When the new year has just begun to settle in, the PROTOTYPE festival emerges to remind us of the adventurous experimentation possible throughout the coming year. The PROTOTYPE festival, founded by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, is now in its sixth year. Over nine days, performances across Manhattan and Brooklyn’s small venues explore the wide-ranging genre of music-theater. This year, amidst several productions that tackle women’s trauma and suffering, ThisTree added a much-needed moment of poignant honesty and genuine warmth. For just over an hour, cellist, vocalist, and songwriter Leah Coloff opened the door of her life and allowed us to experience some of her most personal memories while she grappled with her place as the last branch on her family tree.
Quiet ambient sound filled the room and Coloff emerged wearing a bright orange pioneer poke bonnet (think Little House on the Prairie) and large denim patchwork coat. Slowly making their way around the room, the six members of the band held up the long train of Coloff’s coat as the sound became more eerie and distorted. The accompanying visuals of mountains and trees (projected around the room on what looked like torn cloth) enveloped us in a short journey through the forest. Once we reached what seemed like a small clearing, the sound evaporated, the band was in place, and a slow pizzicato cello pattern emerged. The pattern was gently passed to the violin (delicately played by Christina Courtin), and Coloff’s narrative began. “I like to sit in the grass,” she said, while she told the story of making a flower chain as a child, leading her to question the specifics of her own memory.
Almost instantly Coloff changed gears, combining a pizzicato slap with audible slide to create a guitar-like cello sound over which she rhythmically stated, “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.” The resulting rock anthem relayed the overarching theme of the show as Coloff sang about the realities of infertility. Through a forward-driving, toe-tapping motion she sang of sacrifice and selfishness in what became an intricately personal and simultaneously universal sentiment. Coloff’s ability to merge the private and the collective allowed the entire piece of music-theater to become genuinely sincere without being overly sentimental.
The remainder of ThisTree continued in the same manner: unaccompanied narrative with occasional musical motion underneath, followed by a sometimes funky, sometimes introspective song. Whether through sung or spoken text, Coloff proved her success as a storyteller—setting distinct scenes with descriptively visual language, viscerally evoking emotion, and allowing the audience to feel part of her personal journey. As part storyteller and part singer/cellist, she seamlessly embodied the two distinct worlds.
From three-part folk singing to bluesy big-band rhythmic insistence in an up-tempo groove, ThisTree highlighted Coloff’s versatile songwriting skills through vignettes and disjointed stories. Coloff’s vulnerability came to light as she sang of growing up with family secrets, in what sounded like both an improvised lullaby and an old American tune. She showcased her high range through a trembling sadness, while Hilary Hawke’s gentle banjo strumming provided quiet company. The inherent musicality of Coloff’s voice made each spoken section even more compelling as she varied the length of words and sentences for rhythmic emphasis and played with rising and falling lines. At the same time, the accompanying visual projections aided the narrative development through old family photographs and 8mm videos, scenes of nature, and abstract rotating imagery.
As the story became even more personal, the band members seemed to provide a web of support. Coloff described her IVF trials and failures, a miscarriage, and a disintegrating relationship, but remained surrounded by her compassionate colleagues. When not playing, Courtin, Hawke, drummer Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks, flutist and saxophonist Jessica Lurie, bassist Jennifer Maidman, and trombonist Annie Whitehead all looked upon Coloff with reassurance, both cheerful and consoling, in a way that seemed to enhance the musical collaboration and Coloff’s ability to continue relaying the heart wrenching story.
In the final vignette Coloff looked upon the melancholy of the past with honest reminiscence, singing of mortality, or as she described, our “brief earthly stay.” She gently assured both herself, her collaborators, and the audience that we will all be okay because of the love that bonds us together. Just as quickly as Coloff had opened the door to her own life story she gently closed it, leaving us to ruminate on our own stories and how we can shape our personal and collective present.