I WAS NEVER ALONE is a documentary play comprised of a series of monologues or portraits, each of which is adapted from transcribed ethnographic interviews and observed scenes with real people whose stories inspired the work. The play is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted by playwright-ethnographer Cassandra Hartblay in Russia in Russian in 2012–2013 with funding from the National Science Foundation.

A book including the play script and an accompanying analysis was published with University of Toronto Press in 2020, and a companion website to the book is in development, to feature recorded performances.

in a dark surrounding, a blue light falls on Reagan, a white woman with blond hair wearing a black leather jacket and purple scarf. behind her, and out of focus, a man in glasses holds a guitar and reads from music stand, light reflecting across the lenses of his glasses. the background is black.

Regan Linton as Vera, and Vladimir Rudak as Musician, during the October  2016 staged workshop of I WAS NEVER ALONE at UC San Diego’s Shank Theatre. Photo copyright Jim Carmody, please visit his website for a full gallery and contact him for usage requests.

The 90-minute play is comprised of six monologues or portraits, which are nearly entirely composed of quotes transcribed from ethnographic interviews with real people, whose life experiences form the inspiration for each character. The people whose stories inspired the play had input in script development, and approved the resulting representations.

While the subject matter of the play centers the segregation of people with disabilities, the themes in the work – love, family, alienation from politics, and the desire for connection in a digital world – are universal.

Watch a UNC Arts video interview with Cassandra about the play on Vimeo.

Cassandra Hartbaly sits in front of a white wall with newspaper clippings of theater articles on it, in even natural light. She is a white woman with short reddish brown hair and brown eyes, wearing chunky white earings and a big black scarf. She is looking at the camera and talking. A video title on the lower part of the image reads Cassandra Hartblay, ethnographer-plawright, I Was Never Alone.

Future Performances

I Was Never Alone will be performed in Toronto, Ontario in 2021, details TBA. Future performances in Russia are also planned.

The play script is available for performance upon request, with no royalties for non-profit and educational productions. Please share plans to perform the work with the ethnographer-playwright. More information is available here.

Production History

I Was Never Alone was developed as a play in a Performance Studies seminar in 2015 at UNC Chapel Hill. The work also had two process readings at UNC-CH in 2015 & 2016. In February 2016, the play was presented as a staged reading following a workshop in Performance Studies with support from the Department of Communication, Arts @ The Core, and Medical Anthropology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Joseph Megel directed, Ariana Rivens stage managed, and Joseph Amodei designed lighting and projection. Actors included Cuquis Robledo as Alina, George Barrett as Rudak, Germona Sharp as Tania, and Meredith Kemple as Anya. The staged readings were followed by an audience talk back session with the actors, director, and playwright-ethnographer and a round table discussion with Jehanne Gheith (Duke University Russian and Gender Studies), Ann Millet-Gallant (UNC-G Disability Studies and Art History), Della Pollock (UNC-CH Performance Studies), Jane Thrailkill (UNC-CH English and Medical Humanities), Michele Rivkin-Fish (UNC-CH Medical Anthropology).

In 2016, the project was awarded a Frontiers of Innovation Scholars Program (FISP) grant from the University of California at San Diego. Excerpts from the play were presented in a table reading and discussion as part of the Performance Ethnography Lab series of UCSD’s Studio for Ethnographic Design. In the summer of 2016, Hartblay conducted a process reading of a Russian-language version of the script with the people whose stories are represented here. The UCSD grant culminated in a two-week workshop and process production at the Shank Theatre in UC San Diego’s Department of Theatre & Dance with support from the Vice Chancellor’s Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and the Department of Communication October 7th and 8th, 2016. Joseph Megel was the director for the project; Bryan P. Clements was the production stage manager; Julie Burelle was the dramaturg; Jason Dorwart served as assistant director; Joel Britt and Charlie Jicha designed lights and set respectively. Louise Hickman designed the disability access schema for the performances. Vladimir Rudak performed live musical accompaniment. With performances by Reagan Linton as Vera, Samuel Valdez as Vakas, Andrew Manardo as Sergei, Judy Bauerlein as Alina, Irina Dubova as Mama, Jason Dorwart as Rudak, and Molly Maslak as Anya.

I WAS NEVER ALONE was performed in a staged reading at Yale University as part of the Soyuz Symposium for Postsocialist Cultural Studies hosted by the Department of Anthropology on March 2nd and 3rd, 2018. Elise Morrison of Yale Theatre Studies directed. Event details for the Yale staged reading are here.

IWNA Poster_updated-01


Press for the October 2016 Performance:

From the CityBeat “Three You Have to See ShortList”:

“FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE – It’s easy to fall for the notion that Russia is a cold, bleak place. Granted, there isn’t much evidence to prove otherwise: Putin’s tyrannical policies, a maligned Winter Olympics and waging a devastating war against Syria are only some recent examples. I Was Never Alone—described as “a documentary play”—usurps these notions by presenting seven monologues (or “portraits”) composed entirely of quotes transcribed from interviews with Russians living with mobility impairments. Yes, the topic that binds these monologues—segregation from Russian society—doesn’t exactly inspire the warm fuzzies, but the underlying themes of love, connection and family are reminders that humanity can exist in the cold.”

From a TheatreForum – International Theatre Journal article by Jason Dorwart:

“Having actors with disabilities as part of the process, gave vitality and honesty to the performance that would have been otherwise missing. Audiences are accustomed to having disability on stage elicit responses of sympathy, pity, and tragedy; and actors are conditioned to play those roles with that same attitude. In his book chapter “Disability in the Media; or, Why Don’t Disabled Actors Play Disabled Roles?,” Lennard Davis addresses this way of doing things. He says that visual storytelling and performances use “popular and knowable narratives and then tweak them a bit here and there. Disabilities are part of that narrative. Physical disabilities appear in the popular imagination in a variety of ways, notably as challenges or tragedies, and affective [. . .] Most commonly, audiences are called upon to produce a limited range of responses from sympathy or pity to some kind of beneficent granting of limited personhood to such characters” (Davis 31). But this production of I Was Never Alone actively avoided such pitfalls, and the rehearsal process with people from multiple backgrounds enabled each actor see the core of their character and move past playing the “tragedy of disability.” “

Press from the February 2016  workshop:

Listen to an archived a radio interview with WCHL/Chapelboro’s Aaron Keck.

A reviewer for regional arts blog CVNC wrote of the play,

“At the heart of this complicated sounding play is a very simple result: we are all people living our lives, but sometimes we need extra help. The [characters] all offer up slices of their lives, speaking on their specific mobility issues, significant events in their lives, and some of the pleasures and pains of their worlds. While some are deeply entrenched in calls for social or political action […] others are light and humorous.

The cast of the February 2016 staged reading of I WAS NEVER ALONE rehearses. Eight actors (young people of different genders and skin colors) are shown seated in front of a curtain, some on chairs or stools, others on their own mobility devices.

The cast of the February 2016 staged reading of I WAS NEVER ALONE rehearses.

For production videos, a sample from the script, interviews and press releases, or more information, please email cassandra.hartblay (at) utoronto (dot) ca.