September 29, 2022 Coverage and Posts, CSA

PREVIEW: Vida Chai’s Somewhere Strange

The perils of self-reflection are not usually traversed by those living in survival mode. There is no time to wallow in a crisis, but what happens when the crisis itself gives you more time than you’re prepared to handle?

Cut to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Uncertainty, danger, grief, loss, panic, and illness were the world-wide crises, but there was a crisis within the crisis. In our various ways, we were stranded. Some in homes, some without homes, some with family, roommates, partners, some in isolation, in hospitals. For those sheltering in place, the suspension of forward momentum was, at times, wholly unnerving, but there was also a sharpening of focus available to those in search of it.

Vida Chai is one of those enduring humans who rejected the notion of numbing out during quarantine. Instead, they turned inward and found a spark of creation. An indie-folk singer-songwriter inspired by Joni Mitchell and Esperanza Spalding, Vida brings their 2020-inspired musical album, Somewhere Strange, to life at the New Hazlett Theater two years after that spark caught fire.

Somewhere Strange is an immersive musical experience that hopes to envelop your senses and intrigue your imagination. Vida explains, “[Somewhere Strange is] the title track of the album that’s coming out with the show premiere.” They go on, “but it’s also really just my title for where we all were at the beginning of the pandemic.” Vida explains their inspiration, “We were somewhere strange and unfamiliar and just trying to learn these new rules. It felt weird and eerie to be out in Pittsburgh or any major city. It was a strange place.” For those willing to examine themselves, the mental hot spots have been strange places as well.

Thistle and Ray, the two main characters in this story, are brought to life through Kaila Carter’s choreography and dancers, Indira Cunningham and Meghan Phillips. “Thistle is trying to navigate this very unknown time of being in 2020 and the pandemic. They’re searching for meaning, and they’re trying to, at first, survive and figure out ‘how do they get through a day?,’ and then, over time, they start to move more toward, ‘Ok, well, how do I really enjoy my life?’”

“That’s where Ray comes in. It’s a really interesting interplay — the separation between people that happened with masks and with social distancing and also an emotional separation between two people that were not compatible but really wanted to be together.”

“When things go wrong,” Vida ruminates, “you cling onto what’s familiar to you. Through the pandemic, a lot of people deepened certain relationships and maybe distanced themselves from others because they realized, ‘who’s there when you really need someone?’”

Although the devastating heights of the early-pandemic have been slightly leveled in 2022, Vida recognizes that the effects reverberate. “We all, as a society have just experienced this very ridiculous past few years, and I just wanted to create a show to acknowledge, ‘Yeah, this is not normal, and it’s ok if you’re having a hard time, you know, getting through the work day. It’s ok if you need some extra therapy right now. It’s ok if you need more support,’ because I think, in some ways, we’re expected to just keep going through the motions like nothing has changed when, in fact, everything has changed.”

Collaboration is vital to putting this show together, and it is the most thrilling aspect of the production for Vida, starting with their fellow musicians. “That’s my favorite part,” Vida’s smile broadens, “when it [goes] from just me to the band because they’re always going to add their own elements and artistic choices to the music.” The band includes Dan Miller on upright bass, Ryan Socrates on percussion, Gray Buchanan on fiddle, and singers, Kelsey Robinson and Treasure Treasure.

Working with fellow artists, including New Hazlett alum and director of Somewhere Strange, Lindsay Goranson, is a dream come true for Vida Chai, as is working with the New Hazlett Theater itself. “It really feels like the New Hazlett is a part of Pittsburgh North Side history, so I love the simple fact that it’s a very Pittsburgh thing, I think, to have a show here, and that’s where most of the show is set as well. That feels important.”

Also important to Vida is establishing space for queerness in art, in Pittsburgh, and beyond. “I’m non-binary, and I really like that I was able to have a character who is non-binary and uses “they/them” pronouns. You know, something doesn’t have to be in-your-face, there’s-rainbows-everywhere to be queer. I really like the idea of there just being more spaces where it’s kind of an everyday thing because that’s how it should be, in my opinion.” They also highlight the simple reason this show lives in that queer space. “It’s queer because I made it.”

“The more queer people that are visible, doing big, exciting things, the more other people feel empowered to share their voice and apply for that grant and, you know, just put themselves out there because when you see yourself represented, that is huge in having the confidence to be out there and be open.”

Queer or otherwise, Vida has a hope for each audience member after seeing, Somewhere Strange. “I just want people to feel seen and less alone in their experience.”

This production offers a take-home treat to remember the shared experience as well. “The album, Somewhere Strange, will be available at the New Hazlett Theater,” Vida says, “like a soundtrack for the show, and that will be a special thing for the people who are actually at the show. They can have that association and that memory with the music, which is so cool.”


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