Thursday, September 11, 2014

Five Things: Updates from Still Now Tech

1. I'm still waiting to get pics from the remount of "The Orchid Flotilla" up on my site, but in the meantime we've gotten a couple of really great reviews, and even mentions of the lighting design!

From Broadway World: "THE ORCHID FLOTILLA unfolds in five parts that go from sunrise to sunset and spans 13 years of the woman's life. The performers/puppeteers are Caroline Reck and Gricelda Silva and they are both glorious storytellers. There may be no dialogue, but they say far more than words can with expression and movement. Underscoring the evening is a beautiful score by Adam Sultan and an exceptional sound design by K. Eliot Haynes. There is also a stunning lighting design by Megan Reilly. Each of the parts of this production shares an equal importance in telling this stunning, moving, ephemeral dream-story."

From Austin360.com: "K. Eliot Haynes’ lovely sound design pairs with Megan Reilly’s dynamic lighting to create a world for the play that runs the gamut of playful, serene, and sad. These production elements saturate the performance with atmosphere and serve as profound backdrop for Reck’s movements."

 
We did this show in 2012 and it's been a favorite project of mine since, a piece that I love with all of my heart and hope as many people as possible get to experience. If you're in/around Austin, come see it before it closes September 20.

2. One year ago this week we brought Ygritte inside to live with us and forever torment Sansa and Asha. We found her living under our deck last summer, 4 or 5 months old. She is hysterical, sweet, and demonic. She drives everyone crazy and runs the whole house, and I'm pretty sure that Sansa still holds a grudge against me for bringing her inside.
Much less whiny after we got the cat tree.
3. I have become seriously addicted to American Ninja Warrior. Ever since I started getting in shape and trying to live a healthier lifestyle, I've been into the whole obstacle course race thing. I used to think that people who ran the Warrior Dash were insane, and I've now done it twice and am hoping to do the Tough Mudder in May. I didn't even know about ANW until Kacy Catanzaro's Dallas finals run went viral. Travis and I then caught up on every single run so far from the season and last night started watching stage two of the Las Vegas finals. (Do. Not. Tell. Me. Anything. I'm behind because of tech.) It's one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen, to be honest. This year for the first time, three women managed to complete the qualifying course; the fact that none of them made it to stage two of the finals is irrelevant. There is true support among these athletes, the positive energy is palpable through my television. They REALLY want to see each other succeed, and it has nothing to do with gender, height, age, or any other limiting factor, though there may be MORE excitement when someone who seems disadvantages completes it. They regard each other as equals, no questions asked. It really does demonstrate almost everything I believe about feminism and equality: no, it's not fair. But women CAN do it, SHOULD train for it, and beat it ON ITS OWN TERMS. Watching Catanzaro, Meagan Martin and Michelle Warnky run makes me think about my own fitness and training, and whether the idea that women "can't" do this because of blah blah upper body strength is in fact a product of our culture convincing women NOT to work out. I'm involved in a fitness program at my job and have been for two years. One of the first things they told us was to get over the idea that if we, as women, went to the weight room we'd end up with huge ugly muscles. It actually irritates me that there has been some question of "fairness" involved since Catanzaro's run ended. I don't want more fairness in something like this, I want women to beat the game in front of them because they can.


4. I am pretty sure I saw some of the worst in humanity these past couple of weeks on the internet. I have been following #GamerGate and while I knew that the gamer community was misogynistic I didn't know HOW BAD until this occurred. And the one thing that I walk away from it feeling is that art has to stand up to criticism and discussion, and it's unreasonable to ask that games be taken seriously without it. And that's what I've seen - people who insist that games be taken seriously, usually as an art form (which I believe they are), are now harassing those that TRY to take them seriously. If you never want something that you love to face deconstruction and dissection and scrutiny from people in circles outside of your own, don't make it a THING. Keep it quiet, keep it to yourself. The second that art is shown to the public, the public (including critics, reviewers, writers and even (gasp) women) are going to respond. That's the point.

5. Tomorrow night, Shrewd Productions' "Still Now" opens at City Theater. The next day, Travis, Will and I are driving to Galveston to leave on a cruise for a few days. The cruise is sandwiched in between two techs for me. I plan to spend most of those five days sitting by a pool, reading Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, and drinking margaritas. See also: my first time trying SCUBA diving and hiking Mayan pyramids. The day after we return, I focus "Guapa."

