The Pie Chest is a strange place to talk about trauma. Its abundant natural light and mom-and-pop feel don’t lend themselves to discussing the details of near-death experiences—stories that include a failed suicide attempt and a catastrophic German blitz, dating from World War II. But this was the location chosen by Jennifer Tidwell and Paige Naylor to chat about The Near Misses, a name for both the “electropop opera” band they have assembled and the death-adjacent tales the band will perform onstage.
Maybe the cheery choice of restaurant can be explained by what both Tidwell and Naylor continually emphasize throughout the conversation: The women who comprise The Near Misses don’t intend to wallow in the trauma they depict. Rather, says Naylor, “it’s about healing.”
“And reclaiming,” Tidwell adds.
The two are co-producers of The Near Misses, but the project was Tidwell’s brainchild back in 2012. She says she was inspired by the “notion of grace.” Tidwell’s not talking about everyday elegance—she evokes the word’s divine definition. She found herself drawn to survivor stories. There was enormous artistic potential in these stories, she knew. But in 2012, she wasn’t quite ready to harness it.
She also didn’t have the time to try—The Near Misses is just the latest of many artistic projects with Tidwell’s name attached. She’s best known for founding Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers (CLAW), adapted to Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers when it caught on in other states, but she’s also a co-founder of the all-female theater collective PEP and a constant collaborator with local artists and organizations.
Being an icon among Charlottesville creatives requires considerable energy, and Tidwell delivers. It’s visible in her hand movements as she speaks, fingers tracing shapes in the air and gesturing excitedly at Naylor, who is a bit more reserved but no less passionate. Aside from co-producing, Naylor is also the show’s composer and one of the performers. She glows with quiet anticipation when describing the music she has created for The Near Misses—“minimalist, medieval pop.”
Much of the conversation focuses around explaining what, exactly, The Near Misses will be. The band’s planned performance is as complex and intersectional as the trauma it seeks to represent, and while this is a testament to Tidwell and Naylor’s creative abilities, it’s not easily summed up.
The group is composed of four women—Naylor, multi-instrumentalist Catherine Monnes, theatre artist Kara McLane Burke, and dance artist and UVA lecturer Katie Baer Shetlick. (Tidwell, also directing, will remain offstage.) Their two-night debut will be the same show in different spaces—first The Southern on May 31, then Live Arts on June 1. Tidwell says this is because they want to prepare for different types of venues, with an East Coast tour planned in the fall.
These four performers will act out six songs of varying lengths, each relating a woman’s near-death experience. The songs will be accompanied by Naylor on keytar, along with three set instruments in the forms of dry leaves, an oven, and a doorway—“which is actually a ladder,” Tidwell confides. The song cycle lasts about 40 minutes, followed by the show’s finale: a sound collage compiled of other recorded near-death experiences.
Along with the WWII Blitz and the unsuccessful suicide, which Tidwell says was attempted in a “mock-Sylvia Plath” style, a depiction of sexual assault is the subject of another song, along with a piece about those who were injured on the Downtown Mall on August 12, 2017.
Despite the upsetting subject matter, Tidwell says the performance will address both “trauma and all the fruit that it bears”—what she calls a “really rich combination.” Tidwell also says that early reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. “I talked to friends of mine who have experienced profound trauma, and they’re happy to know that this is being represented in a way that’s not just pitying. …These people who have been hurt, they want to be heard.”
Naylor, who’s been relatively quiet next to Tidwell, finds her own burst of energy when she has to leave The Pie Chest early. She talks quickly, with excitement, about the project even as she stands to go. “It’s been such a privilege to hear all these stories and to make something out of them,” she says. “Now that I’ve heard their stories, I feel like there’s a connection there. There’s an understanding that is really incredible.”
Even after an hour-long conversation with its creators, it’s difficult to predict what to expect from The Near Misses. Certain aspects of the show feel inevitably grim, but as Naylor and Tidwell repeatedly stress, the goal is not to depress. The progression of the show mirrors the mental progression of someone who experiencing and recovering from trauma. It may be a difficult journey, but as Tidwell says, “some real strength emerges at the end.”
The Near Misses / The Southern Café & Music Hall May 31/ Live Arts June 1