Reese Johanson is a world traveler, taking in the sights of countries near and far. Wherever she goes, she observes the natives and is constantly amazed at how people everywhere are so much alike.
“We may look different, we may dress differently, we may eat something different or speak differently,” Johanson said. “But what it all boils down to is that we are all human, and we all eat and sleep and love and have sadness and happiness.”
It is a simple yet important message that Johanson, executive director of Artist Inc., aims to get across in “Les Gitans,” a physical theater and dance production opening this weekend at the Michalopoulos Studio in Faubourg Marigny.
Working in partnership with the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, Johanson describes “Les Gitans” as a modern-day fairy tale — without words — that touches on such issues as segregation, integration, immigration and xenophobia.
Mother Mistral, a natural disaster, is wreaking havoc on the universe, destroying everything in her path. Les Gitans — French for “gypsies” — are scrappy scavengers whose connection to technology and invention enables them to survive as nomads after their homeland is destroyed.
They travel far and wide in search of the Shanoa Nation, a people deeply connected to nature and living in a rich and fertile region — the only place unscathed by Mother Mistral.
Les Gitans and the Shanoa Nation are complete opposites and their encounter sparks uproar and feuding. Mother Mistral, however, is approaching and how they treat one another will determine whether they will remain enemies or live together in harmony to save humanity.
“I took this as an opportunity to create a simple show about two communities who are put together because of the state of natural disasters happening in the world, and they don’t like each other because of their differences,” Johanson said.
“It’s about the integration of cultures, fear of others because they look different and the realization that they do have to work together to survive,” she said.
“It’s all dance, but the characters are very specific,” she said. “It’s very descriptive so you’re able to follow it in the same way you’d follow a silent film.”
Still, she said, there are challenges staging a show without dialogue.
“We have 14 people in the cast, and there is a point where there are 10 or 12 people onstage at one time, and we have to be very specific with movement in order to drive the scene,” Johanson said.
Johanson premiered “Les Gitans” last year at Michalopolous Studio, which is owned by her husband, artist James Michalopolous.
The Contemporary Arts Center included it in its Children’s Theater Series. It was such a hit that Johanson decided to remount it this year, this time with the Jefferson Performing Arts Society including it in its Arts Adventure series for school groups.
In preparing for the series, she worked with JPAS artists to develop lesson plans for teachers who will bring their students to the show.
“One of my goals with this show is to bring it to schools in support of arts integration and incorporate the studying of this show and my theatrical process with the class curriculum,” Johanson said. “It is becoming more and more evident that integrating the arts into the learning process helps kids in all areas of study and personal development.”
The cast features Roya Brinkman, Gianna Furnari, Annie Gaia, Andrea Gros, Brandi-Lea Harris, Nanette Ledet, David Llorca, Mariah McGowen, Tallulah Michalopoulos, Jay Poggi, Monique Pyle, Karel Sloane, Matt Standley, Sundog, Evangeline Todd, Jackson Todd, Olive Voltz, Frank Watson, Tajh Watson, Kathleen Westfall and Ben Zervagon.
The production team includes Sundog, musical director; Chris “NaughtyPie” Herbeck, scenic design and stage manager; Daneeta Jackson, video installation; Christie Beshears and Logan Foy, lighting design; and Stephanie Elder, costume design.
Johanson said that if last year’s production is any indication, adults will enjoy the show as much children.
“It’s not just clowning and a bunch of people skipping around the stage,” she said. “There is a real message, and adults get it.”