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Composting Queer Trauma through a Collaborative Process in SEAL

During the fall of 2022, writer-performer Dante Fuoco (all pronouns) reunited with director Clara Wiest (she/they), a movement and theatre artist, to rework and remount a show they first staged in 2019. In SEAL, an autobiographical solo show, Dante excavates fifteen years of family home video—not only the sweet early years curated by Dad, but also the tortured tween years filmed by son. When Dante’s repressed queer desires are suddenly exposed, he must reckon with telling the truth after decades of lies.

This re-collaboration was catalyzed when Dante joined forces with fellow Virginia Tech MFA student Rachel Pottern Nunn (she/her), who led a student organization dedicated to producing student work. Working together with Wiest, the team secured a world-class performance space on campus, recruited a skilled team of student and faculty designers, and produced a nearly sold-out run. One of the biggest achievements, however, was the process Dante and Clara developed together. Centering intentional care and trauma-informed practices, Clara acted as a doula for Dante as he birthed his story. Clara and Dante sat down for an interview with Rachel to share insights from their process.

A man stands on stage in the middle of a spotlight, with a projection behind him of him as a child.

Dante Fuoco in SEAL by Dante Fuoco at the Moss Arts Center’s The Cube. Directed by Clara Wiest. Produced by Rachel Nunn. Stage managed by Lauren Weber. Lighting design by Daryl Norman Soh. Sound design by Gabrielle Henry. Projection design by Tacie Jones. Photo by Desdemona Dallas.

Rachel Pottern Nunn: When did the project start for you?

Dante Fuoco: You could say this project started in 1990, the year I was born. My family’s home videos are the heart of SEAL. Both my parents are journalists, so archiving “what really happened” is in our blood. My dad was meticulous with documenting my very early days. There’s so much beauty and tenderness in his tapes.

But these tapes are not without their problems because when you record some things, you also vow to never record other things. The show gets into what was left out of the family record. Not only the traditional boyhood my dad foregrounded—me playing baseball, for instance—but also the queerness he refused to uplift, let alone film. So, you could say I started SEAL in 1990 or in 2016, which is when I started watching and digitizing these tapes.

Rachel: Clara, what would you like to contribute to that story? What was your own story of intersecting with Dante and the piece?

Clara Wiest: When Dante and I met, everything clicked right from the start. I was really excited about this work and the script. I love devising new work, and our collaboration and communication felt really safe, comfortable, open, and clear.

We put up the first production of SEAL in New York at Dixon Place in 2019, and then the pandemic hit. A couple years later, I got another text from Dante asking if I wanted to do the next version of SEAL at Virginia Tech, and I was like, “Yes, of course.”

The show is a meditation on being alone and the sense that loneliness does not need to be a forever thing. Writing on my own provided a healing that paired nicely with the healing of collaboration.

Rachel: In 2022, I was looking for opportunities to practice producing new work. The Virginia Tech Graduate Arts Council, a student organization I ran, issued a request for proposals, and Dante submitted this wonderful idea.

Dante: SEAL haunted me. It felt like the show had so much left to explore, yet there’s so much trauma unearthed. I felt conflicted.

Reconnecting with Clara helped. Clara’s excitement about returning to this project made me excited again. I was so happy to get Clara and then, ultimately, Lauren Weber, our stage manager, in the room. Then it felt fun again.

The show is a meditation on being alone and the sense that loneliness does not need to be a forever thing. Writing on my own provided a healing that paired nicely with the healing of collaboration.

Clara: I flew to Virginia and stayed there for a little over a month to work on the show. That was very little time for a show that’s as tech heavy as SEAL is, especially when thinking about the grandeur of the show—the autobiographical content, the trauma-informed rehearsal process. In SEAL, we pair live action with Dante’s home videos, which are mapped onto a twenty foot by ten-foot cyclorama. Just as Dante plays many different versions of themself, the videos also inhabit different roles, interacting with Dante on stage in various ways throughout the show. They uplift, antagonize, degrade, complicate, question, and puncture what’s happening on stage in real-time. The show has so many layers that need to be treated with intention and care, and that takes time.

Dante did so much work before I got there, so we could focus on the content nuances, on the stage image, on the emotional life, on the vulnerability, on entering a rehearsal room with trauma-informed care. And by trauma-informed care, we mean building a sense of safety and care that honors the trauma at play and that honors the performer as a human being first and foremost. The safety and trust built in rehearsal helps the creative team, performer, and audience metabolize the trauma instead of reprising it.

A man sits on stage in the dark, looking up at a projection of a grid that reads "men" over and over again.

