Courtesy of the Performing and Media Arts Department

November 7, 2021

‘Reach for the Sky’ is a Vulnerable Portrait of Self-Acceptance

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Life is messy. Everyday we navigate infinite choices: Should I wear this? Should I go to that party? Should I start a conversation with her? But sometimes, in what seems a mundane accumulation, we discover we have been under social pressure in our choices. A crucial aspect of our identity has been left behind. Somehow — reaching outwards and inwards  — we must encounter ourselves anew. 

This is the lively undercurrent of Reach for the Sky, an immersive theatrical experience with music that I was fortunate to see on Oct. 29 at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. The show follows a non-binary protagonist, Sky (Lila Rallatos ’24), as they journey into their own mind and reach a complex acceptance of their gender identity, the people who shaped them and the mistakes they learn to let go of. In the subterranean Black Box Theater, arrayed with hanging shirts, shot glasses, and portals to the past, there was a sense of suspension in the deep places of someone’s mind. 

After a dizzying opening sequence, Sky becomes aware of the audience, upset at the prospect of untangling their own story. They don’t do it alone, however, with the rest of the cast playing Tracy (Sarah Lu MPA ’23), Lucy (Hannah Irvine ’25), Maeve (Fannie Massarsky ’24), Miller (Matthew Saylor ’25) and Jay (Jack McManus ’25). Each character embodies the plurality of Sky — friends, antagonists and strangers alike, corresponding to points of crisis and realization in their life. In turn, they guide, tease, admonish and comfort. They capture a dazzling range of emotion that keeps Sky and the viewers from settling into a sense of well-ordered concern. They occasionally burst into song, working with a reluctant Sky to understand vignettes of their life that they despise, fear and treasure.

Writer and director Cole Romero ’22 devised this original immersive story out of a desire to create something fresh and relatable, as well as to see whether they could manifest a vision of themself on stage. In an interview, they explained how it made sense that, as a nonbinary creator, their play should be about a nonbinary protagonist. “This isn’t a story that usually is told,” they said, or when it is, it is told in a hasty, performative way. 

They also spoke about how they went through early drafts of Reach for the Sky with much more spectacle and grandiosity, but with thought and advice, realized that changes were needed. “It could have worked,” Romero said with a smile, “but it sounded too clean, too commercial. I was like, am I trying to explore something commercial, or am I trying to explore something raw and real?” 

This sense of authenticity and vulnerability pervades the story, which sees Sky confront the toxic masculinity they were raised into and their complicated relationships, caught in a desperation for connection with sometimes harmful consequences. It unflinchingly faces up to the fact that figuring out who you are is hard, especially when the world has rigid expectations of people perceived as male. 

In an email correspondence, Jack McManus ’25 described playing a fragment of Sky named Jay, who exudes masculinity in all its abrasive arrogance. “In reality, after peeling back the layers,” he wrote, “Jay is really an insecure character about how they feel, and is guilty about the memories of Sky that they represent.” Jay’s growing empathy for Sky represents Sky’s gradual liberation from some of that insecurity. 

The second song in the show — “What’s Wrong with Being a Man?,” a cheeky take on the tenets of masculinity — Romero described as being deliberately catchy, the handiwork of the music director Luke Ellis ‘24 whose work was critical to the production’s heart. Although Romero asserted that Reach for the Sky was not a musical, at least not in the typical sense, they said that the music brought a different life to the show entirely. 

Sarah Lu, MPA ‘23, who played Tracy, one of the ‘first’ figures to arise in Sky’s mind as a kindly intermediary, also agreed. She expressed over email that music elevated the scene in which she also played Star, a role model for Sky when they are figuring out their identity. “I’m a musician myself and I believe music is able to convey things that we cannot express in words,” Lu wrote. 

As Romero explained, the PMA department is undertaking a shift in the type of shows put on, aiming to increase accessibility to audiences and versatility by showing the work of students with diverse life experiences. Romero hopes that these changes will open doors. “I’m trying to show our department that undergrads are capable of doing very professional work,” they said. “It’s within our limits and within our reach.” 

It is that earnestness that made Reach for the Sky enjoyable, in its desire to connect people, and open eyes to a simple fact: humans don’t fit into boxes. It was impossible to watch the show without being struck by the fact that it speaks to many people’s lived experiences, heightened by the looping arrangement of the seats that allowed us to see other audience member’s faces, and the performance itself — hearing an actor’s voice break in a moment of self-realization, drawn into a tight embrace. Romero expressed deep gratitude both for the audience in being a part of the experience, and for the actors in brilliantly bringing the story to life.  

McManus, in what he said was the first full-scale theatrical production he had been a part of, learned a lot about himself as an actor, overcoming nervousness and enjoying how much latitude his self-assured character gave him in his lines. “It was very freeing to be on stage, and step outside myself for a few hours to take on a different life” he remarked. 

Lu also conveyed what a pleasure it was to be a part of the show. “My experience in this show really has inspired me to take that leap to continue encouraging others to have similar conversations about other complex topics,” said Lu, “because bringing positive change in the community starts with talking, which then turns to empathy and finally action.” 

Gathering up a fractured state of mind and letting go of mistakes in a way that will respect those affected, involves meeting yourself in all your iterations and recognizing the role of many individuals in your journey. The most moving part of the show, for me, was when Sky recognizes and accepts Lucy, whose bold compassion challenges Sky’s unhealthy relationships with women and womanhood, and opens their eyes to possibilities for meaningful growth. 

“I’m hoping that the audience can understand that it’s okay to feel like that,” Romero said about the confusion of self-acceptance and healing. “To make sense of it yourself, even within your head and even with your own fellow voices that you know, people like your supports — even that is hard to do sometimes. But simply starting, feeling comfortable enough to open up, you never know where you might go and where you might lead yourself in terms of finding the truth within yourself.” 

Charlee Mandy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].