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Magic is not Magic.

Of all of the tweets and other expressions of outrage that have hit the internet in the last 18 hours, this one is my favorite:
Last night we learned that the Tony Awards Administration Committee will no longer be giving out awards for Best Sound Design of a Play and Best Sound Design of a Musical. This is heartbreaking and disappointing and does not bode well for our industry.

I do not watch the Tonys. I hear a lot of people every year at this time saying "I don't watch the Tonys" and the reason given is usually the belief that the Tonys are not truly representative of theater. This actually doesn't bother me. I also don't believe that the Oscars are representative of films and I DEFINITELY don't believe that the Grammys are representative of music - why should the Tonys be any different? I don't watch the Tonys because the part that I care about the most - the design awards - usually happens during the commercial break. Unlike the Oscars I'm not likely to have seen any/all of the nominated plays, musicals, or actors, but there is a chance I know - or at the very least, know OF - the designers or their work. I don't watch the Grammys because I don't listen to the music that gets nominated. It's not a function of protest against the show, rather it's that there's nothing for me in it.

Before I became a designer, I did watch the Tony's - I think that this was in 1997, because I believe it was the year that Janet McTeer won for "A Doll's House." That year, when the design nominees named before the announcement of the winner, we were shown sketches, renderings, and models of the set or costumes (possibly lights too, but I can't remember). That was MAGICAL. It showed a process behind the art that required skill, research, and collaboration. But since then the design awards have become less and less important to the overall Tony broadcast and are now given out during the commercials. I go to youtube to watch the winners accept their awards.

I get it, Tonys. My work is less important than selling cat food. It is certainly less important than ratings, and obviously I have always been an anomaly among awards show viewers, and most people watching on TV don't want to see anything other than the musical numbers and the stars. I personally think that's a shallow view of your audience, but you aren't the first media executives to talk down to the consumers of their product.

But cutting out an entire award, not even giving it out unless you feel extra special good about a specific design one year? What does that say? It tells me that a sound designer is not only less important to you than cat food, but doesn't even make the cut as a creative professional. It tells me that the actual value in handing out these trophies has less to do with the quality of the work and the industry celebrating its achievements than it does with SELLING tickets to Broadway shows. And it tells me that my field is quite possibly next.

My husband wrote a rather smart piece earlier in the week on the fact that the design awards have been largely excised from the telecast that garnered more than a few negative comments on American Theatre Magazine's Facebook page. It was beyond sad. What I saw was that my peers think that not everyone should get an award. My favorite comment was this: "Sadly, and realistically, no one has EVER bought a ticket to see the stage manager or the set designer. They know that when they choose that as a career , publicity and accolades will be non existent. Using THIS theory, lets give out awards for Best Usher and Best Ticketmaster Seller, too!! LOL" Thank you, American Theatre Magazine reader, for equating my work to that of an usher. 
Here's the truth. When I was working on the student production that eventually became the REASON Why I Do Theater, the *sound design* was the first thing that really hooked me in. My friends were creating a world with sound, with speaker placement, and this was earth shattering to the Megan Who Knew Nothing, Jon Snow. The production was "The Tempest," it was 1998, and if I remember correctly the creative "team" of two friends wanted the audience to hear the sound of the ocean upon entering the theater, as though they were far out at sea, and have that soundscape gradually change the closer they got to the stage to something more "island"-like. MIND. BLOWN. I'm telling you, I had no idea that what people were doing on stage or in movies or on TV was actually creating worlds and environments. And it was only a small step from that to seeing the way that lighting could do this. I had never heard of sound or lighting being used as an art form before and it changed my life.

Here's another truth. I was working on designing "Sila" since last June, and it opened in February. Design teams are frequently brought on long before a show is cast, sometimes even before it is written or while it's being conceived. We often have a direct hand or at the very least an influence in that conception, in the staging of the show, the motivations of the characters. We are part of the "creative team" on the show. While not all projects enjoy the long gestation period that "Sila" had, we often do extensive research, build scale models, create renderings, test out ideas, throw them away, start over again a thousand times leading up to the moment of design presentations. Most of the ideas behind the productions of "Ophelia," "Black Snow," "Murder Ballad Murder Mystery," and "Machinal" that I worked on with Dustin Wills were the result of many, many hours of meetings and lots of beer at the Dog & Duck Pub, before scripts were finished and actors cast. And all of that work on the part of the design team - which, yes, includes the sound designer - is all done to create a cohesive, whole ENVIRONMENT and story.

