“How far do I have to go to get you? / Many the miles/ Many the miles.” These lyrics and melodies of bittersweet reflection, taken straight from a Sara Bareilles album, settle into the spaces of Brody Theater. The Miles, a senior distinction project written by and featuring senior Theater Studies Steven Li, centers on finding identities through changing relationships. The play’s title, along with its themes, allude to songs by Sara Bareilles that Li chose to incorporate in order to enhance each character’s transformation. The Miles explores the conflicts that arise when love, duty and desire adversely cross each other’s paths. Three characters—Sam, Bobby and Emma—find themselves caught in moments of desperation and confusion as they try to determine where their true values and responsibilities lie. The play tells a coming-of-age story in which all three characters explore their sexuality, relationships and, in turn, identities.
In writing the play, Li drew inspiration from many of his own experiences. “Some parts reflect upon my time here at Duke, others reflect on the relationship[s] I have with people not at Duke: my parents, childhood friends and friends from home.” Li also plays one of the characters, Sam, and although he says that “all three characters are an extension of myself,” what drew him to Sam was that he “understood the character’s internal struggles between duty and desire.”
As for the addition of music, Li wrote The Miles with the intention of featuring songs specifically by Bareilles, an idea he had wanted to explore for a long time.
“The music of Sara Bareilles served as a springboard of inspiration for me, but is also an integral part of the text itself, being the way through which the characters process their thoughts and emotions at key points in the play,” Li wrote in an email.
The inclusion of music based on an artist’s personal experiences was a point of contention during the initial stages of the play. As professor of Theater Studies Neal Bell noted, “I think in the earlier drafts, there was more emphasis on the songs and each song sort of took away from the drama in the story.”
However, many of the songs originally included have been cut in order to truly connect the emotions expressed by Sara Bareilles to the story without sacrificing dramatic content. “This is a very different story [from Bareilles’]; it’s more like her music echoes with this story,” Bell said.
Following up with this process, theater director and Duke alum Marshall Botvinick worked on connecting the songs with the spoken text to where it would at some points “sound closer to speech” rather than “text – song, text – song.” This fusion of speaking and singing is heard distinctly during one of the most emotionally resonant scenes, where two of the characters intersperse chokes and sobs with occasional utterances of Bareilles’ songs.
Similar to bands performing cover songs, the actors attempt to relate to the underlying feelings of each song, transforming Bareilles’ songbook into a soundtrack for the play. “It all depends on the actors and how they use the song,” said Karen Wilmer, a senior who plays Emma. “There’s a danger in just straight acting and straight singing. If the actors can use the song in the same way that they can use the script, then they’ve done the job right.”
Indeed, these characters have every reason to connect so fiercely to the emotions voiced by the open-book Bareilles. The relationships conveyed in The Miles are insecure and unsettled, each equipped with the capacity to evolve. Just like Bareilles belts out her culpability in being deceived, Wilmer sings out her painful acceptance of reality in a beautiful rendition of “Between the Lines.”
As for opening on Valentine’s Day, “It’s perfect,” said Bell. “It’s not a date play; it’s about the difficulties we all wrestle with when we’re in love. It’s about finding out who you are and being afraid of being who you are.” Botvinick added, “It’s very much a young play and I think some of the experiences chronicled in this play are recognizable to this generation.”
In the course of writing and producing The Miles, the cast has highlighted the unpredictable roller coaster of finding security of self by testing the limits of love. The travails and hardships outlined in the story only contribute more to the play’s title, which Li says is “so much about the miles we travel for love, both for others and for ourselves.”
The Miles runs tonight through Saturday in Brody Theater at 8 p.m. Admission is free.