world premiere Saturday at Oberon. Two weeks before opening, there is collegiality and laughter as characters double-check dance moves and dialogue with creators Susan Misner and Jonathan Bernstein, as the couple’s dog, Bailey, casually wanders about. “The mantra for today is ‘Let’s get loud,’ ” Misner says, and an impromptu song and boogie break out in response.
But moments later, the tone gets serious, and a pivotal scene in the work is so wrenching it leaves at least two in the cast dabbing their eyes. Stage manager Taylor Adamik distributes tissues. It’s a testament to the engagement and investment the cast has in this collaborative work, which explores how childhood experiences and memories shape adult lives.
Nearly four years in gestation and preparation, “The Shape She Makes” is a theatrical hybrid that fuses movement, music, and dialogue. The script by Bernstein revolves around two main characters — 11-year-old Quincy (played by 13-year-old Needham actress Sydney K. Penny), who tries to piece together details about her long-absent father, and a substitute schoolteacher named Ms. Calvin, who grapples with the strictures of caring for her aging mother.
“At the core, it’s about reliability, the ways we rely upon our perceptions of ourselves and each other, and how we rely on our need for each other,” Bernstein says. “I’m a believer in the Transcendentalist idea that everything is connected, and there’s a gravitational pull to habits and patterns that we allow to impact our behavior.”
For Misner, who not only conceived and choreographed the work but also performs the role of Quincy’s mother, Louise, the work is all about change. “I’m obsessed with: Can people change, or are they only replacing one habit or way of doing things with another?” she says. “Why can some of us step out of our boxes and others can’t?”
Misner, 43, warm and voluble with a quick smile and intense gaze, is currently on hiatus from filming the FX series “The Americans,” in which she plays Sandra Beeman. She has had dozens of dramatic roles in film and television, but she began her performing career as a dancer and didn’t try her hand at acting until she was 26. She was featured in a range of Broadway musicals and played Liz in the film adaptation of “Chicago.”
“I took acting class because Bob Fosse thought being an actor would make you a better dancer, to find a way to tell stories,” she says. “Then I fell in love with acting.”
In order to be taken seriously as an actor, “I kind of amputated the dancer in me,” she says, “but I always felt I left something behind. Now I’m trying to figure out how to bridge these two worlds, and I love coming back to dance as an actor because I’ve lost the perfectionism, which I think is the death of art.”
“The Shape She Makes” is Misner’s first attempt at combining dance, music, and theater in a full-evening piece. But make no mistake, this is not music theater. Though there is music, there are no songs, and the movement is fluidly integrated into the narrative flow. Everyday gestures and pedestrian moves segue into liquid swoops and sweeping lifts. A trio weaving together awkward embraces and convoluted turns seems a natural reflection of the push/pull in the characters’ relationships. “It’s not a musical, all sparkle and showmanship. The movement comes from literal gestures, then gets abstract, but I try to ground it in the storytelling,” Misner says.
A professor in the MFA Musical Theater Writing Program at New York University, Bernstein, 42, is directing the production. While he has had musicals and plays produced around the country, this creative collaboration with his partner of 15 years is special, evolving through the continual give and take of a 24/7 relationship.
Misner says, “We continue to go back to the drawing board and we’re still learning as we go. We rely tremendously on the actors and designers. I’m so grateful for this group of people. It’s a dream come true.”
“The Shape She Makes” unfolds with the audience ringing the performance space on three sides, spitting distance behind chairs the actors use at key moments. “Because we’ve been so focused on the process, we don’t have a lot of time to think about what the audience might take away from this, but I want to challenge them in how they view this because they’re sitting right there,” Misner says. “Being an actor is all guts, so I want them to be on board. I want people to attach to the lead character’s journey and go on it with her.”