Here's ANOTHER truth - if we have done our jobs well, most audience members will never notice our work. But that doesn't mean that it's not there, that it's not well done, that it didn't take skill and years of training or education, that it's not worth rewarding. And when you, Tonys, decide that well, the sound design awards can be cut for __________ what I'm hearing is that the sound designers are too good at their jobs. Because you were so involved in the story being told and the world being created that you didn't notice all the pieces. And because the sound design is not Hugh Jackman or Denzel Washington or whatever huge musical is popular now, it doesn't deserve the same level of recognition.

Here's yet another truth. Broadway may be looked at by many theater artists outside of its circle as something that is safe and overly commercial, but it is very much a place for designers and technicians to INNOVATE. It's where we have resources to do what can't be done at the OffCenter here in Austin. It's not the only place where new ideas are developed and tested, but it is an important one, and a visible one. One of the ways that innovation is visible to the rest of the world - which includes future sound designers - is through the Tony Awards. By excluding them, you may very well be cutting back on that level of creativity and innovation.

One of my favorite artists to work with in Austin is K. Elliot Haynes. I have worked with him in his capacity as a sound designer and as a projections designer. When I come on board a show, and I learn that Elliot is part of the team, I know that the quality of the work and level of artistry brought to the sound design is going to be high. The work that he brings to every production is every bit as important an artistic contribution as what the lead actor brings.

I want to believe that on some level the Tonys *are* about the theater industry recognizing and celebrating excellence.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Five Things: Updates from Bethany Tech.

I've been in tech for Theatre En Bloc's production of Bethany since Monday, as well as paper teching on Sunday night and spending the rest of the weekend immersed in other lighting design issues. It's going to be a really good show, and I'm happy with my work on it. But, to be honest, the show and the design are not what has been on my mind since I woke up on Saturday morning.

1. Let's call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism. "But if you think for one second, for one solitary second, that demanding tolerance for men as a group, that dismissing the reality of violence against women because not all men kill, not all men rape, if you think that’s more important than demanding justice for those who have been brutalised and murdered by those not all men, then you are part of the problem. You may not have pulled the trigger. You may not have raised your hand to a woman in your life. But you are part of the problem."

2. #NotAllMen: How not to derail discussions of women's issues. "Why is it not helpful to say “not all men are like that”? For lots of reasons. For one, women know this. They already know not every man is a rapist, or a murderer, or violent. They don’t need you to tell them. Second, it’s defensive. When people are defensive, they aren’t listening to the other person; they’re busy thinking of ways to defend themselves. I watched this happen on Twitter, over and again. Third, the people saying it aren’t furthering the conversation, they’re sidetracking it. The discussion isn’t about the men who aren’t a problem.

Unsure of the credit - possibly @jordanbks.
 
3. Pick-up artist site on mass shooting: 'More people will die unless you give men sexual options.' "In response, a website popular with Pick-Up Artists is arguing that “six lives would have been saved” if there were a societal mechanism for men to learn “game” and “masculinity” and that “more people will die unless you give men sexual options.'" The Pick-Up Artist community purports to teach men how to have sex with women. The author of this post, RooshV, considers among his fundamental principles that “Women are sluts if they sleep around, but men are not” and that “A woman’s value is mainly determined by her fertility and beauty,” whereas “A man’s value is mainly determined by his resources, intellect, and character.”

4. Your princess is in another castle: misogyny, entitlement, and nerds. "One of the major plot points of Revenge of the Nerds is Lewis putting on a Darth Vader mask, pretending to be his jock nemesis Stan, and then having sex with Stan’s girlfriend. Initially shocked when she finds out his true identity, she’s so taken by his sexual prowess—“All jocks think about is sports. All nerds think about is sex.”—that the two of them become an item. Classic nerd fantasy, right? Immensely attractive to the young male audience who saw it. And a stock trope, the “bed trick,” that many of the nerds watching probably knew dates back to the legend of King Arthur. It’s also, you know, rape."

