Having the chance to see a beautiful mind at work is not something that happens often. I’m not merely talking about intelligence, but the intricacy of thoughts—the paths that words take within someone’s mind before they cascade out of their mouth like pearls of poetry. The things they see are beyond the universal horizon, and yet when they speak, their visions sound as natural and tangible as the world around us. Encountering such minds is a privilege, and I’m happy to sit down with artist, performer and director Samantha Shay and let her shower me with thoughts.
A new adventure
Only six months after her Icelandic theatre début, ‘Of Light,’ the American-born and raised Samantha Shay is back in Reykjavik to stage her new sensorial piece, ‘A Thousand Tongues.’ It’s a collaboration with Danish singer Nini Julia Bang. “So often when I‘m in the States, I feel like I have to defend what I’m doing because Americans can‘t put a name on what it is,” Shay explains. “But there is a lot of adventure and acceptance of experimentation in the performance scene here, and I really appreciate that.”
‘A Thousand Tongues’ steers away from traditional theatre, focusing on tickling the senses. Set against an almost completely dark stage where lights play their own structural games, the angelical voice of Nini Julia Bang transports the audience through layers of worlds and realities in a trance-like state. This experience is encased in every detail of the performance, from the physical space to the storytelling.
“We don’t physically touch the audience in this piece,” explains Samantha, “but there‘s a lot of delicate, ephemeral material in the space, like the water, the veil and the use of light. I like playing with the delicacy of our senses—to have a lot of darkness or very sparse choices creates a lot of possibilities, so that the audience has its own space to live in.”
The beauty of human connection
Shay speaks slowly and carefully. Her love for language is unmistakable—almost ironically so, for someone focused on the impact of a sensuous performance. Yet ‘A Thousand Tongues’ revolves around words—those sung out loud in ten different languages, and those that are unspoken, hidden in silences. Shay’s role was to find a leitmotif within the songs that Bang brought back from her travels around the world, and tie them together to make a piece.
The resulting performance is personal for both of them. Experiences and emotions are laid bare before the audience, triggering in turn a journey of self-exploration that draws from the personal and the universal. “I love discovering again and again the inevitability of the beauty of human connection,” says Shay. “What makes this powerful and emotional is that Nini accesses parts of herself emotionally through her music like she‘s shape-shifting. So I think the piece is actually really about her confronting her ability to be vulnerable and sharing that with me.”
As she pauses, Shay’s hazel eyes almost pierce through me under a soft waterfall of curls and a haze of lilac eye-shadow. “That’s what I like,” she finishes, confidently. “Peeling away the layers and feeling the resonance of things.”
“A Thousand Tongues” will show at Tjarnabíó Sept 29 and Oct 1. Tickets are on sale at tix.is.
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