The company of The Great Distance Home, WaterTower Theatre's experimental new holiday show.
The company of The Great Distance Home, WaterTower Theatre's experimental new holiday show.
Evan Michael Woods

WaterTower Tries Something Brave for Its Holiday Show, The Great Distance Home

For many, the holidays are a time of great anticipation and excitement. Much-needed breaks from work are coming, holiday music has been playing for months (but now we can all finally enjoy it) and a joyful buzz is in the air.

The holidays can also mean traveling back to our hometowns for a visit. Feelings about going home can be complicated. For WaterTower Theatre's associate artistic director, Kelsey Leigh Ervi, that seemed like perfect fodder for a play.

Ervi conceived and directs WaterTower's new play, The Great Distance Home. She’s not exactly the playwright because, well, the play wasn’t written when rehearsals started.

It won’t be finished until it opens Friday, Dec. 1, at WaterTower’s Karol Omlor Studio Theatre. The cast is made up of an ensemble of actors: Kelsey Milbourn, Carissa Jade Olsen, Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, Mitchell Stephens and Garret Storms.

Ervi and WaterTower's artistic director, Joanie Schultz, were brainstorming about nontraditional holiday programming when Ervi had an idea: What does it mean to go “home”?

The main character in The Great Distance Home is simply called “Boy." Ervi wrote a basic outline of the story and its chapters, but beyond that, it was up to the cast and creative team to develop the devised piece in rehearsals, with Ervi as director.

“The longing for home and finding a place to belong are two things I've long contemplated as an adult, and those two things helped lead me to the story of a young boy who leaves his childhood home in search of something, although he's not certain what,” Ervi says.

Storms, Ervi’s frequent collaborator and real-life bestie — or, as Ervi calls him, “platonic man friend" — says the experience has been one of trial and error.

“We started by brainstorming words and stories that we associate with home,” Storms says.

Some of the stories that came up for the cast were The Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz. In some cases, they played off words like “forgiveness” and “difficult,” or even “barefoot” and “light.” Storms says within those conversations, the cast began to work on balancing the dark and light aspects of what home can mean.

Home for Storms is Fort Worth, where he’s the associate producer at Stage West. He’s always been drawn to stories about coming of age and loss of innocence — stories that encapsulate what it means to grow up.

“My favorite story of all time is The Wizard of Oz," Storms says. "It’s this uniquely American fairy tale, and its own childhood odyssey.”

The odyssey for the cast has been discovering each other’s perspectives and learning to be present. Storms' sister recently died, so he says he’s been unusually focused on the idea of mortality. It has been important to him to discover ways to connect with those around him.

“I’m discovering who I am and who I want to be. So it’s been fascinating, revelatory and enlightening to hear other people’s stories," he says. "You automatically feel bonded to them.”

Developing a play as they go has meant lots of rewriting, reworking and adjusting to find the clearest foundation for the story.

“Kelsey is our guide, but it’s very collaborative. Ideas develop as we go, and the audiences will also inform how certain moments are played," Storms says. "And we’re asking you to use your theatrical imagining and suspend belief. We want you to come along with us.”

Ervi says the play has changed significantly since she began work on it. She describes The Great Distance Home as “pretty much just a collection of ideas.”

“Each day, we all come in with ideas, we give them a go, and from there we finesse the ideas that fit, and we weed out the ideas that don't," she says. "There are a number of really fun ideas that were developed in the first week of rehearsal that are no longer in the piece because once we found our way through the story, we learned that not every fun idea was the right fun idea for our purposes. It's a very challenging process, but when we find an idea that really works, it's a very satisfying feeling.”

For Storms, working on The Great Distance Home has been an opportunity to stretch his imaginative muscles and a reminder to “play.”

“This is the wonderful thing about theater: being in the room with a living, breathing play," he says. "Art makes you confront what it means to be human.”

The Great Distance Home, Karol Omlor Studio Theatre at the Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road, Dec. 1-17, $28, watertowertheatre.org.

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