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SEAL by Dante Fuoco

November 14-16, 2022

SEAL by Dante Fuoco

by Dante Fuoco

November 14-16 • 7:30pm
The Cube | Moss Arts Center | 190 Alumni Mall, Blacksburg
FREE | Reserve your tickets

Produced by the Graduate Arts Council with support from ICAT and the Creativity and Innovation District

In this autobiographical play, writer-performer Dante Fuoco excavates fifteen years of family home video—not only the sweet early years, curated by Dad, but also the tortured tween years, filmed by son. When Dante’s repressed queer desires are suddenly exposed, he must reckon with telling the truth after decades of lies. 

This student-driven project incorporates collaborators from the Creative Writing program, the School of Visual Arts, and the School of Performing Arts in a bold, transdisciplinary undertaking. Visiting artist Clara Wiest is returning to direct the piece, after directing the first iteration in 2019 at New York's Dixon Place. They are a New York based stage director, movement director, acrobat, dancer and performer.

“Through all the difficulty, all the years of silence and pain, I never let go of little Dante's dreams: to not only perform but also be seen for who I really am. SEAL makes this dream come true.”

Dante Fuoco (all pronouns), an MFA in the Poetry program at Virginia Tech, has this to say about their solo show SEAL, which was performed in November 2022 in the Cube at the Moss Arts Center. In this autobiographical solo show, which Fuoco (both writer and performer) calls “a queer fantasia of home video and performance,” she excavates fifteen years of family home video—not only the sweet early years, curated by Dad, but also the tortured tween years, filmed by son. This project is unusual at Virginia Tech in that it is 100% student-driven, produced outside of the School of Performing Arts, and composed of students across multiple programs at VT collaborating alongside visiting artists and professionals at ICAT (VT’s Institute for Creativity, Arts & Technology). 

An earlier version of SEAL premiered at Dixon Place in New York City in 2019--”the best night of my life,” Dante says--but since the pandemic he had “put the play to bed.” “In some ways, I felt that chapter of my life was finished—the queer reckoning, which included being honest about how my father has influenced my life. Of course, only a small door had closed, revealing a bigger one,” he says. “I initially thought about writing a new solo show, but then I couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to do with this show, to uncover what had fermented in those three years. When I dove back into the work, I learned quite a lot had. It felt critical—and at times excruciating, but no less thrilling—to share all this.” Bringing it back in 2022 with a revised script, a budget, a venue like the Cube, and the talents of student designers and technicians behind it, brought new challenges and joys for all involved. As Dante says, “A central irony of the project is that a solo play cannot be done alone.” 

The catalyst for this remount of SEAL came from the Graduate Arts Council, a registered student organization at VT with the mission of “exploring, supporting, and expanding the arts in and around Virginia Tech.” The organization is helmed by Rachel Nunn (she/her), a School of Performing Arts MFA student with a focus on Arts Leadership. “I wanted a place to practice producing, something that is not a big part of my coursework,” Nunn shares. “I also wanted to make opportunities for theatre and non-theatre students to meet and collaborate with each other. I think theatremakers miss opportunities when we don’t collaborate outside of our usual circles!” In late 2021 Graduate Arts Council issued a request for proposals to the general student body for creative work, and Fuoco’s submission was one of the ones chosen for production. “Dante is a tremendous artist. I could tell from very early on in our collaboration that they had not only a vision but also the discipline, smarts, and drive to help move such an ambitious project forward.” The process wasn’t always easy. “When it's your own story, your own baby, it's hard to not take it personally when obstacles materialize,” says Fuoco. “A lot of SEAL's success meant refusing to take no for an answer. And then, internally, within the team, it meant listening deeply, collaborating cooperatively.”

Fuoco and Nunn started strategizing together in the spring of 2022. “We knew we wanted the Cube; that was a goal that was named in Dante’s proposal,” says Nunn. This highly sought-after $15 million data exploration facility is shared between ICAT and the Moss Arts Center. It is a four-story-high, state-of-the-art theatre and high tech laboratory that serves multiple platforms of creative practice by faculty, students, and national and international guest artists and researchers. It boasts a 128-speaker spatial audio array which allows designers to precisely localize audio effects, and a giant 360 degree curved projection screen that would serve as an incredible stage for SEAL’s videos. Tanner Upthegrove and Gustavo Araoz, two staff members with ICAT who have theatre design backgrounds, made this collaboration possible. “We were so fortunate that ICAT believed in the project and in what we were trying to do,” says Nunn. Additional support came from Kevin Ayoub and VT’s Creativity and Innovation District (CID), who provided rehearsal space for the SEAL team. “The Cube offered us a container to envision a bigger, better show,” says Fuoco. “Most specifically, the cyclorama projection display empowered us to experiment with the videos. I love how the projection [screen], which is tall and curved in an oblong semi-circle, envelopes the stage—and, by extension, me as a performer. It's like a big hug.”

