With ‘Double Vision,’ Olivia Popp ’21 envisions new creative paths

March 14, 2019, 12:30 a.m.

You have never seen a musical like “Double Vision” because I am not sure one exists in the world. It’s not just that the show — written and directed by Olivia Popp ’21, and co-produced by Olivia Popp ‘21 and Niza Contreras ’20 — is an original sci-fi musical comedy about multidimensional travel and destiny. That would be fairly unique on its own, but I’m sure you could find some production that matches “Double Vision” in ambition and genre-bending joy. The factor that truly makes “Double Vision,” which premiered last Thursday night at the Elliott Program Center, one of a kind does not lie in its premise but instead in the pure and chaotic energy with which that premise is pulled off.

When I sat down at EPC last Thursday evening for “Double Vision,” I quickly came to the realization that anything could happen on stage that night. Of course, that’s true of any live performance, but the unpredictability of watching an original production on its opening night is a higher sort of chaos.

“Double Vision” takes that chaotic energy and runs with it, delivering nearly three hours of musical comedy with a poise and dedication that never flags. The basic plot of “Double Vision” is simple — Luke Sheridan, played with a deep gusto by Daily staffer Bobby Pragada ‘19, is a physicist stuck in a professional rut. He builds a device that lets him connect with alternate dimensions, and in doing so meets Sam Connor (the earnest Gwen Le ‘22), a screenwriter who is linked to him through the strange logic of the multiverse.

But from that standard sci-fi premise, “Double Vision” gets deeply, deeply weird. This is a show whose first scene features one character — Ben Wu 19’s endlessly compelling Kirk River, a physics professor with a truly surprising twist in his character arc — mentioning in passing that he’s a character in a musical. This is a show where one of the two leads is a screenwriter whose script is also about multiverses. This is a show where three side characters sing a song about the need for reparations from straight men. This is a show with 35 musical numbers — 18 original songs and a truly dazzling array of reprises — that never feels like it’s running out of ideas.

Central to that is Popp’s writing, of course — she makes every character feel fleshed out and humanistically sketched, even roles that could have been thankless ones. Take the pair of Vanessa Connor and Sierra Scott (played, respectively, by Francesca Watkins ‘20 and Rosemond Ho ‘18, MS ’20), two inherently secondary characters who even sing songs about their tangential relation to the plot. In another writer’s hands, the joke would have ended there — two self-aware jokes that don’t resolve into a broader change. But in “Double Vision,” the two characters become central to the plot, with a romantic arc to themselves. The script goes beyond lazy meta-commentary and actually does something about the tropes against which it is pushing back, creating bold new ideas for the production as a whole to play with.

The creative energy of the writing trickles down to every other aspect of “Double Vision,” small or large. Of course, the live orchestra’s performance, arranged and conducted by Paul Gregg ’17, who also played lead keyboard parts throughout, loomed large throughout the night. How could it not, given the sheer amount of music in the show?

But even with the copious number of songs embedded within the production, the show’s musical touch remained light and quick-moving — though some songs felt as if they ran too long, the orchestra’s energy kept them from overstaying their welcome.

But in a production as ambitious as “Double Vision,” every member of the small cast and crew shone. Elements like the lighting, ably designed by Michael Espinosa ‘21, and the minimalist set, technical directed and coordinated by co-producer Niza Contreras ‘20, initially appear to merely be functional. Yet as the show blossoms outward, the little pieces of their designs become something altogether more playful and poetic, with facets like a rectangle of orange light representing an inter-dimensional portal and a rolling chair that serves as a set piece for a number of comedic chase sequences coming to life with a creative joy.

Yet, despite all of its inventiveness, “Double Vision” is a show that lives on simple moments of sincere emotion. When Luke reaches the climax of his emotional arc and takes a leap into the figurative and literal unknown, he does so with a joke and a callback to an earlier moment in the show. But those moments of levity don’t dull the impact of the big emotional beats of “Double Vision” but make them all the sweeter. It’s that kind of play, you know? It’s a sci-fi musical comedy about the anxieties of living in the Midwest. It’s a meta-commentary that’s 100 percent sincere about itself, a musical that knows that musicals are bullshit, and most of all, a truly original work.

With 'Double Vision,' Olivia Popp '21 envisions new creative paths
The cast and crew of Double Vision, an original sci-fi musical comedy directed and produced by Olivia Popp ’21. (Courtesy of Olivia Popp)

To get a better insight into the making of “Double Vision,” we talked to Olivia Popp last week while the show was running to get her point of view on doing creative work at Stanford.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): “Double Vision” is a completely original work of musical theater — what inspired you to write it and bring it to life at Stanford?

Olivia Popp (OP): After more than two years of doing theater at Stanford, I wanted to see if I, along with the close collaboration and support of my talented artistic peers, could make something that pushed the boundaries of the types of theater produced on this campus. The primary goals for this project were to produce self-reflective work that makes a narrative and industry critique of the musical theater form as well as challenge standards for student-produced theater, which primarily consists of canonically white, popular musicals in the Western canon. When we were hiring, I wanted to make sure our goals were represented from the ground up, so I sought folks who maybe didn’t have that much theater experience (or any at all!), but were passionate about their work, and by the end, we had an with an entirely POC cast and design team as well as a queer-led cast and leadership team. In a more whimsical sense, I wanted to see if anyone would actually show up to something completely new, potentially hazardously terrible and not directly supported by a student organization. There’s a certain possibility for something fun and something wacky and wild, and I knew that I’d be too jaded senior year to do this — hence doing it now.

TSD: What’s your most cherished memory doing creative work at Stanford?