5. In the fall of 1995 I was a freshman at the University of New Hampshire.  I lived in a dorm room with a roommate assigned to me by the university. I had never been kissed, never had a boyfriend, never gone on a date. I had never before had an email address either - I wasn't even really sure what to do with one, when I got it - and that semester was my introduction to this thing called the World Wide Web (available, then, at UNH via the stunningly gorgeous Lynx browser). I didn't own a computer, so I either used my roommate's to check email or I walked across campus to one of many "computer clusters" that had banks of monitors with pea-green displays. I was sitting at one of those computers one day, in Kingsbury, when I received a disturbing email. I really, really wish that I had saved it somehow, or saved a printed copy, but all that I can do is tell you what I remember of it. It was from some kind of anonymous email address, maybe the "From:" email was blank, I don't know, but there was no way for me to see who sent it. Basically the sender introduced himself as a guy who was in one of my classes, but wouldn't say which one because he didn't want me to guess who he was just yet. He told me he thought I was pretty, and interesting, and he had followed me several times after class, just to see where I went. He said that he knew that I lived in Scott Hall, and he knew which window was my room.

That was the first email. There were a couple of others, in one of them he said he knew that I had one sister and my family back home had a cat, and he even told me their names (my sister's and the cat's). I remember that after the first email I was unsettled, but I didn't do anything about it; after the second, I was terrified, and didn't want to go back to my room. I started crashing at my best friend's dorm. I can't remember if she called the campus police, or if the residence hall director did when I ended up in her apartment a couple of nights later, but eventually I was sitting on her couch talking to a police officer. I had had the good thought to print out all of the emails, and I gave them to her. She took them and within a day or two had traced the emails to the originating student's account. She then called to tell me what they'd found. "Do you know a (name redacted)?" Yes, I did. It was my roommate's boyfriend. He had sent the emails, and they had already talked with him about it. 

It was either that night or the next that I was attending the theater department's infamous production of "The Wizard of Oz" when my roommate and her boyfriend came over to talk to me at intermission, in the middle of the Johnson Theater. He apologized. A lot. He had meant it as a joke, not as actual violence. Nineteen years later I'm still remembering how it was supposed to be funny, that I was being stalked, and that hahaha we are supposed to now go back to being "friends," being normal. Thankfully I don't think the relationship between him and my roommate lasted much longer than that, she had a different boyfriend by the end of the semester (what he did to me was far more insidious and scarring, but wasn't about assault or misogyny in any way). And while pretending to stalk me was definitely not ok, the other side of his joke - wanting me to think that someone had taken an interest in me at a time when that hadn't yet happened - was also cruel.

There are awful stories out there that aren't mine. My stalker turned out to be fairly innocuous. There are people I'm close to who have been in truly abusive relationships, or who have been raped and won't themselves even admit it was rape. But that is my #YesAllWomen story, and it was my first encounter with the idea that violence against women wasn't "technically" stalking, or "technically" assault, or "technically" rape. It was meant to be taken lightly, as a joke. Thankfully, I was surrounded by awesome women who took it as seriously as it could have been - my best friend, the residence hall director, and the police officer that came over to talk to me. I don't know that, had I had the opportunity to confide this in a male friend or even male police officer, the response would have been so quick. I can actually very clearly imagine two of the men who were in my life at that point telling me to calm down about it and not worry so much. And that is why many, if not most, women go to great lengths to structure their lives around the possibility of violence from men - it's normal, it's common, it's not taken seriously. We know that it's up to us to not become victims.

(This week, former UNH student (and theater major) Seth Mazzaglia is on trial for a far more violent crime: the murder (and possible sexual assault) of fellow student Lizzi Marriot. The idea that this is going on in my college town, and that the guy was a major in my old theater department, is hard to take.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On patience.

For the past four years, I've been involved with a strange project - FRAGILE: Global Performance Chain. It started in Italy by artistic duo VestAndPage, who wanted to see if a fragile object (a glass plate, made for the project) could be passed hand to hand, artist to artist, around the world and make it back to the place where it started. Each artist would create something that utilized the object and document it before passing it on to the next. There was an initial call for artists, and I signed up, along with 750 other people. I remember getting the full itinerary of the journey the object was going to travel. I was assigned a spot sandwiched between someone in New Mexico and someone in Kansas. I had hoped a bit that the person to whom I'd pass the object would be in a different country, just so I could have an excuse to travel, but I was excited anyway because I'd never been to Kansas.

