Mimi Seton is cooking up something fishy.
For the past several months, the slender, dark-haired actress/writer/director has been happily delving beneath conventional theater--and geography--"into an imagined environment at the bottom of the ocean, inhabited by people who are part dolphin, part crab, part clam, part sponge. . . . "
"See Below Middle Sea" (opening Friday at Taper, Too) has no words. It blends music, movement and--its creator hopes--lots of audience imagination:
"If I fill in all the blanks and connect all the dots, you won't be able to free-associate, because all the images will be there. So I'm going to imply certain things, but I don't want to be too illustrative.
"We're not moving in air anymore, we're moving in water. We're not speaking in air, we're speaking in water. What does that suggest to our bodies, to sound?"
Seton, 34 (whose last work, "Wazo, Wazo," paid musical homage to tropical birds), was originally alerted to the idea of underwater sensations by a marine biologist friend working in Alaska. "He told me about whales and their migratory patterns. It turned out that the brutal level of noise, created by the cruise ships going over Glacier Bay, is driving the whales away and interfering with their sonar patterns.
"Now to me, the cruise ship doesn't sound very bad, but underneath the water--and because of the way sound is conducted--it sounds much worse to them. Also, the creatures are semi-blind. Because hardly any sunlight gets in there, over the course of evolution they see very little. So they hear about six times more than we do and see about one-sixth as well."
Seton decided to approach her treatment with the barest frame: a score for four voices plus an acoustic keyboard, two synthesizers and various percussion (played by, respectively, David Ives Anglin, M. B. Gordy III and Don Preston).
"So it's just notes, not traditional songs. We have designated ones for each singer--that's fixed. What isn't fixed is how they sing it: on a guttural groan, as a mellifluous flute, or a human ahhhh sigh.
"At this point we've mastered about two-thirds of the score in terms of pitch. Now we've started playing with the texture and timbre of the voice, the qualities of the voice as instrument."
The resulting noises, she noted, "will be more animal that we're accustomed to. I hope you'll hear them and feel recognition: 'I have that sound inside of me.' "
And if there is no recognition?
"Ultimately, I like to please myself," she nodded. "I'm selfish as an artist. Now, if I get some sense of isolation--like ' There's no one coming, Mimi '--then I'll have to take stock. But so far, I haven't gotten that obscure. And I'm not out on that precarious a limb."
Even so, she's learned to accept the inevitable naysayers.
"If you get to a point where you're defining yourself as entirely different from everyone else, there are going to be plenty of people who don't dig it. I care that my work be received by someone --but not necessarily a lot of people."
Although she's gravitated toward experimental forms, Seton's association with the theater started off in a much more traditional fashion. A native New Yorker, schooled at Antioch and the Drama Studio in London, she began her acting career at the American Conservatory Theatre.
"Initially, I wanted to be Glenda Jackson," she smiled. "I still have great respect for the classics when they're done with openness, an investigatory spirit. What I don't like is recycled work--TV-dinner versions of 'The Sea Gull.' I've seen 'The Sea Gull' 17 times. If I'm going to go for No. 18, it'd better be something fresh."
In her own work, "I'm going as deep as I can. The one thing that's kept me from excelling has been fear, personal fear. But I think most good actors are willing to keep exploring, go through resistances. The fun part, the brave part, is summoning that courage.
"Like if you're afraid of swimming, you have to go into the water or you remain contracted. You can't get over it theoretically, you have to have a body experience."
Or perhaps a theatrical outing in the "See Below Middle Sea."