Production Blog

A behind the scenes peek at rehearsals, artistic choices, artist interviews, and the daily business of running a theatre.

A chat with Shyama Nithiananda about the Sublime

Learning about the sublime is unlike learning about anything else – at least for me. In reading academic descriptions of the sublime, I understood all the words people used to define it, but I felt as if I was missing some key basic element. It’s magical, destructive, thrilling, compelling, inspiring… but what is it? Not just in descriptors or adjectives, but in categories: is it a feeling? An action? An experience? When I try to parse through my life experience to figure out whether I’ve had moments of sublime, what should I be searching for?


Through this process, my understanding of the sublime has expanded and deepened, and yet I still haven’t found an answer for that initial desire for categorization. It is a feeling, an action, an experience, and more all in one. But defining it as any one of those things diminishes its massiveness. Can it be an experience without feeling? Can it be a feeling without action? I think not and here’s why: The concept of the sublime itself is one of connectivity. It asks us to submit ourselves to the fullness of nature, others, and our own inner lives in order to experience it.

As we told stories and explored them, I was struck by how limiting my initial desire for categorization seemed. My colleagues brought in stories that I would never have associated with the sublime in my own understanding of it but were sublime all the same. And more than that, it allowed a sense of connection to others that arose from an understanding that an experience analogous to my own emerged for them in situations completely unlike my own.

What sticks out to me most as sublime moments in my own life are those times where the vastness of the world overwhelms me - the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, the span of human existence on a historical timescale, black holes, The Big Bang. Natural phenomena so massive and so seemingly incongruent with my day to day life that to understand them fully would be to surrender to complete awe.

But, the more we work, the more I think that these thoughts are not necessarily consistent with an actual experience of the sublime, or rather, they are an “easy out” for me. This is because they allow me a full range of feeling without the connection to other people. Does the sublime require connection to others? I don’t think so. However, what is it that we all miss so much about a communal experience of theatre or live music?

The conclusion I’ve come to – at least for now – is that the marvel I feel at trying to imagine dinosaurs or stars or galaxies is not limited to those things. In fact, that marvelous complexity exists within each person I meet. And the capacity to feel awe, wonder, and, yes, terror, in the moments when we can recognize the fullness of another person’s existence can be sublime as well.

"Things we like in a show"

In Search of the Sublime is a devised show. “Devised theatre” is a form of collective creation wherein a creative team – it could be just the actors and the director or it could extend to the entire production team – is involved in the process of developing the show. There is no formal script at the start. The piece emerges over time based on discussion, play, and improvisation.

Can you tell us about how you went about developing this show?

Writer-director Kara-Lynn Vaeni: So this is the first time I’ve ever devised anything and I may never go back to working on someone else’s script again!  I had a structure – the 5 levels of the sublime.  And I was trying to get outside traditional ideas of theatre. So perhaps we could think of the form as if it were a... poetry slam? Or maybe it’s like a poetry slam about running – because I like working with very physical things.  On the first day of rehearsal I asked the actors to bring in a poem that they would enter in a poetry slam contest about running, and I asked them to bring in a story about one level of the sublime that they had experienced in their lives. 

I would have them tell their stories and then I would give them assignments based on what I heard. For instance, go make a 30-minute dance piece that talks about these four things. Or Make up five jokes, but the punchline has to be one of the things that an actor talked about in their story. Then I’d send them away and they would come back and perform the assignments. We’d all watch together and decide what we like, what to keep. 

The other thing I did, again because devising is so new to me, one of the techniques I used was to talk with the actors about the things we love in a performance. We made a list: ‘I like a show with a feeling of magic,’ ‘I like a show with a big production number,’ ‘I like a show that’s funny but then sad, but then funny again.’ So as I was writing the final script, made up of the best of our experiments, I had a map. I could say, ‘Right, guys, now we need a big production number, we don’t have one yet.  Let’s work on that.’  

We can’t wait to show you what we’ve made.