I still haven't, four years later.

I remember initially brainstorming ideas for what I would do with the object, or how I would get it to the next person, roadtripping to Lawrence. But the reality of the project set in within the next year, when we saw just how slowly things were going to progress. You can scroll down here and see that progress, the places it's been are the orange dots, the ones it still needs to go to are the black. I'm in the USA slot that's at about 3:00. My friend Misha in Houston recently let me know that she had finally received it, so it has left Europe and entered the United States after all this time, but still has a long way to go throughout North and South America before it comes back to Texas and to me.

Progress as of the writing of this blog post

Based solely on how long it has taken to travel the cities within those first seven orange dots, I'm guessing I have about another 19 years. I'll be 57, and most likely not living in Texas, and hopefully not the same artist I am today. The amount of brainstorming and thinking I've put into this project over the years has dwindled. Hearing that the object did arrive safely in the US is definitely exciting and I'm 100% still on board with the project - but I've also figured out that this is definitely a work of art that can't be planned at all. The object will get to me when it gets to me, wherever I am.

I've had very few opportunities to create like this, and never (obviously) with this unending amount of time allotted. My MFA thesis was one, and it was as close to a perfect collaboration as one can ever hope for. Even then, though, the creation took place mostly within a six month period of time. I'm imagining starting a project with no idea if it will ever materialize, or in what form it will materialize, and being ok with that - but continuing to work on it and let it evolve and breathe however it wants. I imagine Caden Cotard in Synechdoche, NY, creating with no ending in sight, and no real need for one.  I'm starting to brainstorm an immersive piece with Will right now which I imagine we'll have to approach in this way. Maybe at some point the project is finished; maybe it isn't. It's very Buddhist, letting go of the outcome.
It involves keys. That's all we really know.

I am currently undergoing another process in my life that is taking more time than I had anticipated - the academic job search. And I'm learning the exact same lesson, that planning and thinking too much about jobs as I apply to them - where I might live, what my life might be like - makes the long wait to hear back from anyone much harder. This year has taught me that as I move into the next round of searching, I need to let each application go as I send them off, and move on to the next one, or the next project, or the next thing going on in my life at the time. Reading about others' processes during academic job hunts helps - it's unfortunately good to know that there are too many people for too few positions right now. I know that I'm probably an atypical lighting design candidate for these positions and the "right" position for me has to come along. It might take awhile; of all the positions to which I've so far applied, TWO jumped out as a "perfect match," and neither one came to be. I have to breathe, let go, apply, and trust that eventually the perfect match will actually exist. For someone who doesn't believe in fate and carefully plans out each step in her journey, that is a tall order. I've never been a very good Buddhist. But dwelling too much on a nebulous outcome that will happen sometime that is the future leads to forgetting about what's going on now, and ultimately leads to unhappiness and stress.

The process and the journey are just as much of a work of art as the finished project.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Problem With Sleep No More's Audience.

On my recent trip to NYC I had my third visit to the McKittrick Hotel. Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More" is sacred ground to me, ever since my very first life-altering experience of it. I love this show. I love what it opens up about theater and art to everyone and how it has affected the way companies use the audience-performer-stage design interaction.

And I enjoyed my third trip. When I got off the elevator (the first elevator) I was near the ballroom, on the mezzanine level, and found myself standing next to Macbeth. I had planned to make this visit about following the performers and their arcs, because my previous visits has focused more on the design and space itself. I really hate competing with crowds and every time in the past that I've started to get the slightest bit annoyed with those around me, I just left and went to look at something else. This results in me having seen many individual scenes, but never one full character's story, something a lot of people have experienced. I was able to follow Macbeth for a little bit, out of the ballroom, up to his bedroom, and then back down to Duncan - I lost him after he killed him. I made my way to the hotel lobby and hung out with the Porter for a long while, because I'd never seen any part of his story. I was able to see the first prophecy, interactions with Banquo, another audience member bringing him a note from Hecate, and lots of Lady MacDuff's scenes. I headed up to Hecate after this and was alone in the rep bar when she walked in - I think I was touching her peacock feathered fan. People began following her in, and eventually she was eating the piece of raw meat at the table but staring me down the entire time. She coughed up a ring, stuck in the meat, and put it on my finger, at which point she began the haunting lip-synch to "Is That All There Is?" while holding my hand. When the song was over, she whispered "Thank you" into my ear, and led someone else off for a 1:1. I saw several other moments that I hadn't seen before because I was more focused on the performers and less focused on my surroundings this time. I also was able to see the prophecy/orgy/rave sequence again, and some of the Matron's traipsing through the woods. And when I wandered by accident into the ballroom and saw there were already white masks camped out in there, I figured that the ending was near, and was able to get a good view of the final scene.
Your pre-game instructions

