For Michelle Johnson ’16, the best and most challenging aspects of Airswimming converge.
“It’s a dark comedy with really difficult subject matter, but there are a lot of lighthearted moments and clowning around,” Johnson says of the two-woman show that she and Michaela Shuchman ’16 will bring to the Philadelphia Fringe Arts Festival beginning on Friday, Sept. 8.
“We’re eager to explore these extremes,” she says, “but in respectful, compassionate ways that both humanize and speak the truths of the characters.”
Set in 1920s Ireland, Airswimming tells the true story of two women imprisoned in a mental hospital for subverting society’s definitions of womanhood. Johnson and Shuchman staged it for their senior thesis in 2016 and are delighted to perform it again under the umbrella of Half Key Theatre Company, which they founded after graduation.
“By giving witness to an unheard voice, Airswimming embodies our vision for the company,” says Shuchman. “It offers that raw human connection, moments of pain and delight.”
Johnson, an Honors theater and neuroscience major at Swarthmore, and Shuchman, an Honors theater and educational studies major, connected at their first acting class on campus. They are once again teaming up with Swarthmore mentors K. Elizabeth Stevens, associate professor and chair of the Theater Department, who directs, and Laila Swanson, assistant professor of costume and set design.
There’s a comfort level among the collaborators, but one that implores them to reach further.
“You don’t have the polite game of collaboration that often happens when you think something is going wrong but are afraid to just put it all out there,” says Johnson. “There’s a mutual respect there that allows us to make suggestions and push one another.”
The material itself never left the performers’ bodies and minds, she adds. But that familiarity cuts both ways.
“We’ve had the challenge of rediscovering the material … of keeping it fresh and alive,” Stevens says. “How do you keep that fire, that untamedness, that makes a live performance feel like it’s happening for the first time? How do you keep that bright and dangerous?”
So for this second take on Airswimming, the performers are focusing more on how it connects to current events — particularly, gender identity and reproductive roles. Shuchman is also delving more deeply into her character of Dora, a macho military history buff, with which she didn’t initially identify.
“I’m having to sort of change my voice and my body around,” she says. “I really want to just fall into Dora and her groundedness; it’s important for me to do justice to her.”
Another challenge has been going from performer to performer/producer, which Johnson deems “a wild ride.”
“It’s been a steep learning curve to become full-service artists who have to promote themselves and handle all of the details to make sure nothing goes amiss, using parts of your brain that you don’t normally use,” Johnson says, praising Shuchman for her marketing acumen.
By presenting Airswimming at Fringe Arts, though, they have access to a broader audience and a vibrant network.
“It’s awesome to feel that even though we’re just a year out of college, we’ve been accepted into this community of incredible artists in Philadelphia,” says Shuchman. “We get to experience one another’s shows and feel their support.”
Meanwhile, the support the performers feel from their alma mater and its faculty grows deeper. They revel in the chance to collaborate with professors beyond graduation, deeply appreciating their time and trust.
“It says what a million words could not about how professors feel about students at Swarthmore, and how we feel about them,” Shuchman says.
A two-way street, indeed, say Stevens and Swanson, who laud the first iteration of Airswimming and were eager to continue the conversation.
“All of our theater students leave with the guarantee that we, as faculty, will always be there to support their professional journey,” says Swanson. “It’s a great honor to see this added value of their experiences with our program.”
That experience came full circle for Shuchman and Johnson last week. Back at Swarthmore to rehearse their show, they laughed and reminisced when the first-years arrived for orientation.
“It took me back to my first night of orientation, of feeling very nervous and wondering if I made the right decision,” says Shuchman. “I wished my current self could go tap my former self on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, in five years you’re going to be here rehearsing this show that you love with these professors that you really respect and your best friend — and Swarthmore gave you that.’”
Airswimming runs from Sept. 8-24 at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.