‘The Wandering’ makes the queer wondrous

A woman on stage, in a spotlight, singing.
Bambi Banks Couleé plays The Performer in “The Wandering,” an immersive theatrical experience and “queer drama” inspired by the music of Franz Schubert.

Imagine a world where queerness, or, for that matter, any kind of difference is not seen or judged as something strange but instead as something beautiful and wondrous.

Such is the world of “The Wandering,” an immersive theatrical experience created by a team of Yale alumni — with input from current Yale students and support of Yale Schwarzman Center (YSC) — that is available to audiences beginning this week.

Described by its creators as “part visual album, part queer drama, and part communal live experience,” “The Wandering” unfolds both online and through interaction with ephemera mailed directly to audience members, who are also assigned some physical “tasks” to complete. Inspired by the music of Franz Schubert, it examines through a queer lens the love and pain the composer may have experienced about his own identity. 

As it does so, “The Wandering” takes audience members on their own journey as participants in the unfolding drama. 

The narrative follows a character known as “The Wanderer,” an enigmatic figure based on Schubert, through four episodes. Each contains a short film, an interactive object, an online experience, and the ability to connect with other audience members. In the films, recordings of Schubert songs are set against a sparse midwestern landscape, with indoor scenes shot at the historic Wright in Kankakee home (a Frank Lloyd Wright campus in Kankakee, Illinois) and the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, Illinois. 

The ambiguity of Schubert’s sexuality gave us license to imagine a future where his queerness is seen as wondrous and not strange,” said Jeremy Weiss ’15, one of 11 members of the project’s creative team, all but one of whom are Yale alumni. “We began to ask ourselves, ‘Why is it difficult to find wonder and beauty in what we find different?’ It’s also known that Schubert and his friends performed art songs in their living rooms. We, too, are inviting audiences to experience his music at home, while also transforming it, and ‘queering’ it, for our digital reality.”

Weiss, who majored in theater studies and humanities at Yale and is a trained opera singer, was anxious to do something creative during the COVID-19 pandemic. He first thought about simply performing a concert of Schubert songs, but decided that an online Zoom concert would be “boring.” So he turned to his former Yale classmate and friend Calista Small ’14, with whom he had collaborated on a couple of theater projects as undergraduates. Small, who now creates opportunities for artists to collaborate on interdisciplinary teams, jumped at the chance to help Weiss envision a different kind of performance. She suggested one that included film, augmented reality, and objects that could be sent to ticket-holders in the mail, allowing them to interact with the show and each other.

‘The Wandering’ happened because of a desire to create art and community during the pandemic. It is also a product of Yale friendship,” said Weiss, who is co-creative director of the production with Small. He also plays the role of “The Wanderer” and is the show’s vocalist.

Weiss is interested in bringing queer historical figures into current artistic endeavors as a way “to empower us in the present, and help us realize we are not alone,” he said.

A man in the woods with someone who looks very different.
Jeremy Weiss ’15 portrays The Wanderer, an enigmatic character based on composer Schubert. Weiss, who is a co-creator of “The Wandering,” also sings the Schubert lieder that inspired the narrative of the hero’s journey.

We made it part of our political mission with ‘The Wandering’ to have queer actors play queer characters and to work with a diverse team,” added Small.

The four film episodes, which were directed by filmmaker Lara Panah-Izadi ’14, portrays a hero’s journey. The Wanderer, living an uninspired life, is transported into another world. There, the Wanderer meets and falls in love with The Performer, a drag queen. An internal crisis leads to the meeting of a mysterious character, The Doppelgänger, before a transformation takes place.

The narrative is inspired by archetypes but is entirely original and based on the 12 Schubert songs in this piece,” said Weiss.

Without spoiling the sense of adventure and mystery that the physical objects and tasks add to the experience of the show, Weiss and Small noted that they are meant to bring people together. A photo gallery of images taken by audience participants will also be featured as part of the production.

Audience members have two options for experiencing “The Wandering.” An immersive ticket provides access to an interactive website and the mailed materials. A digital-only experience is also available. Both ticket options will remain in stock through May 15, pending availability.

Behind-the-scenes collaborations

For Weiss, Small, and other members of “The Wandering” creative team, an important element of developing the production was to connect and collaborate with current Yale students by sharing in classroom discussion and providing mentorship. (Read more about how the creative team connected with student artists for mutual feedback.)

The team reached out to Julian Manresa ’22, a comparative literature major, to translate the Schubert songs from German to English.

Weiss, Small, and Christine Shaw ’14, hosted a discussion with students in the course “Live Performance in the Time of COVID-19,” co-taught by Elise Morrison, assistant professor of theater and performance studies, and Nathan Roberts, lecturer in theater and performance studies. One topic the students have explored in the class is the ways that performance artists have learned new virtual and digital technologies to create and share their work in a time when the pandemic has halted live performance.

It was wonderful that our students could be a pilot audience for ‘The Wandering’ and also be able to talk to some of the creative team members about their development process,” said Morrison. “The students in our class are now pivoting to creating their own performance piece for our class. ‘The Wandering’ team was able to talk to current students who are thinking deeply about these different aspects of virtual representation and about how to be interactive, and how to get a sense of collective experience between audience members who are seeing the work not only across a dispersed space but a dispersed time.”

Support from YSC was critically important to making the project happen, Morrison said.

Part of the center’s mission is to bring cutting-edge projects to the Yale community and to find ways these projects can interface with the curriculum,” she said. “This project hit that so well, in a time we are asking not only how to teach in this climate but also how to make creative work in it. That the project brought so many alumni together is also a testament to how strong that network is and how exciting work can happen after students graduate.”

Those treated to a preview of ‘The Wandering’ have been impressed with the multimedia production.

It’s just magical,” said Morrison, “and completely absorbing.”

Other members of the creative team are Max Sauberman ’18, Charlotte McCurdy ’13, Zach Bell ’14, Sahil Gupta ’17, TanTan Wang ’20, Daniel Rigberg ’15, Christine Shaw ’14 and Irina Wang. Biographies of the team members, a soundtrack of Schubert’s lieder performed by Weiss, and ticket information can be found at the website for “The Wandering.”

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