The next challenge was assembling a team for the project, and securing a director was of paramount importance. “This project would not be what it was, is, or will be without Clara,” Fuoco says of director Clara Wiest (she/they), a repeat collaborator of Fuoco’s who directed the 2019 iteration of SEAL. “She offers a sense of play and rigor that is hard to find, not to mention an adeptness at communication that allows us to work compassionately and efficiently.” “Clara gave shape, focus, and drive to our project,” Nunn says. “I was constantly in awe of their ability to shape such tender material with both compassion and rigor. I have grown so much as a theatremaker from watching them work!” With Graduate Arts Council’s funding Wiest--who is New York-based--was able to visit Blacksburg for a month to direct. “Being able to create work outside of New York, getting to know and collaborate with a whole new team, making new connections and getting to work with a new educational institution…has felt like a blessing,” Wiest says. She has a robust career in NYC as a stage director, movement director, and conceptual artist. Originally from Zurich, Switzerland, they have also lived in Hong Kong and Beijing, China, and they hold a BFA in Dramatic Arts from The New School for Drama. 

Wiest has deep admiration for Dante and their work, and was eager to direct a new iteration of SEAL. “This story feels incredibly important to tell--it tells the story of growing older, of finding one’s self and all the hurdles in between. There is so much bravery, vulnerability, honesty in this piece - that felt so intriguing to me. I will always want to be part of work that reaches into the depths of life and self and isn’t afraid to share the findings honestly with people. I knew I was at a point in my life where I was ready to be a doula to tell [Dante’s] story, to care for it and to treat it with intention and love.” For a piece as tender as SEAL, having a director with Wiest’s ideology of care was essential--and care is an intentional value of hers that was reinforced through work on SEAL: “It’s not just all machines that are working, theater is the art form of humanity. We are humans with lives, telling stories about humans for humans. The more intention and care we put into the rehearsal process, the more capacity the content has to be worked on truthfully.” Wiest had not worked in a space like the Cube before, and was excited by the possibilities it offered. “[This] was the first time that we had the opportunity to map, move and locate giant projections on a curved screen, which offers the audience a unique embedded experience of the visual content on the screen, and the fact that we could map sound in the space really offered us a lot of creative ways to work with the audience’s sound experience.” 

For the rest of the team, working with Wiest provided opportunities to network outside of Virginia Tech circles, learn from a visiting director with new perspectives, and practice their craft in a fresh environment. The core team of Fuoco/Nunn/Wiest was joined by lighting designer Daryl Soh, 1st year MFA in Lighting Design; projection designer Tacie Jones, a faculty member with the School of Visual Arts; sound designer Gabrielle Henry, 2nd year MFA in Lighting Design; photographer/videographer Desdemona Dallas, a freelance artist from NYC; stage manager Lauren Weber, assistant sound designer Aya Giardina, and master electrician Zed Mohr, all undergraduates in VT’s Theatre and Cinema programs. The undergrad students had invaluable opportunities to learn throughout the project. For instance, Weber had never stage managed before joining SEAL, and can now boast having called cues for a show with over 100 highly-specific sound, lighting, and projection cues in a state-of-the-art venue. Assistant sound designer Aya Giardina practiced designing sound cues and attended design meetings to learn more about how designers and directors can communicate productively with each other. Zed Mohr, already an accomplished theatre techie, gained more experience and connections through the work. “Watching the peer-to-peer teaching happen, especially during tech, was one of my favorite parts,” says Nunn. “I think it’s important for undergrad theatremakers to see many different ways of working. When I was working on my BA I had lots of opportunities to work with local community and regional theatres outside of my department. In Blacksburg we don’t have much of a local theatre scene, so I think it’s especially important that we sustain multiple avenues for theatre students to get experience.”

Looking back on the process, what do Fuoco, Wiest, and Nunn feel were their biggest learnings and their biggest sources of pride? 

“Processing my family tapes, childhood traumas, and queerness is one thing. Synthesizing all these into a compelling solo show is another. I'm so proud of my courage, my capacity to write, perform, and share,” says Fuoco. “This work wasn't easy, and every time I felt defeated I had to remember the sacredness of this piece, why I was doing it—which is, in short, an imagining of queer liberation.”

“I am really proud of the rehearsal process,” says Wiest. “[I’m proud] of the energy of the working room, our ability to be present with our needs while keeping the larger project in mind, our collaboration, our communication and of course, I am really proud of the performance itself as well. We really encapsulated the complexity of human stories and experiences and the complexity of people themselves. I am proud of the depth of work we delivered, knowing that our work in the rehearsal around the content of the show was loving, gentle, honest, vulnerable, truthful and caring.”  

“I learned about what it means to be a good steward of resources,” says Nunn. “We had so many gifts on our hands--Dante, his play, the talents of our creative team, etc. Then we had to struggle to secure space and money, because we were operating outside of any kind of familiar paradigm at the University. I’ve learned about the importance of building relationships with those who can advocate for you, and about staying persistent in the face of challenges.”