When reality is somehow stranger than fiction, inspiration thrives. At least, that’s what happened when set designer Ryan McGettigan approached Annie Arnoult, artistic director of Houston’s Open Dance Project, with a desk full of archival records and a project idea for the ages.
“He said, ‘Oh my gosh, Annie. I’ve got it’” Arnoult recalls, her voice growing increasingly animated as she describes the conversation with McGettigan. “‘I have this piece. I saw this crazy documentary’, and the next thing you know I’ve got two books from him on my desk before that week was up.”
The books in question were first-hand accounts from two women who had separately fled to the Galapagos islands—Dore Strauch in 1929 and Margret Wittmer in 1932—in pursuit of paradise and quickly witnessed the downfall of their personal Eden as the community they inhabited devolved into scandal, mystery, and, most notably, murder. Alongside Strauch and Wittmer, the island of Floreana saw the arrival of a philosophical German doctor and a theatrically inclined Austrian baroness with her two young lovers, rounding out a mischievous cast of characters that soon caused more than enough trouble on the island’s tropical sands.
All the Devils Are Here: A Tempest in the Galapagos is an hour-long immersive dance theater production inspired by bona fide events from Floreana. The performance, choreographed by Arnoult in collaboration with 11 ODP performers, is co-presented by DiverseWorks and will be live-streamed from Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston on May 14 and 15 with real-time camerawork by photographer Ben Doyle.
“All of us had to fully embrace the concept of presenting the work as a virtual performance,” DiverseWorks Executive Director Xandra Eden tells Houstonia. “But, we wanted it to be live and have the feeling of being immersive, with all the challenges and risks that performing and experiencing work this way creates.”
The story, riddled with intrigue and critical messages on power, morality, and climate change, will include parallels to a tale that may be a tad more recognizable to the average audience member: Shakespeare’s tragic comedy The Tempest.
“From a purely theatrical standpoint, I needed something that pulled us out of the minutiae of historic recreation,” Arnoult explains. “We are here to tell a theatrical story. We’re here to create a kind of mind-jolting performance experience. So, we blew it up.”
The correlation between the happenings in the Galapagos and The Tempest were obvious to Arnoult, bringing to an already eye-catching narrative the orientation Arnoult was searching for. Both the historical tale and Shakespeare’s play explore themes of colonialism, power, gender roles, and relationships, plus The Tempest is also set “on an island where people feel trapped,” she says. “It gave me archetypes to help tell the meta-narrative that we were anxious to tell about the Galapagos affair.”
True to the notion that no matter where you go you can never truly leave yourself behind, both Arnoult and Eden hope that viewers become more conscious of their own choices, gain more respect for the land they inhabit, and aspire to better understand the neighbors they share that land with.
“More than anything, I hope that people will take away the message that we are all in this together,” Eden says. “That no matter how much we may want to think there is some utopic other world somewhere else, we will just drag all the problems from the current world along with us.”