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PUSH Physical Theatre to bring different type of 'storytelling' to ETSU
PUSH Physical Theatre, dance picture

JOHNSON CITY (March 7, 2016) – The Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at East Tennessee State University will present PUSH Physical Theatre – which has been called “a cross between fine art sculpture and the hit movie ‘The Matrix’” – on Thursday, March 17, at 7:30 p.m. in the D.P. Culp University Center’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium.

Performances by the 2014 Fake Off finalists illustrate “the strength of the human soul using the power of the human body,” say Darren and Heather Stevenson, who founded the “gravity-defying” group in 2000 to “push” the limits of traditional theater and dance.

“There is an enormous difference between simply moving through space, however beautifully, and carving it, creating your environment by pushing the air around you,” says Darren Stevenson. “This leaves lasting imagery that hangs in the air long after you pass through it.”

PUSH’s vignettes from real life combine modern technology with physical illusions and dance-infused acrobatics to create poignant theater, or “untheatre” as they call it.

“I’ve never seen anything like them,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. “It’s something people never forget once they see it.  I’ve seen their piece performed with an iPad twice now and every time I see it, I wonder, ‘How do they do that?’”

A 2012 grant from the Farash Foundation enabled collaboration with the National Institute for the Deaf, during which PUSH created “Red Ball,” incorporating iPads to study the interplay between real and virtual worlds.

Yet most of the troupe’s motional and emotional metaphors are based on the members’ own experiences, hopes and fears, rather than technological illusion, Stevenson says. Their “Parenthood” and “The Soldier” pieces sprang from sleepless nights with new little ones and an older son in the military.

“When I perform (‘The Soldier’), which is about a young man leaving, saying goodbye to his family and leaving to go the military, it’s not just an aesthetic piece,” Stevenson says. “It’s not just a little bit of art. It is my story and his story, and it’s real for me in that moment when I perform it.

“I’m not acting. I’m not pretending. I’m actually living a real thing, and that’s the same for most of our work. There are these elements of deep truth, because we’re normal people just like everybody else.”

From more somber missed connections in relationships and the biblical struggles of Job to the wonders of Galileo’s discoveries of the universe and a tongue-in-cheek history of human flight, PUSH’s collaborative boundless imaginations take audiences “from hilarity to awe” says the Rochester City Newspaper. 

The emotional depth is only matched by the group’s physical prowess and acrobatic high jinks.

The “PUSHers” train at least five hours a day and will rehearse a stunt 40 or 50 times until “it’s all in a day’s work by the time we perform it for you,” Stevenson says.

This discipline and a shared vision brought Darren and Heather Stevenson together. They met while studying at The Center in St. Louis. They toured and studied for several years and founded the Studio School of the Arts in Atlanta before relocating to Rochester, New York, where PUSH Physical Theatre was born in 2000. The company has since toured nationally and internationally and has an in-depth educational outreach..

Other members of the company are Avi Pryntz-Nadworny, a trained actor, juggler and gymnast who has performed with Cirque du Soleil; Jonathan Lowery, a mime, actor and international touring professional; and Katherine Marino, a former Fulbright Scholar who has performed with numerous dance companies in the U.S. and Argentina.

Risk and failure are very much part of the fabric of the PUSHers’ daily routine as artists.

“When we’re creating new work, I say, ‘Look, I want 90 percent of everything you try to fail, and if it doesn’t, it means you’re not risking enough,’” Stevenson says. “We’re looking for that 10 percent that does work, which is usually really unique to you and can be quite magical.”

The PUSH magic not only defies gravity, but it also defies definition. “If you ask us what ‘physical theater’ means to us, we’ll tell you something like, ‘It’s storytelling using only our bodies,’” he says. “The beauty of movement is that we can define it without words.

“We strive to maintain an element of storytelling and emotional connection that keeps your eyes and your mind glued to the stage for the entire show. Art is a two-part experience and what we do on stage is never complete until it grabs your imagination and draws you into your own story. The overriding goal of any work PUSH produces is to create work that makes sense to the audience.”

For more on PUSH, visit

Tickets for PUSH Physical Theatre at ETSU are $5 for students with ID, $20 for seniors and $25 for general admission, and may be purchased online at  

For more information, call the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at 423-439-TKTS (8587).  For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.
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