Every theatrical venture comes with its own challenges, but Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play "Everybody" has an especially intriguing premise: The cast members are chosen for their roles by lottery at the start of each show, making each performance a unique experience for audiences and performers alike.
"Everybody," the winter offering from Stanford University's department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS), is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated 2017 adaptation of a 15th-century morality play called "Everyman."
"It's a play about death and life and the choices you make," director Michael Rau said. "Mostly, it's a way of thinking about death, which sounds very serious, but I promise it's also a comedy."
With the title character standing in for all of humankind and the others (called "somebodies") representing allegorical concepts such as "friendship" and "family," it's a play that's not afraid to explore some pretty big ideas, especially the biggest question of all -- What is the meaning of life?
By using a different actor to embody "Everybody" for each performance, the show not only becomes a more diverse representation of humanity, it also gives the five actors in the cast the chance to play five different roles over the course of the production's two-weekend run. Of course, it also presents the challenge of having to memorize the entire script and know each and every character's lines and blocking.
"After they get their lotto ball -- that is 100% completely random -- they figure out, 'OK, great, so I'm going to play this character tonight,'" Rau said.
"It is literally impossible to rehearse every single variation, so what the audience will see on each night will probably be some version of the play that I've never rehearsed."
And though he was careful in his conversation with the Weekly not to share too much detail, preferring to keep as many elements as possible fresh and mysterious for audiences, he did reveal that the cast does not consist solely of Stanford undergraduates.
"Because this play is called 'Everybody' it was important to me that we have different representations of the wider Palo Alto community," he said.
The play's unusual format also poses interesting opportunities for the rest of the creative team.
"The challenge for me was to figure out a space that could transform many times. ... It's clear that our understanding of the world that we're sitting in should change, over and over again," scenic designer Sara Walsh said. "It changes sometimes because the characters realize something about the world and that is reflected back (in the set)."
The energy and anxiety inherent in watching a show come together that has never happened before and likely never will again also helps bring vitality to the production, according to Walsh.
"What you're seeing that night is unique," Rau said. "The show you are getting that night will be unlike any other show."
Costume designer Becky Bodurtha had the task of coming up with costume pieces that could work for each hypothetical combination of actors and roles while still allowing each performer's personality to shine through.
"How do you create a design that can accommodate every single actor in all of these roles and also make it really evident every single time that they put on a costume piece to create a character, that it is that character? And help them sort of sketch and form that character," she mused. "It's kind of a great challenge."
Rau also brought in choreographer Aleta Hayes to create a cathartic "Danse Macabre" sequence, performed by a group of dancers known as "anybodies" (Danse Macabre is a medieval allegorical depiction of the universality of death regardless of one's station in life, often shown as a circle or parade of skeletons).
Like the acting cast, Hayes is working with some performers who may not typically identify as Stanford dancers, offering another opportunity to represent a more diverse community.
"All dance within a theater piece, it's not about dancing by itself, it's about how does the dance or the music serve the narrative," Hayes said.
With so many possible iterations, the character of Everybody, as well as the tone of the show overall, can also vary.
"Last night (at rehearsal), it made me think Everybody is more like 'Seinfeld,' almost like the straight man that other people interact with," Hayes said. "I was surprised by how funny it was. I did not expect to laugh as much as I did."
Audience members able to attend more than one performance can compare and contrast how Everybody's journey is different depending on how the casting shakes out, and how much of the experience is universal.
"Everybody's" willingness to explore death -- a topic many, especially younger people, try to avoid -- is also part of what makes it special to the creative team.
"This is not a conversation that is had with young people, ever," Hayes said, despite the fact that "it happens to everybody."
Death, after all, is the great equalizer. "There's nothing to do but laugh at (death) because one, it's a complete mystery and two, it does feel quite random; you can't control it," Hayes said.
Though it's a sometimes-uncomfortable subject, "What theater can do is create a space for us to sit and think about something that maybe we're not ready to go through but offers us a way to explore those ideas in a safe environment," Rau said.
"As scary as death is ... how frightened or angry or sad it can make you, the only rational way to think about death, in my opinion, is to approach it with an attitude of gratitude. ... To say, 'Oh I know that I'm going to die ... that means I need to now start thinking about how to live the life I have.'"
Where: Roble Studio Theater, 375 Santa Teresa St., Stanford.
When: Feb. 27-29 and March 5-7 at 8 p.m.