OP: It’s tough to pinpoint one specific memory, but one that I remember very vividly is during strike for “Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery,” the first show I directed (about a year ago). The set was huge and we had to tear the entire thing down, but we just blasted music and had a blast dancing and making something fun of the process, which is often sad and a little bit wistful, given that productions usually only go up for three days and then everyone parts ways. I put up a 360-degree camera in the space and made a short video of the process of setting up and taking down the set, which is also a treasured piece — now I can always look back on it.

TSD: What’s your creative process like? How do you make time for art?

OP: I’ll be honest, I’ve gotten into this cycle where I put off school to do theater. As a director or creative lead for a project, I’ll go out of my way to ensure that everyone is enjoying the process and finding a community, and that requires spending time communicating, or going off-campus to get food or supplies. Thus, it’s not so much as making time for art as it is making time for school. I’ve begun to craft a lot of my work around my creative and artistic interests — papers I write are about science fiction, television, comedy, comics and the like. I’ve gotten to a place where even my academic and research interests, including my majors (STS and film and media studies) have spun out of spending so much time on my creative interests.

TSD: What’s a unique challenge of artistic expression at Stanford?

OP: Not so unique, but money is always a challenge. I say this because it’s less of a barrier and more of a challenge for theater, because theater can be made anywhere although a lot of art requires materials and resources in order to make. One pushback against musical theater I wanted to prioritize for “Double Vision” was to take away that common element of spectacle that is always associated with musical theater. I tried to make “Double Vision” as low-budget as possible — we had two set pieces (a table and a chair) and two props, and then we rented a few lights and speakers/microphones for sound. Maybe a better answer to this question is just finding time to do it all. I’ve had so many projects fizzle out because I’ve just run out of time — but finding other people who can keep you accountable is so helpful.

TSD: In addition to creating your own original works, you’ve also directed and worked on a number of plays and other productions here. What have you learned from those works that has helped you with “Double Vision”?

OP: Student theater is a beast of its own. Getting to work on a budget is both a blessing and a curse — I’ve learned how to deal with money and make something work artistically on a budget and to make sure that all aspects of a production are covered on a small budget. I’ve developed relationships with vendors in the Bay for technical equipment and assistance, which has come in handy because issues always arise. But to me, community is the most important thing. I’ll go out of my way to ensure that everyone is having a good time, especially if they’re doing theater for the first time (and sometimes that means cutting my other obligations). That’s what I see as my primary responsibility as the creative lead for a project — because at the end of the day, we spend so many hours together during tech week, the show happens, and then it’s all over. That sense of community is something that I’ve held close to me through all of my work, and it’s been fostered especially strongly in AATP.

TSD: You’ve been involved with the Asian American Theater Project for many years. How do community and identity shape your creative worldview?

OP: Honestly, this is something I still can’t answer. Community [is at the heart of my worldview], more so than anything, but the only thing that I know is that I still know so little. So community more so than anything — if you’re in a position of authority or a position of influence, it’s your responsibility to be providing those opportunities like I was provided when I started with AATP. It’s not enough to be passive or to just take on those who have experience. AATP has supported me from the start — I came in as an intern during freshman year. On a fundamental level, AATP has opened me up to the national Asian American theater scene as well as the Bay Area scene, which has been invaluable in learning about contemporary literature and art coming from artists and theatermakers of color. However, tying back to the last question, it’s more of a creative community than it is about identity that has shaped my creative interests and direction. I came to Stanford with a very specific view on my own identity and where I wanted to go, and AATP completely threw that for a loop. AATP has entirely shaped me as an individual as an artist — mostly through pushing me to reconsider what I think is art worth making and consuming as well as what stories I want to think about. Being part of AATP has pushed me to think beyond what I could gain from an artistic community and has me thinking more about what I can contribute or bring back into this community.

TSD: If you could go back to the start of freshman year, what would you change about the way you’ve done art here?

OP: Do more, probably? I overcame a lot of personal fears when I started doing theater and film at Stanford, but I just had to keep going at it until I found people who supported me and what I wanted to do, and in turn, I wanted to make sure that they were also learning and growing from the process just as I was. I still spent a lot of time in fear of not making good work or wanting to jump immediately to making work that was beyond the scope of what I knew I could create. I would have definitely loved to just make more films, try something totally new, or work with other communities beyond the ones I’m with now (even if I love them dearly).

TSD: If you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to do creative work at Stanford, what would you say?

OP: Find other people! I can only speak to theater and film, but other people are your artistic and creative roots. When you find other people who want to see your work and support your work, it’s the most rewarding feeling — they’ll tear it down only to bring it back up even higher, they’ll go out of their way to do wild things to help you succeed. Especially when resources are a necessity and being in a group just makes everything so much easier to get done, finding like-minded (or not like-minded) peers who also just want to make stuff is the best support system you’re going to get if you want to make anything.

TSD: What’s the elevator pitch for “Double Vision”?

OP: Boy meets girl. There’s a wormhole! They don’t fall in love. Everything goes awry.

TSD: Once “Double Vision” wraps up, what do you see yourself doing next, either at Stanford or in the wider world?

OP: I definitely want to spend more time working on film. I’ve completed a number of scripts, and I made a short film last summer that was an amazing experience to work on. I’m hoping to develop something a little longer, something beyond the shorts I’ve made. My work at Stanford has forced me into a position where I have no choice to reconsider my position as an artist and what I want that to really mean. I’ve kind of ended up in this weird limbo or liminal space where I’m floundering and I don’t know if I’m having an impact, or whether art can even make an impact, or what that even means, so I think my next few projects are going to be a little more introspective in an attempt to really find what I’m actually doing.

Jacob Kuppermann writes about music for the Arts & Life Section of the Stanford Daily. He is currently undecided, both in regards to his major and towards the world as a whole, but enjoys biology, history, playing guitar & bass, and thinking about the Chainsmokers.

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