Arts & Culture » Live Active Cultures

Phantasmagoria’s John DiDonna takes on the origin myths of several cultures in new Valencia show 'Creation'

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In the nine years I've been writing Live Active Cultures, I've tried to give coverage to most of the major players in Orlando's performing arts community, but there's one important name you'll almost never see in this column: John DiDonna. The educator/actor/writer/director always seems to be involved in at least a half-dozen local projects at any given time, but I rarely write about them because he and I are longtime producing partners (most notably on Phantasmagoria and the Empty Spaces Theatre Co.), and Orlando Weekly takes conflicts of interest a little more seriously than, say, the Trump White House does.

This week, I'm making an exception to that rule in honor of Creation, an original work devised and directed by DiDonna that's making its worldwide debut at Valencia College's East Campus black box theater, now through April 16. Since I had no personal involvement in the production, the premiere of this ensemble anthology of origin myths from various cultures – including ancient Greek, Hindu, African and Christian – finally afforded me the first opportunity to interview three talented artists who have been collaborating with us for almost a decade.

Dana Mott, projection designer for Creation, has been crafting video for Phantasmagoria since the series' second edition. Mott met John through former UCF instructor Jeff Wirth's interactive theater program, where DiDonna was a performer and Mott was directing the development of virtual worlds. "I started seeing the work that Empty Spaces was doing, and really wanted to be drawn into that world," Mott recalls. Using Photoshop to build digital environments and AfterEffects to animate them, Mott has been "exploring how projections can enhance a show that is very light on set dressing; how projections can bring a sense of atmosphere, a sense of presence and action to a scene."

Rebekah Lane, Creation's puppetry coach, was first cast by DiDonna to play the title character in My Name Is Rachel Corrie in 2011, and has been assisting with Phantasmagoria's puppets for several years. A graduate of UCF's undergrad theater program, Lane created shows for MicheLee Puppets for seven years and recently returned to Orlando after earning her master's degree at Towson in Maryland. For Creation, Lane helps bring to life a variety of puppet styles, from bunraku and marionettes to giant Tapestry of Nations-esqe backpack figures.

Finally, choreographer Dion Leonhard, who has been dancing since the age of 3, joined the Phantasmagoria in its first year as a performer and is now also Mrs. DiDonna. She's recently become an adjunct professor at Valencia, where she previously designed dances for As You Like It and Metamorphosis.

While you might assume undergraduates are more challenging to work with than theater professionals, all three heaped praise on Creation's young cast. "Working on this show has been a really unique experience because I've never worked with Valencia before," Mott says. "So being able to work with students and the talent they bring to the show, and being able to incorporate their style and interests into the projection design, instead of it just being what I bring to the table."

Leonhard, who has been teaching teens for almost a decade, concurs, saying, "You learn a lot about yourself and your process of teaching and working with individuals. ... You have to learn to adjust on the spur of the moment, and keep going. It's made me rearrange my creative process in a good way." And Lane observes, "The thing that was wonderful is that I got to teach [the Valencia students] how to play. ... They are hungry to play, and make new work, and explore. It's really inspiring to see the progress that's been made."

While Phantasmagoria focuses on terror instead of theology, both share a collaborative process in which all the cast and crew jointly contribute to shaping the performance.

"One of the things I love about [Phantasmagoria] is that we're allowed to find our own way. As long as we're still a part of the group as a whole we're allowed to create our own character," Leonhard says, explaining how the collaborative method creates opportunities for her to stretch her abilities. "I've never choreographed Hindu dance before. I got to research different hand gestures ... creating something that I've never created before. It was new territory for me."

Likewise, Lane says, "The work I've been doing with Phantasmagoria and Valencia are not totally separate. [In both,] they start rehearsals and then I come in ... I was given a lot of leeway to craft and shape." Even so, Mott sees a significant difference in tone between the two: "This show is more primordial than Phantasmagoria. It's still epic, but Phantasmagoria is a lot of things coming to an end, and this is things beginning."

As our conversation concluded, I commented how cool it was for so many female artists to be working together, since shows' technical credits are often male-dominated. To my surprise, all of them said they "didn't even notice that," as Leonhard put it.

"I hadn't even considered the gender of the people on the show," says Mott. "The women are all fantastically talented, and I think they were brought on because they are all experts in their field, and some of the best people in Orlando to work with." Similarly, Lane admits, "I was just working hard to make the show happen. I was so immersed and focused that I didn't take a moment to look up and look around."

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