Dante Fuoco in SEAL by Dante Fuoco at the Moss Arts Center’s The Cube. Directed by Clara Wiest. Produced by Rachel Nunn. Stage managed by Lauren Weber. Lighting design by Daryl Norman Soh. Sound design by Gabrielle Henry. Projection design by Tacie Jones. Photo by Desdemona Dallas.

Dante: We had fun picking up old moments and then realizing how they had changed. In the show, we get to watch a very gay twelve-year-old Dante perform Kelly Clarkson’s “Miss Independent.” In the 2019 production during this scene Dante onstage got hypnotized into a frightened synchronization with the tape while the stage manager dressed Dante in a fluffy dress without his consent. In the 2022 version, Dante transformed on her own into a skimpy pop girl outfit—still somewhat “possessed” by the home video, but ultimately enlivened by it. I think that shows my gender evolution. In 2019, I was better prepared to engage with the tape than I was in 2016, when I first found it. And in 2022 I was even better prepared to embody it.

Rachel: Prior to working on this iteration of the piece together, how would you describe your working style as artists? Has that evolved through working on this process together?

Dante: I’m not great at delegating. If you’ve seen the show, maybe you can understand why. Being a queer kid, especially closeted, you have to figure out stuff on your own. That’s a survival technique.

Pretty quickly, with this production, I realized l would need to let that go. Rachel’s producing really cinched the piece together. Sound designer Gabrielle Henry and lighting designer Daryl Norman Soh really amplified themes we were exploring. Tacie Jones added so much dimension and texture to the home videos with her projection design. It all comes back to a theme in SEAL: maybe I don’t have to be alone in all this. And in theatre, you’re not alone. You can’t be alone. You have living, breathing people watching you and supporting you.

My intention was to create a brave space where this work can live as truthfully as possible in front of an audience so that Dante felt held, supported in the reliving of their story.

Clara: When I look at this process, what crystallized for me is the importance of clear and honest communication among all departments. It’s important to be very intentional upfront about how we want to collaborate so that we can have a more breathable and smooth process.

Rachel: Dante, you are both the writer and solo performer of SEAL. Can you talk about how this combination of identities shaped what you needed from a director?

Dante: “Doula” is the word that Clara and I have used in the process.

As my doula/director, Clara never tried to claim my story as her own. If SEAL is my baby, writing and performing it is also my labor. My body is on the line. I endure quite a lot onstage because I endured hardship for so long as a queer kid and adult. Clara honors those challenges as much as they acknowledge how impossible it’d be for me to deliver this piece on my own. I need counsel, love, and respect in the delivery of this baby.

What’s tricky, of course, is that it’s not easy to delegate my own story. This is a real story. We’re reminded it’s nonfiction every time we see a home video. And that demands a particular flavor of directing that not everyone has. But Clara does.

Rachel: Clara, as the director, how did you set your intentions for working with Dante, and how did you keep adjusting those intentions collaboratively with them?

Clara: As the director, it’s my responsibility to visually communicate this story to an audience as clearly as possible. Dante's choice to write and perform this takes a lot of vulnerability and bravery. Normally a director gets a script, creates the vision, and then steers the ship toward that vision. That wasn’t the path for this show, given its autobiographical nature. So, my intention was to create a brave space where this work can live as truthfully as possible in front of an audience so that Dante felt held, supported in the reliving of their story.

Dante: This isn’t an easy piece to digest. It can be hard for queer people, women, straight people, parents. Even cis men can get jolted. SEAL reflects on realities that many of us, myself included, would rather not discuss. How we harm people we love. How we love people who harm us. That gender is made up. That childhood is hard. Much of the work here is figuring out ways for the audience to metabolize, so they don’t feel like hard stuff is getting shoved down their throats.

Clara helped us construct a container. An example: the confrontation between son and dad is a hard moment to experience. We knew it had to be in the piece, but we were less sure about the staging. Clara and Daryl, our lighting designer, figured out elegant lighting and blocking that established a wonderfully naked yet still warm energy on the stage.

A man stands on stage, illuminated by a spotlight, his shadow against the wall behind him.

Dante Fuoco in SEAL by Dante Fuoco at the Moss Arts Center’s The Cube. Directed by Clara Wiest. Produced by Rachel Nunn. Stage managed by Lauren Weber. Lighting design by Daryl Norman Soh. Sound design by Gabrielle Henry. Projection design by Tacie Jones. Photo by Desdemona Dallas.

Rachel: How did you experience this emotional care being centered in the room?