A few weeks later, two of my close friends in Austin were at "Sleep No More." One had already been and the other, Will, was seeing it for the first time. I had been thinking about the Audience Problem since my visit - the fact that there are people who see the show repeatedly, and seek out specific moments and interactions within it, in the same way that everyone who had read "A Storm of Swords" started looking at their non-book reading friends as soon as the Red Wedding started - and also the fact that there are so freaking many people in that building, the inevitable result is pushing and stampeding, and this can lessen the experience. I had noticed none of this on my first visit in 2011 - I'm not sure if at the time it wasn't as popular as now, or if I was just blissfully unaware - but I did see some on my 2nd and 3rd visits. I wondered if it was apparent to Will, though, since he had never seen the show before.

Turns out he definitely noticed and it affected his experience of the piece. The audience frustrated him a lot and continually took him out of the moment, which saddens me because the whole reason I fell in love with "Sleep No More" was the three hour experience of being fully in another dream-like world. I've sent a lot of my friends to see the show and I really want them to have the chance to experience that magic. Will said that he could tell when and where things were about to happen, which audience members had seen the show before, and which ones were vying hard for a performer's attention. He still enjoyed the show, but having just seen "Then She Fell" a few days earlier he was missing that level of intimacy.

My other friend, Amanda, got to have the same Hecate experience that I described above - having the ring put on her finger, and going through "Is That All There Is?" When Hecate turned to choose someone else for her 1:1, however, that selected person apparently tried to take the ring off my friend's finger! I really want to know what was going on in that person's head, to make him think that this behavior was ok. And this is not the worst behavior I've heard of on the part of the audience - just the worst that has happened to someone I know. Bad "Sleep No More" audience behavior stories have been going around for years now. It makes me hesitate to send anyone else to see it, especially Travis, knowing that he is likely to be aware of and annoyed by everyone's behavior.

"Sleep No More" has been discussed as part of the "gamification" of theater, a concept I adore and want to explore endlessly but which also might be the problem. When we play games (that are heavy on story, or quests, or interactions with characters) we get to save and try again. We can walk wherever, open whatever doors, shoot whichever people the game will let us. Anything that is within the programmed limits of the game is possible, and acceptable. We like being able to experience all of the different endings, or unlock hidden scenes, or if given a quest (like finding a ring), trying over and over again until it's FOUND and the quest is complete. In a game, it doesn't matter if there is someone standing between you and that ring, because you can simply push them out of the way, or shoot them, or do whatever the game allows you to do to achieve your goal.

Many people by now have had so much experience visiting and revisiting "Sleep No More" that they are becoming like gamers, saving and restoring and attempting something new to experience something they KNOW is there but has so far been hidden from them. They try to find the secret combination of moves that unlocks the 1:1 with Hecate, and get visibly frustrated when they are not the chosen ones. They don't care that someone else next to them might be experiencing the show for the first time - they want their experience/interaction/hidden secret scene, dammit. After all, they paid roughly $90 to play this game (or more, if like me you are not in NYC) and they want to win.

I love the parallels between "Sleep No More" and games, I really do. I love being responsible for my own journey through a story, and having to do some work in order to discover a narrative. I love that there are little errands and quests within the show that are given to different lucky audience members. I don't want the 1:1 experiences to be removed. But how do you let the audience of 400 something people a night know that the experience of the show doesn't have to include any one of these things? That their ticket price does not entitle them to a specific experience? And that the other audience members and the performers are not non-playable characters?

The easy answer seems to be smaller audiences (and, for the record, both Will and I agreed that we would happily pay twice as much to see it with half as many people), but how small - "Then She Fell" small, which only takes 15 people per performance? How much of a rail do you put the audience on in order to control what they are able to do? How do you create art like this without fearing  the audience - not the occasionally wonderful person who gets swept away in the scene but the person who deliberately tries to steal an experience or force something to happen? How do you build a show that really has to be experienced multiple times in order to "get" the story without creating an audience that has been here, would prefer to skip over the lip-synching and just get to the part where she chooses someone for a private moment?

