Dancer and storyteller Meagan O'Shea's autobiographical show explores global warming and achieving inner peace. There's also laughter-powered lighting, stories of falling into a giant anthill, and embracing her really weird feet.
In trying to describe Meagan O’Shea’s solo show The Atomic Weight of Happiness, it’s best to start with how to describe O’Shea herself as an artist—which is no easy task. “I’m an interdisciplinary contemporary dance artist,” says the pixie-haired creator and performer with a wide grin; “I combine dance, storytelling, clown, theatre, and especially in this piece, visual spectacle.”
O’Shea’s company, Stand Up Dance, is probably best known around the GTA for the collective out-on-the-street project Dance Like No-One is Watching. Performed over the past few years at festivals like Nuit Blanche, SummerWorks, the Queen West Art Crawl, and many other local events, she and teams of dancers would hold flash mob-like performances where they would play off each other while plugged into iPods playing a setlist. “We trained so that we could create spontaneous choreography based on a shared improv language,” says O’Shea, who posted the playlist online in advance for savvy audience members to put on their own device and listen along to the music motivating the seemingly silent shows.
Stand-Up Dance has also been the vehicle O’Shea has used to create a series of interactive dance installation pieces, like 1st Kiss, where she created a quilt with fabric patches that would correspond to stories related to her about people’s romantic firsts, and Something Blue, with a dress created of patches of old wedding gowns. In both those pieces, O’Shea would dance short choreography corresponding to an audio-visual recording triggered by audience members touching the displayed objects’ different patches. But while those shows were successful, they took a toll on her. “Sometimes work feeds you, but Something Blue in particular really broke my heart,” she says, as she related some really tragic stories of women who’d been widowed and divorced.
So O’Shea’s last few projects have been purposefully playful—which seems to fit her personality well, and puts her recent training in improv comedy and clowning to good use. “I said, ‘put me in front of people, and I will play, and entertain them,” was one of her asks of collaborator and director Andrea Donaldson.
The two women spent 20 weeks in workshops building The Atomic Weight of Happiness, and much of it involved O’Shea improvising and telling stories to Donaldson, based around three themes: “how to arrest global warming, how inner peace must come before outer peace, and where truth lies—heart, head, or guts,” details O’Shea. “We did a lot of brainstorming—we filled over a hundred sheets of those flip-over charts.” What emerged was a very personal framework of interconnected stories about O’Shea’s background, her family history, and about her feet. “I had six toes on each foot when I was born,” she explains, “and I have three webbed toes on each foot, and I have flat feet. I wanted to be a ballerina, but I couldn’t go en pointe with my feet.”
The multimedia show also features projection pieces, a stationary bicycle O’Shea intermittently hops on and pedals (while laughing) to power the on-stage lights, and a series of stories about her family history read by audience members. That last part was a happy accident: “I was planning on telling all the stories myself, but I got severe laryingitis for a workshop performance, so I wrote them out on cue cards and handed them out to be read in order, and it worked really well.”
As audience members read each segment, it moves O’Shea along different “paths” marked in tile on the stage; at some she dances, at another she tends to plants, at one she engages in an emotional word association exercise with the audience. “That one’s been great with the kids,” says O’Shea. Theatre Direct’s mandate is to produce challenging work for young audiences, and it took very little to adapt Happiness, first presented at dance space Hub 14 last year, for audiences aged seven and up. “We’ve been holding talk backs after the shows, and the teachers have remarked that all the descriptive words have been really useful to explore with the grade seven audiences.”
O’Shea’s positive the public all-ages shows this weekend (this past week she played to school audiences), which are wrapping up this run, will engage adults just as much. “The idea’s explored that you have to come to terms with yourself in order to be compassionate with the world,” says O’Shea, who’s learned to embrace her odd appendages. “When I was younger, I had to get cool with my feet.”
Photos by Lindsay Anne Black.