When artist Jeff Becker talks about his newest performance piece, “Sea of Common Catastrophe,” it takes a while before he gets to the subject of Hurricane Katrina.
He talks about the construction of China’s Three Gorges Dam, which submerged hundreds of small villages and displaced over a million people.
He touches on personal losses suffered during Hurricane Andrew.
He describes “The Sea of Lost Time,” a short story by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez about a flooded town where daily activities resume beneath the water.
Finally, Becker talks about Katrina, but only when asked point-blank about the storm’s influence on his work.
“The parallels are really clear,” Becker said. “I live in the Marigny, and our studio is in the Marigny, and the changes from the ’90s to now make me think about the flooding as a metaphor for change, for wiping the slate clean and starting fresh, but kind of forgetting what was there before.”
“Sea of Common Catastrophe,” which runs through Sunday, is a site-specific collaboration between Becker and members of ArtSpot Productions, a local ensemble of multi-disciplinary artists.
Situated in ArtSpot’s downtown warehouse space, called Catapult, the show combines theater and dance with sound and visual effects, creating a narrative about what happens when people are forced to leave a place and what springs up in their wake.
“People are continually pushed out and need to rebuild and start over, so I wanted to make a show that was dealing with these issues,” Becker said. “I started thinking about the idea of resilience and how progress moves people. It can either be things like gentrification, or war, or just sheer progress.”
The story follows a trio of performers (Kehinde Ishangi, Kathy Randels and Lisa Shattuck) who settle into a home, only to be displaced by rising waters, which compels them to discover a new way of living.
There is some dialogue, but the narrative is primarily conveyed through movement.
While none of the performances in “Sea of Common Catastrophe” actually happen underwater, a recent rehearsal revealed a creative approach to simulating an underwater environment.
The show utilizes a multi-tiered stage design that allows performers to rise and fall with the water, as video projections and soundscapes add to the illusion of submersion.
“When an audience sees work that doesn’t rely on text to tell the story, I think it’s a more natural way to experience a story,” Becker said. “It’s always moving forward, but there are things coming in peripherally, from above you and below you, that influence the story.”
This week’s premiere of “Sea of Common Catastrophe” is the first in a series of planned stagings.
Later this year, ArtSpot hopes to reprise the show as part of the company’s 20th anniversary celebration. Becker also is planning to tour the show, with performances in Atlanta, Charleston, and points beyond.
Even though New Orleans audiences have a more direct connection to the issues raised by “Sea of Common Catastrophe,” Becker believes that the show’s ideas of urban renewal and gentrification are universal in the rapidly evolving landscapes of American cities.
“It’s a complex issue. There are many layers to it, and I think it’s easy to just demonize all change that happens if it affects you directly,” Becker said.
“But I don’t think that this show is necessarily about saying all change is bad. The show is an effort to bring voice to the table and start a conversation, rather than to make this judgmental statement about what is good or bad about the changes that have happened in our neighborhoods.”