How do you create an open-world piece of art that allows 400 people to freely experience it however they choose, and still have people act like decent human beings?

(Prediction:  Since the above post included the words "Sleep No More," "Hecate," and "ring," this will soon rocket to one of my Top 5 Most Read Blog Entries.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Down the Rabbit Hole.

My artistic world was altered forever when I first saw Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More" back in 2011.  I fell in love with the show, with the idea of experiential/immersive/gamified theater and have been following the show's online fan community ever since.  And it was through this community that I first heard of Third Rail Project's immersive production "Then She Fell."  Since I currently don't live near NYC, and getting tickets to this show can be difficult due to a limited number of audience members allowed at each performance, I wasn't sure that I would have the opportunity to experience it.

Last week I spent a couple of days in NYC binging on theater, and finally was able to see "Then She Fell."

It's better than "Sleep No More."

I credit this difference largely to the intimacy of "Then She Fell."  With only 15 audience members allowed at each performance, I was greeted personally at the door and led from moment to moment in the piece by different characters.  There were moments in which I was asked questions, and was given the impression that my answers had an effect on the narrative I was experiencing.  I had conversations, alone and under the stairs, with characters.  I left behind painted roses and messages in bottles that seemed to become parts of the set for future audiences to explore.

It's a dizzying experience.  I was afraid that without the freedom to go wherever I wanted it would feel too much like a conventional theater piece, but that thought never once entered into my head beyond the first or second scene.  Right from the start, I was given food and drink - almost all of the drink was alcoholic.  I was given a set of keys with absolutely no explanation for their purpose, but soon found that they unlocked different doors and boxes within the room.  And while I was at first led to watch my first scene (a beautiful encounter between Alice Liddel and Lewis Carrol, in which they danced up and down and through the railing on a set of stairs) with a group of three other people, including the person I had come to see the show with, that group was split up slowly through the first half of the show in a way that was barely noticeable.  I was so swept up in being moved from place to place, in watching the environment around me and wondering what was coming next in this bizarre dream that I failed to notice when my companion just wasn't behind me anymore.  And that moment?  Was kind of huge.  I turned, he was gone, and I was alone.

I spent most of the second half of the show alone, actually.  The only other people I encountered were the performers - I never once saw any of the 14 other people with whom I had begun the evening.  I can only assume that they were each experiencing something similar, and the choreography it must have taken to move 15 people through a relatively small space like that, giving each the sense that she was in her own dream world, by herself, must have been insanely complex.  Each character I encountered paid me special attention, talked to me, fed me, asked me to help them with tasks.  I ended up finishing in the same room in which we started the evening together, with a doctor showing me step by step the moves of a chess game.  She left me alone for a minute, with a cup of tea, and the next thing I knew the other audience members were wandering back in.  The dream was over.

Two aspects of the design of this experience have fascinated me and made me consider other ways they could be used.  The first was the set of keys I was given at the beginning.  I wish I had actually attempted to use these beyond the very first room I was in - I never used one of my keys at all, the fact is that I was too swept up in the rest of what was going on to seek out what they might unlock.  But the idea of giving a set of keys to your audience members and letting them unlock the secrets of the show and their own experiences - I wonder how far this could be carried?  Could the set of keys craft a unique path and experience for each person - you can only go through a door into a room if you can unlock it yourself?

The second was the food and drink, specifically the alcohol.  I doubt it ever really could be done for a public audience, but inducing an altered state in them before or during a show could become part of the experience, especially in something as dreamlike as this.  They never gave us enough alcohol for this to happen, but I could imagine ways in which that first cocktail I was given - the "elixir" - might affect how I perceived the rest of the show.  I've often thought that John Fowles's The Magus might make an excellent immersive theater experience, because it essentially IS that for its main character - however he does undergo some serious mind-altering experiences before and during his story.  To what extent would an audience be willing and able to do this?