Dante: The first thing that pops out is humor, actually. Laughter. You know, silliness and goofiness and screaming and giggling. I’m so glad that we never lost sight of that. Joy underpins this piece. Joy drives this piece. So, part of the care involved honoring the trauma, yes, but also honoring the joy, absurdity, hilarity.

Clara: Yeah, it’s so important, Laughter can bring an ease into the room that is incredibly grounding, especially with trauma-informed work.

Our process was filled with intentional care. Care can come in many different shapes and forms: being in tune and aware of what happens in the room, time management, bigger picture organizational aspects. It also means being flexible with our rehearsal plan. The amount of care and time that we took in moments when hard things came up, just to sit with it and share about what’s present, was just as beneficial as working on the blocking for the show.

I would remind myself that I had survived the hardest part of the story, which was the living through it.

Dante: A couple weeks before the show, I felt like I was crashing. What really helped was Clara saying, “It’s just part of the process.” That normalized it, you know? I wasn’t scared of it then. I moved through it. We moved through it together. A lesser director, only focused on logistics, would be like, “Dante, I hear that, but it’s two weeks before the show.” But we weren’t panicked.

Clara: Yes, totally. Doing SEAL at Virginia Tech, it was really nice to feel the affirmation of an intentional process. I’m such a process-oriented person, and with this show in particular, prioritizing our needs in the process was crucial.

Rachel: In the moments when you did experience stress or a sense of urgency, how did you recenter on those values and priorities?

Clara: First, taking deep breaths in moments of stress and grounding myself in abundance is key. It’s all in divine timing. Second, I am very conscious of my energy in the room. If I feel stressed as the director, as the person who’s setting the tone, the room will be stressed. I want to be a calm, focused, open presence in the room. Third—especially in moments of stress and panic—I fall back on care, intentionality, and open communication, because that’s when I need it the most. I acknowledge stress and anxiety is present in my body, and I can still show up with my intentions of how I want to be in the room. The anxiety and stress doesn’t need to take over my system.

Dante: Yeah, sometimes we had to take emotion out of it, actually. Sometimes I had to just tell myself, “It’s just a show. It’s just a play.” I would remind myself that I had survived the hardest part of the story, which was the living through it. By the end of this run I established a mantra with younger Dante: “I do this for you like you did this for me.”

Rachel: As we wrap up, what are some big takeaways that you would want to pass on to other director and actor/writer teams who are making similar kinds of work or working in a similar way?

Clara: Set an intention for yourself as the director. Create clarity around how you want to exist in this process. Honor the intention, especially in the trying times. Remember, the energy of your rehearsal room will be palpable on stage and for the audience, so be intentional about what that energy is. Be intentional about the space you set up for everyone to work in. That’s your responsibility as the director.

Set a communication standard: how do we communicate with each other during this process? You’re going to be so focused on the work, on your team, so make sure that outside the process, you have a support system you can talk to and process with.

Keep an overview of the timeline while remaining present with what is needed in the moment as you move along. Honor what is needed. If rest is needed, spend time on a longer warmup. Trust me, your rehearsal will benefit from you being able to honor the needs of the present room.

A woman sits in the audience alone, holding a notebook and speaking to someone outside of the picture frame.

Clara Wiest giving notes in rehearsal for SEAL by Dante Fuoco at the Moss Arts Center’s The Cube. Directed by Clara Wiest. Produced by Rachel Pottern Nunn. Stage managed by Lauren Weber. Lighting design by Daryl Norman Soh. Sound design by Gabrielle Henry. Projection design by Tacie Jones. Photo by Rachel Nunn.

Dante: In my writing process, I try to follow what’s yummy and listen in the moment to what’s coming up. Some days I worked on the show for five hours. Then I went days without working on it at all. “Writing on my feet,” writing while I performed and improvised—this helped a lot. The writing helps the performing; the performing helps the writing.

Beyond that—water, nourishing food, good rest. I quit drinking during the process. I felt very monk-like toward the end, and that helped me a lot.

Also, have fun. Next time we do the show, I want to remind myself to have even more fun, when possible. Toward the end I was letting myself be more stressed than I needed to be. On our last night the projector went out, and that wasn’t the end of the world. In fact, a lot of good came from that. Given how often we break the fourth wall, and because the projection program is literally named Dante, some people thought it was planned. The audience seemed to appreciate an intermission. In future iterations, we might build this moment into the piece.

Rachel: Is there anything else that you want to be sure we touch on?

Dante: Internally, within the creative team, you have to be kinder than you’d expect. And externally, with stakeholders, you have to be tougher than you’d expect.

Clara: Absolutely agreed.

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