This Show at the EQT Children’s Theater Festival Turns Audiences Into Water

Hiawatha Project’s “Buoyant Sea” casts young theatergoers as a splashing, flowing body of water in a world-premiere production.


Most of the time, a theatrical audience is just a group of silent observers. At other times, particularly in the realm of theater designed for families, the audience can be participants; more immersive shows bring audience members, as themselves, into a fictional world.

“Buoyant Sea” may be the first show where the audience is water.

Developed by Pittsburgh-based theater company Hiawatha Project, “Buoyant Sea” is an original, interactive play for parents and children ages 1-4. Two performers (Alex Manalo and Laura Lee Anderson) will be stationed in a boat in the middle of the performance space; a water table will surround the boat, and the audience will be asked to become the water on which the story floats.

“The audience is truly the third character in the show,” says Anya Martin, the founding artistic and producing director of Hiawatha Project and the playwright and director of “Buoyant Sea.” “The audience helps to guide and teach to lead. It’s not like a choose-your-own-adventure — it’s watching these young children play. There’s a lot of beautiful thought processes behind it all.”

Martin collaborated with composer and lyricist Monica Stephenson to create “Buoyant Sea,” as the two worked together for a second time (after Hiawtha’s successful “My Traveling Song”). The two artists began discussing ideas during the depths of COVID lockdowns.

“When times are scary, it’s okay to look for your child to learn how to be present and play,” Martin says. (While those early months of the pandemic provided the seed for “Buoyant Sea,” Martin adds that COVID has no direct bearing on the story or experience of the show.)

The central metaphor, of water as a force that constantly changes and moves, led to the story and its songs. “I was really excited by the idea of a journey for [these] characters — thinking about water, but also thinking about the journey that water makes,” Stephenson says. “We paralleled that journey … to be able to listen to water in different states and then try to craft singable melodies inspired by that, I was really grooving on that.”

As caregivers and children are stationed in the “splash zone” around the boat, they’ll interact with water in all its forms — pools of liquid, as steam and as ice, throughout the space designed by Sasha Swartz. While there are “beautifully written songs and scripted numbers,” characters will interact with audience members, as well, while “the entire show is engaging with the elements.”

“Buoyant Sea” will be presented as part of the EQT Children’s Theater Festival, a gathering of artists and productions from around the world set for this weekend in the Cultural District. Hiawatha Project will join groups including Madagascar’s La Compagnie Zolobe, Australia’s Windmill Theatre Co. and Nova Scotia’s Mermaid Theater. “Buoyant Sea” is not only the only Pittsburgh-based theatrical production in this year’s festival, but it’s also the only show from the United States as a whole.

“After seeing ‘My Traveling Song’ in 2019, I knew that Hiawatha Project had the insight and skills to create a beautiful original piece for the EQT Children’s Festival,” says Pamela Komar, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s director of theater, music and youth programming. “I love the creativity and attention to detail that Hiawatha shares with its audiences — young and not-so-young.”

“[What a] privilege that it is to be included with all of these international artists,” Stephenson says. “It’s gratefulness.”

When audiences leave — with a tiny boat in hand, in the form of a piece of Stephenson’s sheet music folded into a ship-shape — Martin says they’ll feel elevated.

“We want them to feel like they just floated up to the top of this beautiful world … I want it to feel like this little bubble of a moment that you got to float to the surface of with your child.”

Categories: The 412