I'm also thinking a lot about the responsibility of the audience at "Then She Fell" to discover the narrative for themselves.  Yesterday I read this article about the trend towards immersive theater that "Sleep No More" has created.  The piece annoyed me. The writer says "...as impressive as Sleep No More is as a piece of installation art, any glimpses of coherent drama (or Macbeth) are few and random."  This assumes that the audience is supposed to be spoon-fed the story in order for it to be "coherent," and what "Sleep No More" and "Then She Fell" do is leave it up to the audience to discover the story.  It's there.  But as an audience member, you're given an amount of responsibility over your own experience.  Within the set of "Then She Fell," you will find letters, articles, stories, photographs that contribute to the narrative.  If I hadn't stopped and examined these, read them carefully, I might not have "gotten" it - that isn't the same as the narrative not being coherent.  It's just as valid a theater-going experience as my viewing of "Waiting for Godot" was two nights later.  And as far as "Sleep No More" goes (I saw it the following evening, my third time, and am still in thrall to Hecate), there is an amazingly complex story going on that simply cannot be taken in on one viewing.  My sense of "Then She Fell" is that I do not need to see it a second time in order to grasp what was going on (I could be very wrong on this and am absolutely willing to go again!).  However, I know from conversations with others who have been to "Sleep No More" that after three viewings I still have not experienced the entire story, and I LOVE this.  I love that there's an ongoing mystery to be uncovered within the space of that piece of art, and that very few people (maybe not even the ones who have been dozens of times) have the full picture. 

I am considering a trip with one of my best friends later this year to London, specifically to see "The Drowned Man."  The only real risk in that is that the show itself is much larger than "Sleep No More," and probably more complex, and also much more difficult to attend more than once (what with it being in a different country).  I will have to be content with whatever I discover within my one experience of the show (and the many, many dreams it will induce afterwards).


Friday, February 21, 2014

Five Things: Updates from (after?) Sila Tech

"Sila" has opened (and is amazing, you should see it if you're anywhere near New Hampshire), and the tech process for the show was intense enough for me that nothing else happened for those two weeks, including reading, writing, visiting family, yoga, working out, etc.  I am really and truly ready to go home and see Travis and my kitties, and can honestly say that if I don't see any more snow for another decade, I won't be sad.

1.  Areas that embrace shades of grey - I love staying true to the complexities in life and not oversimplifying issues or existence into patented solutions, talking points and soundbites with which no human can really identify.  The past couple of weeks I have been binge-watching "Continuum" during countless hours of editing, re-editing, rendering, re-rendering, and cueing video for "Sila."  There is true conflict there over what in the given circumstances is the "right" thing to do, and how much of what one wants for one's self and family should be sacrificed for it.  It is difficult to root against the terrorists when you've seen the future they are intent on changing, and it's difficult to against the heroine for not wanting to alter that future and risk her family never existing.  The most interesting parts (to me) of "Sila" involve discussions over arctic policy, Canadian sovereignty, and the governing power of the Inuit, and how these things combine to show that there are far more complex issues at stake than just climate change.  Having seen recently what gross oversimplification of an issue will do, I want to try to make sure that as a member of the left I don't do the same.  I am still deeply concerned about climate change and our nation's (world's?) refusal to address/accept it, but have a bit more of an understanding of how things like a nation's desire to maintain control over the waters closest to its borders and not sit idly while other nations jump in might affect how the issue is addressed.  I am still not understanding or empathetic, however, to our disdain for science and unwillingness to see that we are not ourselves experts in everything, and not all "opinions" are of equal weight.

2.  A longer post is required to talk about my experience last night at Third Rail Project's "Then She Fell," a show I've been wanting to see for a long, long time now, but one important thing I should mention is that this show, in my opinion, is far better than "Sleep No More."  It is tighter, extremely intimate and personal, and for at least half of it I really felt like I was the ONLY audience member.  Without the distraction of 400 people pushing and shoving to get closest to the performers, I was able to focus on their dancing and interactions instead of getting frustrated and walking away.

3.  With "Sila" open, I am going to channel some of my creative energies into several small projects for myself for a bit.  Some of these will be video projects or animations and I will post links as I work on them.  Some of it is getting back to figure drawing and moving into painting.  All of it is a rest from the intensity that has been the "Sila" process since last summer.

4.  Noe Venable is running a Kickstarter for her upcoming album "CASCADIA."  This album's release is one of the things I am most looking forward to in 2014.

5.  It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year:  The Fusebox Festival lineup is up and reservations are live!  There are several things I'm really looking forward to this year, not the absolute least of which is the work of Miwa Matreyek.