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Avanti: a true ghost story

Observer Scene | Sunday, September 26, 2004

Outside of the borders of Notre Dame is the city of South Bend, a midwest town with history like any other. But this history is often over looked as progress goes sweeping by. A new play written by an assistant professor at the University hopes to change that and shed some light on the industrial history of South Bend. Prior to the 1960s, in South Bend Studebaker cars were once built and shipped out all over the country. With the growing problems of out-sourcing, product competition and labor unions, the company died and left graves in the form of massive factory buildings where memories haunt the production floors like so many ghosts.”The ghosts – the ones who belong here … they’re upset. You’ve upset them.” If this sounds like an ominous setup, it is no coincidence. The show “Avanti: A Postindustrial Ghost Story” is just that, a ghost story. It uses voices of the present and past to create a story that is both historically intriguing and suspenseful. The story opens up a doorway, literally, into the past as ghosts of the Studebaker plant take a man meant to demolish the now rundown factory back to the days of the plant’s actual demise.When a demolition team arrives at the sight of the plant, it, too, is somewhat offset by past stories about ghosts that haunt the ruins. The team did not realize that it would actually meet one of the ghosts. Separated in the maze of factory, one of the members of the team discovers the ghost of an old secretary, Irena Stoup, who worked in the plant and was there to see its close in 1963. She takes the foreman, Wayne Kaminski, back in time to play witness to the final days of the factory, as the last truly hopeful president of the company does what he can to keep the company afloat. His solution is to create a new, stylish car known as the “Avanti.” The effort fails and the company closes a year later. The foreman goes back and forth from the past to the present, trying to draw connections with what went wrong then and how it has unalterably affected our present day state. The show is produced inside the old Deluxe Sheet Metal Factory in down town South Bend. This is the perfect setting for the show as it creates an industrial atmosphere well-suited to the setting of the show itself while at the same time offering a great deal of versatility for the production company, The Builders Association out of New York’s City. In terms of industrial atmosphere, the stage itself is simply a room in the factory, with concrete and grates in the floor and metal girders in the ceiling. The audience easily feels as though it is actually exploring the old Studebaker plant as the ghost guides Kaminski through the past. The Builders Association, however, made this show truly unique and worth seeing. The Builders Association is a New York-based performance and media company utilizing the full scale of contemporary media technology there is to offer. The writer, Professor Jessica Chalmers, knew director Mariane Weems from her days in New York and had worked before with this media-intensive style with previous shows she has written. Bringing in sound and video designers from New York, the simple stage becomes a wonderland of sights and sounds, an interactive light show the characters actually work within as though it was a real world. Scrims fly in and out of the stage to create multi-leveled scenes and add depth and dimension. Projected visualizations create the feeling of being in a car on the highway or let the audience see old news clippings of factory strikes and make them feel as though they are at the strike itself. As if this was not enough, there is even a musical element to the show itself as one character is heard singing at one point about the woes that he faces as the head of a failing company. Background underscoring also plays very well into the general spooky nature of the show itself. Ultimately, that’s what this show is – a ghost story. It has the typical offsetting feel of a ghost story – you don’t know what’s going to come next, people disappear and reappear in this reality and in others and there is an overly lying ominous tone of everything that goes on. But it becomes another kind of “ghost story” also. It becomes one in which ghosts are the main characters and they try to tell their story to a contemporary audience with the hopes of averting their own fates. There is an unsettling feeling as the audience looks back into the past; the characters of that past seem to be able to see forward into their own fate. In the audience were men and women that were once on that Studebaker assembly line. For them, these are not simply voices of the past, but voices they knew. This is one of the many connections to reality this show delivers that makes it strike a very real chord with the audience. While the acting or writing of the show may not be stunning, the production of it, the creation of this once real world by tantalizing all the senses, is a compelling experience and worth the trip off campus to hear what these ghosts have to say.