In the darkened space of Boston University’s new Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre, director Yo-EL Cassell is gently arranging his 14-member cast around the room. Though he’s working through the script beat-by-beat, his instructions are squishy — a mix of the precise and the vague.
“You’re emerging from the whale here,” he tells one actor, marking a point in time, “so do what feels right to you in that moment.” Later, he directs the performers to move to a spot of their choosing, but then carefully aligns the angle with which they each face the audience.
The malleability of his stage directions reflects the flexibility of the surroundings. The Booth, which opened to students earlier this academic year, is essentially a three-story rectangle within which any director has expansive options, from where to place the audience seating to where the performing space itself should be.
Cassell, a professor of movement at BU, is exploring some of those options for “The Journey,” the movement-based performance he conceived as a response to Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” — particularly the experience of Captain Ahab’s wife, who is mentioned just once in the original text.
“The Journey” will be performed Thursday through Sunday. The production is created under the auspices of BU’s Boston Center for American Performance, by a mix of students, faculty, and alumni. It’s also the inaugural work of the school’s InMotion Theatre under the leadership of Cassell, which plans an annual performance based on creative movement.
Cassell, a graduate of Boston Conservatory, has worked with American Repertory Theater, SpeakEasy Stage Company, and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, where he was resident choreographer.
As a child experiencing nerve deafness, he first discovered dance and movement as a communication medium at around 6 years old, when he attended a movement class at New York School for the Deaf.
“They taught us to roar like a lion, to move like a snake. I remember feeling like I was alive — like I was hearing for the first time. And I remember saying to myself that I never want that feeling to leave,” he says.
“The Journey” is an extension of Cassell’s approach to personal expression through movement. Cassell conceived of and directs the show, and graduate teaching assistant Corianna Moffatt wrote the script, but they present the performers with moments in which they are meant to express a specific action or idea but to figure out how to do so with their own, individual physical vocabulary. (BU alum Georgia Zildjian also contributed to the script and is the production’s dramaturg.)
The performance also includes some shadow-play, video projection, and an art installation that audience members will encounter as they enter the theater.
The theater has a seating capacity of 250, but infrastructure you might expect from an even larger facility. Leading a visitor on a tour of the space, Cassell traverses a catwalk that cuts across the space. After a warning to stand clear, the motorized catwalk climbs from the second to the third floor. Lighting trusses above also move vertically, effectively raising or lowering the perceived ceiling of the space and potentially even forming the floor instead, with seating able to be placed above. Scenic elements can also move up or down mid-performance with the same system.
Scenic designer Ryan Bates says there’s a challenge in simply not using all of the space’s bells and whistles just for the sake of it. “Especially with the resources at our disposal, figuring out what we can do — that all is kind of overwhelming, especially with so much choice about how we can move scenery pieces, move lighting in and out, hide things and reveal things. There’s just a lot of opportunity for play.”
The facade of the building — within which lie expansive production facilities, in addition to the theater itself — is built at a forward-leaning angle, effectively offering a reflection of the activity outside on Commonwealth Avenue. (An electronic message board in the lobby puts a fine point on the gesture, with this quote from “Hamlet” about the nature of theater: “To hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”)
The portion of the theater adjacent to the lobby — what you might call the back wall of the theater, except for the fact that a director could choose to have the audience enter from the opposite end — includes gates that can slide open and, depending on the stage and seating configuration inside, potentially offer a line-of-sight view from the sidewalk outside straight across the performing space to the far side of the theater.
The Booth, designed by Boston’s Elkus Manfredi Architects, sits just west of the BU Bridge on a spot most recently occupied by a parking lot. Jim Petosa, the director of BU’s school of theater (in addition to his work as New Repertory Theatre’s artistic director), says it was particularly gratifying to build something new in the city without displacing anything old.
“Oftentimes you have the challenge of trying to retrofit older spaces, or there’s a historic preservation element to it,” he says. “But we were just blessed with the opportunity to have no responsibility to the past whatsoever. Instead, we have responsibilities to the future.”
Presented by Boston Center for American Performance, April 19-22, at Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre, 820 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. Tickets $7.50-$15, www.bu.edu/cfa/season