The first thing to know about "Lost & Found: Storytelling, Ritual and Remembrance" is that it happens on an island.
"Islands are magical. They're between things, and the best rituals happen in in-between spaces," said co-director Leah Cooper, who created the piece to take place in nature, outside the formal confines of a proscenium. "We'll invite [audiences] to cross a threshold and leave behind their fear and disbelief in magic."
Added Megan Kim, who's performing in the Wonderlust Productions show: "On Raspberry Island, you'll be entering what we call a liminal space, where the next couple hours are just for us. It adds to the idea that we all will be living in this moment."
Built around "ambiguous loss" — that which comes as a result of something other than death and that resists closure — the world premiere will change significantly from night to night. Audiences will join the company on the island near downtown St. Paul, where they'll split into groups. Guides will lead them among four storytellers, who will share personal accounts of loss.
Cooper, Kim (a guide) and Antonio Duke (a storyteller) are united by one form of ambiguous loss: They are adopted.
"I recently met some biological family members for the first time," said Duke. "My story is about my brother Cordell, who I haven't met. I saw a picture at my biological mom's house, which is adorned with pictures of family members, and wrote a three-minute piece about me and him having a conversation."
"Ambiguous loss" — pioneered by Twin Cities therapist Pauline Boss — will be new for many theatergoers. It was new to most of the company, including Kim. When Cooper shared the phrase, she said her reaction immediately went from "I don't know what this is" to "Oh, crap. I have ambiguous loss."
The show has been in development for years, and was tested with a Zoom show called "Contract Tracing" during the pandemic, but Cooper had doubts about whether the concept would connect to people. Now that we've all lived and lost through 30 months of a pandemic, she's confident it will.
"At one point, I said to [co-artistic director Alan Berks], 'Maybe I should give up on this ambiguous loss thing.' And he said, 'No. We all have it. We all get it now,'" Cooper said.
To help audiences connect to their losses — and perhaps do some healing — "Lost & Found" will end with a ritual. Whether a prayer before a meal, a dance at a rave or a song around a campfire, Cooper says rituals are linked to theater, going all the way back to the Greeks.
"We're not just inviting the community to attend a play or perform a play. We're saying, 'Let's all make one together in the moment.' For us, it's kind of a return to the roots of theater," Cooper said.
As audiences listen to each storyteller — in addition to Duke, they'll be Laurel Armstrong, Masanari Kawahara (who will incorporate butoh dance) and Marcela Michelle — they also will be introduced to rhythms, snippets of song, breathing techniques and movement, all of which will come together at the end for a group ritual.
Each theatergoer can participate at whatever level they choose.
"One of the biggest parts of this is compassion. We don't want to ask anyone to do anything that makes them uncomfortable. I'm not going to make people who don't want to sing, sing," Kim said.
Cooper said "Lost & Found" will be playful and judgment-free, emphasizing what can happen when we listen to our bodies.
Duke is eager to be part of that process and to tell his story in a way that isn't always possible on a stage. He'll be looking directly into the eyes of audience members, and it will be happening in the middle of the Mississippi River — the same "dope, calm place" he sat next to when he wrote his piece of "Lost & Found."
The actor/playwright/director uses a nature metaphor to describe his hopes for the show.
"I hope we convey that if [audiences] are going through some kind of loss, they'll get through it. For me that would be a great takeaway. If you're in the storm of it, it's hard to see," said Duke. "It's spoken about in the piece. With any loss, you're never completely over it. But you get through it. You carry it with you."
According to Kim, "Lost & Found" should remind us there is more that unites us than separates us. And that, when it comes to feeling loss, we are all in it together.
'Lost & Found'
Who: Created and directed by Leah Cooper. Co-directed by Yana Landowne.
When: 3 p.m. Fri.-Sun. Ends Sept. 4.
Where: Raspberry Island, St. Paul.
Tickets: Sliding scale, $25 suggested, wlproductions.org.